THE AMAZON QUEEN
Part IX: THE CENTAURS' TALE
by L. M. Townsend
DISCLAIMERS: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Xenan, Virgil, Ephiny, Joxer, Eve, Solan, Cyrenê, Toris, Hope et al (meaning anyone else I didn't list and should have.) and the characterisations of Ares and Aphrodite are the property of MCA, Universal, and Renaissance Pictures and anyone else who has a legal claim, and I thank them for their creation and for allowing me to live in their universe for a little bit. Dahak belongs to the Zoroastrians' religion, I think. (Melysë and The Amazons belong to themselves and I dare any man to say different!) The stories are mine, though, and written just for fun, not profit.
SUBTEXT: Subtext? Well, yeah. There is. Some of it obviously implied, some blatant, though nothing graphic, and some of it's in the eye of the reader; WHILE THERE ARE NO GRAPHIC SEXUAL SCENES OF ANY KIND, there is kindness, affection, loyalty, mutual respect, friendship, and yes, lots and lots of love, so, if you read anything into any of the words or situations these characters find themselves in, then you have only yourself to thank/blame (depending upon your point of view!) If you have a bug up your butt about people of any persuasion loving each other and sharing their lives, then I pity you. I won't apologise for them, though, so if you have a problem with any of these stories, it's up to you to go and read something else. Remember, no one's holding a
sword ( or a chakram) to your throat!
VIOLENCE: Oh, yeah - this is a story with Xena in it. Remember, she likes to fight.
OTHER: I guess at this point in the story, I should tell you, if you haven't already read the first parts, you might be get a little lost in this one. There really isn't much of a timeline I'm following (hey, they don't follow one on the show, either!) I'm not too disciplined that way (or in any other way, for that
matter), but I've decided that it takes place after the end of the series. Just disregard anyone else who gets killed off between now and then as magically resurrected - they do that on the show all the time, too. I've let the story evolve as it will, so blame the Muses, not their tool. Please keep in mind that any inconsistencies you might find are the product of changing my mind to improve my "vision" of the story.
*Spoiler Alert - several references to various episodes throughout the history of the show, specifically IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?, ORPHAN OF WAR, GABRIELLE'S HOPE, MATERNAL INSTINCTS, FAMILY AFFAIR, ENDGAME, LOOKING DEATH IN THE EYE, LIVIA, EVE, MOTHERHOOD, and HTLJ: REDEMPTION
Feedback is very welcome. Please let me know if you like my stories. Anything mean or nasty will be ignored. You can e-mail me at QueenLaese@aol.com. Thank-you for reading.
Ephiny sighed, wielding the heavy shovel. She had been set to mucking out the stables as punishment. It's not fair! her young mind protested. The young centaur with whom she'd argued had been as much at fault as she had in the argument. "Stupid hay-chomper," she muttered, exchanging the shovel for a rake.
"Centaurs don't eat hay."
Ephiny jumped and saw Xena leaning against the door to the stables, arms crossed in front of her. The Warrior Queen was not smiling. "tanti, you're - you're back," said the young girl, brushing her damp blonde hair off of her forehead.
"Yeah," said Xena, standing and approaching the girl, piercing blue eyes pinning Ephiny in place.
"You heard, huh?" said Ephiny, looking down.
"Yeah," said Xena, those ice-chip eyes never leaving the young Amazon. "Decades of peace - hard won peace, I might add - with the Centaurs, and some little girl who can't control her tongue - or her fists - may have thrown it all away. What gets into you, Ephiny?"
"I don't know," said the girl, miserably, her eyes still downcast. "Sometimes I feel like I'm always in trouble."
"Don't expect pity from me," said the Warrior Queen, sharply. "If you get into trouble it's because of the things you say or do. To stay out of trouble, you don't do or say those things you know are wrong. Now the whole Tribe is in trouble - because of your behaviour. We may have to go to war with the Centaurs - you know what that means. You better be praying that between the three of us, the Queens of this Tribe can smooth over whatever you've done. You think mucking out the stables sucks? Just wait until Queen Melysë gets hold of you."
Melysë and Gabrielle had been closeted with Xenan, the leader of the Centaurs all morning. In truth, Melysë was angry with the girl, but the situation with the Centaurs was not as dire as Xena had led Ephiny to believe. Their leader, Xenan, wouldn't have been born had it not been for Xena and he was gods-son to Xena and Gabrielle and a dear friend to Queen Melysë as well. It was his mother for whom Ephiny, Gabrielle's daughter had been named. Melysë and Gabrielle had already spoken with him and the adults had come to the conclusion that the black eye suffered by the young centaur was the result of a children's quarrel, nothing more. But because of the ancient animosity between the Amazons and the Centaurs, Ephiny's actions had warranted this conference, bringing the old treaty forged by Queen Melosa and Tyldus, Xenan's grandfather out into the present and up for renewal and possibly amendment. Xena hurried to the Council Chamber to join her fellow Queens.
"I realise that this treaty was forged between my people and Melosa's Tribe, but I had hoped it would stand with the entire Amazon Nation," said Xenan, gravely.
"And so it has for many years," said Melysë. "I assure you, Lord Xenan - "
"Just 'Xenan', if you will," said the Centaur, smiling. "I confess, it's difficult to keep up all this formality with my favorite aunts. Xena, you look...fantastic. As does Gabrielle. I can't believe it, after all these years."
Xena smiled and grasped Xenan's forearm, even as the Centaur pulled her into a tight hug. "Gabrielle told me the story," he said. "Gods, if I didn't see the two of you with my own eyes, I'd not believe it. It is good to see you both."
"And you, Xenan," said Xena, warmly. "You look just like your mother. I think of her often."
"And I hear her namesake has her temper," said Xenan.
"I'm afraid so, Xenan," said Gabrielle, sadly. "I don't know where I went wrong..."
"Gabrielle, it's nothing you've done wrong," said Xenan, kindly. "Your daughter has my mother's temper - and your spirit. I know Dorian - the Centaur she slugged - I have no doubt she was provoked, although if I'm not mistaken, the two are good friends."
"I had thought so, too," Melysë said, with a sigh. "Xenan, we have been friends, you and I, for a long time. We both know this is not cause for war between our people, but we do want to ratify this treaty with the entire Nation to ensure it stands through any future...misunderstandings."
"I agree, Melysë," said Xenan. "I think the amendment you added to include the entire Amazon Nation in the Treaty is all the change we need. I'll have a talk with Dorian. I think between us we can iron this out. Thank-you for your prompt attention - I know how hectic things have been for all of you lately."
"Not a problem," said Xena, smiling. "And Xenan - don't be such a stranger. We should plan a festival and invite your people."
"Thinking like an Amazon, Xena?" chuckled the Centaur. "A party for every occasion - even if you have make up the occasion. Let me know when the final draft of that Treaty is drawn up and I'll be by to sign it. And as for a festival, we Centaurs have a holiday coming up - the feast of Leukippe. And I hereby invite the Amazons."
"We'll be there, barring unforseen complications, of course," said Melysë, smiling.
"Good," said Xenan, returning her smile. "And tell my mother's namesake there's no hard feelings, okay?"
"Will do," said Gabrielle, relieved. "Thank-you, Xenan."
"Thank the gods Xenan's the Centaur leader," said Gabrielle, rubbing her temples. "Otherwise, Ephiny might well have started a war. Goddess, what are we going to do with her?"
"Xenan said she may have been provoked," said Melysë, thoughtfully. "It may not have been all her fault. Maybe I should go and talk to her."
"Later, 'Lysë," said Xena. "I ran into the sentries on my way here. There're riders approaching the western boundary - they spotted Romans among them."
Melysë paled. "Romans?" she said.
"Apparently the sentries spotted some among our 'visitors'," said Xena, calmly, but she reached over and took Melysë's hand, squeezing gently. "I'll be right there."
"I know," said Melysë, smiling. "But I just wonder what they want? With the Amulet of Persephone protecting us, they're not really a threat, but ..."
"Romans still make you nervous," said Xena. "They always will. I know they still make me nervous, but I think this is okay."
"You go ahead and ride out with the Honour Guard to meet them, Xena," said Melysë. "I'll catch up. I really do need to talk to Ephiny. Romans can wait."
Xena shrugged and left. "Do you think talking with her will do any good?" asked Gabrielle, sadly.
"Well, it can't hurt," said Melysë, smiling and gently placing a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder.
"That's true," said Gabrielle, smiling a little herself.
Selenë stormed into the stable and shoved her best friend into a pile of hay - which Ephiny had spent the better part of an hour carefully raking.
"Hey!" yelled the blonde child, starting to rise. "What'd you do that for?"
The dark-haired girl fixed stormy blue eyes on her and held out a hand for Ephiny to grab and pull herself up.
"Why'd you go and pick a fight with Dorian?" she said.
Ephiny dusted hay off of herself, glaring. "He said - " she began.
"Who cares what he says?" yelled Selenë. "What are his words? Goddess, Eph', you slugged him!"
"So?" said the sullen blonde, turning to re-rake the pile of hay.
"So? Do you have any idea how much trouble you're in?" said Selenë, genuine concern overcoming her anger.
"Who cares?" Ephiny shrugged, her back to her best friend so her tears wouldn't be seen.
Selenë grabbed her and turned her around. Seeing the tears welling in her grey eyes, Selenë grabbed Ephiny in a tight hug.
"I care," she said. "I really do, Eph'."
"You're the only one who does," said Ephiny, hugging back.
"That's not true," said Selenë. "Your mother and both of mine are really worried about you. You've got to stop getting into trouble all the time."
"My mother doesn't care," said Ephiny, suppressing a sob. "She hasn't even come to find me since they've been back. Only Xena - who yelled at me - and you have."
"Your mom's been kind of busy trying to avert a war with the centaurs," said Selenë, wryly.
"Which I caused - yeah I know," said Ephiny, pulling away. "I already got that from Xena."
"Selenë." The girl turned around to see her mother standing behind her. "Go on back to the cottage," said Queen Melysë. "I need a private word with Ephiny." Selenë smiled and gave her friend a quick squeeze, than ran out.
"Are you gonna yell at me, too?" asked a sullen Ephiny.
"Would it do any good?" asked the priestess.
"No," said Ephiny.
"I didn't think so," said Melysë, approaching the girl, and motioning for her to sit with her on a bench. Ephiny warily complied, and the queen put her arm around the child, holding her. "So what's your side of it, Eph'?"
Ephiny looked up at Melysë, wide-eyed. No one had asked her that, they had just punished her for hitting the centaur. "Dorian said the centaurs were better fighters than Amazons and that's why they always won the war against us," said Ephiny.
"Kind of made you mad, huh?" said Melysë, nodding. "I mean, we all know one Amazon can take a dozen centaurs."
"Yeah," said Ephiny, nodding.
"So you kinda had to prove that an Amazon is tougher than a centaur, right?" said Melysë.
"Exactly," said Ephiny, grinning - Selenë was right; her mother knew everything.
"Hm, well, Eph'," said Melysë. "You and I know that Amazons are tougher than centaurs, but the centaurs don't believe that. And the only way we could prove it to them is to go to war again. Do you really think it would be worth it - just to prove we're tougher?"
"No," said Ephiny, shaking her head. "I get your point, tanti."
"Ephiny, I understand," said Melysë, hugging the little girl. "I understand your pride in being an Amazon - you have every reason to feel proud of that. But your actions do not reflect the honour of The Amazon Nation, what we all stand for. And honour is far more important to an Amazon than who won what battle so long ago. Honour is what makes us 'tough', and honour defines who we are."
"I guess I know that," said Ephiny, looking down. Melysë raised her chin.
"Honour, Eph'," she said. "Part of honour is owning your mistakes and facing the consequences. What are we going to do? Where do we go from here?"
"I don't know," said Ephiny. "I guess...I have to apologise to Dorian?"
"That depends," said Melysë. "Are you sorry?"
"Yeah, I really am," said Ephiny, tears welling in her eyes. "I...I really like Dorian, and I didn't mean to lose my temper, I just got so mad... I asked him to stop saying that stuff, but he wouldn't, so I slugged him. Sometimes, tanti, I just get so mad inside, I don't know what to. I can't help it, I really can't. I don't want to be mad all the time. It hurts inside to be mad."
"Oh, Ephiny," said Melysë, holding the little girl closer, comforting. "We'll help you, Sweetheart. We love you so much, all of us. We'll find a way to get you through this."
"Thank-you, tanti," said Ephiny, sniffing, feeling the effects of the priestess's healing embrace as she calmed inside.
"Ok, Eph'," said Melysë, smiling at the child and rising, pulling the girl after her.
"Is my mom really mad at me?"
"Well, she's disappointed," said Melysë.
"Goddess, that's worse," groaned Ephiny.
The two emerged from the stables, Melysë gently picking hay out of Ephiny's fair hair. Gabrielle was waiting outside for them. Melysë looked up at her friend and smiled. Gabrielle took her daughter in her arms and hugged her tightly.
"Come on, we've got some talking to do," she said, leading her daughter home.
Melyse went to the stable and retrieved her horse. She rode furiously and caught up with the warrior, grinning at her.
"Well, what took you?" said Xena, smiling slightly.
Melysë merely smiled at her and rode at a more leisurely pace beside her.
The warrior reached over and took Melysë's hand, squeezing gently. "I'll be right here."
"I know," said Melysë, smiling.
"How'd it go with Ephiny, by the way?" said Xena. Melysë looked sideways at the warrior and smiled sheepishly. "'Our Lady of the Soft Heart' mushed out, huh?" chuckled the warrior.
"Not exactly," said Melysë. "I just asked her to tell me her side of it. Sounds like she was provoked - I'm not excusing what she did, but I understand it."
"Her side, huh? Why didn't I think of that?" said Xena, shaking her head.
"Because that's what you have me for," said Melysë grinning.
They approached the boundary and saw the riders did indeed include Romans, escorted by a Tribe of Macedonian Amazons. Among the Romans was a familiar face.
"General Aurelian!" Melysë cried, lagging a bit behind Xena. The Warrior Queen reached back and grabbed Melysë's horse's halter, gently pulling back beside her. "Don't show any fear - or weakness," she warned.
Melysë nodded, but inwardly she shrank, terrified. Xena looked over, sensing her companion's fear, but smiled proudly at the priestess's mask of composure. She doubted anyone else would know the priestess faced her worst fear now.
"Benlai - Welcome, Sisters," said the Priestess Queen as the Amazons approached and saluted the two queens.
The Roman General looked at the women surrounding their Queens. Xena sat astride Argo, the golden mare standing still while her rider coolly appraised him. Her presence bespoke of immense power and the General recognised her as the force of nature she truly was, untamed, and barely controlled by an act of her own sheer will. Melysë, the priestess, regally astride a midnight black mare exuded a power of her own, not wild and untamed, but ancient and ageless, a mystery with no answer, all-knowing and wise, but warm and comforting at the same time. Love and benevolence seemed to flow from her to the Amazons which had accompanied him, and even to extend somewhat to himself. He felt immediately comforted by her presence, and he had not even been aware he was worried.
Melysë rode up to the Roman, grasping his forearm and smiling warmly, disarming him of his mental defenses. "General Aurelian," she said, brightly. "Welcome to Aemetzainê. We have lodging for you and your men. You may rest and refresh yourself and then we will meet and discuss your reasons for being here."
Xena raised an eyebrow at the priestess's behaviour, realising what a handsome man the general was in his uniform. She shot a Look at them. Overdoing it a bit aren't we? she thought. I know I said not to show any fear, but this...
The General nodded, cordial despite his annoyance at the delay caused by this formal offering of hospitality. He had an urgent message to deliver, damn it! "I thank-you, Your Majesty," he said, his heart beating a little faster as Xena, watching the exchange, narrowed her eyes slightly, and a cold smile slipped across her lips - a smile which caused the general to inwardly shudder.
The Warrior Queen silently gestured and the honour guard escorted the Romans to a guest house outside the boundary while the visiting Amazons were taken to the barracks and made to feel at home. Melysë stabled her horse then went back to her cottage to await Xena. Her warrior was not long in arriving, sweeping into the cottage and pulling the gauntlets from her wrists, her face expressionless.
"Xena?" said Melysë softly, approaching the warrior - something not many would dare to do in her present state.
"What?" said Xena, quietly, though she paced restlessly.
Melysë smiled - the smile she reserved only for Xena - and the warrior paused, her own warm smile emerging as she gathered the priestess in her strong arms.
"What are you worried about?" asked the priestess, softly, reveling in the warrior's closeness as she always did.
"Nothing ... now," said Xena, breathing in the clean scent of Melysë's dark hair, the tightness in her chest at the sight of Melysë greeting the general loosening. "You were just being ... you. I was foolish to think ... what I thought. I'm not worried about anything. Not where you're concerned."
"Good," said Melysë, her soft breath tickling the Warrior Queen's ear. "Because you have nothing to worry about."
Xena thought back to that first time she had admitted her feelings to the priestess. She wasn't going to make the same mistake she'd made...before ... by not saying anything.
"Don't cry," said Xena, placing a hand on the Queen's shoulder. "I hate it when you cry."
"But Xena, I can't help it," said the priestess. "I'm sorry - I get like this when I'm pregnant."
"I know, but..." began the warrior, suddenly startled as the priestes threw herself into her arms for comfort. "Gods, Melysë you're not that pregnant - you're hardly even showing yet."
"What would you have me do?" cried Melysë, tears flowing.
Xena pulled away a little, looking directly into the queen's dark, green eyes. "What would you say if I told you that I would have you - any and every way you would allow me to?" she asked, quietly.
Melysë looked up at her, understanding dawning, then turned away, trembling. "I'm going to have a bath," said the queen, gathering her things.
Xena's heart sank. The thought of my touch makes her want a bath? thought the warrior, sadly.
Then the priestess turned, smiling that smile. "Well? Aren't you going to join me?" she said.
Xena smiled - it was one of her favorite memories. She had known that Melysë had attended Sappho's college on Lesvos, known too, of the reputation of that Island, but Melysë had surprised her with her lack of experience. But what the priestess lacked in that area, she more than made up for with a gentleness and an absolutely unselfish desire to please, borne of love and devotion to the warrior that Xena hadn't realised was there. And then after...
Xena drifted into a contented sleep, her head resting on the small bulge of her new love's abdomen, Melysë gently stroking her hair. The warrior's eyes flew open at the stirring beneath her head as the little person - who had become Selenë - first made her presence known.
"Was that...?" she asked.
"Yes," said Melysë, smiling. "She's thanking you. She knows you've made her mother very happy. I love you, Xena. I have for a long time."
Xena felt tears come to her eyes. "Not as happy as her mother just made me," she said. "Because I love you, too. I was afraid you wouldn't feel the same way, that this was just..."
"No Xena," said Melysë, pulling the warrior closer to her. "I don't ... I couldn't do this with someone I don't love - that's not me."
"I know," whispered Xena, smiling as the tiny being growing within Melysë stirred again, the movement stronger this time. "Now what is she saying?"
"I think she wants you to get off of her - and come up here and kiss me silly again," chuckled Melysë, and Xena did just that...
"Come on, we've got a general to meet with," said Melysë, breaking the warrior's reverie with a knowing smile.
Xena brought the General to their council chamber. Melysë sat there with the council of elders, talking quietly. Xena saw her smiling gently and nodding, her eyes were bright. Xena stopped just to look at her for a moment, smiling softly. The General saw that smile and his memory compared it to the one that he had seen the warrior give him earlier. He shook his head in wonder. Truly, this queen must be half-god, he thought. To affect the Mighty Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations thusly. The Conqueror of Greece has herself been conquered - no small feat, that. He smiled in spite of himself.
Xena approached and knelt beside Melysë, whispering to her. Melysë blushed and looked down, then smiled as she looked up at Xena. Ah, so it goes both ways, thought Aurelian. Melysë looked up at him and rose to her feet, greeting him cordially with a smile.
"General Aurelian, it's good to see you again," said the priestess, grasping his forearm in a warrior's greeting. The general felt the strength in that small hand and remembered anew that this was an Amazon.
"Your Majesty, I am relieved to find you so well. I apologise - " Melysë stopped his words with a gentle hand to his lips.
"It is not your sin to repent, General," she said, gently. "I knew when I met you that you were a man of honour - were you not deceived, you would have prevented Senator Civillus's actions against me, I know. That is the end of it. You would speak with me of other, more important matters?"
"Caesar wishes a treaty with the Amazon Nation," said the General. "He has asked that I escort you to Rome - under my personal protection - to negotiate with him."
"Civillus said that the Nation was not recognised as such by Rome," said Melysë, frowning.
"Civillus is not Rome, your majesty," said the General, bowing slightly. "I hope you will not judge us by him."
"Oh, I don't," Melysë hastened to say, smiling and laying a gentle hand on the general's arm.
"But I am not empowered to negotiate such a treaty on behalf of the entire Nation - that would be my cousin, Laesë, the High Queen. I would like very much to have peace with Rome, though. I will speak to my cousin on your behalf, General, and on behalf of your Emperor. I think she will be delighted to negotiate with you."
"As you, wish, your majesty," said Aurelian, bowing slightly. "I am also empowered with the authority to assist you with your present difficulties with the Centaurs."
"Thank-you, General," said Melysë. "I would be interested to know how you learned of this, but I assure you that there are no problems with the Centaurs. A minor misunderstanding brought about by a children's quarrel - nothing more. Our treaty stands."
"But still, I would be honoured if you would accompany me to Rome for a visit - I think there is much of our city you would like," said the General, aware of Xena's eyes on him as he played this dangerous game with her priestess.
"Thank-you, General, but my Tribe and my daughters have felt my absence for too long as it is," said Melysë, gently.
"Daughters?" said Aurelian, glancing quickly over to Xena, who smirked, and back to Melysë. "I thought..."
"What?" said Melysë, smiling in amusement. "Something wrong?"
"Ah, no, your majesty, nothing," said the general, chuckling himself.
"Let me walk you back, General," said Xena, taking his arm and almost forcefully pulling him from the council chamber.
Blessed Goddess, thought Melysë, grinning at the Warrior Queen. For someone who's not worried about anything, Xena sure is in a hurry to get him out of here. I would like to know where he heard about the Centaur incident, though.
Xena walked the General back to the guest quarters outside the boundaries.
"Why are you so eager to get 'Lysë into Rome?" she asked, quietly.
"Augustus wants to meet with her," said Aurelian, with a shrug.
"Why?" Xena pressed.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss..." suddenly the General's words stopped as three fingers quickly jabbed his throat. He had difficulty breathing - and thinking.
"You've got less than a minute to prove I haven't misjudged you," said Xena, watching as blood began to trickle from his nose.
"Okay," gasped General Aurelian, as blackness began to envelop him. "Just...take it off..."
Again, Xena jabbed three fingers into his throat and he could breathe again, but the pain which seared through his head was still blinding. "Talk," she said.
"Augustus has a problem and he thinks only Melysë can solve it," gasped the General.
"What is the problem? And why be so secretive about it?" asked Xena.
"There was an artifact unearthed in Ephesus," said the General, slowly regaining his strength. "Augustus doesn't want it to get around where it came from or what it is until he knows it can be...handled. To do otherwise may cause a panic. This artifact was transported to Rome by Civillus and there has been no end of difficulties since. People are whispering that it's cursed. Especially with the way the Senator has acted since his return."
"And how is that?" asked Xena.
"Always muttering about gods and curses - and Amazons," said the General, frowning. "I guess your priestess made quite the impression on him."
"Actually, I'd lay higher odds on her siblings making an 'impression'," Xena chuckled. "Ares was a bit put out about his sister's flogging, you see."
"Melysë has powerful allies," said the General, nodding. "So you should trust that she will be safe with me."
"Last time I did that, I got her back beaten half to death," growled Xena. "I trust no one but me to protect her. What is this 'artifact' and why does Caesar think Melysë will know anything about it?"
"It's a black stone, found under the altar in the Temple last time it was rebuilt," said General Aurelian. "It has...strange properties. We know that Melysë is the last true priestess of Ephesus. She is also our last hope to learn anything about this object."
"I don't believe she'll go to Rome, General," said Xena, shaking her head. "She's ... apprehensive about you Romans."
"Understandable, considering what Senator Civillus put her through," nodded the General. "But if I appeal to her sense of honour, surely ... "
Suddenly Xena had hold of the General's throat and he found himself lifted several inches from the ground. "No one is going to take advantage of Melysë that way," she growled. "If you want her help, you ask her for it, honestly and straightforward - you got me?"
"Yeah," said the General, eyes wide as his feet once again touched the ground. "By the gods, woman, if we only had you in our army..."
"I'd never be in any army of Rome," said Xena, disgusted.
"No," chuckled the General, rubbing his throat. "You'd be leading it - and before any of us knew what was happening, you'd be Empress of Rome."
"No doubt," said Xena smiling in spite of herself. "At any rate, I'll ask Melysë if she's willing to help you with this...'problem'. But I wouldn't count on her ever stepping foot in that city."
"Are you sure he said the Black Stone from the Temple?" asked Melysë, frowning.
"Yes, from under the altar," said Xena. "Why?"
"Because that Stone couldn't be in Rome," said Melysë. "It was destroyed a long time ago. I wonder what Civillus is playing at, trying to pass off some rock as the Sacred Baetyl of Ephesus?"
"I don't know," said Xena, troubled. "Aurelian said it had 'strange properties' - people are saying it's cursed."
"Hm, much as I really don't want to, I think I'd better go and at least see this thing," said Melysë, frowning. "With Hekate's new gift, I can use my powers without weakening now, so it shouldn't take too long."
"I don't want you to go, 'Lysë," said Xena, wrapping her arms around Melysë's slender waist.
"That makes two of us," said the priestess, snuggling closer and laying her dark head on Xena's shoulder. "But that thing might hurt a lot of people. I really should check it out. Will you come with me?"
"Think you could stop me?" chuckled the warrior, stroking Melysë's dark hair gently.
"Don't want to..stop you," said Melysë, as Xena pulled her closer still...
Melysë sent word to her cousin, Laesë, High Queen of the Amazon Nation, to meet them in Rome to negotiate the treaty requested by Augustus. Xenan, too, had decided to accompany them, and the plan was that the treaty between his people and the Amazon Nation could be ratified by the High Queen at the same time.
Using her power, Melysë transported them all - including the General - to Rome. They were presented to Augustus, who greeted the Amazons warmly, especially Xena.
"Tell me about this...artifact," said Melysë, sipping at a cup of wine as the party sat in Augustus's private chambers.
"It's a black stone, about the size of my two fists," said Augustus, shrugging. "Nothing remarkable about it's appearance, but in its presence, ordinary people seem to ... go mad."
"How do you mean?" asked Xena.
"There have been ... deaths," said Augustus, darkly. "Those who stand before the stone have described feelings of ... elation ... and intoxication, of sorts. I have not observed these events myself, you understand, so I can only relate what has been told to me. People dance in a frenzy, like a Bacchanal, and most don't remember what happens there afterward. There are only ... the bodies, bearing mute evidence. Most of the victims are mutilated beyond recognition."
"Goddess," whispered Melysë in horror.
"Indeed," agreed Augustus, grimly. "I myself am apprehensive about seeing this object, with the evidence I have of its effects. I had hoped that you, Your Majesty, with your unique...attributes, might be immune."
Xena looked at Melysë. The priestess sat silent, considering it. Then with a sigh, she rose.
"Take me to this thing," she said. After all, I have gained control over the spirit of the Snow Leopard which once possessed me beyond my control. I can handle this...
She was led to a Temple and there she bade the others wait outside. Slowly she pushed open the doors and entered. It was cool and dark inside the building. Melysë felt power here, though she didn't recognise the source.
"Nope, not from Ephesus," she whispered, approaching the altar. She could feel the alien power pulsing as she came closer, pulling at her mind. The priestess summoned all of her considerable will and fought the pull, but approached to get a better look. "Hekate, strengthen Your Chosen that I may protect others from this danger."
Melysë felt herself detach from her conscious mind, affording her the sought after protection. She could feel fury and rage coming from the source - the Black Stone. Then she felt it - the spirit trapped within the obsidian - a personality, a being. Immortalised by the imprisoning, but enraged as well, seeking to get OUT at all costs. Suddenly, she was assaulted by images of the frenzied rites held before this altar, innocent victims being rent apart by the celebrants who shared the fury and rage of the entity held within the stone. Her mind heard not only the screams of the victims, but also of their killers - and those of the entity as well. It was in torment and Melysë felt compassion, but more than that she felt fear and suddenly she knew who was trapped in the stone.
She left the Temple, running straight into Xena's arms, trembling.
"What is it, 'Lysë?" asked the warrior, alarmed.
"You must keep everyone as far from this place as possible," said the priestess to Augustus, still trembling, although less so in her warrior's strong embrace. "Don't let anyone near it - it's getting stronger with every murder - and it wants out. We'll be back with re-inforcements, but until then, keep everyone away, please."
"It will be done," said Aurelian, nodding and issuing the orders to the soldiers which had accompanied them.
"Xena we have to go home," said Melysë. "I have to talk to Gabrielle."
Melysë and Xena arrived in Aemetzainê later that day. Xena was troubled by her companion's silence and went with her to the Lodge to get Gabrielle. They found the house in an uproar.
"What's going on?" asked Melysë.
"Ephiny and Selenë have run away," said Gabrielle, running her hands nervously through her short blonde hair.
Melysë sighed and turned to one of the sentries who had followed them to the Lodge. "Bring my daughter Arynë and Xena's mother, Cyrenê to my cottage. I believe Arynë was going to help Cyrenê unpack in her cottage today, so you'll most likely find them there," she said.
Melysë went to her cottage to await the rest, stopping by the House of Mothers to retrieve her youngest, Neiromei. Xena and Gabrielle arrived first, Gabrielle frantic with worry.
"How hard could it be to find two little girls?" said Melysë, frowning.
"In the woods and it's getting dark," said Gabrielle, her voice catching.
"Don't worry, tanti," said Arynë, striding into the cottage, Cyrenê right behind her. "No one knows the forest better than I do - we'll find them."
Cyrenê took Gabrielle in her arms, comforting her in a motherly embrace. "Don't you worry - Xena used to do this sort of thing all the time to evade being punished," she said. "But she always came home when she got hungry."
Xena rolled her eyes and Melysë smirked, despite the situation.
"Eph's really done it this time," said Gabrielle, shaking her head.
"Why do you think Ephiny is behind this?" said Melysë, quietly, sitting. "Selenë's just as capable of...anyway, rather than assigning blame, let's just get them home."
"'Lysë's right," said Xena. "'Ryn, get Tecmessa and some of your other age-mates from the House of Maidens. Gabrielle, you come with me. 'Lysë, you and Mother wait here - just in case they come back on their own."
And so they set off, deep into the woods to find the missing children.
"Come on, Eph'," said Selenë, tugging on her friend's hand as the girls stumbled in the dark forest for the about the twentieth time.
"Selenë, I'm tired and I'm cold, and I'm hungry," grumbled the girl, sitting on the damp ground. "And I'm still not sure this is a good idea."
Selenë sat beside her best friend. "I told you, Ephiny, once they realise how much they're gonna miss us, no way will they punish you," she said.
"Huh, they'll miss you," said ther blonde girl, huddling up to her friend for warmth. "You never get in trouble."
"Bet I am now," said Selenë, soberly. "Xena's really gonna let me have it. All the more reason to keep going."
"I am not going another step," said Ephiny, stubbornly. "Can't we just build a fire and camp here?"
"We can't build a fire," said Selenë. "They'll find us. Didn't you bring a blanket like I told you?"
"Yeah, but I dropped it when you - "
"Okay," sighed Selenë. "Never mind. We can sleep in the trees - that way no wild animals can get us."
"What wild animals?" asked Ephiny, suddenly worried.
"I don't know," said Selenë, also worried. "But there's bound to be some. Come on."
The children climbed the trees and found sleeping perches, but also found it was too cold to sleep apart, but there were no branches wide enough for both of them.
"Now what do we do?" whined Ephiny.
"How about coming down here?" said a voice. Both were girls were startled enough to fall out of their perches, but landed on the soft cushion of dead leaves which littered the forest floor. They looked up and saw an old woman, leaning on a staff.
"You're not an Amazon," said Selenë.
"Very good," said the old woman, chuckling. "And you're no longer in Amazon territory, Princess."
"How did you - ?" began Ephiny.
"Hush, Youngling," said the woman. "Don't you two think you've caused enough trouble? Your mothers are worried sick - and my peace and quiet is being disturbed by Amazons combing the forest for you."
"They want to punish Ephiny for hitting Dorian," said Selenë, not meeting the elder's eyes. "So I thought, if they realised how much they'd miss her, they wouldn't do it."
"Want to punish her?" said the old woman sharply. "Is that what you think? Hmph, you're gettin' to be more like Xena than Melysë, all the time. No one wants to punish Ephiny. They just don't know what to do. You have your mother's temper, Child, but not her self-control, unfortunately."
"Come on Selenë," said Ephiny, glaring at the old woman. "Let's go. We're not supposed to talk to strangers anyway."
"You're not supposed to do a lot of things, young Ephiny," said the old woman sternly.
"She's no stranger," said Selenë looking carefully at the old woman, who chuckled.
"No, I'm not," she said. "At least not to you, Princess."
"Who is she then?" asked Ephiny, her eyes narrowing.
"She's - "
"Never mind that now," said the old woman, grabbing both girls with surprising strength and pulling them along. "I've got to get you both where it's warm before you catch your death out here."
She dragged the protesting children to a small hut in a clearing at the center of a crossroads and plunked them into two chairs, placing bowls of soup and mugs of hot tea before them. "Now eat up," she said, leaving them alone in the cosy room.
"Who is she, Selenë?" hissed Ephiny.
"Hekate," said Selenë, soberly. "Now we're really in trouble."
Ephiny swallowed hard, cold in spite of the warm fire in the hearth. "You mean..."
"Yes she does," said the old woman, no longer old and very much resembling Xena, as she strode back into the room. "Eat up, now. Your mothers are on their way."
"How did you...?" began Ephiny, her eyes wide.
"I am in the habit of answering prayers - especially those of My Chosen - that would be your mother, Selenë," said the Goddess. "And as I said, she has been worried sick about you - both of you."
Selenë looked down. "I'm sorry," she said, quietly.
"As well you should be," said the Goddess. "You too, Ephiny."
"Me? It was her idea - for once," said Ephiny, sullenly.
"But you went along," said Hekate. "And the only reason Selenë thought to run away was to protect you."
"Yeah, I know - my fault - again," sighed the child.
"Not at all. You are both to blame," said Hekate.
Suddenly the door to the cottage swung open and Xena and Gabrielle swept in, grabbing their girls.
"Selenë, Sweetheart, what were you thinking?" said Xena, and Selenë was shocked to see tears in the Warrior Queen's eyes. She looked around and saw Hekate was gone Gabrielle was weeping openly and hugging Ephiny.
"Ephiny why would you run away?" asked Gabrielle.
"It was my idea, tanti," said Selenë, quietly, unable to meet either queen's eyes. "I thought if you realised how much you'd miss her, you wouldn't want to punish Ephiny anymore. And I ... just didn't want her to get in trouble anymore."
"Selenë, that was the wrong thing to do," said Xena, firmly.
"I know," said the child, still looking down.
"And you know you're going to be punished for this," said Xena, her anger now allowed to emerge past the worrry at seeing the children alright. Selenë nodded. "Come on, let's get you home," said Xena, sighing. She wasn't at all sure she'd be able to carry out any punishments on her young daughter with the girl looking so miserable and guilty. Arynë was waiting for them at the edge of the woods. Xena had whistled the signal that the girls had been found and the search party had re-grouped here.
"Are they okay?" whispered Arynë, looking at her sleeping little sister draped over Xena's shoulder.
"Yeah, fine," said the warrior. "Come on."
Xena carried the child into the cottage and Melysë jumped up and took her into her own arms, then laid her in her bed, stroking her dark curls.
"You were right," Xena whispered. "It was Selenë's idea to run away."
Melysë sighed. "Hekate said as much," she said. "Why, Xena? Why would she do it? She must have known we'd worry."
"I think that was the point," said Xena. "Making us worry enough to not punish Ephiny for hitting Dorian."
"No, I think its more than that," said Melysë, frowning. "I think it has to do with that thing back in Rome. Selenë's very gifted with the power. I think she knows..."
"Knows what, Melysë?" said Xena. "What is it about that thing that has you so ... quiet?"
Melysë looked at her warrior and wrapped her arms around her. "I really should wait for Gabrielle to tell you this, but Xena, have you noticed how close Ephiny and Selenë are?"
"Yeah, Gabrielle's been saying for years that they're malatyra - just like she and I are. Why?" said Xena.
"Don't you think it appropriate for both of your firstborn children to be malatyra - soul-mates - just as you two are?" said Melysë, quietly.
"'Lysë, both Gabrielle and I had children before Selenë and Ephiny - you know that," said Xena, frowning. "Wait, what are you saying?"
Melysë sighed. "The souls of those children have been reborn to you two again," she said.
"Are you saying Solan...and Hope...?" said Xena, incredulous. "But that's...which is which?"
"The part of Hope that was Gabrielle has been reborn as Ephiny," said Melysë, sighing. "The other part - the part that is evil, the part of Dahak - is in that Stone in Rome - trying to get into the world again - through Ephiny. That's why she's so angry all the time. And I think that's why Selenë was trying to get her away - not to avoid being punished, but to get her as far from the danger as possible. If Solan and Hope had lived, I think they would have been friends, eventually. Your son would have done much the same for Hope as Gabrielle did for you. But Dahak was too strong for her child's mind to resist and she killed him instead. Dahak wanted her just the way she was and Solan would have grabbed her from his evil, ruining his plans. Haven't you noticed that Selenë is the only one who can help Ephiny control her temper?"
"Gods," said Xena, the pain evident in her blue eyes. Melysë held her tighter, her healing power enveloping her warrior as the priestess sought to erase the pain. "Solan didn't have to die. Hope wouldn't have killed him, if only I'd - "
"No, Xena," said Melysë, softly. "There was nothing you could have done. No way you could know this. You saw the evil and the threat and you did what you had to do. As did Gabrielle. And now we need to tell her - everything."
Gabrielle took the news better than Xena had hoped. Actually, the tears which came into her bright green eyes were happy tears.
"Hope...I loved her. She was my daughter, my baby," said the bard as Xena held her. "But it was that evil - that part of her that was Dahak which had to be destroyed."
"Hope was part of you, too, Gabrielle," said Melysë, smiling, gently. "That was the part of her that loved you and just wanted you to love her - and you did. And that is the part which has returned to that love. When the Destroyer killed her and she went to the Place of Souls, the evil part couldn't follow. Somehow it's been trapped in that stone. And we have to make sure it stays there."
"Why not just destroy the stone?" asked Xena.
"Because the stone itself isn't the evil - it's what traps the evil," said Melysë. "If we destroy it, we set Dahak's evil loose upon the world. And Ephiny, as Hope's soul, will draw it like a magnet. We have to protect Ephiny and we have to make sure that the entity in the stone stays there."
"I thought Hercules killed Dahak?" said Xena.
"Well, sort of," said Melysë. "But Dahak is just a manifestion of evil energy - and energy can't be destroyed, only changed in form."
"So, what do we do?" asked Gabrielle. "How do we keep it trapped?"
"I don't know yet," said Melysë, frowning. "Any ideas from you two? I haven't had any dealings with Dahak, so I have no frame of reference to work with, except that brief encounter with the stone. And that was so ugly, I had to get away fast."
"You know, I've been thinking," said Xena.
"Look out," said Gabrielle, smiling.
"Watch it," said Xena, grinning. "Anyway, what you said about energy - that it can't be destroyed, only its form changes?"
"Yes," said Melysë.
"Do you know about the Ixion Stone?" said Xena.
"Hm, very little - wasn't it destroyed by Dagnine a long time ago?" said Melysë.
"Yes, the Stone was destroyed, but the power it held..."
"Was energy - which, we've established, can't be," said Melysë, thoughtfully. "So what happened to it when the stone was consumed by Dagnine?"
"I don't know," said Xena. "But the Stone held all the evil Ixion withheld from the Centaurs, and Ixion's Evil Centaur hasn't been back. I think that means it's successfully contained somewhere else."
"It would have to be a very powerful prison to contain so much evil power," said Gabrielle. "I saw Dagnine, remember."
"I think a visit to the Centaur village is warranted," said Xena. "I suspect Xenan's been holding out on us."
The Centaur Village was busily preparing for the upcoming Festival of Leukippe. The Amazons sought out Xenan, who had returned from Rome after ratifying the Treaty between the Centaurs and the Amazon Nation with Laesë, Melysë's cousin.
"So, how did it go?" asked the Centaur leader. "Have you solved Augustus's problem?"
"No," said Melysë. "We need your help. What can you tell us about the Ixion Stone - or, more importantly, the power that it contained?"
"The Stone was destroyed by Dagnine when I was still a baby," said Xenan, frowning. "Why do you ask?"
"Xenan, now is not the time to be secretive," said Xena. "Believe me, any desire I may have once had for that power left me when Dagnine showed me what it could do to a person."
"Xenan," said Melysë, laying a gentle hand on his arm. "Please, it's important. We have to know how the evil of Ixion's Centaur was contained." Briefly, she filled the Centaur leader in.
"Okay," said Xenan, quietly, motioning for the Amazons to follow him. They left the hut and walked out into the forest, following a circuitous route to a cave. "In there."
The Amazons followed him through the dark tunnels to a deep cavern underground. In a pit, which was covered by a black stone, similiar to the one in Rome, the Amazons heard groans of agony and screams of terror.
"Ixion's Evil Power is in there," said Xenan, grimly. "Contained by the spells given us by Leukippe. Every year, we hold a festival in her honour and she comes, and re-seals the pit."
"Who exactly is Leukippe?" asked Melysë.
"She is the Mother of the Centaurs," said Xenan. "They say that when Ixion created the Centaurs, he needed a mother to give birth to the first Centaur. Leukippe volunteered. Then Ixion put all of his potential evil in the Ixion Stone, but while our race was still very young, Leukippe also protected us from that evil and taught us what we needed to know to survive. That's why we think of her as our Mother."
"So, she's an immortal?" said Melysë.
"Well, yes, but it isn't really Leukippe who attends the Festival," said Xenan. "Her priestess acts as her representative, speaking the chant which holds the charm in place."
"So, this priestess is sort of a channel or conduit of Leukippe's power and authority over the evil," said Melysë, nodding in understanding.
"Exactly," said Xenan.
"So we have to find a safe place for the Black Stone in Rome," said Melysë, thoughtfully. "And contain the evil by the power of ... what?"
"Me," said Gabrielle, quietly. "I was the one who first brought the evil of Dahak into the world - when I gave birth to Hope. I have to be the one to keep it from coming back."
Xena had argued with her soulmate all the way back to Aemetzainê. Melysë remained thoughtfully silent.
"Melysë, tell her," said Xena desperately. "Tell her that it's too dangerous - that thing could hurt her again. Or worse."
"Xena, I think Gabrielle is right," said the priestess, thoughtfully. "But I also think I know a way to protect her - and Ephiny."
"How?" asked Gabrielle, hopefully.
"I will be your conduit," said Melysë. "I've learned to control my power; I think I can control the flow of power from Gabrielle to the entity in the stone."
"You 'think'?" said Xena. "I'm sorry, Melysë, that's not good enough. I won't risk losing either one of you."
"Do you have a better idea?" asked Melysë.
"No," sighed Xena. "For once, I can't think of a thing. Damn, I hate this!"
"So do I," said Melysë. "I don't like the danger to you, Gabrielle. I know I'll be safe - I'm used to forces flowing through me. What do you want to do?"
"I want to stop this - once and for all," said the Bard, quietly. "And I want to protect my daughter. If this is the only way to do that, then so be it."
The Amazons travelled to Rome with Melysë's power and were again greeted by Augustus.
"I have tried to keep people away from the Temple, but it's been impossible," he said, sadly. "Four more killings since you've been gone. It seems a cult has sprung up around that stone and the followers are ... fanatical. The whole city is being affected by this."
"Its power is growing," said Melysë, grimly. "We don't have much time before it's out - and rampaging over the whole world."
The Amazons hurried to the Temple. As Augustus had said, the building was surrounded by worshippers, all in a state of "divine madness". The sentries posted to keep them out were hard pressed to resist the power of the entity themselves.
"Wait here," Melysë told Gabrielle and Xena, as she ran up the steps and into the Temple itself.
The Stone throbbed with the growing of its power. Melysë closed her eyes and allowed her mind to touch Gabrielle's, tapping into her friend's power, allowing Gabrielle's light to fill her and merge with her own, creating a blinding white bolt. Then Melysë reached out to Xena, felt her formidible strength and gently drew it, too, within her. Now the light was a Force. This is why the Amazon Tribes always had three queens - together, we are One, and together we create a power of that One that is, indeed complete and divine. This is what it would feel like if I allowed myself to be a full goddess. The priestess held out her hands toward the stone, felt it pulling her in, but she resisted. Outside, Xena held onto her malatyr, offering strength and support. Gabrielle closed her eyes and felt Melysë drawing on her power. She allowed it, feeling protected and shielded by her friends.
Selenë sat in Cyrenê's cottage, under her grandmother's strict supervision. She wasn't allowed to leave the cottage, although Cyrenê had tried to make the 'punishment' as pleasant as possible. She adored the girl and it was hard for her to see Selenë just sitting there, staring out of the window like one of Melysë's cats, her little chin resting in both of her hands.
Ephiny knocked on the door and Cyrenê let her in, smiling.
"Are you a sight for sore eyes," said Xena's mother. "See if you can't cheer her up a bit, will you?"
Ephiny nodded, smiling weakly. She had felt strange all day and wanted nothing more than to be with her best friend. Selenë always made her feel calm. She needed to feel that peace inside now, instead of this jittery strangeness, like she wanted to hurt something. Slowly, she approached Selenë, but instead of becoming calmer, the old anger flared up ...
The Entity's followers were getting agitated by the changes in the energy of their "god". The Entity screamed its rage and its followers began to attack the source of their discomfort. Xena fought back, protecting Gabrielle. "Hurry, Melysë!" she growled as her chakram flew, knocking out several of their attackers.
Suddenly, Ephiny roared in rage and struck her best friend in the head, hard. Selenë fell, crying out as blackness overtook her...
Melysë increased her concentration, drawing on her god-powers, both inherited from her father, Zeus, and those bestowed by her Goddess, adding them to the force which the three queens created. Suddenly, her concentration was broken as she heard the scream in her mind.
"Mother! Help me!"
She faltered and the Entity screamed in triumph, escaping her... and It's prison...
"Ephiny! What are you doing?" cried Cyrenê, grabbing the child and restraining her from doing further damage to her grandchild. The girl's struggles were fierce and Cyrenê realised she was strong for one so young - too strong. Still, Xena's mother held her fast until the child slumped, as unconscious as her malatyr...
The girls met in the mist and Ephiny growled, leaping at Selenë. But this time, Selenë moved out of the way.
"Ephiny, why are you doing this?" she cried.
"Don't call me that!" spat the other girl. "This body is weak. I hate it. And I hate you. I'm going to kill you again. And this time, you'll stay dead!"
"No I won't," said Selenë, soberly. "And neither will you. Our mothers love us, Hope. They want us. Just like they did then. That's why we came back to them. Why we always will."
Hope laughed cruelly. "Oh, yes, they wanted us, alright - that's why yours gave you away before a ten-day and mine left me to drown in a river! Oh, yeah, that's love. I think I prefer hate - at least hate is honest."
"That's not true," said Selenë, approaching the other girl. "They do love us - you know it's true. You can feel it, if you let yourself. Let yourself feel their love for us, Hope. Please, be Ephiny again. It really is who you are now. What's past can't be changed. But now, in this lifetime, you have your mother - just like you wanted, remember? Remember how you loved her? How you love her now? Come on, Eph', feel it - and fight that thing. I know you can. I remember, you tried to before. You're stronger, now, because of love, not hate. Fight it, Ephiny. I love you. I will always love you, so fight it - if not for your mother, then for me. And for yourself. Please."
"Sol - Selenë," cried Ephiny, falling in her friend's arms. "Please - help me!"
"I will," said Selenë, holding her. Selenë reached out with her mind, touching her mother, Melysë. The priestess felt her daughter and poured the Queens' combined power into Selenë. Selenë felt it and in turn, gave it to Ephiny.
Hope/Ephiny felt it as a warmth, a light filling in all the dark places in her heart. The light pushed the Thing in her head away, pushed it hard until it it was pushed all the way away from her, then Ephiny felt Selenë, building a wall of love inside her head. The Thing screamed again, this time in frustration as it found Ephiny full of light and love - a place It could not go. Then it was just ... gone. She felt lighter and suddenly, she was back in Cyrenê's cottage, held firmly in Cyrenê's arms. The girl came to and twisted to hug Cyrenê, weeping. Cyrenê held her, whispering soothing words to the little girl, gently settling her into a chair as she went to Selenë. The girl stirred and smiled up at her grandmother.
"Is Ephiny okay?" she whispered.
"Yes, Little One, she is now," said Cyrenê, smiling and lifting the child to sit next to her malatyr.
Cyrenê shook her head at the two as they snuggled close, drawing comfort from each other. And I thought life with Xena was interesting! she thought, chuckling since the danger was over.
The Entity's screams grew muffled as it was forcibly thrust back into Its prison and the barrier between it and the rest of the world grew stronger. The followers began to fall back away from Xena and Gabrielle, shaking their heads, confused, some walking away in a daze, wondering what they had been doing outside the abandoned Temple.
The Entity was silent again, though Melysë knew it was still there, howling unheard in rage. It was finished. Now it only remained to take it to a place in which it would be confined forever. She picked up the shiny black stone, which felt warm in her hands and gingerly carried it out of the Temple. Gabrielle was leaning heavily against Xena, clearly spent.
"Come on," said Melysë, leading them. "Let's get rid of this thing and get home." The priestess transported them to Xenan's cave. Using her power, Melysë put the stone in the pit without removing the cover and chanted a binding spell to hold it there.
"Is Dahak really gone now?" asked Gabrielle as the three walked back to Aemetzainê. She had recovered from her part in binding the Entity to the Stone for Eternity.
"No, he will never be completely gone," said Melysë, sadly. "Every act of evil or deliberate cruelty lends him just that much more strength - just like all evil - and like Ixion's Evil Centaur. That's why Leukippe has to re-seal the prison every year. But Dahak as Dahak - yes, I think that incarnation is changed forever. Hopefully, it is also bound forever."
As the days passed, the Amazons found a very changed Ephiny. The little girl who had once been sullen and angry with the world, opened up and became loving and affectionate. Oh, sure, she still got into trouble - often - but it was trouble borne of mischief, rather than malevolence, often with Selenë playing right along. The two were now all but inseparable. They attended the Centaurs' Feast of Leukippe together with their mothers.
Melysë alternated between watching them and trying to feed Neiromei with a spoon. It was a new game to the baby as she giggled and spit the food all over herself and her mother. Chuckling, Xena took the laughing baby as Melysë cleaned her up.
"Don't laugh," she said, grinning at her warrior. "It's your turn to try."
"Oh, no," said Xena, warily.
"Oh, Xena, I was just kid - "
"No not that," said the warrior, handing her daughter back over to her other mother. "Them."
Melysë looked to see Dorian teasing the girls. Selenë merely sat, a smile playing about the corner of her mouth as all of a sudden, Ephiny jumped up. Xena started to rise to stop the impending confrontation, then stopped in shock as Ephiny planted a big wet kiss on Dorian's face. Selenë fell off of the bench laughing as Dorian feigned outrage, but soon the three friends were all laughing.
"You know, I think she's going to be okay," said Xena, smiling in amusement - and relief, sitting back down beside Melysë, and pulling her close, a strong arm around the priestess's waist.
"Of course she is," said Melysë, smiling, laying her head back on the warrior's shoulder and snuggling their daughter between them. "She's loved. And this time she knows it - and knows how to return it."
"I can't help but wonder what it would have been like if she'd found that strength...then," said Xena, quietly. "You know in India, Gabrielle and I heard that each life lived is a lesson for the next one. I'm really glad Ephiny is a quick study."
"Hm, me too," said Melysë, reveling in her warrior's closeness, as always. "It's really nice to be loved. Knowing that you're loved is the best feeling in the world."
"I love you," whispered the warrior, smiling softly.
"I love you, too."
(To be continued)