DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of these characters. Rob Tapert, Renaissance, etc, these are their babies, I'm just borrowing them.
SPOILERS: Since XWP is long over there really aren't any, but for anyone interested this story takes place early in the sixth season or so, after Xena has killed most of the Greek gods but well before FRIEND IN NEED.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Blood Moon Rising
By Kirk Baldridge
Tania desperately raced through the underbrush; heart pounding in her chest, barely able to catch her breath. Her skin glistened with sweat and she was bleeding from several places where she'd fallen in her haste to get away. The eighteen year old was running for her life. She knew if she stopped it would all be over. Even now, as she slowed, she could swear she heard it coming.
Tears streaming down her face she took off in another direction, hoping to find some help.
It was all her fault. She had invited the creature into her village, thinking her helpless and harmless. Now her tribe had paid the price for her misguided generosity. The screaming...it still echoed in her ears. Amazons were supposed to be fierce and capable warriors, yet even the strongest of her sisters had fallen to the creature.
She wondered if any of them were still alive.
The terrified young Amazon's blood ran cold. She could practically feel its fetid breath on the back of her neck. She had just barely gotten away, at the expense of her friend Maya. Both of them had been running side by side, but when Maya tripped and fell she told Tania to keep running, and as she did she heard the other girl's screams suddenly stop.
"I see you!"
Tania didn't know which way to run. Its voice seemed to be coming from everywhere around her. It was incredibly fast, and wherever she ran it found her. Finally, too exhausted to go any further, she fell to her knees and began to pray.
"Artemis, please, help me!" The matron goddess of the Amazons had been strangely absent of late. She no longer responded to their offerings like she used to, and some of the tribe had begun to wonder if she'd abandoned them. Now, with this creature in their midst, it was beginning to look as if they were right. But Tania wasn't taking any chances. "Artemis, please!"
"Save your breath, Tania." Maya stumbled out of the shadows to the blonde's left. "She's not listening."
"Maya!" Tania embraced her dark-skinned friend, who felt oddly cool and wasn't even breathing hard. "I thought you were dead."
"Aw, you don't have to worry about that anymore." Maya's brow furrowed, her eyes gleaming, and she pushed Tania's face down into the dirt. As the other girl struggled and screamed, she sank her teeth into her exposed neck.
Standing on a forked branch above them, silhouetted against the full moon, a tall, lithe figure just laughed.
"This is going to be so much fun!"
Xena rolled her eyes. "If you say so, Gabrielle."
"Oh, not for you." Gabrielle put a hand on her lover's arm. "You'd be bored to tears. I'm fully aware of the fact you have absolutely no interest in intellectual stimulation."
The warrior arched an eyebrow. "Well..."
"I said intellectual." Gabrielle shook her head. "I've been looking forward to this bard's festival all month. But I made sure there would also be something for you to do before I invited you to come along."
Xena crossed her arms. "What are you up to?"
"Don't you trust me?"
"With my life, absolutely. But to plan our recreation?" Xena frowned. "I remember Icona."
Gabrielle pouted. "Oh come on. You're still holding me responsible for that? How was I supposed to know a flock of Harpies were going to come migrating down out of the mountains?"
"What about Hylus?"
"The Satyrs? It was a turf war, Xena. You can't blame me for a bunch of thugs trying to beat each other's brains in."
Xena nodded. "How about..."
"Enough!" Gabrielle rested her hands on her hips. "If you want to go back to the stable and spend the next few days with Argo that's fine by me. But as I was trying to tell you before I was so rudely interrupted, the townspeople like to celebrate the physical as much as they do the intellectual. There's an athletic competition going on at the amphitheater. It's on the south side of town, past the temples. You can go there and watch, or even participate if you want."
Xena shrugged. "Okay. Maybe I will. Where should we meet up?"
"There's an inn called the Red Boar near the town square. How about lunch, around..." Gabrielle glanced up toward the sky for a moment, then back to the warrior. "...midday?"
"All right." Xena clasped Gabrielle's forearm and they both smiled "I'll see you then." She stared longingly at the bard until she was lost in the crowd, then sighed and took off in the other direction.
The temple district was quiet and mostly empty, save for the few people who maintained the structures as a whole and those cutting through to other parts of town. Worship of the Greek gods had lessened to a remarkable degree in the last few years, especially since rumors had begun to spread that much of the pantheon had been disposed or even killed.
Xena's hand instinctively drifted toward her chakram, but she quickly determined that the balding man in long gray robes was no threat. He didn't even have any weapons on him. "Yes?"
"Are you Xena? The Warrior Princess?"
He licked his lips. "I'm sorry to disturb you. My name is Andros. My goddess requests the pleasure of your company. She has matter of some import she wishes to discuss with you."
Xena arched an eyebrow. "Is that a fact?" It wasn't hard to figure out who he was referring to. After all, she'd personally killed most of the female Olympians. "Okay. Lead on."
Andros took her to the closest temple. Unlike many of the others it was still clean, its paint had recently been touched up, and all the statues and tapestries were in immaculate condition. "She will be here momentarily, I'm sure. If you'll excuse me, I am not worthy of basking in her presence." He backed out of the room.
Xena shook her head. "Do you enjoy making him grovel like that?"
In a sparkling shower of lights Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, materialized in front of her altar. "Hey. I don't make anybody do anything. All I ask is people think of me when they're about to get down with one another, and maybe bring me something pretty every once and a while, you know? I can't help it if Andros likes to prostrate."
"But you certainly don't mind it, do you?" Xena asked.
Aphrodite shrugged. "I can't complain. Comes with the job." She looked around. "Where's your better half?"
"The bard's festival," Xena replied. "What's going on, Aphrodite?"
"What? Can't a goddess just say hi to a friend?" Aphrodite's eyes widened slightly. "We are friends, aren't we?"
Xena crossed her arms. "Of course we are. But if you wanted to say hi you'd just pop in and say hi. You asked me here for a reason. What's going on?"
"Fine. Spoilsport." Aphrodite vanished, reappearing an instant later sprawled across her altar. "Truth is, I need a favor."
"Mm-hmm." Xena approached her. "Coy doesn't suit you. Just tell me what the problem is."
"My priestesses are missing. Four of them normally work this temple. Now Andros has to take care of it alone."
"You don't have any idea where they went?"
Aphrodite sighed. "The last I heard, there was something going on at an Amazon village near here. Mia and Umara were talking about going to see if they could help. I figure Oma and Io went with them."
"And how long ago was this?"
"Two, three days."
Xena chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "Have you considered just popping in to have a look?"
"I, uh, can't." Aphrodite acted embarrassed as she continued. "See, even though she's gone, Art had this thing about the other gods coming around her followers. It's kind of...forbidden."
Aphrodite nodded. "She made sure it'd be in force even if she wasn't around."
"I can take a look if you want. But if it's going to involve the Amazons, I should bring Gabrielle. Only..."
"...you don't want to deal with all those bards?" Aphrodite nodded. "No prob. BRB." She winked at the warrior and vanished, only to reappear a few minutes later with her arm around Gabrielle. "Special delivery for the Warrior Princess."
"Well, that's got to be one of the shortest vacations on record." Gabrielle held her hand up as Xena stepped toward her. "It's okay. I don't mind. I was hoping to see Plato but he sent word he wasn't going to make it." She nodded toward the Goddess of Love. "Aphrodite told me what was going on. You're right to take me with you. If there is something go on with the Amazons, they're more likely to talk with me there than if you were looking around on your own."
Xena nodded. "Still, I'm sorry about the festival. With any luck you won't miss too much."
"Our luck never works that way," said Gabrielle. "But thanks for the thought. Which way is the village, Aphrodite?"
"North. About two miles. If you want, I can..." Aphrodite raised her hand.
"Thanks," said Xena. "But no thanks. Coming, Gabrielle?"
The bard nodded. "Right behind you."
"I didn't even know there was a tribe near Pelios." Gabrielle was sitting in Argo's saddle with her arms around Xena. "Did you?"
Xena shook her head. "Then again, there are so few left, and they're scatted all over Greece. It's hard to keep track."
"Just remember, when we get there...let me do the talking okay?"
"Why? Because you're a Queen?"
Gabrielle nodded. "That, and you're the one who killed Artemis. You know as well as I do that some of the tribes get really fanatical in their devotion to her. They're probably not going to be too happy to see you. They may even be hostile."
"They wouldn't be the first." Xena shrugged. "I'm not worried."
"Neither am I, really. I'd just rather avoid a fight if we can." Gabrielle noticed a flash of color out of the corner of her eye. "Look."
Xena followed the bard's gaze. There were symbols made of bone and bright feathers hanging from several of the branches. "A perimeter warning. We're definitely in Amazon territory now." They rode on a few minutes more, and when nothing happened she glanced back at Gabrielle, who had the same quizzical expression on her face. "So where are the guards?"
"I was just wondering the same thing." Gabrielle knew that not all tribes treated intruders the same way. Hers usually stopped interlopers as soon as they entered stated Amazon territory, while Yakut's watched them once they were inside waiting to see if they were hostile before making a move. "Does this feel right to you?"
The warrior shook her head. "No. It's too quiet. Where are all the birds? The insects?"
"I don't like it." Gabrielle climbed out of the saddle and drew her sais. "Let's go the rest of the way on foot. I don't want to risk riding Argo into a trap."
"Good idea." Xena slid to the ground and patted Argo's mane. "Go find a shady spot, girl." As the mare sauntered off she drew her sword and looked around. "What do you think?"
Gabrielle crouched down and studied the ground for a few moments. "That way." She gazed up at Xena. "Wait, you must have already seen the tracks. Why are you asking me?"
"I just wanted to make you feel useful," said Xena. "Seeing as it doesn't look like we're going to be needing your Queenly prowess." She smiled as Gabrielle nudged her. "Come on, but keep your eyes open."
"Good idea." The bard shook her head as she followed. "Otherwise, I might walk into a tree."
The Amazons had a well-earned reputation for being fearsome warriors who were as at home in the treetops as the battlefield. This particular tribe, it seemed, took that to a whole other level.
Their huts, made of wood and woven grass, were situated among the upper branches. Well out of reach of anyone on the ground there were a complex series of levels and platforms interconnected with rope bridges. There were guard posts at various places with plenty of torches, none of which were lit at the time, and the whole structure looked solid and well-maintained.
"Gods." Gabrielle studied the arboreal village with admiration. "Have you ever seen anything like this?"
Xena shook her head. "Not to this extent." Xena looked from Gabrielle to the village and back again. "We're going to have to go up there and have a closer look you know."
"I was afraid you'd say that." Gabrielle noticed something...or rather, the lack of something. "There are no ropes or ladders. I know most Amazons are good at climbing trees, but how are we supposed to get up there?"
Xena smirked. She did a sudden back flip, her boots making contact with the bark of a tree behind her. She used it to push herself off into a high-angled front flip that got her within reach of a bare branch. Catching it she spun herself around several times before back-flipping again, this time landing on one of the platforms where she turned and smiled down at Gabrielle.
"Showoff." Gabrielle knew she'd never be able to duplicate such a feat. "Uhm, Xena?" She crossed her arms. "Little help?"
The warrior kicked down a rope ladder and kept a wary eye while Gabrielle was climbing up. She got the distinct impressions they were being watched but couldn't be sure if it was a threat or not.
"I know that look." Gabrielle took Xena's proffered hand as she got to the top. "What's wrong?"
"I'm not sure." Xena drew her sword. "Come on." They searched the eerily quiet Amazon village. There were a number of indications it had not been empty for very long. Many of the fires and torches, though extinguished, were still smoldering, food had been set out on several of the tables in various huts, and the throne room showed signs of recent use.
"This doesn't make any sense." Gabrielle lowered her sais. "Were they attacked?"
Xena shook her head. "All the rope and ladders are up. And even if someone used fire or arrows there were still be blood and bodies. No, my dinars are on internal conflict. Maybe a revolt?"
"Like they turned on their leader?" Gabrielle shrugged. "Okay. It wouldn't be the first time. But where are they? Amazons are fiercely territorial. They would never leave their home without a very good reason."
"I know." Xena's hand went to her chakram. "Why don't we ask..." She turned, drawing and releasing the weapon in one movement. It struck a tree, rebounding in a high arc that took it into the upper branches and out of sight. They heard a loud crack followed by a strangled cry and the sound of the chakram bouncing off something else. It came unerringly back to Xena's hand and she returned it to her belt even as a figure tumbled out of the branches and landed in a crouch in front of them. "...her?"
The pale young blond was wearing the leather of an Amazon. She had no weapons they could see but there was blood on her face and fingers, and acted almost feral as she lurched to her feet, snarling. "Intruders!"
"Yes we are," said Gabrielle. "And we apologize. But we heard there was trouble and we came to see if we could help." So she would appear less threatening she put her sais away. She was confident that even if the girl attacked she could defend herself, and she knew without question that Xena had her back. "My name is Gabrielle. What's yours?"
The Amazon seemed to relax, ever-so-slightly, when she realized the women were not an immediate threat, though her body language indicated she could still take off at any moment. "Tania."
"Okay, Tania. Can you tell us what happened here? Where are the other Amazons?"
"Gone." Tears welled up in the girls eyes. "They're all gone."
Gabrielle noticed, when she touched Tania's arm, that the girl was unusually cold. So she took her to the communal platform, where there was a place for a bonfire, and asked Xena to collect some kindling.
"We'll do what we can to help you," Gabrielle said, sitting beside the girl. "I promise. But we need you to tell us what happened."
Tania wiped her eyes. "I-I'm not really sure. There was...some kind of a monster. It looked like a woman. It attacked my sisters. I barely got away. I've been hiding out, praying to Artemis it doesn't come back."
"The priestesses of Aphrodite. Did it get them too?"
"Y-Yes. One of them was sleeping with the Queen's second in command, Olivia. The others usually come along to see if we need anything; food, supplies, stuff like that."
Gabrielle nodded. "How did you escape?"
"I don't really remember. Just lucky I guess." Tania looked around. "Where's your friend?"
"Don't worry. She'll be back soon." Gabrielle put her arm across the girl's shoulders and pulled her close. "Gods, you're freezing."
Tania, whose head was now above the bard's, smiled. Her brow furrowed, ridges forming around her eyes, which had suddenly begun glowing red. She bared a set of sharp fangs. "I know something that'll warm me up."
"Wait." Gabrielle leaned back. "I can't. I'm with X..." Her eyes widened as she saw the girl's face. "By the gods!"
"You'll like it." Tania licked her lips. "Trust me." She lunged toward the bard, only to have her head jerked viciously back by a hand entwining itself in her hair. She screamed as she was lifted into the air and thrown off out of the tree.
Xena stood there, sneering. "Keep your hands off my girl."
Tania tumbled head over heels toward the ground. At the last moment she stopped screaming and her body collapsed in on itself, transforming into a large black bat which flew off toward the horizon, screeching angrily.
Gabrielle embraced Xena, who gently stroked her hair. "Are you all right?"
"I-I'm fine. I just..." Gabrielle shook her head. "What was she?"
"I know what she looked like. But unless someone's figured out how to bring back the dead, that's impossible." Xena whistled, and Argo came running. "Let's get back to Pelios."
The duo stormed into the temple a short time later.
"Aphrodite?" cried Gabrielle. "We need to talk to you."
Xena was apparently not in so charitable a mood. "Aphrodite, get your ass down here!"
The Goddess of Love materialized right in front of them, soaking wet and stark naked. She huffed as she rested her hands on her curvaceous, bare hips. "This better be good. I was in the middle of a bubble bath."
"We can see that." Xena put her hand over Gabrielle's eyes. "Cover up, would you?"
Aphrodite frowned. "What?" She looked down at herself. "Oh, right." Gabrielle slapped Xena's hand away just as the goddess materialized her usual lacy pink outfit. "What is this big hang-up you mortals have about nudity?"
"No problem here," Gabrielle said softly.
"Hey!" Xena started to say something to the bard, but turned back when Aphrodite laughed. "What's so funny?"
"Never seen the Warrior Princess so jealous before, that's all." Aphrodite crossed her arms over her bountiful cleavage and tried to look as serious as possible. "What's with all the negative vibes, anyway? Did you find my priestesses?"
"No," Xena replied. "But we did find something else. A Bacchae. Or something very much like it. Care to explain that?"
Aphrodite held up her hands. "Don't look at me. Bacchus has been dead for years."
"What about his Bacchae?" Gabrielle asked. "Is it possible for any of them to survive without him?"
"No way. Bacchus was a loudmouth and a showoff. He was always reminding us that while some of our worshippers could be kind of fickle, his wouldn't even exist without his power." Aphrodite shook her head. "You know, Xena of all my family he's about the only one I don't mind you killing. We never got along. Nobody on Olympus liked him. Not even Hera."
"She may not have been a Bacchae but it was too close to be a coincidence. At the very least I'd say somebody was copying his work." Xena gritted her teeth. "We just have to figure out who."
There were temples all over Greece.
Everywhere humanity had settled down and made a life for itself they dedicated sites and structures of every size and shape imaginable to the various deities. But while most of these were devoted to one god in particular a few, usually in more out of the way locals, were designed with no specific Olympian in mind, so a worshipper could pay homage to more than one god at a time.
One of these, a fairly innocuous stone structure atop a barren hill, had been abandoned for a number of years even before the Twilight was rumored to have fallen upon the land. The territory surrounding the temple had been razed on more than one occasion by the Romans, and there wasn't a community or sign of any living thing within a hundred miles.
Except within the temple itself.
Tania strode into the main chamber, where there was a single large altar surrounded by statues of the various Olympians. Only a few torches were lit, filling most of the room with long, creepy shadows and otherwise oppressive darkness. She raised her head, where she could just make out the barely moving shapes of two dozen bats hanging from the ceiling.
"You can join them shortly," said a low, husky voice. "First, tell me...is it done?"
Tania inclined her head. "It was just as you said. Two women. One of them with a chakram."
"Excellent. And you made certain they saw you change?"
"Yes. I attacked the blond but the warrior surprised me with her ferocity. She is extremely protective of her."
"Which is precisely why I am not planning to confront either of them directly. Yet." In the darkness a figure shifted slightly. "Go now, and prepare yourself for what is to come."
Tania bowed her head again, then transformed into a bat and joined the others on the ceiling.
Xena narrowly avoided the kick aimed at her midsection. She anticipated the dagger coming at her right side and pivoted in the opposite direction with her sword up and ready, only to find the point of a dagger just touching the small of her back.
Gabrielle, holding the sai, smirked. "I got you."
"Yes you did," said Xena. "I'm impressed. Your feint was perfect." She lowered her sword, as Gabrielle did with her sais. "I honestly thought you were going to the right."
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. "Well, that was the point of the exercise, right?" She put a hand on the warrior's hip and pulled her close. "I guess this means I get the spoils of war, huh?"
"Yes ma'am." As Xena leaned down to accept a kiss from the bard, Aphrodite materialized.
"Oops." The Goddess of Love stepped down off the altar. "Sorry ladies. Should I come back later?"
"Why?" Gabrielle cupped Xena's face and kissed her passionately. The warrior, in turn, enveloped her lover in an embrace that would have left an imprint of her breastplate in Gabrielle's chest if she held on to her for too long.
Aphrodite shook her head. "Damn. I'm gonna need a cold bath." She perked up. "Or a warm bed. Note to self. See if Adonis is busy."
"Are you just here to play voyeur?" Xena asked. "Or did you find out something useful?"
"If anybody on Olympus knows anything they're not talking. Ares and Apollo both insisted they have no idea what's going on. Hermes barely slowed down enough to tell me he wasn't involved. It wasn't Cupid or Demeter either."
"None of them has anything against us anyway, do they?" Gabrielle asked.
Aphrodite nodded. "Celesta does."
"What do you ?" Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Oh, right. Hades."
"I killed her brother," said Xena. "But Death isn't vindictive. I don't think it was her."
Gabrielle sighed. "Which leaves us just as much in the dark as before. We have no way to defend ourselves without knowing who's after us or why. Isn't there anyone else we can ask?"
"I have an idea about that," Xena replied. "The Fates."
"Whoa ho ho." Aphrodite held up her hands. "No can do, warrior babe."
"Why not?" Gabrielle asked. "You're the one who brought us into this. What's the big deal about helping us contact the Fates?"
"Nothing. Except, I have no idea where they are. They were always pretty reclusive, and they hardly ever responded to any calls except for the big players like Dad, Hera and Poseidon. But ever since someone " Aphrodite threw a glance toward Gabrielle. " destroyed their loom they've been downright unreachable. Without it they have no real power anyway."
"We don't need their power," Xena pointed out. "Just their eyes. Even without the loom, without any actual control over our lives, they still watch us don't they? They know everything that goes on?"
Aphrodite shrugged. "I guess so."
"Then they would know if Bacchus were somehow still alive," said Gabrielle. "Or at least who's apparently trying to carry on his legacy. If we can find them, that is. What do you think?"
"I think you're both nuts. But I guess it's worth a shot." Aphrodite sat down on her altar. "Your best bet would probably be to go to one of their temples and perform the summoning rituals. There's no guarantee they'll show even then, but if they do they'll be bound so at least they can't get hostile against you."
"I don't suppose they have a temple here in Pelios?" Xena asked.
Aphrodite shook her head. "No. I think the nearest one's a couple of days east of here."
"You want to come along?" Gabrielle asked.
"Sorry. Those three always give me the creeps." Aphrodite smiled. " 'sides, little Bliss is getting married, and I told Cupid and Psyche I'd perform the ceremony. Later." She winked at them and vanished.
Gabrielle smiled. "Remember the last time we saw Bliss? He really was little. We sure did miss a lot while we were frozen, didn't we?" Her face fell. "Oh Gods, Xena, I'm sorry."
The warrior shook her head. "It's okay." She was, more or less, past hating herself for missing so much of her daughter's life. At least she was to the point where she could understand it wasn't really her fault. "We should get going."
Gabrielle still felt terrible as she followed Xena out the door.
The road to Trinairos, where the nearest temple of the Fates was located, was along a very well-traveled route. It was a throughway which connected various parts of Greece to one another. Because the road was frequented by wealthy merchants, traders and the like, the region was also frequented by bandits known to be particularly vicious.
"Light hair?" Gabrielle asked. "Or dark?" She was riding a horse of her own they'd gotten from the stables.
"Dark." Xena was surveying their surroundings, on the lookout for any suspicious activity.
Gabrielle knew she was close. She just need a little more. "Okay. Uhm, oh! Warlord or soldier?"
"Warlord." Xena sensed something at the very edge of her consciousness. She just couldn't pinpoint what or where, yet.
"Have I met him?" Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. "It is a him, right?"
"Yes," Xena replied. "And yes, you've met him."
Gabrielle chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "A warlord, tanned and buff, with dark hair? One I've met?" Her eyes lit up and she smiled. It couldn't be that easy, could it? "Draco."
Xena stopped Argo and looked around. "Yes. Get ready, Gabrielle."
"Oh great." Gabrielle drew her sais as Xena did the same with her sword. "I finally win and I don't even get to celebrate? Oh, someone's really going to pay for this."
Four big, scruffy-looking men in leather and chainmail armor stepped out of the trees in front of them. Four more emerged behind them with their swords drawn, to block the road.
"Hello ladies." The apparent leader of the group, a bald man with an eyepatch, hefted a wicked double-headed axe over his shoulder. "I got some bad news for you. This here is now a toll road. So you got two choices. Give us all your valuables; dinars, jewels, weapons, and whatever else you've got in those saddlebags, and we'll let you leave here with your horses. Or try to get away, or fight us, and we'll take all of that anyway..." He smirked. "...plus what you've got under your skirts."
Xena climbed off her horse. "Fellas, we're kind of in a hurry."
"Right." Gabrielle was right behind her. "Any chance we can skip the witty banter and get right to the pointless violence?"
The bandit leader frowned. "Huh?" His men all appeared to be equally confused.
"What? Too many big words?" Xena asked. "Okay." She glanced over her shoulder. "Gabrielle?"
The bard stepped forward. "Observe." She kicked the lead thug in the stomach, and when he doubled over she drove the handles of her sais into his face. Even as he fell she turned to the others. "Is it clear now?"
Apparently not. It all happened so fast it took a few moments for the rest of the bandits to realize just what had happened. Once they got over the initial shock however those who weren't already holding their weapons drew them, and they all attacked at once. Without saying a word Xena and Gabrielle moved back to back, their own weapons up and ready.
The warrior parried two sword strikes in quick successions, then ducked an axe aimed at the back of her head. While she was down she swept-kicked the legs out from under the man with the axe then spun around and drove her sword hilt-deep into the stomach of another man who was inches away from impaling her on his own sword. As she rose she drew the chakram from her belt, using it to block the swing of yet another sword, actually splitting the blade in two.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle countered two sword strikes by catching the blades down near the hilts with the curves of her sais. She disarmed both men at once then pivoted on her heel and repeatedly hammered her sais handles first into the midsection of a bandit who'd been trying to sneak up behind her. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed movement and ducked, allowing the sword blade to miss her and strike one of the other men instead, then kicked her would-be attacker in the face.
Xena jerked her sword out of the body of the man she'd stabbed, then pointed its still bloody blade toward the remaining men while cocking her other arm, with the chakram in it. "Now, if you boys are smart..."
"...which seems unlikely," Gabrielle added, stepping up beside the warrior.
Xena continued without missing a beat. "...you'll take your friends and get out of here."
"Otherwise..." Gabrielle twirled her sais, but the oncoming threat turned out not to be necessary. The men who could still move grabbed those who could not and started dragging them away. "What's the world coming to?" The bard lowered her weapons. "You can't even find decent bandits anymore."
Xena wiped her sword clean and sheathed it. "You scare me a little sometimes, Gabrielle. You know that?"
"Maybe so." Gabrielle smirked. "But you love me anyway."
Xena climbed back into the saddle, nodding. "True."
The doors of the temple were flung open from within, and out strode a figure in a long, black hooded robe.
"You know what you have to do! Now, fly my pretties! Fly!" A cloud of bats came screeching out of the temple and shot into the sky. "Yes! It has begun!" The robed figure seemed to implode, and just before it landed flat on the ground a bat, bigger and darker than the rest, came flying out of the hood and soared off in another direction.
Gabrielle walked in slow circles as she gazed up at the arching, painted ceilings of the brightly and colorfully decorated temple. "Wow. This place is amazing."
"If you say so." Xena was walking around the altar lighting candles.
"You don't think so? I mean, these tapestries. The ornate candelabras. All the crystals and paint." Gabrielle shook her head. "Have you ever seen a temple this ornate?"
Xena nodded. "Yes, actually. In Corinth, and Hellenia. One for Zeus and the other for Hera. Hercules told me they're the only one whose temples tend to be more elaborate than those of the Fates."
"Which is odd. The Fates never struck me as having as much of an ego as the other gods." Gabrielle turned. "Speaking of, I was thinking. It might be a good idea for me to wait outside while you summon them."
"They may be able to forgive you for killing the other Olympians because they knew it was meant to happen. They foresaw it. But I destroyed their loom. Their livelihood."
Xena shrugged. "So?"
"So, what if they hold a grudge? They might be some of the nicest but they're still gods, after all."
"Remember, the Fates think I have the power to kill gods," said Xena. "I doubt they'll actually try anything"
"Xena, you know as well as I do that Michael took that power away already."
"But they don't." Xena smiled and got back to work. A few minutes later she was done. "Ready?"
Gabrielle made a point of moving behind the warrior and licked her lips. "Go ahead."
"I seek guidance from the three faces of fate. I entreat you to this time and place." Xena threw an herb into the fire now burning on the altar and it burst into white smoke. "Clotho, the Maiden." Another herb, this one burning gray. "Lachesis, the Mother." An herb that burned black this time. "And Atropos, the Crone. I seek your counsel, oh trinity of wisdom."
Forgoing the ostentatious entrances of most of the other Olympians the three goddess materialized out of thin air, one standing on each corner of the triangular shaped altar.
"Does it not vex your..."
"...dignity to summon us in..."
"...this manner, daughter of Amphipolis?"
Xena frowned. "I wanted to make sure you'd actually show up."
"It must indeed..."
"...be quite important..."
"...then, Warrior Princess."
Xena crossed her arms. "It's about Bacchus."
Even the three goddesses appeared somewhat surprised as they glanced at one another, then turned back to Xena. Clearly, whatever they might have been expecting her to say, that wasn't one of the choices.
The warrior nodded. "Okay. But we ran into something an awful lot like one of his Bacchae. Wanna explain that to me?"
"As you know, our..."
"...knowledge is not what..."
"...it used to be."
Gabrielle shuddered when all three Fates stared right at her as they spoke. But before they, or she, could say anything else Xena took a step back and put her arm around the bard's shoulders.
"Hey! Don't you dare blame Gabrielle. She was the one who put the world right after you three let Caesar screw it up." The warrior gritted her teeth. "And just one of you talk. The sharing sentences thing gets on my nerves."
Clotho, the youngest looking of the three Fates, nodded. "Very well. I do not know what it is you saw, Xena, but I can assure you it was not a Bacchae. They cannot exist without their master."
"Besides," said Gabrielle. "Bacchae change into wolves, not bats. But what else could it have been?"
Clotho's eyes widened, as did those of Atropos and Lachesis. She glanced over her shoulder and the other two nodded. "You did not tell us what you saw transformed into a bat."
Xena shrugged. "What difference does it make?"
"Rather a significant one, actually." Clotho clasped her hands behind her back. "As I said, what you saw was not a Bacchae. However, it may yet have been related to Bacchus. Literally."
"Meaning?" Gabrielle asked, her curiosity peaked.
"His daughter." Clotho nodded at the stunned expressions on Xena and Gabrielle's faces. "Although it was deliberately kept from most on Olympus, as much or more for his own sake as for hers, Bacchus had an illicit child with one of his followers. And from what I understand she has chosen to follow in her father's footsteps."
"So he had a kid," said Xena. "So what? Most of you Olympians don't seem to be able to keep it in your pants anyway."
Clotho was affected by the warrior's words, but it was hard to tell if she was offended or embarrassed. She lowered her head and floated back, Lachesis--the middle Fate--taking her place. "Be that as it may, Bacchus broke the one rule Zeus ever made concerning sex. That a god may not conceive a child with one touched by divine power."
"Why does that make a difference?" Gabrielle asked. "The gods have children with mortals all the time."
"Zeus would never make such a ruling without good reason. Here it concerns the unintended consequences of such a union. When gods mate with one another they produce other gods. When they mate with mortals it generally results in a somewhat refined, if unexceptional, mortal child, or in certain rare cases true demigods like Hercules. But combining pure demigod essence with the distinctive human essence that has been touched by the gods, can lead to something outside the realm of Olympus."
"Meaning you don't like it because it's out of your control?"
Lachesis frowned. "For the sake of clarification the last time such a union occurred, the reason for Zeus' ruling in the first place as a matter of fact, resulted in the creation of the Golden Hinds."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Whoa. Okay. I understand why Zeus would make the rule. But she didn't come after us. What would Bacchus's daughter have against the Amazons?"
"Nothing. To the best of my knowledge the only vendetta she has, is against you." Lachesis paused just long enough to gauge Gabrielle's reaction before continuing. "And Xena, of course."
"The two of you killed her parents."
"Plural?" Xena asked. "We were working together, but Bacchus was the only one we killed."
Lachesis shook her head. "Given all those you have slaughtered I suppose it is understandable you may have forgotten, but you also used Dryad bones against several of his Bacchae. And one of them was..."
"...the mother of his daughter?" Xena sneered. "Figures."
"Her name, as I recall, was Lily. Which is why she and Bacchus named their daughter Lillith."
Xena crossed her arms. "If daddy's little girl has such a problem with us, why has she waited until now to make her move?"
"At the time of your encounter with Bacchus and his followers Lillith was barely five years old. Since she was so young and unknown to most on Olympus she was taken in by her father's only real friend, Proteus."
"Proteus?" Gabrielle asked. "Aphrodite told us no one on Olympus liked Bacchus."
Lachesis nodded. "For the most part that is true. But Bacchus and Proteus shared a bond of sorts, because both were virtual pariahs on Olympus. Indeed, Proteus was the only one Bacchus officially risked telling about his child."
"Go on," said Gabrielle.
"Once she was old enough to understand what had happened to her parents Lillith harbored a great deal of anger and contempt for the two of you. She learned a number of things from Proteus and others, in preparation for the day she could seek her revenge. Unfortunately for Lillith, it was not long after she set off in search of you that your dealings with the Olympians led to you both being frozen by Ares."
"So she's been fuming for twenty-five years," said Xena. "And now that we're back she's decided not to come after us herself but instead is sending children to do her dirty work?"
Lachesis smiled. "It is intriguing you should use that word, Xena. Lillith has had over two decades to study you, and to plot and plan. It appears she has decided that since the two of you robbed her of her family she would return the favor."
Xena's eyes widened. "Eve?" Lachesis nodded. "No!" She spun on her heel. "Come on, Gabrielle!"
"Wait, Xena!" Gabrielle grabbed her lover's arm just outside the temple. "She said Lillith was after both of us. That means my family too. I have to warn Lila and Sara."
"Good idea. We can cover more ground that way. You go to Potedaia. I'll find Eve and we'll meet back in Amphipolis." Xena cupped Gabrielle's cheeks and kissed her. "You be careful, okay?"
"I will." Gabrielle smiled. "I love you, Xena."
"I love you too, Gabrielle."
Back inside the temple, the Fates were once again standing side by side. In spite of the closed doors and the heavy stone walls between them and the couple they were able to hear every word the warrior and bard said to one another. All three nodded.
"Lillith should be "
" very pleased by "
" this, I imagine."
"Sara, where are you?"
The attractive young woman with red-blond hair stepped out of a tent with a basket of flowers under her arm. She smiled back over her shoulder at someone inside. "Thank you." She turned. "I'm right here, mother."
"Oh!" Pushing her way through the throngs of people in the bazaar Lila grabbed her daughter's arm. "Thank the gods. Haven't I asked you not to run off like that?"
Sara sighed. "Gods, mother. You don't have to fret over me like this."
"I know, dear, I know." Lila had tears in her eyes. "But you were gone for so long. I'm always so afraid I'll open my eyes and you'll be gone again." She gritted her teeth. "Damn you, Gurkhan."
Sara cupped her mother's cheek. "It's okay, mother. I told you, Gurkhan's dead. And I'm not going anywhere." She slipped her arm through Lila's. "Now, we have to go. We're late. We told Melodi we'd be there by mid-day."
As the two rounded a corner all of Potedaia seemed to go dark. Mother and daughter, along with everyone else around them, looked up to see a strange dark mass between them and the sun. And it was getting closer.
"What is that?" Lila asked, suddenly very fearful.
Sara shook her head. "I have no idea. Let's just get inside." Her eyes widened. "Quickly!"
Bats swooped down into the bazaar, screeching loudly. People scattered in all directions, screaming and covering their heads. Only Lila and Sara could not get away, because the bats seemed to be deliberately surrounding them.
"What's going on?" Lila screamed. "Why is this happening?"
Sara threw the basket down and pushed her mother up against the nearest wall, attempting to cover her with her own body. "I don't know, mother! Just...cover your eyes!"
All of a sudden it grew quiet as, one by one, the bats began transforming into pale-skinned, darkly clad girls with red eyes and fangs. Tania and a blonde-haired woman broke from the pack and approached the duo.
The latter gazed up at her companion. "Which one of them is she?"
"Which do you think, idiot? Not the old one." Tania sneered, baring her fangs. "Hello, Sara."
"Stay here, mother." Sara stepped in front of Lila. "W-Who are you? How do you know my name?"
"My mistress sent us to find you. You are to play a very important part in what is to come." Tania licked her lips as she looked the girl up and down. "Mmm...I must say, you look delicious. How about a taste?"
Sara frowned. "What? Stay away from me." One of the other fanged women seized her from behind. "Hey!" She screamed as she was shoved into Tania's waiting arms. "Stop it!"
"No, Sara!" Lila tried desperately to get to her daughter, but was grabbed by two others. "Leave her alone! Take me instead!"
Tania shook her head. "I don't think so." She jerked Sara's head back with a handful of hair and sank her fangs into the other young woman's exposed throat. Helpless against the woman's strength, Sara could only scream.
Tears streamed down Lila's cheeks. "NO! Gods, no!"
The followers of Eli, while devout and respectable, were not particularly well-organized or financed. They traveled around the length and breadth of Greece, and every so often even outside its borders, spreading good will and the Way while relying completely on the charity of other believers and converts alike. Their wanderings followed no established routes or time-tables, which meant it wasn't always easy to know where they had been or where they were going except by word of mouth.
Eve inclined her head over and over, a static but apparently genuine smile on her face. She had just finished one of her lectures and many of the people were still around, coming by wanting to shake her hand or just touch the Messenger. A few brought flowers or other offerings, which she only accepted if she knew it was not more than the person could spare. "Thank you. Yes, it's lovely. I will. Yes. Thank you. I'll see you next week. Yes, I appreciate it. If I can, yes. Thank you very much." She glanced over her shoulder at Malus, the seven foot tall Athenian ex-soldier who had appointed himself her personal bodyguard after turning to the Way brought his former friends down upon her and her other followers. "I'm ready to go, Malus."
The big man nodded. He stepped forward and spread his arms. "Everybody move!" At once the crowd parted. "After you."
Eve smiled. "Thank you." As a former leader of the Roman legions she was more than capable of defending herself, but the Way of Love prevented her and Malus both from raising a hand against anyone who might wish her harm. Fortunately Malus' sheer size intimidated most would be attackers, and if worst came to worst she had no doubt he would step in front of an oncoming sword or arrow to protect her. She only hoped that would never be necessary. "It's time to "
"Eve!" Someone was pushing their way through the crowd. "Eve, over here!"
The Messenger of Eli thought she recognized the voice, but there were so many people around her making so much noise she could not be sure. She did not sense any real threat, though she could feel Malus tensing behind her, on the lookout for an assassin trying to direct her attention. As it turned out her needn't have bothered, for she knew the person well and smiled. "Mother!"
Xena stepped out of the crowd and accepted Eve's embrace. "Hey, you."
"Not that I'm not glad to see you, but what are you doing here?" Eve asked. "And where's Gabrielle?" As far as she knew her mother and her beloved were hardly ever apart.
"I came because there's a threat against your life. Gabrielle is checking on her own family." Xena looked around. "Is there somewhere more private we can talk?"
"Of course. I know a shortcut to the barn where we're staying. Come."
Xena put a hand on her daughter's arm. She obviously couldn't help noticing the way Malus was lingering, his beady eyes studying her. "Who's your friend?"
"Oh. This is Malus. He's my protector. Malus, this is my mother. Xena."
Xena and the big man shook hands. "It's good to meet you. I'm glad she has someone looking out for her when I'm not around." He nodded. "Now then, you were saying?"
Eve nodded. "Right this way." She suspected Xena was more worried than she was letting on. Her tone was not as steady as usual and her body language was all wrong. If whatever was going on was bad enough that her mother had come all this way, though, she was certainly going to take such a threat seriously. As they moved away from the amphitheater area the crowds began to thin out and Eve was able to pick up speed. It wasn't until the barn was almost in view she realized she was alone. Assuming she must have gotten out of their sight somewhere along the way she stopped and went back in search of Xena and Malus.
She found them in an otherwise empty alleyway she had cut through a few minutes before. Only Malus was laying facedown on the ground in what appeared to be a pool of his own blood, and Xena was wiping her hand on a wall. Eve couldn't help noticing a streak of red left behind and gasped. "Mother, are you all right? What happened?"
"I'm not sure. We were attacked." Xena looked around. "I never even saw it coming."
That was when Eve recognized what had been bothering her all along. Not only didn't Xena have her sword out, her usual response to a supposed attack, but she wasn't even carrying it. Not her chakram. And Eve was pretty sure an enemy would have to pry the chakram out of Xena's cold, dead hand. Everything was beginning to make more sense now.
Eve took a wary step back. "You're not my mother." She knew there was no way she could outrun the real Xena, but hopefully this woman did not have her mother's abilities as well as her face. "Who are you?"
Xena stared at the young woman for a few moments, then cocked her head. "Clever girl." She sneered, baring a glistening set of fangs. "It appears I may have underestimated you. You should feel honored." Eve frowned at her, but said nothing else. "Fine! Have it your way." She grew several inches in height, her hair turned blood-red, and her skin became like gray, smooth leather. Sharp, stubby red horns burst out of her ridged brow, overlooking a pair of wide red eyes flaked with gold. Her armor transformed as well, into a rather tight, revealing, wispy black dress that seemed to have been formed out of the darkness itself. "Satisfied?"
The creature's appearance did indeed surprise Eve, but she wasn't about to let it show. "Who are you?"
"My name is Lillith."
Eve sensed power and malice coming from this woman like she had only ever encountered once before in her life; when she was confronted by the Olympians. She wasn't about to underestimate her. "What do you want?"
"Oh, nothing much. I just want to show my appreciation to your mother, that's all." Lillith smirked. "For that, I need your help."
"I don't know where she is," Eve replied. "Even if I did I wouldn't help you." She crossed her arms defiantly. "You want to fight Xena? You're going to have to do it alone."
Lillith shook her head. "Alone? Hardly." Something blotted out the sun. "While you may take comfort in the negligent presence of your pathetic God of Love I, for one, know I am never alone." Bats swooped down out of the sky and she spread her arms. "You see? I bring my family with me everywhere I go!" She began to laugh as they engulfed Eve.
As soon as Gabrielle rode into Potedaia she suspected she was too late. The usually quiet little village, which had not grown much at all during the years she had been frozen, was in a panic, though she couldn't find anyone she knew to tell her what was going on. She dropped her horse off at the stables and headed straight for the old homestead.
"Lila?" Unlike the rest of the city the house was eerily quiet and dark, with not a person or fire in sight. "Lila, are you here?" Looking around she heard noise coming from Sara's room and gently knocked on the door. "Sara?" Getting no respond she nudged the door open and was surprised to see her sister curled up on her daughter's bed, sobbing. "Lila?"
The once younger, now technically much older, Lila sat up and embraced her sister. "Gabrielle? Oh, thank the gods."
"I came to warn you." Gabrielle swept a lock of matter hair out of her sister's face. "What happened?"
"I-I don't know. They were bats at first, but they turned into women. They attacked us. I tried to fight them. I swear I did. One of them swept me aside like I was nothing." Lila started bawling again. "They took Sara."
"By the gods." Gabrielle's own eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, Lila. I'm so sorry."
Lila wiped her eyes. "Why? It's not your fault."
"Actually..." Gabrielle sat back and told her sister about Bacchus and Lillith, and everything the Fates had told them. She wasn't sure how Lila was going to react, but she certainly didn't expect to get slapped so hard it made her teeth hurt.
"They came here because of you and that damned warrior!" Lila screamed. "And now my daughter is gone!"
"I'll get her back," Gabrielle assured her. "Listen to me. I swear to mom and dad, I'll bring her home."
Lila retreated from her sister, seething with anger. "You better! Or by the gods I don't want to ever see your face here again!"
Once upon a time Amphipolis had been a thriving city, though that was a long time before Xena and Gabrielle were frozen and a demonic force tortured the citizens until they ultimately burned Xena's mother at the stake and abandoned their former home. No one else had dared move in, even after the Warrior Princess cleansed the city of its evil.
Xena didn't like to think about any of that. She spent quite some time cleaning her mother and brother's graves before setting her camp up outside Cyrene's tavern to wait. It was nearly a day before she heard approaching hooves and got to her feet, sword in hand in case it wasn't who she thought. She relaxed, though, lowering the weapon when Gabrielle came riding up.
"Are you all right?"
Gabrielle climbed out of the saddle and threw herself into her lover's arms. "They got her, Xena. Sara. Lila is devastated."
"I can imagine. I was too late too. Eve's followers don't know exactly what happened, but they found her bodyguard dead and Eve gone." The warrior gritted her teeth. "Damn it! She was supposed to be safe."
"What are we going to do, Xena? We have to find them. Both of them."
"I know. We will."
"I want to believe that." Gabrielle shook her head. "But we don't even have a clue where to start."
"Actually, I do. What we need is someone who knows Lillith. How she thinks, and where she hangs out."
Gabrielle recognized the tone of Xena's voice. "Who did you have in mind? I mean, nobody even knows she exists."
"Somebody does. Don't you remember what the Fates told us?"
"What, you mean Proteus?" Xena nodded and Gabrielle frowned. "That doesn't help. Didn't you say Hercules told you Proteus doesn't have a single temple?" Another nod from the warrior. "And it's not as if he'd respond to..." She put her hand in Xena's arm. "...wait! Let's call Aphrodite. Maybe she can tell us where to find Proteus at least."
"Good idea." Xena raised her head. "Aphrodite!"
The Goddess of Love materialized in front of them, hands on her hips. "What's up?"
"We need a favor," said Gabrielle. "There's a chance Proteus can help us help your priestesses, but we don't know how to find him."
"Pro, huh?" Aphrodite shrugged her shoulders. "Sorry babe. No can do. We've never been what you call tight. Truth is that guy always creeped me out." Her eyes lit up. "But you know what? Try asking Ares."
Xena and Gabrielle both found this suggestion somewhat repellent. "Why?"
"Long shot. He has a higher tolerance for freakiness than me. He may be able to help you out. Now, if you'll excuse me, Hermes is having a party and I promised I'd stop by." Aphrodite wiggled her fingers. "Toodles." She vanished.
Gabrielle sighed. "Well, if it'll help..."
"Does it ever?" Xena nodded. "Okay. Ares? Ares, we need to talk to you!"
The God of War materialized, not in front of the warrior and bard but behind them. He had his back to them as they turned around, and was staring at the area around them. "I can feel it you know. All the hatred and misery that hack Mephistopheles riled up. He really had these people going." He shook his head. "Mortals can be so gullible. Present company excluded, of course."
Xena's hand drifted toward her chakram, but she knew there would be no point in threatening him.
So did Ares. "Oh come on, Xena. I was there remember? We both know you don't have the power to kills gods anymore. So let's just get on with it. I have a war in Macedonia to get to." He crossed his arms. "What do you want?"
"Proteus," said Gabrielle. "We need to find him, and we have it on good authority you might know something."
"Is that right?" Ares nodded. "Well, I might be help to point you in the right direction." He smirked. "But what's in it for me?"
Xena lunged forward and grabbed the hilt of Ares' sword, which was unsheathed as he pulled away from her. "I may not just be able to kill you, but I still know a thing or two about leverage. I helped you get this back, don't forget, and I know it's the source of your power. Without it you'll end up as weak and pathetic as the rest of us mortals. So..."
Ares snapped his fingers, and the sword rematerialized in his scabbard. He put his hand on it. "Oh please. I may not be the brightest torch on Olympus, but even I can learn from my mistakes. I've put plenty of safeguards on this thing since Sisyphus got his grubby little hands on it. So don't try to threaten me with leverage you don't even have."
Gabrielle stepped forward. "Ares, please. We need your help. Eve and my niece are both in danger, and Proteus may be our only chance of saving them. Can't you do us this one favor? Please?"
Now Ares understood the serious nature of whatever was going on. Gabrielle, begging him for help? If only Artemis could see her Queen now. He stared at her for a moment, then sighed. "Fine. I'll take you to the last place I know Proteus was, but I can't make any promises." He held out his hands, a knowing smile forming. "Ladies?"
Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another, then each reluctantly took one of the war god's hands.
"You both might want to close your eyes," Ares warned. "I hear this can be very...disorienting, for mortals."
"Just do it!" Xena hissed.
Right before they all three disappeared, Gabrielle actually did close her eyes.
Ares, Xena and Gabrielle materialized in the most idyllic place any of them had ever seen outside of the Elysian Fields. Lush green grass, fields of bright flowers in every imaginable shape and color, and a number of fruit-bearing trees. A cool breeze blew through the branches of a large oak overlooking a pool of crystal clear water, which was filled with a variety of fish.
Gabrielle was stunned. "Wow. This place is incredible. Where are we?"
"It's a pocket realm," Ares replied. "Kind of like Illusia. All Olympians have access to their own individual little hideaway, though most of us never bother to use them."
"But Proteus does?"
Ares nodded. "He spends all his time here when he's not out causing, or stopping, trouble."
"You're sure he's here now?" Xena asked, sound just as impatient as she felt. "I don't have time to waste."
Ares closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and smiled. "He's here. I can feel it."
"But where?" Gabrielle looked around. "I don't see anyone."
"He's sort of a workaholic. Proteus is a master shape-changer," Ares reminded her. "But he still practices. He spends days in one form, before randomly picking another and spending a few days like that. It'll just take some work to find him, that's all." He held up his hands to silence Xena's protests. "And don't look at me. Zeus and Hera were the only ones who could ever order him to reveal himself."
"You'd better not me messing with me," Xena hissed. "I'm not in the mood, Ares."
"I would never." Ares smirked. "Now, if you'll excuse me." He disappeared, rematerializing an instant later. "Oh, by the way. When you're ready to leave, just call. I'll have you sent back to Amphipolis." He winked at the two women before vanishing once again.
Gabrielle turned to Xena. "So, where do we start? It's not like he'll show himself if we ask politely."
"I say we burn the place to the ground," the warrior replied. "That should get his attention."
Gabrielle knew her lover well enough to know she was only half-joking. "How about we try a little nonaggression for a change?" She moved toward the pool of water. "Look here. You said Hercules told you Proteus can turn into any living thing, right?" Xena nodded. "So maybe he's one of these fish?"
Xena drew her sword and twirled it in her hand. "Let's find out." The warrior got her arm about halfway back, then froze when she saw the expression on Gabrielle's face.
"What did I just say?" The bard shook her head. "Honestly. Do you really think he'll help us if you stab him? Let me try, okay?" She cleared her throat. "Uhhm, Proteus? Are you in there? We really need to talk to you."
"You realize, of course, if he's not," said Xena. "You're going to look pretty foolish talking to those fish." She shrugged as the bard glared at he again. "I'm just saying "
Gabrielle turned back to the pool. "It really is very important, Proteus. Please. Talk to us."
Behind them, the bark of the tree overlooking the pool began to ripple, and out of it came a partial face, with a pair of eyes and a mouth. "Very well. What can I do for you, ladies?"
Xena and Gabrielle were both startled by his sudden appearance, though the latter showed it more.
"You're Proteus?" the warrior asked.
"Do you speak with many other talking trees? Yes, I am he. What is it you need?"
Gabrielle looked to Xena, silently asking if she should do the talking. The warrior nodded. "Okay. It's nice to meet you. I'm Gabrielle. This is Xena. We need to talk to you about Lillith."
The tree-face blinked. "My godchild? How do you even know of her?"
"Well, we've been to see the Fates," Gabrielle replied. "Among others. They told us about you and Bacchus, and how you raised his daughter after "
" you and your friend killed him? Which was the beginning of a long and bloody history between her and the Olympians? Yes, I am quite aware. What does this have to do with Lillith?"
"She's angry with us," said Gabrielle. "Understandably, perhaps. But instead of coming after us personally, she has targeted our families instead. My niece, and Xena's daughter. She's taken them."
Proteus was silent for a few moments. "I see. I was afraid of something like this. She has hated the both of you for as long as she has been able to understand the emotions. I tried to teach her otherwise, to get her to let go of her hate and pain even as I counseled her on the use of her abilities, but she could not. Once she was old enough she left my company to scour the world in search of you, but I have not heard from her since. I had assumed she either succeeded or perished. Clearly, neither was correct."
"We were out of reach for a long time," said Gabrielle. "Proteus, please. I swear to you, we hold no real malice for Lillith herself. We really just want our loved ones back. Can you help us out?"
"If only I could believe you." The tree seemed to melt, but its liquid form quickly coalesced into a duplicate of Xena. "But your friend is not so trustworthy. Given her nature, why should I deliver my godchild into her hands?"
Xena, still clutching her sword, took a step forward. "Look, you. My daughter is in danger. I will go through Tartarus and the rest of the Olympians if I have to in order to save her."
"My point exactly," said Proteus. "Lillith may well be a threat to you and yours, but in your mind the only possible outcome of an encounter with her is one of you dying. You cannot even conceive of any other way, can you?" He changed again, first into Eli and then into a duplicate of Gabrielle. "Peace can be very effective as well, Xena."
"Proteus, please." Gabrielle put her hand on the warrior's arm to try and calm her. "Antagonizing each other isn't going to help the situation. I would like to avoid bloodshed if at all possible. I really would. But if Lillith hurts Eve, there isn't anything you or I can do to stop Xena from making her pay. If we can save her before that happens, however..."
"Artemis spoke very highly of you," said Proteus. "I can understand why now. But Lillith is my godchild. She is as important to me as Xena's daughter, and your niece, are to the two of you. I do not wish to see her harmed." He transformed into Artemis. "So I will make you a deal, Gabrielle of Potedaia. Swear to me on the name of whatever you hold most dear that you and Xena will not kill Lillith, regardless of what happens, and I will assist you in finding those you love. Otherwise..."
Xena opened her mouth to respond, but Gabrielle cut her off. "I'm not sure I can make that vow."
"Then I'm afraid we have nothing more to talk about." 'Artemis' turned back into a tree, albeit still with the original face.
Gabrielle took Xena aside. "We do need his help."
"No," the warrior hissed. "I can't promise I won't kill the bitch if she's laid a hand on Eve."
"It's the only way. We may never find them without him."
Xena finally sighed, and lowered her sword. "Fine. No killing. But I'm still going to beat the crap out of her, given half a chance."
"He didn't say anything about that." Gabrielle turned back to the tree, which was watching them. "All right. You said whatever I hold most dear? Then I swear on the name of Xena of Amphipolis, we will not kill Lillith."
"I sense you are sincere. Very well then. It is agreed." Proteus transformed into Eve. "Lillith spent most of this last quarter of a century traveling the world in search of the two of you. In that time she rarely ever settled in any one place for very long. But it is my understanding that she has fairly recently taken up residence in a temple near the Persian border. It is not dedicated to any particular god and there is very little civilization in the area. She is quite fond of her privacy."
"You don't care, do you?" Xena asked. "If she kills Eve or Sara. Us. It doesn't really matter to you, does it?"
"Whether you believe it or not, I weep when any innocent life is lost. So I would mourn your daughter or Gabrielle's niece. Even Gabrielle herself. But you, Xena?" 'Eve' shook her head. "Honestly, no. I would not shed a tear."
Xena nodded. "Fine. Let's get out of here, Gabrielle."
"Okay. Uhhm, it was nice meeting you, Proteus."
The god transformed back into a tree, albeit still with a human face formed out of bark. "And you, Gabrielle. I appreciate your diplomacy." Her face fell as she glanced at Xena. "If not the company you keep."
Gabrielle took the warrior's hand. "I'm ready."
Xena raised her voice. "Ares!"
Once the two of them were gone, Proteus smiled. "I have done as you asked, godchild. What happens now is up to you." His face merged back into the tree.
Lillith walked up the steps of the altar, on top of which was a large bronze mirror laying on its back with a moth-eaten blanket covering it. She swept the dusty old rag aside and gazed down not at her own reflection, but rather the image of a dark-haired woman with milky white skin and thin, slitted golden eyes. For a few moments they stared at one another.
"Tell me, Lillith, why do you persist with these childish games? Are we not allies?"
Lillith sneered. "Perhaps. But this is not the time for such discussions."
"Very well. What is it you want?"
Lillith clasped her hands behind her back. "I just want to make certain you would be able to uphold your end of the bargain. After all, I would be giving up a great deal if you cannot do as you have promised."
Prosperexa shook her head. "I do not lie, child of Bacchus. We have an accord, and I will abide by it. So long as you do not forget that the sacrifices must be offered by the next full moon. Which, for you..."
Lillith nodded as she spoke. "I am aware. Everything will be ready by then."
"Excellent." Prosperexa cocked her head. "As a matter of good faith, would you be willing to offer me a morsel to tide me over?" She licked her lips with a long, forked tongue. "I am so very hungry."
Lillith sighed. "Oh, very well. Merissa!"
A bat disengaged from the rest of its brethren and swooped down beside Lillith, transforming into a young blond who bowed her head. "How may I serve you, mistress?"
"By giving yourself for my benefit." Lillith shoved the girl toward the mirror. As her feet touched the bronze they began to sank into it like it was suddenly liquid. She screamed as she was dragged down into the mirror, but her screams were immediately silenced by a sickening crack. "Enjoy."
The road to Licos, which was some distance away but still the town closest to their destination, was a well-traveled one. By following the traditional routes at an average pace one could usually make such a journey in about three days. Xena and Gabrielle, using back roads and pushing their horses nearly to the limit, made it in approximately half that time. Unwilling to risk their mounts further they stabled the horses and went the rest of the way on foot, which took another half a day. Warrior and bard were now studying the temple from the upper branches of a tree in the woods just to the east. There were no guards they could see and no sign of recent activity.
"How do we know Proteus wasn't sending us on a wild satyr chase?" Xena asked, one hand resting on her chakram.
"Why would he?" Gabrielle countered. "What does Proteus have to gain by lying to us?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe it's not him."
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe it's Lillith. He is her godparent, after all. For all we know he's been working with her the whole time."
Gabrielle eyes went wide. "I hadn't thought of it that way. That's a disturbing." She turned back to the temple. "So what's the plan? Do we just storm the place, or..."
"Storming the place is rarely what I would call a plan," said Xena. "Besides, we don't know how many of them are in there. Or what else Lillith might have waiting for us. I'd better scout around first. You wait here. I'll be back." Without waiting for a response from Gabrielle she leaped out of the tree and within a few seconds had disappeared into the underbrush.
With a sigh the bard leaned back. "Sure. No problem." It was, though. A little one, at least. While she knew full well she could not move as silently, or for that matter fast, as Xena, it hurt her a little that the warrior had not asked her to take another part of the perimeter, or at least see what she wanted to do. But she was also aware that some of that was her own pride showing. Xena looked at every potential combat situation with experienced eyes, and understood nuances that Gabrielle simply could not fathom. She rarely did things without reason and more often than not was right about what was necessary, and what was going to happen. "Just be careful, love." All the planning in the world didn't always amount to much when the gods, or their offspring, were involved.
A shadow moved behind Gabrielle as a bat fell out of one of the branches above where the bard was crouching. It was small enough that it didn't even disturb the leaves, but as soon as it began to transform into a dark-clad female figure the entire branch shuddered and creaked, and the bard couldn't help but notice that.
Gabrielle turned to see Tania leering at her, head cocked. "You again. Do you just lurk in the trees?"
"I'm a scout." The demon-faced girl shrugged. "It's what I do."
Gabrielle stood up and drew her sais. "So, just out of curiosity, did Lillith send you to capture, or kill, me?"
"Actually..." Tania took a step forward, eyes on the sais. "...to answer your question, I'm just supposed to report back what I find. But, I must admit.." She licked her lips. "...I wouldn't mind finishing what I started."
"Somehow I doubt your boss-lady would appreciate your getting the first taste," said Gabrielle. "What do you think, Xena?"
Mindful of the last time Tania spun around, anticipating an attack from behind. But there was no one there, and she was clearly confused as she started to turn back around. "What are you..." Gabrielle's sai connected with her chin in a vicious right cross, throwing the young woman for a loop, and sending her once again flying out of a tree. But where she had the chance to turn back into a bat to save herself the last time the ground was much closer here, and she slammed face-first into the dirt and remained there, silent and still.
"That should keep you quiet for a while."
Gabrielle knew her position was compromised. If Tania knew where she was there was a good chance the others would too. She couldn't risk staying here, but she also know this was where Xena expected her to be, and she didn't want to worry the warrior since she clearly had more important things on her mind. The bard took a few moments to consider her options, deciding the best solution was to find Xena first. With that semblance of a plan in mind she nodded to herself and slid out of the tree.
The difficulty, of course, came in trying to track Xena when she did not want to be found. She could move through the trees quieter and easier than any Amazon, or across the forest floor without making a sound or leaving a track. For all intents and purposes she was a ghost when she wanted to be, and under the circumstances this was one of those times. Gabrielle wasn't about to go back up herself. She couldn't traverse them nearly as easily as even the youngest Amazons, and if she fell or otherwise hurt herself it could cause a whole new host of problems. So she stuck to the underbrush, hoping that if nothing else Xena would see her before anyone else did.
Gabrielle moved closer to the temple. She didn't bother looking for footprints. Xena wouldn't have left any, and if Tania was any indication Lillith's followers didn't do much walking in or out. It occurred to her that she should, in fact, be keeping her eyes trained upward, and when she did so she saw several bats coming toward her. She sighed. "Oh, this day just keeps getting better and better." Seeing no point in hiding now she stood up and drew her sais, readying herself as the bats turned into demon-faced women. "Hi, ladies. I was wondering. Those outfits. Do they chafe? 'cause I was a Bacchae once you know, and..."
"Silence!" The taller of the three women stepped forward, her red eyes narrowing. "You will come with us."
"I don't think so." Gabrielle smirked and brought up her sais. "Of course, you're welcome to try and change my mind." The three fanged women snarled and lunged at the bard, who heard a familiar whistling sound and lowered her head in time to feel the wind whipping off the chakram as it came close enough to move a few strands of her hair.
It struck one of the women in the chest, the impact spinning her around while the chakram rebounded off a tree and into the spine of another of the women. As she went down it bounced off yet another tree and grazed the temple of the last woman. Barely slowing at all the chakram then hit another tree and came flying back at Gabrielle.
Xena dropped out of a tree beside her and caught it. "What are you doing here? Didn't I ask you to wait?"
"Told me is more like it," Gabrielle mumbled, before shrugging her shoulders. "Anyway, I couldn't. Tania found me. I had to get out of there before any of her friends showed up."
Xena glared at the three other women. "That worked out well." She shook her head. "Never mind. Listen, the temple is sealed tight. It looks like they've barred most of the doors and windows. But I was watching, and I happened to see where these three came out. There is a window in the back we should be able to get in through."
"Let's go," said Gabrielle. The window in question turned out to be relatively small, and so high up on the temple that the bard didn't see any way of reaching it. "Are you kidding?"
"How are we supposed to get up there? I know you have many skills Xena, but even you can't fly."
"No, but I can climb." Xena nodded at the wall. "Look at the weathering. Plenty of hand and foot holds. It's not going to be easy, but we can make it." To make her point she reached up and easily started to climb.
Gabrielle watched for a few moments, then shook her head and followed. "Show off." Once inside they were presented with another problem, sort of the opposite of the first. "Whoa." The window was apparently a decorative one, it was too high up and at the wrong angle to actually let much light into the temple. "That's a long way down." It also didn't seem to be near enough to anything they could jump on or climb. Her foot hit a small piece of loose stone and sent it clattering to the floor that was so far below that it was several seconds before they heard it hit. "A long way. So, uhm, what are we going to do now?"
Xena studied their surroundings. "I can make it. Think you can follow my lead?"
"Been doing that for years. I see no reason to lose faith now." Gabrielle gestured. "Be my guest."
Xena leaped off the window and did a flip in mid-air, twisting her body so she was facing the opposite direction. Then she coiled her legs, allowing the heels of her boots to make contact with one of the huge stone pillars supporting an ornate, heavy painted ceiling. Stifling her usual battle cry she pushed off, gaining further momentum into a second flip. She came sailing back toward Gabrielle, though at an angle and some distance beneath her, where she grabbed a large tapestry and tore a piece of it loose in one long, continuous strip as she slowed herself enough on the way down to land easily on her feet. She looked up and smiled.
"Hey. I didn't even see that before." Gabrielle jumped off the window and fell straight down. Like Xena she grabbed a section of the tapestry and used it to slow her fall. "There. Wasn't that easier?"
Xena shrugged. "We got in. Odds are they won't make it as easy to get out. We'd better be ready." She drew her sword. The altar was most likely where Lillith would be, hopefully with Eve and Sara there as well. "Come on."
Gabrielle grabbed her sais. "Right behind you."
Lillith lay on her back in the middle of the altar, with her eyes closed and her arms crossed over her chest. She wasn't making a sound and didn't even appear to be breathing as Xena and Gabrielle came upon her. Once they realized she was there they backed into the shadows, out of sight and earshot as well.
"Is that...her?" Gabrielle asked, her voice little more than a whisper.
"Off-colored skin. Horns." Xena nodded. "I'd say that's definitely daddy's little girl."
"So what are we going to do? You promised Proteus you wouldn't kill her."
"I told you already. I don't care about her," Xena replied. "I'm just here to find Eve. And Sara."
Lillith's eyes snapped open. "Really?" She sat up. "Come now, Xena. After all these years of waiting, do you really think I'm going to just let you waltz in and out of here without getting what I so rightly deserve?"
Demon-faced, dark-clad women came out of the woodwork. From behind, in front and to either side of the warrior and bard, who moved back to back but already knew they were surrounded. Snarling, they slashed their claws but made no move to attack. It seemed like they were only there to keep Xena and Gabrielle from running, not that either of them would.
"Where are they?" Xena asked.
"Around." Lillith slid her legs off the altar and stood up. "We'll get to them in a moment. Right now I want to discuss my revenge and, of course, your bloody, gruesome deaths."
"Why are you doing this?" Gabrielle asked.
"Oh. Gabrielle, isn't it?" Lillith smiled, a very disturbing sight given her fangs. "I didn't even see you there. Well, to answer your question, I want what you already have. Namely your girlfriend." She chuckled at the expressions on both Gabrielle and Xena's faces. "Though not for the same reasons, I imagine." She turned back to the warrior. "What's it going to be, Xena?"
Xena frowned. "You want to fight me? Is that it?" After a moment, Lillith nodded. "All you had to do was ask." She gritted her teeth. "But if that's all you wanted, why go after my family like this?"
"An ironic statement, coming from the woman who murdered most of mine." Lillith sneered. "I hate you, Xena! I hate you more than I ever have anyone else in my existence, and I intend to make you pay for everything you've done!"
"Oh boo-hoo." Xena sheathed her sword. "Come on, kid." She cracked her knuckles. "Let's see what you've got."
Lillith launched herself at the warrior, who stood her ground and yet deftly avoided each one of the other woman's punches. She was lightning fast, yet Xena always managed to stay a step or two ahead of her. With each missed strike the demigoddess seemed to be getting even angrier, while the warrior remained stone-faced and silent.
"Stop what?" Xena asked, bracing herself for another onslaught.
Instead, Lillith took a step back. "You're patronizing me!"
"I know you're better than this." Lillith threw another vicious punch, which Xena did not evade but rather caught in her own hand with relative ease. "You're not fighting back. You're not even trying!"
Xena shoved her away. "Why should I?" She sneered. "You're a joke. You want my full attention?" She crossed her arms, indicating she wasn't concerned if Lillith attacked her again or not. "First, let my daughter and Gabrielle's niece go. Gabrielle too. Do that and maybe, just maybe, I'll get interested enough to kick your ass."
"Bitch!" Lillith took a step forward, and then her eyes widened. "Wait. I know what you're up to. You're trying to antagonize me. Get me so angry I'm not thinking straight." She nodded. "Very clever. But it's not going to work, Xena. See, the whole point of this little exercise was to prove you're not the big-shot everybody else seems to think you are. I don't have to play by your rules. Don't forget. This..." She transformed into a duplicate of Xena. "...is my game!"
Xena stared blankly at her own face for a few moments, then shrugged her shoulders. "Is that it?"
"I think it's enough." Lillith lunged at Xena, and threw a series of punches and kicks which Xena countered with perfect precision. In fact, every move the demigoddess made was mirrored by the warrior, who wasn't even breaking a sweat. Soon the false Xena went from smiling to snarling. "No! Damn it! This isn't working!" She took a step back, a little out of breath. "I should have...realized. We're too evenly matched this way." She smiled. "Besides, I just got a better idea."
"Give it your best shot," Xena hissed through clenched teeth. "Your parlor tricks don't impress me."
"I know where that confidence, that arrogance, comes from, Xena. You've beaten everyone you've ever gone up against. Gods and mortals alike. Callisto. Ares. Najara. Caesar. My Dad. Even whole armies like the Persians and the Horde. All of them fell at your hand." Xena's face bared fangs as Lillith smiled. "All...except one."
Xena saw her own form broaden, growing taller and larger, and she knew who Lillith was becoming. And though it didn't show on her face she was deeply concerned, because in this instance Lillith was absolutely right. The one person she'd never been able to defeat, the only person in the entire world she had hoped to never have to fight again, now stood before her.
Hercules spread his tanned, muscular arms, and smiled.
Gabrielle paled. She knew what Hercules was capable of because she had seen him in action on more than one occasion, and he was also the only person Xena spoke of with something approaching reverence. If Lillith had even a fraction of the real son of Zeus' power then even Xena would have a very hard time defeating her.
'No, you can't think like that,' Gabrielle said to herself. 'Xena can do anything she puts her mind to.' Doubt in her lover's abilities was new to the bard, and it distracted her so much she didn't hear the approaching footsteps until it was too late to do anything about the boot that struck her in the small of the back, driving her to her knees. Even though she was in a great deal of pain she couldn't even cry out, because all the breath had been forced out of her lungs by the unexpected impact. As she sat there desperately gasping for air she gazed up through tear-filled eyes at the all too familiar, yet frightening, face of her attacker.
The Messenger of Eli no longer looked quite so holy. She was unnaturally pale, with a ridged, furrowed brow over a pair of smoldering red eyes. She was also wearing a wispy, low-cut black outfit, far more revealing and provocative than that of the Bacchae. When she cocked her head and smiled it bared a wicked set of fangs. "What? Aren't you happy to see me?"
"Not...like this." Gabrielle coughed. "I-I'm sorry, Eve. I'm sorry we couldn't get to you in time."
Eve shrugged her shoulders. "I'm not. I feel great. Better than ever!"
"Where's Sara?" Gabrielle scrambled to her feet. "Is she..."
"...like me? Sadly, for her, no. The mistress has something else in mind for your niece. And several of the others, as it turns out. Not all of them will be so blessed. It's invigorating. The freedom. The power." Eve smirked. "Trust me. You'll love it."
Gabrielle blinked. "Me? N-No. No way. I'm not going to become one of those things. Not again."
"You're assuming you have a choice." Eve shook her head. "No, I'm afraid you are no longer as innocent and pure as you once were. Far from it, in fact. Which makes you unsuitable for the sacrifice." She smiled. "But, just right to be one of us. And the mistress has given me the honor of your conversion. So, this can go one of two ways. Either you stand there and take it like a woman..." Her face changed, growing less friendly and more predatory, her eyes burning brighter. "...or try to fight me. You'll fail, of course, but the effort will get your heart racing and your blood pumping..." She licked her lips. "...and that makes it all the hotter, and sweeter."
Gabrielle brought up her sais and braced herself. "Well then, little girl, prepare to work for your dinner."
Eve lunged forward in an incredible burst of speed, her claws grazing the bard's chest enough to cause a trail of blood to seep down between her breasts. She licked her fingers clean. "Mmm...delicious." She cocked her head. "You were saying?"
"Cute." Luckily for Gabrielle it didn't hurt too much. In fact the wounds, though bleeding, felt rather numb. She shrugged it off and attacked Eve with her sais. The handles, naturally, she had no intention of seriously hurting Xena's daughter if she could help it. But with the right kind of strike she could incapacitate or even break a limb. That supposed she could actually hit the young woman, who deftly avoided her every attempted blow in much the same way her mother had Lillith's. "Damn it!"
"Something wrong?" Eve asked. "Aww, you sound frustrated, auntie Gabrielle. What's the matter? Getting old?"
Gabrielle gritted her teeth. "I was fighting people a whole lot scarier than you and your mistress before you were even a mote in your mother's eye!" She dropped to her knees and drove the points of both sais into the tops of Eve's boots, effectively nailing her feet to the floor. The demon-faced young woman howled in pain as Gabrielle rose in front of her. "Now, stand still!" She punched Eve in the face, chest and stomach in rapid succession, hoping one of the blows would debilitate her.
Eve was hissing and snarling in pain, tears streaming down her face, and there was blood all over her boots. Then a shudder passed through her and she suddenly stopped making noise, her smoldering gaze turning to Gabrielle. "Nice shot." Eve jerked her left foot up, dislodging one sai, and then did the same with the right. "Most people wouldn't even be able to stand after that." She backhanded Gabrielle, sending the bard spinning off her feet. "Of course " She smiled, baring her fangs. " I'm not most people."
Gabrielle had a split lip now, and a pounding headache. She sat up. "Okay That hurt." She struggled back to her feet, though her head was spinning and her vision blurry. "But as you can see, I don't go down so easily either."
"There's a joke in there somewhere," said Eve. "About you and mother. But let's move on, shall we?" She sprang at Gabrielle and grabbed the bard's arms in spite of her struggling. "As I said before, Lillith has special plans for you. Starting " She leaned in toward Gabrielle's throat. " with this."
Xena took a step back, inwardly debating what she was going to do. The real Hercules was as strong, if not moreso, than any of the gods she had ever fought, and while this wasn't the real Hercules she didn't know how close Lillith could come.
Hercules smiled in a very uncharacteristic way. "What's wrong, Xena? Don't tell me the Warrior Princess is afraid?"
"Of you?" Xena asked. "Hardly." She drew her sword. "See, I know the real Hercules. I respect him. If he and I were really fighting I might be concerned. You, on the other hand, I don't give a damn about." She attacked, swinging the sword in a broad arc that Hercules could have easily blocked with his Hephestus-forged gauntlets.
Lillith, however, ducked. Xena spun around and hook-kicked Hercules in the side of the head. With a grunt of anger and surprise he was knocked flat on his face. Xena then twirled her sword and touched the back of 'his' head with the tip of the blade.
"I think you'd better stay down."
Hercules grabbed Xena's ankle and jerked hard, hoping to pull her off her feet. But Xena used the momentum to cartwheel backwards and land back in a ready position.
She did drop her sword, however, and he picked it up as he was getting back to his own feet. "You know, Xena? I'm tired of playing games with you." Hercules broke Xena's sword across his knee and tossed the pieces aside. "I'm also on a tight schedule. I'm running out of time " He turned back into Lillith. " and so is your girlfriend."
Xena turned, her eyes widening as she saw Eve in demon-face, preparing to bite Gabrielle. "No." She drew her chakram, hesitating as she pondered whether or not she could actually throw it at her own daughter. Not so long ago she nearly killed Gabrielle to save Eve. Could she do the opposite now?
Lillith took the decision out of the warrior's hands. She threw herself at Xena, wrapping her legs around the warrior's waist and pinning her arms to her sides, negating the threat of the chakram. "Sloppy, Xena. I guess love really is a weakness." She smirked, baring her fangs. "Good thing I don't have to worry about that." She sank her fangs into the warrior's neck.
Xena resisted as long as she could, straining to free herself, until she began to feel cold and weak, and fairly soon after that even the Warrior Princess lost consciousness.
The Warrior Princess stirred, moaning softly, but did not awaken.
"Come on, Xena!"
Her eyelids fluttered and her teeth clenched.
Xena's eyes snapped open and she let out a ragged gasp. Her neck was throbbing, but when she went to check it she found she could not move her hands because they had been chained to a wall behind her.
"Thank the gods." Xena turned her head. Sara was chained to the wall to her left. Other than bite marks on her neck she looked unhurt. "I was starting to think you'd never wake up. She must've really taken a lot of you."
Xena felt lightheaded and more than a little confused. "What?"
"Your blood. I saw Lillith bite you. I thought she was going to kill you but she stopped after you passed out. I guess she just wanted you out of it so she could put you with the rest of us."
On the wall past Sara, Xena saw several young women in torn white robes, Aphrodite's priestesses most likely, along with what appeared to be several Amazons and a number of seemingly random Greek women. Some were unconscious, and those who were awake were either struggling against their bonds or just hanging there, sobbing. To her dismay she did not see the face she most wanted to, however. "Where's Gabrielle? Did Lillith...?"
"...turn her into one of those things?" Sara asked. "No. Look to your right."
Xena jerked her head the other direction, and to her relief found an unconscious Gabrielle chained a few feet away. She breathed a sigh of relief and turned back to Sara. "Thank the gods."
"Why? I've tried pleading. Begging. None of it seems to do any good. I don't think they're listening."
"I know a couple who will," said Xena. "Aphro..." The Warrior Princess's words were literally slapped out of her mouth as someone struck her in the face so hard it knocked her head back into the wall.
A demonic-looking Eve stood there, seething. "Don't you dare speak another's name in her temple! Now, be silent..." She sneered. "...or am I going to have to gag you?"
Every fiber in Xena's being was telling her to fight back, but her mind could not get past the fact that, despite her appearance at the moment this was her daughter. "Eve..."
"Don't start with your platitudes about love and light. I'm not your weak-willed little Eve anymore, mother. Lillith has opened my eyes, and made me into the woman I used to be by banishing that pathetic little milksop. She has returned me to the mantle, to the true power..." The young woman spread her arms. "...of Livia!"
Xena's face fell. That was the name Eve had been given by the Romans, when she was leading their armies and trying to conquer the world. If Lillith had similar aspirations it made sense she would have tapped into the darkness within Eve, not just Livia but the part of her soul that was the essence of Callisto, and bent the result to her will. "Honey, you have to fight her. You're stronger than this, I know it. I love..." The warrior gasped as her daughter slapped her again, even harder this time.
"What did I tell you? Don't you ever listen?!" Livia drew her hand back again, clenching it into a fist, only to have an even paler hand grab her wrist. Her eyes widened. "Mistress?"
Lillith shook her head. "I realize you have mother-daughter issues to work out, Livia, but I need her alive." She released Livia's arm and stroked her cheek. "However, if you like, I can let you have what's left when I'm done with her."
"Yes mistress." Livia lowered her head. "Thank you, mistress."
"That's my good girl." Lillith smiled. "Now then, you and your sisters begin preparations for the ceremony. Start arranging the others around the altar. I'll see to Xena and Gabrielle personally."
Livia nodded. "At once, mistress."
Other darkly-clad women emerged from the shadows around them. They unchained Sara and those whose names Xena did not know, carrying some and dragging others. Gabrielle's niece fought them as best she could.
"Xena! Help me!"
The warrior strained against her bonds, but they would barely creaked. "I'll find a way to save you. I promise."
"Now, now, Xena. You shouldn't make vows you can't keep." Lillith grabbed the warrior's hair and jerked her head back. "You have no idea what's going on here, do you Xena? Allow me to explain." She let Xena go and stepped away from her, turning in a slow circle. As she did so she noticed Gabrielle coming to. "Ah, good. I'll only have to say this once."
Gabrielle looked as confused as Xena knew she must have when she first woke up. "What's going on?"
"I think Bacchus Lite here was just about to tell us that," said the warrior.
The bard blinked. "Xena?" She saw Lillith up close for the first time. "Oh." She frowned. "Hey, you. Where's Sara?"
"Over there," Lillith replied, nodding in the direction of the altar. "With all the other sacrifices."
Gabrielle paled. Her niece. "Sacrifices? To who?"
"Whom," Lillith corrected. "Speak proper Greek, would you?" She shook her head. "Honestly. What backwater little village did you...oh, that's right." She grinned at Gabrielle's expression. "Mortals are so easy to provoke." She leaned against a pillar. "In answer to your question, I'm afraid that's a bit of a long story. One I don't have time to go into right now. Suffice it to say it's no one either of you has ever heard of, and when I'm done I'll be the most powerful being in this plane of existence."
"Right," said Gabrielle. "Like we haven't heard that before."
Xena nodded. "Your father would have filled us in on his whole plan by now."
"Which is what got him into trouble in the first place," said Lillith. "It's a character flaw of all the Olympians. They love to hear themselves talk and can't help spilling their guts." She shook her head. "But I'm not like them. I don't need you to know all the details of my plan, just for you to be a part of it. So live with your ignorance."
Gabrielle kicked at the demigoddess as she walked past. "Coward!"
"Not at all. I'm just..." Lillith backhanded her. "...busy. And watch your mouth."
The bard's lip was busted open again as Lillith strode away. "That went well, don't you think?"
"Why were you trying to provoke her?" Xena asked. She couldn't stand seeing her lover in pain.
"A trick I learned from Autolycus." Gabrielle spit a mouthful of blood toward each of her hands then used that lubrication, and a fair amount of effort, to wriggle her wrists free of the manacles. "Make do with what you have."
Xena was beaming as Gabrielle came to her. "Remind me to give that man a big kiss the next time I see him."
"Trying to make me jealous?" The bard kissed her, then studied her manacles. "I don't have anything to pick these with. Looks like I'm going to have to..." Xena nodded, and Gabrielle helped free her in the same way she had herself. "Yuck. And, ouch. Next time, you be the one to take it in the face, okay? My head's still ringing." She glanced toward the altar, where so far Lillith and the others seemed to be far too enthralled in whatever they were doing to notice the duo's escape. "So what do we do?"
"What else? Stop them." Xena looked around and grabbed a tower candleholder. "I don't see our weapons anywhere." She twisted off the top part and the base, and offered the remaining metal rod to Gabrielle. "Feel like a little more improvising?"
Gabrielle took the makeshift staff and tested it for weight and balance. It was heavier than the one Ephiny had given her so long ago, but it still felt good in her hands. "Just like old times." She frowned. "What about you?"
"Oh, don't worry about me." Xena clenched her fists. "I'll be just fine."
It was at this point that Livia happened to glance back over her shoulder. She noticed that the two of them were free, snarled and pointed this out to Lillith, who looked even more exasperated. "I don't have time for this! Take the others and deal with it. Kill the bard if you wish, but under no circumstances is anyone else to kill Xena, is that clear?" Livia nodded. "Understand this. I will end her life at a moment of my choosing. If anyone else attempts to do so, their life will be forfeit."
Livia inclined her head. "I understand, mistress." She motioned to the others, and those demon-faced women not physically holding on to one of the hostages turned and followed her back into battle.
Gabrielle readied herself as they approached. "Here we go again."
"We'll take them together," said Xena. "But I want to be the one to deal with Eve. If it comes down to it..."
"I understand," the bard replied. "Just...don't give up on her yet okay? We may still be able to find a way to save her." Gabrielle stepped away from Xena and brought the length of her makeshift staff up into the midsections of three of the women. As they were staggered by the impact she then drove it up even harder into their chins, knocking them all unconscious.
Xena jumped straight up and kicked two of the women in the chest at the same time. As she came down she bent her body backwards, easily avoiding the simultaneous blows of two others. She grabbed their outstretched arms and swung them face-first into one another, then spun around and hook-kicked another with enough force to knock her for a loop.
Two women tried grabbing Gabrielle's staff, so she let go and punched them both instead. Then she caught the falling staff on the top of her foot and kicked it back up into her hands, where she was able to swing it into the chest of a dark-skinned woman with one eye. As she went down someone got a lucky shot into the bard's back, wracking her with pain.
Xena viciously head butted a snarling young redhead, then caught and broke the arm of a muscular brunette who had foolishly come straight at her. Then one of the Amazons jumped on her back and two more grabbed her arms. She kicked one in the knee and punched the other, then drove the back of her skull into the jaw of her unwelcome passenger.
Gabrielle recovered quickly. She was able to knock out two more Amazons before one of them managed to knock the staff out of her hands, so she returned to normal punching and kicking. Unfortunately she was not quite as fast or agile as Xena, and while she was able to take down several of her attackers more and more of their blows were starting to get through.
Even Xena had her hands full. It seemed like for every one of them she knocked out two more took her place. Lillith had apparently chosen sheer numbers over skill, so while none of the demon-women were particularly threatening on their own, she was trying to come to terms with the very real possibility Bacchus' daughter might still be able to win the day by attrition.
Lillith could see that, for the moment at least, Livia and her other followers had Xena and Gabrielle contained. She kicked the blanket off the mirror and glared down into the smirking, semi-transparent image of Prosperexa.
"You're late. Is there a problem?"
"Nothing to concern yourself about," Lillith replied. "The alignment is at its peak." She grabbed one of Aphrodite's priestesses, who struggled and cried. "Let's just get this over with."
Prosperexa spread her arms. "As you wish." Her image faded, and Lillith tossed the sobbing blond into the suddenly liquid-like surface of the mirror. Her body collapsed in on itself in a sickening crunch of sinew and bone.
Lillith grabbed two of the Amazons and pushed them into the mirror as well. Each time she did so the demon-faced woman who had been holding on to that woman took off to join the others in fighting Xena and Gabrielle. "I'm giving up both food and followers." She pushed two more helpless women into the mirror. "You had better keep your word."
"Oh, don't worry," Prosperexa's disembodied voice replied. "You'll get what's coming to you."
Some of the women, particularly the Amazons, fought back as hard as they could. Others tried to run. None were successful. Lillith caught each of them in turn and sent them to their deaths. She was just about to reach for Sara, one of the few left, when she noticed that the surface of the mirror was boiling and churning, and she could feel the incredible dark power radiating from within.
Lillith's eyes widened. "Yes." She grinned maniacally. "Yes!"
Prosperexa's clawed hands rose out of the mirror. She stretched up and up, revealing that below the waist she was, in fact, serpentine. From the top of her head to the tip of her tail she was nearly twelve feet in length. She rolled her supple shoulders, stretched her long, bony arms and took a deep breath. "At last. I am reborn. Free of that hellish nothingness..." Prosperexa turned to Lillith. "...and I have you to thank for it, my dear."
Lillith cocked her head and snarled. "What is this?"
"Power. As I promised." Prosperexa bared her own fangs in a knowing smirk. "I am an ancient power. One born long before the Olympians or their Titan forebears. My kind strode the Earth when it was barely cool. My brother and I were two of the eldest and most powerful. Only Illyria ruled greater territory, and she bore neither of us any ill will. I was darkness personified. My brother and I were endless..." Her face changed, suddenly seethingly angry. "...until that bastard betrayed me."
Lillith sighed. "Oh for Olympus' sake. You told me this already. The two of you fought for control of your domain, and you lost. So he banished you."
"Yes, but the irony is that the effort of sending me away weakened Dahak more than he realized. He lost his hold on the world when the Titans rose to power, and was banished in turn." Prosperexa hissed. "Plus, I had recently been informed that the mortals he chose to help return him to this realm also defeated him, and he was finally destroyed by one of your uncles."
"Yes," said Lillith. "Hercules."
"So with the Titans long gone and most of the Olympians now dead, there is no one left to stand in my way."
Lillith snarled to get her attention. "I thought we were supposed to be allies."
"Would you really have assisted me if you had known the truth?"
"As a matter of fact..." Lillith licking her lips. "...yes."
Prosperexa lowered herself onto her coils so she and the demigoddess were eye to eye. "My oh my. Don't tell me daddy's little girl has actually found her spine?"
"You could say that." Lillith leaped at the snake-demon and wrapped her legs around what passed for her waist, then from her hip drew Xena's chakram. "Now I'd like to find yours." She drove the blade deep into Prosperexa's exposed throat and smiled at the demon's gurgling roar.
Standing back to back, Xena and Gabrielle tossed aside the last of the demon-faced women who had been attacking them, glanced at one another and then turned to Livia, who shook her head.
"Wow. I knew you had it in you mom, but your girlfriend is something else."
Of course neither warrior or bard had come through the battle unscathed. Both of them were bruised and battered, bleeding profusely from numerous but fairly superficial wounds. The right side of Xena's face had been struck enough times to make her eye swell closed and she seemed to be cradling her right arm, while Gabrielle had two split lips and a noticeable limp.
"Thank you so much." Gabrielle spit blood out of her mouth. "Can we get on with this? I really need a bath."
Livia sneered. "Tell me about it." She lunged forward and swung her arm in an attempt to backhand the bard but Xena just as quickly stepped forward and caught her wrist. "Oww, mommy. Are you gonna spank me now?"
"Something like that." Xena twisted her daughter's arm up behind her back then drove her other elbow down into Livia's exposed throat. "I'm sorry about this, Eve. I really am." She hit several key points on Livia's neck and shoulders, rendering her unconscious. She slumped to the floor at her mother's feet with a lingering gasp. "We still have to deal with Lillith."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Somehow, I don't think it's going to be that easy."
Lillith hadn't cut Prosperexa's head all the way off, but once the demon-woman stopped struggling she hunched over her still twitching corpse and drank deeply from her spurting black blood. There was so much of it that it kept flowing even after she'd had her fill, and as she stood up she was standing in a pool of steaming ichors. She spread her arms and took a deep breath. "By the gods the power!" The demigoddess began to glow. "I guess she wasn't kidding. She really was connected to the earth on a deep, primal level." She grew a good half foot in height, her muscles swelled, and her eyes glowed with power. "Too bad for her. It's mine now."
The scraping of metal on stone alerted Lillith to the fact Xena was now behind her. She had discarded the chakram once she no longer needed it, and it seemed the warrior had reclaimed it. Rather than be particularly concerned the demigoddess merely looked bored. She sighed.
"Oh, Xena. Are you still here?"
The warrior nodded. "And ready to finish what we started earlier. Think you can actually beat me without having my daughter to distract me?"
"You're nothing but a gnat to me now. And that toy's not going to do you any good."
"We'll see about that." Xena took quick aim and released. In a split second the chakram had crossed the distance between them and sunk deep into Lillith's chest.
The demigoddess glanced down at it with a bemused expression. Then she casually reached down and pulled the weapon out of her body. The wound healed almost instantly. She licked it clean then threw it straight up into the air, where it embedded itself in the ceiling. "Enough games."
"How about just one more?" As Lillith turned Gabrielle threw an urn at her head.
The demigoddess avoided it easily enough, but as she did so Xena came at her from the other side. The warrior kicked her in the head, but all she got for her trouble was an aching foot. Gabrielle grabbed a torch and swung it like a club, but the flames licked harmlessly off Lillith's skin.
"I said " Lillith grabbed Xena and Gabrielle by the throats and lifted them off their feet. " enough!" She carried them up onto the altar. "I suppose I could just snap your necks. I would get a certain satisfaction out of watching you breath your last right in my hands." The demigoddess stopped with one foot on either side of the mirror. "But I have a better idea. Have you ever wondered what eternity was like?"
Something wrapped around Lillith's right ankle and yanked her feet out from under her. Xena and Gabrielle tumbled in either direction, while the demigoddess plunged facedown into the swirling surface of the mirror. Try as she might the pull was irresistible, and she was dragged kicking and screaming into the other realm. Just before her leg was consumed the tip of Prosperexa's tail released and fell flat.
Xena and Gabrielle stood up, to see the snake-woman sneering at them. "No one betrays me." That effort used up the last of her waning strength though, and she collapsed.
The warrior breathed a sigh of relief. Not only had they survived, they were rid of both of them, and she had actually managed to keep her word to Proteus.
"Gabrielle?" Sara came running up to her aunt and embraced her. "Thank the gods. You saved me."
"I had no choice," the bard replied. "Your mom would've killed me otherwise." Knowing Lila's moods so well, they both smiled. It didn't last long, however, for she could see Xena kneeling by her daughter. "Gods. What are we going to do about her? She's still changed."
Proteus materialized nearby. "I may be able to help you with that."
"Were you here the whole time?" Xena asked.
Proteus shook his head. "But I have been monitoring the situation. I do not fault you for your actions against my goddaughter. If I know Lillith she will again taste freedom one day. I am just grateful she will have the opportunity. In thanks I will do what I can to save your child and these others."
"We'll take all the help we can get." Gabrielle slid her hand into Xena's and the warrior nodded.
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