With a ripple he was gone, with only the astounded memories of those witnesses to attest that he was ever there at all. Two of Xena’s elite guardsmen arrived, barely in time to witness the disappearance.
"See that?!?" The taller man exclaimed, eyes still fixed on where the bold warrior, who had dared to steal from the great Xena, had been only seconds before, "You know who that WAS?!?"
"Sure, I recognize him from his wanted posters!" The second guard replied, "That’s Iolaus, King of Thieves! I heard he was a brazen one, but I never thought he’d be THIS crazy!"
"Xena’ll have his roasted hide hanging off her mantle by sundown, take my word!"
"Sure," The guard thought aloud, scratching his head beneath his helmet, "…if she can FIND him. Where in Tartarus did he go??"
Where indeed? Most everyone who had witnessed the fantastic theft was just now wondering the same thing, from the simple, cowed villagers all the way up to mighty Xena herself, who was fuming and raging like an animal over this outrage. She bellowed orders to her shaken guards, who were running about like panicked children.
Perfect, she thought. Couldn’t have asked for a better distraction.
Quickly but cautiously, she worked her way closer to Xena, removing the hood of her cloak to reveal her short black hair and beautiful features. Across the crowd, her accomplice saw her signal, and too began his approach. He muttered a brief prayer to Thersites for success, even as he motioned to the wolves among the sheep that the time to strike was now upon them.
"Spread out, you fools! Find him or I’ll have your heads hung on my walls by supper!" Xena raged at her guardsmen, and they scampered about desperately trying to obey. This was utter madness…she’d used Iolaus before, what could have made him defy her like this?
Hired by an enemy? But who’s left with the power to finance such a move? Ming Tien, or Cleopatra perhaps? Or maybe that weasel Gregor was holding out on me on my last visit…
The scream came from one of the guards, and Xena flashed her eyes about to see him and another of her soldiers, dropping slowly off a pair of glinting swords. As their carcasses slammed to the ground, their killer shed her heavy brown cloak and stood fast. She wore a custom made armour of leather and chainmail, and Xena could immediately see she was no stranger to battle, or to killing. The look in her eyes told her that, as the two women locked on each other. Xena’s face was an ever-growing pattern of rage…but her strange opponent was all resolve…her eyes betrayed no emotion at all.
"NOW!" The woman shouted, with a booming voice that belied her slight frame. In response to the command, over a dozen of the ‘villagers’ in the crowd sprung into action, unsheathing whatever weapons they had been able to conceal, and launching themselves at their oppressors with a fury born of justice denied.
On each of their arms was a tattoo, a brand…the mark of the Black Wolf.
Confusion was on the side of the rebels, and they pressed that advantage for all it was worth. They fought well, and Xena’s troops had been without a serious challenge for too long now. Still, they were outnumbered, and defeat was only a matter of time for them. But they weren’t there to win…just to keep the guards busy, while the woman in black did what she had waited ten years to do.
She inched towards the podium, where a defiant Xena stood, bellowing orders at her beleaguered troopers. Finally, though, she stopped, and the two once again met eyes. Xena seemed to positively snarl at this upstart before her, but her anger was met only by the same blank, empty stare as before.
"Who are you??" Xena demanded. The woman, much younger than herself, Xena could now clearly see, remained still as she answered.
"My name is Callisto." the woman said, as the battle raged behind her. Xena allowed herself a smile.
"Well, little girl…I don’t know what you’re hoping to accomplish with this little…display. But I can promise that YOU will suffer very, very greatly for this."
"You’re wrong, Xena," Callisto shot back, her body tensing for the attack she knew was soon to come, "…you haven’t the power to make me suffer, any more than you already have. And very soon, you won’t have the power to make anyone suffer, ever again."
Xena laughed. "Oh? And why’s that?"
Callisto too, allowed herself a slight grin just now. "Because you’ll be dead." She answered simply.
And as a crowd gathered to witness this most unprecedented one-on-one combat (presumably to the death), one final witness awakened from a slow death, to peer out as well at the strange scene below her. And from behind a mask of torment and tears, Gabrielle of Potodeia couldn’t help but feel that hope, true hope, just may be in the offing.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Secreting himself into a stone archway, he deftly avoids the bloodshed that rages…though he’s less than pleased about it, but a plan’s a plan…and makes his way with a killer’s ease to a second floor balcony. The guards are all missing in action, sent outside already to quell the rising rebellion, so there is no one to bar his way. Another disappointment.
As he takes position and settles in, his own battle lust rises. He hopes despite himself that it will be a short battle, but he doubts it. She may not be good enough to beat Xena alone, but that Callisto is still one mean lady. Still, she needs me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. She can have the all glory, doesn’t bother me…as long as I get my revenge.
If it weren’t for the armed insurrection, one can bet a major crowd would have gathered for the confrontation about to begin. Even still, the Wolves and the guards kept their squabbling at a safe distance, giving Xena and the curious upstart calling herself Callisto a wide berth.
Xena glared at the short haired girl, who stood arrogantly (but she wasn’t…even that emotion was lacking) with her twin swords slowly spinning through the air, ‘til she could contain her venom no longer. With a shattering knell, Xena’s war cry deafened those who heard it as she launched herself into the air, bridging the distance between her and her adversary in a moment. Her sword was drawn before she landed lightly on the ground, and it was swinging less than a heartbeat after. Callisto blocked the strike with a quicker motion than Xena had anticipated, and the battle was begun.
Her body screamed at her to conserve her strength and sleep, but Gabrielle still managed to talk herself into remaining conscious a little while longer (she was good at talking). Her tired eyes shifted dreamily, between Xena and the strange woman she fought (she looks my age, Gab thought distractedly…couldn’t be, though) and the massive battle raging around those two. Even from where she hung crucified, she managed to recognize the Wolf tattoo on the arms of several of the insurrectionists. Every freedom loving citizen of New Greece had heard the legends of the Black Wolf underground…but Gabby, like many others, had thought them scattered and broken, after Xena executed their leader Flora.
Guess some things don’t break so easy, she decided, trying not to think about her legs. Her attempts were less than successful, however, and fresh tears of pain once again clouded her view of the spectacle below.
Xena swept her legs about in a low, roundhouse kick, trying to knock her opponent to the ground. All she managed to kick was dust, however, as Callisto easily backflipped away from the attack. Xena was beginning to realize she was underestimating her new enemy.
"You’re really quite good, I’ll admit it." Xena offered with something approaching humility, though Callisto was sure that was an emotion the woman quite simply did not possess. "If I weren’t going to have you crucified, I’d be willing to let you join up."
"Your flattery needs work." Callisto said, then launched a tremendous kick towards Xena’s head, which she only dodged by the slightest of margins. Xena could feel the breeze from Callisto’s boot on her face.
"So does your footwork." Xena snarled, catching Callisto with a savage backhand to the jaw that should have sent her sprawling, but the girl managed to stay on her feet, dazed but still alert. Before Xena could prepare for her quick recovery, Callisto sprang back and nailed her with an uppercut, drawing blood from Xena’s chin. Xena staggered back, feeling the warm trickle down her lip. She looked down to see a drop of her own blood stain her ceremonial robes, then looked severely on Callisto, who was smiling.
"Better?" She asked pleasantly. In response, Xena drew her chakrum, and Callisto’s smile faded once again.
"Diomedes! Reinforcements to your right!!"
Diomedes spun about, and saw that Stallonus’ warning was accurate…over a dozen of Xena’s troopers had broken through, and were headed their way. Still, not much time to worry about them, he figured, since he hadn’t expected to survive even THIS long against the forces of the Warrior Empress. And he wouldn’t have, but for the unforeseen assistance of the townsfolk. Guess Flora was right after all, he thought with a sad heart. Even HER death couldn’t kill the heart of freedom that beat in every Grecian.
Well, what the Tartarus, Diomedes finally decided. If I’m fated to be the leader of this motley pack of rebels, then by the Gods, I might as well lead.
"Stallonus!! Take Sarpedon and Solari, and swing around…try and drive a wedge through…"
A strange, whirring sound gave Diomedes the briefest of pauses as he rattled orders to this followers…a pause that grew noticeably when the chakrum sped across his field of vision, ricocheting violently off of Stallonus’ skull, then flying away again as he sank in a heap to the bloody soil beneath.
It took all Callisto’s concentration to keep track of Xena’s insidious weapon, fend off Xena herself, then finally dodge the infernal thing when it somehow made it’s way for her. Damned thing MUST be enchanted, she thought angrily, rolling desperately out of it’s deadly path.
Out of it’s path, and directly into Xena’s heel. A spinning kick with the force of a hurricane crushed Callisto’s midsection, driving the breath from her lungs. Before she could recover, two more blows landed jarringly on Callisto’s neck and temple, and the girl crashed to the ground, losing her swords in the process. In an instant, Xena’s hand was clamped around her neck, slamming her skull against the ground. Callisto could feel unconsciousness trying to settle on her, and she willed it away with a fierce determination. But the damage had been done, no denying it. Xena’s won…I wasn’t good enough to beat her.
Whatever feelings of failure or humility that realization bestowed upon Callisto were tempered somewhat, by the fact that she had expected no less from the beginning.
The Warrior Empress of Greece, and indeed, of much of the known world dug her imperial heel into the brash girl’s windpipe as she gazed upon her down with contempt, and more than a little wonder. Just who WAS she, and how did she tie in with Iolaus?
A twisted grin wormed it’s way onto Xena’s face. She was already getting a familiar twinge of guilty pleasure as she contemplated the interrogation.
The girl stared back dully, and seemed to have accepted her defeat rather well. If only Ulysses had been so accommodating, Xena smiled.
"Well, ‘Callisto’," Xena said softly, routine smugness returning to her clipped tones, "…your little insurrection is just about over, I’d say. You’re good…very good. Once I’ve finished crushing your accomplices, I’ll enjoy hearing all about you. I hope you can scream coherently."
Down below, the girl seemed like she was trying to say something. Might be good for a laugh, Xena decided, easing pressure on her throat ever so slightly. The girl gasped, then spoke.
"Have…have you forgotten so soon…what I…told you, Xena?"
Xena looked on the girl, bewildered. Callisto’s face contorted into a most menacing grin, and her eyes burned straight into Xena’s.
"You…you won’t be able to hurt me…or anyone…ever again."
Before Xena could laugh, she felt an odd pressure at the back of her neck. Like an insect bite, or a…
Or a dart.
"…You’ll be dead."
Jet pulled the blowpipe from his lips and watched Xena, and even from this distance he could see the ptolmic poison was already weakening her. With the dosage he had used, it was a miracle she was still standing at all.
With a grim smile and a gaze that cast daggers, the assassin looked at his latest victim, and said, "That was for my brother, you bitch."
Xena stumbled back involuntarily, her head swimming with poison and rage. How could she have let this happen?? She was ruler of the world…a Goddess by her own hand!! Second only to Ares himself! This isn’t fair, she wanted to shout, but even speech was rapidly becoming difficult. Her eyes were starting to blur as she made out the image of the girl, standing before her, sword in hand.
"Wh…who…ARE…you??" was all she could choke out. The girl looked back impassively, her face a mask of sorrow and pain. Old pain.
Callisto held Xena by the shoulder in one hand, and readied the sword with the other. She looked her in the eyes, and saw the terror within. She didn’t smile.
"Do you remember Cirra?" She asked simply, and the terror in Xena’s eyes went even wider. She tried to speak. She needn’t have bothered.
Callisto thrust the sword with a scream, piercing Xena’s heart (though many had claimed that such an organ didn’t exist). The Empress’ eyes glazed over, frozen with a look of fear and confusion, and her body fell limp to the ground with a wet little thump.
Callisto looked down, and felt no satisfaction, nor did she expect to.
Not over yet, she reminded herself. Time to rally the troops.
"DROP YOUR WEAPONS!!"
Her shout echoed violently throughout the walled city, and the fighting slowed as all eyes turned towards the scene on the stone altar. Xena’s guards gazed with mounting horror and panic, as the strange, dark haired girl stood over the body of their Queen, holding her chakrum high as a trophy of battle.
They looked nervously among themselves, for some sign, or course of action. What should they do now??
"Xena is DEAD!! You WILL obey me, or suffer her fate!!"
Callisto hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. If they don’t go for this, all Hades is really gonna break loose…
Diomedes could feel the electric tension in the air, and figured now was as good a time as any for a little leadership. He grabbed a sword up off the ground, forced his way forward, and hefted the blade high as he could.
"Hail, Callisto!!" He shouted, turning to face the entire crowd as he spoke. "Slayer of Xena!!"
There was an eternity of silence in which both Diomedes and Callisto thought all was lost…then, another voice rang out for the crowd, echoing Diomedes’ cry. Then another. And another.
Callisto let the chakrum drop to her side, and sighed deeply. She was exhausted. Overthrowing a vicious tyrant was enough to make anyone sleepy, she decided. She was about to begin moving off the altar, when, over the din of the crowd (shouts of ‘hail Callisto’ resounding most unusual in her ears), she felt something…like a set of eyes, watching her. Not in awe, like the rabble before her, but something else…
Finally, she looked up, and saw her. The young girl from the afternoon, broken by Xena and hung up to die like an animal. Callisto only made eye contact for the briefest of moments, before the girl’s strength finally gave out, and she fell unconscious.
As her newfound soldiers praised her name, Callisto snatched up her sword and pointed it towards the young girl. Her gaze never left the girl’s sad eyes.
"Cut her down." She commanded.
TO BE CONTINUED…
"…and I ASSURE you, my lovely warrioress, I only served Xena because she forced me to!! You don’t realize how...intimidating a woman like that can be, especially on a peaceful sort like myself. But now, well, my services are gladly at your disposal! After all, you’ll need someone to manage your empirical finances…"
Salmoneus just kept on babbling to her, even as Callisto picked up her pace through the halls of what was now HER palace. Chubby fellow certainly could talk a blue streak, she thought.
"Listen, friend, I’m not interested in money…"
"Oh, but you SHOULD!! Dinars are a powerful ally, oh conquering maiden!"
Callisto stopped and raised an eyebrow at Xena’s chief financier. "And besides, how do I know you’re honest?" She asked pointedly, drawing a gulp from Salmoneus.
"Honest? Me?? Great one, I’m as honest as the Nile is long! As virtuous as a Hestian virgin! As trustworthy as…"
"…AND, of course, you weren’t skimming off the top of Xena’s plunder every month, now were you? Maybe juggling the scrolls a little?"
Salmoneus stumbled. "I…Now, wait, I would NEVER…"
Callisto dropped a hand on Sal’s shoulder, prompting a nervous "Yipe!" from the former toga salesman. "It’s all right, Salmoneus. I’ve known for a long time that you’ve been manipulating Xena’s treasury to secretly help finance the underground movement. I…trust you."
Salmoneus looked warily at the girl, much younger than he, and quite beautiful (but with a sadness about her that was almost palpable), and tried to remember just how deadly she was. She did, after all, kill Xena.
"Trust is good!" He finally said, forcing a grin. She smiled back, and he finally relaxed.
"Join Diomedes in the main hall," she ordered, "…the two of you can start working out a way to dismantle this power structure Xena’s set up. Greece will be free at last. Go."
Reluctantly (he did so hate the sound of the word ‘free’ sometimes), Salmoneus turned and trundled off to his appointed destination, and Callisto began making her way once more to hers.
The lights in the Healer’s chamber were dim, only faintly illuminating the drab walls, and the wealth of medical regalia contained within. Gabrielle found herself amazed at how advanced the healer’s techniques were…who would have thought a butcher like Xena would be so skilled in medicine?
Gabrielle had awoken only a few hours ago, to the ministrations of a man called Nicklio. She soon learned he was Xena’s chief healer…or rather, was. Xena was dead now. Gabrielle was rather relieved to learn she hadn’t dreamed that part. She had tried to ask him more, but he insisted that she needed her rest.
It wasn’t easy. She was tired, but too excited to sleep, despite the soothing balms Nicklio had administered. Who was that woman who fought Xena? What happens now?
A knock on the door interrupted her musings, but when it opened, she was glad for it. It was that woman, the one who had defeated Xena. She glanced once at Nicklio, who nodded back to her, then quietly left the room. When he was gone, she closed the door softly and walked over to Gabrielle’s cot. She pulled up a stool and sat down beside her, and Gabrielle finally got a good look at her.
She had very pretty features, Gabrielle thought, with short black hair (blonde roots, she noticed) and a fairly slight frame. She was still wearing the chainmail tunic she had worn in battle. She seemed very tired.
"How are you feeling?" Callisto asked. Her voice was a little husky, but friendly. Gabrielle smiled weakly from her cot.
"Better." She said honestly. "Guess I have you to thank for that. Your name’s Callisto…right?"
Callisto nodded slightly. "And you’re Gabrielle. Former slave, bought by Xena two years ago, and incorporated into the so-called ‘freedom’ of New Greece. Live free under totalitarian rule…or else."
Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably under the warrior’s soft eyes. "How do you know so much about me?"
A shrug. "I read your arrest report while you were unconscious. Then did a quick check on your citizenship records."
"Why the big interest?" Gabrielle asked, a familiar anger seeping into her voice, "Planning on buying me for yourself?"
Callisto’s gaze fell, and she spoke on. "I was in the crowd during your…sentencing. I heard what you said, and I…"
Emotion crept into a voice that, Gabrielle could tell, wasn’t used to speaking such things. Instantly, she regretted her accusatory tone moments ago. Callisto continued.
"…I guess you reminded me a little of myself. I’m sorry I couldn’t prevent what happened to you."
"It’s okay…wounds heal." Gabrielle tried a smile, but it wasn’t returned.
"Not all wounds." Callisto whispered.
"We all had our reasons for doing it…Diomedes and the Wolves were out for justice, pure and simple. Jet, he was in it for revenge."
"Jet?" Gabrielle asked, "Who’s that?"
Callisto smirked a little. "My secret weapon. I ran into him a year and a half ago. He was an assassin whose brother tried to join Xena’s army. Xena didn’t deem him ‘worthy’ of service, however. She ordered him killed. He was tortured to death in the center of town."
"By the Gods…"
"Jet swore revenge when he heard of his brother’s death. Guess he has it now. I hope it brings him peace."
"And you?" Gabrielle wondered aloud, looking directly at Callisto, "What are you in this for?"
Callisto sighed deeply. She supposed this WAS why she had come here. To tell someone.
She laid her hand atop Gabrielle’s, and proceeded to tell the story of how her life had ended. And how it had begun again.
TO BE CONTINUED…
When Gabrielle was a little girl, back in Potodaia, she had always dreamed of being a bard when she grew up. Between Draco and Xena, those childhood dreams had been curtailed severely, and she hadn’t even thought about storytelling in years.
Hearing Callisto tell her tale now, though, brought those passions back with a vengeance. This warrior before her sure knew how to tell a story.
"When I was young, my village…Cirra…was attacked by Xena and her army. We gave them everything we had…money, jewels, food, weapons…but it wasn’t enough. Nothing could quench her appetite. She wanted blood.
"My father was one of those placed in charge of defending the village. He sent my Mother an I to a safe place…so we thought…away from where the fighting would be. I remember being very frightened. It had only been a year since my sister had been killed by the Erymanthian Boar, so my parents were all I had. I loved them very much.
"We could hear the sounds of the battle as the day drew on, and my Mother held me a tight as she could. Then, someone…someTHING, came upon us. It was a woman, but in shape only. It was some kind of monster, a demon from the pits of Tartarus. She tried to take my Mother and I away, and my Father, he tried to rescue us. But the monster, she…she killed him, she ran him through right in front of my eyes. And when my Mother tried to kill the demon, it burned her up. Just like that.
"And then it told me that I had to die, too.
"It left me then, to burn, just like my Mother. I would have died, too, but a man ran in and saved me, he…"
A strange look came over Callisto’s face just then, and she paused in her telling. Gabrielle looked concerned, and asked her what was wrong.
Callisto didn’t answer right away, as a powerful wave of deja vu crashed into her memories. Just for a second, she couldn’t shake the image of that man from the square a few days ago…the thief, who disappeared after stealing Xena’s gemstone. She could have sworn…
Enough, she decided, and shook such flights of fancy out of her head. She gave Gabrielle a quick smile to assure her all was well, then took a deep breath, and continued with her tale.
"The next few years are a blur. I swore on my life that I would kill the monsters who took my Parents…Xena, and the demon…no matter how long it took. I would visit on them the same pain they had given me. I trained day and night, travelling wherever I could, learning everything I thought I could use to kill them. I became a fierce warrior, and even managed to assemble an army. Anything, whatever it took. By the time Xena took Athens, my hands were just as bloody as hers.
"Then one day, after my men and I had sacked a village for supplies…a village a lot like Cirra, I suppose…I stopped by a stream to refresh myself. And as I stooped down to drink, I saw my reflection in the waters. And I screamed.
"I had become her."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked, almost frightened to hear the answer. Callisto had delivered the story so far in a brutal, matter-of-fact fashion. As if it had happened to someone else, an acquaintance perhaps. But now, her eyes had begun to finally reflect some of the emotion behind the words. A little anger, a little shame, and a lotta fear.
"The demon, the woman," Callisto replied numbly, her head shaking ever so slightly. "I had BECOME her. The eyes, the hair, the face…it was me! I looked at my reflection, and there before me was the monster who killed my family.
"If one of my men hadn’t happened along, I would have killed myself right then and there.
"I cut off almost all my hair, dyed what was left black, did anything I could to change that face that kept staring back at me in the mirror. But still, there she was, grinning and laughing at me. Nothing I did seemed to matter, until I realized…that I had been becoming her on the INSIDE as well. I was just as great a monster as she or Xena had ever been. In my relentless quest for ‘justice’, I had committed unspeakable crimes, and I justified it all to myself by claiming I was doing it for my family. But the truth was…I had all but forgotten them.
"Gods forgive me…"
The warrior’s head sagged as she slumped forward on her chair, her grip on Gabrielle’s hand falling away. Until the young girl on the cot reached out, taking Callisto’s scarred fingers within her own. She squeezed firmly and stared for a long time at the tired woman warrior, who was only now beginning to lose her ten year struggle to hold back a child’s tears.
"You remembered your family," she said softly, a vision of her own lost sister surfacing in her mind’s eye. Maybe I’ve forgotten a few things along the way myself, Gabrielle realized. "…you saw the evil, and you turned from it. You did the right thing, in the end."
"But will I stay that way?" She asked back, red rimmed eyes clouded with a sick fear that had plagued the girl for too long now. "Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I can still see her…looking back out at me…"
"You can do it. You’re NOT that person anymore, I know it. Believe in yourself!"
"I don’t know sometimes. I remember all the things I’ve done, and that day by the stream…and I feel so alone. Like the day they died. So alone."
With no small effort, Gabrielle sat up in her sickbed, and reached a hand out to Callisto’s face, turning it towards her own. As she looked in her sad eyes, she smiled.
"You’re not alone."