Title graphic of the Moonspeaker website. Small title graphic of the Moonspeaker website.

 
 
 
[This is kluge.]Where some ideas are stranger than others...

FICTION at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Beware Any Who Would See Here

"I just want to see."

"To see has consequences."

"I just want to be sure things work out."

"There is no way to be sure."

"What do you mean?"

"The future is ever and always in flux until it becomes the past. And even then it continues to change in memory, except for us."

"Except for you." Callisto fought back the urge to spit. She had never been able to get over her contempt for most other Goddesses. It was something that made her partner worry. There seemed to be something unhealthy in it.

"You speak to one of the Fates. This cannot surprise you." the tall Goddess stirred the waters of the pool they were standing over, disturbing tendrils of steam that rose from it.

Without looking closely — lay on your stomach and all but put an eye to it closely — it was difficult to tell if the pool was natural, or a chipped and hollowed out recess for collecting the warm waters that trickled down the gently glowing walls. The bluish phosphourescent light bled the colour from everything, bringing the characters carved around the edge of the pool into stark relief.

"Beware any who would see here."

A curiously double edged warning.

"Look, I just want to be sure everything works out right, that things are really set up the way Artemis said." Callisto sighed impatiently. Considering what she had been through in her life, surely it was reasonable to want to check?

"If you have come here doubting her word, then it is to her you should have gone to question, not the Fates." A surprising note of anger sounded in the otherwise dispassionate voice.

"The whole reason I came here was because you are neutral and aren't going to take her side or mine — or sugarcoat the truth."

"So you believe already that she has lied. And that you will see unhappy things."

"I didn't say that." Callisto rubbed her face. The Fate's words were uncomfortably close to the truth. Who knew the Fates played such mind games? "All I want is to be sure things work out, like I said before."

"Are you trying to see such a thing? It is not possible for me to show you. Faith in others, and a concern for others beyond yourself are all that can bring what you most wish. The rightness of events changes without ceasing." The Fate stirred the water again and it began to glow. "Many mortals misunderstand what my sisters and I do. We do not choose this or that prearranged thing for you. We see to it that the correct effects follow any given cause. Know this, to see what you think will be the future will alter it before you have left this place."

The thin blonde woman counted slowly to ten and dragged her fingers through her hair, resisting the urge to scratch her head. Back at the village Eponin had mentioned in passing that she always knew when Callisto was nervous or upset, because she kept scratching her head. Callisto didn't care to be so transparent to anyone, except Ephiny. "Look, haven't you said enough? I've made up my mind. Show me!"

"You wish to see for the wrong reasons. Harm will come of this. It is inevitable it should be so. It will poison all that gives you happiness. Still, the choice to walk away is open. If you insist I must show you, for to disrespect the decision of an independent being is against the ways of my kind. Nevertheless, I must warn you against this course." No one who came to see ever heeded this warning, except one, and that warrior would eventually meet a strange Fate indeed. It was somehow fitting that Xena of Amphipolis had learned the wisdom of being content with the future as it was — a mystery.

"Show me."

The Fate sighed.

The pool stilled, becoming glassy. But it wasn't the pool that held the image. Instead the image began to coalesce from the wisps of steam, first like a ghost, then strangely solid. A damp, warm moisture began to condense all over the stiff leather of Callisto's clothes and on her bare skin. She would be chilled later, for many reasons. Tinny voices became fuller, and Callisto struggled to focus on the picture. Suddenly, loud as someone bellowing in her ear, "Close your eyes, run away!"

"Dammit, you never give up, do you?" Callisto threw this in the general direction of where the Fate had been standing, but she was gone. Unbeknownst to Callisto she had been granted one last warning by one of the restless spirits who remained in the cave, struggling to prevent others when all else failed from repeating their mistake.

Arboria had suffered a mild flood, and Amazons were cheerily shovelling away the resulting goop and washing away the residue with buckets of water. A flood may not seem like a cheerful clean up event, but considering the village hadn't been washed away, and there wasn't a thumb's depth of muck on the bottom of every hut, they felt highly fortunate. An unfamiliar woman with silvery green eyes of Artemis' sort and startling ink black hair was patiently sluicing slippery silt off of the steps down to the launch the village had begun using to get down the first of the river terraces some time before. The rains over the past few seasons had washed it steep and dangerous to navigate otherwise.

Finished with the sluicing, the view followed her over to an unmistakably built and dark headed woman, Eponin's eldest daughter, but not thirteen winters old as she was now. Now she was a full grown and certainly very beautiful woman, very much in Eponin's image. Entirely opposed to Callisto's expectations, she wore the unmistakable regent's insignia that Callisto had long assumed her own daughter, named Melosa at Ephiny's gentle insistence, would eventually wear.

"How is it going, Otto?" The silvery green eyed woman's name was actually Otreros, but most people ignored that almost immediately.

"Oh, pretty well — the steps are safe again, and we've almost got things all cleaned up." Otreros hitched up her trousers and wiped at the sweat on her forehead with a bit of tattered linen.

"Excellent. Did the water interfere with the burial grounds at all?"

"Nope, we put up the wall just in time. We may have to relocate them all the same though, with the way the river's behaviour is changing."

"A nice roundabout way of pointing out we'll have to move the village. Who knew my goofy sister in law could be so subtle — or is the word circumspect?" Creidne grinned broadly and clapped an arm around the younger woman's shoulders. "Did you and Eomer have an argument or something? You hardly spoke to each other this morning, and that was before the flood."

Otreros frowned at the ground as they walked towards the foodhut for some well earned lunch. "Creidne..." A glance up revealed that stubborn expression the regent always got when someone was resisting her determination to take care of some member of her family. "Look — it's — maybe it isn't..." she stopped. "I don't want to share your sister with anyone, not even for one night." Then a group of laughing Amazons interrupted them.

Inside the hut, Creidne frowned and stopped by the cunningly built handwashing station to remove the evidence of the morning's work from her hands and under her fingernails. What the furk was Otto talking about? The person who could furnish the answer popped up beside her.

No one could explain Eomer at all. There was no biological connection between Eponin and her partner Morgan and the previous regent, Ephiny. And yet somehow, Eomer was in a thousand ways an absolute ringer for her. As a child she had had an unnerving habit of referring to 'when I was big before' and even now she still referred to a previous life she could clearly remember that seemed eerily similar to the late regent's. Lately she had become quieter though, and the memories were clearly plaguing her. Creidne could always tell when her youngest sister was remembering now, because she chewed her fingernails when upset.

Eomer began washing her own hands, expression distracted. Her sister watched her intently for a moment. "You shouldn't let these strange past visions darken your life today, Eomer." The younger woman looked up in some surprise.

"Oh, sorry Creidne. Didn't even see you there. They don't darken today, I just wish to understand them. I only consider them when a free moment allows." Eomer had a burring accent that was unmistakably Celtic, legacy of her birth and first several turns of the seasons in the lands of her grandmothers, which her parents had finally gone to see for a time. They still spoke mainly the northern language of that place at home, forcing Ephiny the younger — Eomer and Creidne's other sister — and Creidne to brush up their toes to keep up. They hadn't been happy at first, but now it seemed a fine thing, because they all loved to sing warrior's songs, and the language had thousands of songs of warrior women and Goddesses that had been made in it.

"Okay." Eomer always told the truth, even when it would be better not to, so Creidne had no doubt of the veracity of her sister's words. "So what has Otto so upset, huh? It worries me when you two argue."

"Oh..." Eomer rolled her yes. "I want to have a baby. She's balking because of that jealous streak she's got. We'll figure it out. Relax, Creidne. We'll be able to stick together this time." Her eyes went distant. "Would there had been a way to give her happiness too." 'Her' was clearly not Otreros. Creidne wondered uncomfortably who this mysterious 'her' was. Otreros was a shaman, and had come to the village to serve there, but it was a fact that Eomer was uncomfortably close to shaman status herself.

They moved on to the long table where the Queen and her family sat. Grey haired Xena looking rather fetching in a new set of blue-green leathers — 'It's a sin how good she looks at such an age.' Eponin had griped, sounding quite like her own mother, and making those who appreciated her own still handsome figure laugh behind their hands. For all her mild complaints about Xena's good fortune, she was still turning heads quite successfully. The Queen Mother was working on a scroll, quill gripped in one hand and a half-eaten apple in the other. Hair streaked with white, but all the more handsome for it. The current Queen, Reguleus leaned her head on one hand and watched her parents, her pale eyes thoughtful. At the moment a campaign to persuade her to marry the woman she had been 'carrying on with' as grandmother Cyrene referred to it was underway, and they had each said something interesting in regards to it. For her part, it wasn't the getting married part that was the issue — that would be great fun, and likely cause Autolykus, whose daughter Lykomedo was the woman being carried on with, to sputter and wave his hands in that funny way he usually did just after Lykomedo had picked his pocket. It was just getting Lykomedo to realize they could still go out and get into trouble periodically, as the Nation did have a regent.

Creidne and Eomer took their places at the table. After a few more moments Otreros arrived, only to be presented with a sprig of flowers by her wife. Following the blushing and the mandatory make up kiss that drew catcalls from all over the food hut, Otreros sat down and they put their heads together in discussion until the meal was being served. The shaman had a striking aptitude for languages, as did Eomer, and some time before they had settled on a curious language from east of Ionia that no one else understood to have private conversations in.

The meal was not one of the usual merry ones, and Callisto couldn't understand why until Reguleus called for quiet, and stood up. To Callisto's surprise, Artemis showed up towards the back of the room, her eyes haunted and sad looking.

"As is our wont on this day, let us send our prayers and good wishes to our lost sisters, especially those who left us so tragically twenty years ago." Reguleus paused, temporarily choked by some emotion. "To the late Regent Ephiny, and her consort, Callisto."

******

Callisto hardly remembered the trip to the temple, so furious was she. She spent a few moments kicking apart the altar and the benches. It was sorely tempting to tear at the roofless walls, despite the uproar this would cause. The other Amazons, fools that they were, would fix the damned place up again. She eyed the great tree, and went for her specialty, fireballs. "This place could use some light..." It was not to be. Instead of the fireball she expected, all she produced was a handful of half-hearted, sputtering sparks.

"Consider yourself lucky." Artemis spoke from the deepest shadow, but her eyes were glowing with rage. A temple was not invaded lightly by anyone. Even Ares stepped lightly in the sacred spaces of other deities, if he could bring himself to step inside.

"Lucky? Lucky?" Callisto spat on the ground. "You lied to me and say I should feel lucky?"

"Don't be ridiculous, I have done no such thing. You have seen a possible future, not the future." Artemis stepped forward slightly. "The future is always changing until it becomes the past. It is from this fact that hope comes."

"Oh, gee, so you can parrot what the Fates say. How nice. My powers have been disappearing for months, and now I see that somehow I'm going to die. What do you say to that?"

"The powers that ambrosia gives always fade away. The immortality it grants does not."

"Then how is it that I die?"

"I don't know. There are ways for any immortal being to die — hind's blood, poison from beneath the banks of the Lethe. But these things are extraordinarily difficult to get, and someone must desire to kill you to even try to attain them. Even then, they do not cause death as you understand it, having begun as a mortal, but dissolution. And in any case, who says that you die? What you saw was the shadow of one of many possible futures."

"You're just saying that to save your own bullshit reputation." snarled Callisto, ripping a good sized limb off of the tree.

"That is ENOUGH!" boomed Artemis, stepping out of the darkness. Callisto dropped the branch, taken aback even through her fury. The other Goddess was not wearing her usual dark, gold trimmed leathers, similar to those many Amazons favoured for festival wear. She was wearing bloody red leathers and heavy black armour, a dark sword strapped across her back. "Oh yes." Artemis said softly. "I came ready for your foolishness. Strange it is to me, to hear so much of you, and nothing at all of Ephiny, the one who loves you, who you say you love."

"Don't you try to turn this on me, this is about you!"

"I have told no lies. To you and Ephiny I gave a deep bond, a bond such that you would go together into death, as you both chose. It was no guarantee of immortality. Think on this Callisto, because even were someone to stab you through the heart with a dagger tainted with hind's blood, or fed you a cup of the Lethic poison, even so, you would not suffer dissolution. You would die in truth, and so have a chance to be reborn. No other immortal being has this."

"And of course you made a point to keep that to yourself until now." Callisto reached unconsciously for her own weapon.

"You are mistaken. Think hard before you draw your weapon here, Callisto. There is no way to take back such an action. Even Xena at her worst never dared such a thing."

"Xena — don't you dare compare me to the one who destroyed my family."

"She also helped you bring together a new family, and bring the souls of your lost loved ones rest." Artemis pointed out sharply. This was bad, very bad. Callisto was not merely angry. It was as if she had lost her mind. Again.

"We'll meet again." Callisto stormed out.

"Yes, we will." Artemis said quietly. "And I pray to the Great Mother that you have found your mind again before then." In the mean time, there were difficult things to do. Right now, Ephiny and Melosa, the sixteen winters old daughter she and Callisto had could well be in danger. Xena certainly was. It was hard to say who else — from what she could sense, Callisto's thoughts and emotions were absolutely chaotic. There was almost no way to predict what she would do. Almost. Artemis scowled, and vanished.

******

Word of the damage to Artemis' temple had flown around the village like wildfire. Angry and horrified Amazons had gathered in the village square, trying to find someone who knew what was happening. The younger Amazons, including Xantho and Reguleus, Xena and Gabrielle's young daughters had all been called back into the village so that only adult scouts were watching the perimeter. Melosa wandered in last, looking morose and depressed. Cervexa caught sight of her and sighed. Melosa was a wonderful, charming girl, plagued by depression. It was beginning to look like the tall healer would have to switch from the periodic herbs to the permanent ones, because the depression was coming in more frequent and frightening bouts, not least because Callisto had become so sharp and distant with her. The trouble was related to the girl's need for Callisto's attention, but the Goddess was oblivious, wrapped up in herself. Ephiny herself had an unconsciously wounded look because she too had become a distant second to whatever Callisto was obssessing over. All told, Cervexa disliked the situation from beginning to end. Until two turns of the seasons ago, Callisto had been doing marvelously well.

She had readjusted wonderfully, and was learning the empathy and understanding of others a grown adult needed with rapidity and ease. It had been well over a year since she had needed the depression lifting herbs herself. Together, Callisto and Cervexa had gone over the exercises the Goddess used to prevent herself from getting locked into a brooding, angry spiral. And then, then an old soldier who had once served in Callisto's army had passed through, and cast a bitter pill between Callisto's teeth. And from then on, all of the work, all of the effort, had vanished as if it had never been. Ephiny had wept for days in Cervexa's hut afterwards, unable to understand why she couldn't seem to be the bulwark that Gabrielle was for Xena. Slowly she had come to realize that Callisto didn't want a bulwark, because she believed she didn't need one. Admittedly, Ephiny didn't feel too much better after working this out. But the tears became cleansing ones after that, and she was able to return her full attention to Melosa, who had been valiantly fighting her own demons as secretly as possible, because she wanted to spare her suffering mother.

And in the meantime, Callisto had been spending more and more time in a deep depression of her own, alternately lashing out in fury and retreating to weep with exhaustion. The backwards and forwards nature of it was frightening, and no one quite knew how to handle her anymore.

Finally Gabrielle stepped into the front of the square, flanked by Artemis on one side and Xena on the other. She threaded her way through the crowd to her regent, who had just run in from the last few paces of a hunting trip. Word of what had happened had already reached her from the scouts. "Ephiny, we need to talk." Gabrielle told the regent quietly.

A bitter smile twisted the regent's lips. "No we don't. I already put two and two together."

There was really nothing left to say. The village had gone to high alert, and Artemis had already had a long talk with Cervexa. The questions now were what would Callisto do, and was there any way they could help her.

Gabrielle paced unhappily up and down her office. "There has to be a way to — to — fix this!" Xena sat sobrely by the fire, trying to clean her weapons in a non-obvious fashion. For her part, Artemis glared out the back window into the forest, chewing on her fingernails. A crisp tap on the door interrupted the tableau. "Come in?" Gabrielle looked towards the door in confusion. The first person to enter was Ephiny. The second was a woman so tall she was actually a forehead taller than Artemis. Dark haired with a distinct widow's peak, eyes so pale at first glance she looked blind, and a distinctly square jaw and forehead that was eerily reminiscent of Ares.

"Lachesis? What are you doing here?" Artemis blurted in surprise.

"I am here to tell you what was done." Lachesis glanced at Ephiny, twitching her long black robes into order. "Which may tell you what needs to be done." The Fate used no bardly devices, and within less than a candlemark they had heard everything, barring the specifics of what Callisto had seen.

"So she saw the future?" Gabrielle asked.

"She saw a possible future." corrected Lachesis.

"But once you offered Xena a chance to change everything, and..."

"All that we changed was a part of the past, from which grew an alternate present and future. It was the past we altered. Not the future, which cannot be altered in that way. The future is inalterable in that way, because we do not choose it. We simply see to it that the correct effects follow cause."

"And the effect of Callisto seeing a possible future is she throws away everything we've built together?" blurted Ephiny.

"Nothing so direct. To see the possible future of that moment is nearly always to poison your present and your future in your own mind. Often to poison your mind itself. The effects unfold from there." Lachesis' chilly voice was unnerving.

"Then why is the damned place Cal went to even there?" Ephiny was getting really angry now.

The Fate sighed. "It was created by Zeus, who wished to see that his power would always increase, until he became absolute owner and ruler of all things. Only, that was not the possible future he saw. He saw what his constant and never fulfilled hunger could bring. By the time my sisters and I understood what he had done, it was too late. It is not possible to destroy the pool, nor can we simply bar all beings from looking at what it shows. We do our best. We warn. We delay. Only once have we successfully turned a person away — because they must choose freely not to look."

"So what now?" Xena asked.

"Callisto is in great danger, from herself most of all. Can you save her from herself?" Her piece spoken, Lachesis gathered herself and moved to leave. "It is at such times as these, that I wish we could ignore the edict that those who refuse our help, no matter the reason, must be respected."

"Aye." Artemis whispered starkly, watching Lachesis go.

A silence followed, stretching out so long the village gradually came back to subdued life outside, and the cook began beating on a large pot to let people know dinner was ready before anymore was said.

"I see what has to be done. How wonderul it would be, to be blind." Ephiny said starkly. Gabrielle looked at her sharply. "Xena, you told me once, what you asked Gabrielle to do, if you ever went back to your old ways and there was no way to turn you back. I told you you were a vicious bastard, laying such a burden on her. To this day I can't believe you let me hit you. And until this moment, I never understood why you told me." The Regent stood up, tired, hurt, but no longer bowed. "What a gruesome choice of evils." Then she left, heading for the cold hut where her weapons hung to one side of the fireplace.

"You told her about that?" Gabrielle was livid.

"Yes I did, because it was something she needed to be aware of. What would have been worse Gabrielle? Having this happen and her never knowing what might have to be done and then being forced to live with the consequences of never having the chance to make the right choice, because she never knew what it was? What kind of friend to Ephiny would I have been then?" Xena threw the polishing cloth she had been applying to her chakram across the room.

"Horrible." the bard hissed. "This is horrible."

"I know." Xena put her face in her hands. Callisto made her own choices, but the warrior couldn't escape feeling guilty for the problems the Goddess had. The one time her army had gotten out of control, and even now the events of that day were reverbrating in great sickening ripples through other lives. "I wish I knew whether this was something Eph should be doing, or if it was me." The issues were hopelessly muddled.

"She has forgotten everything. She has forgotten her own past." Artemis whispered from where she stood staring out the window.

"What?" Warrior and bard chorussed together.

"She has forgotten her own past, what she has done that is dark. I told her long ago, that even though the memory of the past can be cruel, we need it, to avoid repeating the mistakes we made then." Artemis clutched a hand at one temple. "Forgotten."

"Mets?" Xena jerked to her feet. Artemis had been having spells like this lately, vicious headaches with sudden beginnings, related to an old, well-healed skull fracture. It was the result of an awful accident in which she had been struck in the head by a discus, and comatose as a result for nearly thirty turns of the seasons. Few realized that Artemis was the actual person who had lain endlessly sleeping on a hill where her mother Selene would sadly watch over her each night, and her other mother Themis each day, each of them talking to her and gently pleading with her to wake up. Even now, fully recovered in most ways, besides the time she had been sleeping, there was a gap in Artemis' memories of her youth. Not a sharply delineated gap but a ragged, untidy collection of half remembered events in what were mainly the wrong order.

"Okay — I'm okay. When I get stressed, then it hurts. It's my blood pressure — the time is coming when I must return to my fully divine form. We deities weren't meant to stand constantly in between the worlds, but to move back and forth." Taking a deep breath, Artemis glanced over at them. "All that can be done to keep Callisto from doing harm without harming her will be done. In truth I have never been fond of her, but I wish her no ill, and would see her succeed in life."

******

"There is a problem."

"Is it the same as before?"

"What do you mean?"

"Is it the same as before? Is it that she has beliefs without facts to support them? Angers without reasons? An insistence that in truth she rules all things, when in fact she rules only that over which she has power, and no more?" Erithakos finished speaking this long sentence in one breath, and continued to gaze with eerily unfocussed eyes across the mountains and hills. Callisto had been the subject of several arguments between mother and daughter, due to Ares' unfortunate role in some of Callisto's behaviour before she had given up warlording, and Erithakos' stubborn allegiance to the wishes of her sister. That sister being one of Ares' parents.

Erithakos was seated on a stone seat, her hands relaxed across its arms. In general it was just a stone seat. But Erithakos had a fondness for using it as a place to glance over the world from. She always seemed to be hunting for something. Or perhaps someone, these days.

"I hate it when you talk like your mother." Artemis muttered crossly. Erithakos had a twin sister, a few moments younger than her. And in personality Polumatheos was much more like herself. But Erithakos was much more like Lachesis, and as time went on it was becoming clear her ultimate task would involve the weaving of Fates. For her part, Artemis was certain that she disliked the idea. But it wasn't in her power to change it, and when centuries before Erithakos had agreed to fill in for her as Goddess of the Amazons so she could search for Cyrene, they had both been warned of consequences.

"I can't help that." Erithakos turned her head slightly to the west, eyes narrowing. "What do you need me to do this time?"

"I d..." Artemis stopped short. "You make it clear to me that I am hardly fair, coming always to you in these matters."

The other Goddess shrugged. "One day you will believe my motives are good ones again."

A long silence stretched between them. Erithakos' comment referred to an incident several moons before. Ares, in what Athena had flatly characterized as stupidity but many other deities could see was in fact desperation, had smashed his way into a mysterious temple set mostly underground deep in the wilds of Thrake. He had wanted an object of power from it. The trouble was, the penalty for entering the place was terrifyingly severe. The Furies had chased him all together in terrifying black, running him to the foot of Mount Taygete in Arkadia where he had fallen flat on his face, exhausted. A swift tribunal had been called. The Furies were the least of Ares' problems. He was considered so traitorous by the majority of the deities present, things had looked miserable for him. No matter what he said about his motives, no one believed a word who could help him. There was almost no way for anyone, not even his parents to find another chance for him, especially considering he had broken into the temple while powerless.

What no one had considered was Erithakos' own parentage, her connections to Ares' parents, or the powers she had inherited as eldest daughter of the second eldest Fate. Even now, secreted somewhere on her person was a thread representing Ares' life – or at least, so it was said. The theft of it had been daring, and clearly Lachesis had insured it would succeed. Erithakos had flatly refused to give it up when ordered, and been cast out of the tribunal and the council of Goddesses for her efforts. The person who was rumoured to actually have the thread, her younger sister Zapreus, had never been a council member anyway. She was eerily powerful and generally feared.

Lachesis had crisply put the thing in perspective in her own address to the council. "You will not enjoy undoing what you have decided today. We have already told you. There are only two who will finally decide his fate. And the time for the deciding has not come yet. Ares has a part to play still, before his time is over."

All the same, the end result was that Erithakos had been dropped into the 'untrustworthy' category, and even Artemis was having a hard time not keeping her in it. They were alike enough to argue, and unlike enough to be unable to understand each other. Cyrene was the one who really had some understanding of her, and when Artemis had described the situation to her, she had placed two pies in the oven and started a venison stew before saying, "Erithakos has a backbone of steel." The greatest compliment a person of Thrakian heritage could bestow.

"It may not be fair, but you are the only one I know of who can actually carry out what I need to ask." Seating herself on a boulder not far from the stone seat, the Amazon Goddess gazed intently for a moment at Erithakos, swathed in dark cloth, all but the articulated plates running over the tops of her feet, her head and face hidden. "Find Callisto. You sit up here regularly looking around. She won't suspect any pursuit if you see her."

"Hmmph." Erithakos kept her expression still. She had already found Callisto, as she looked slightly to the west. A variety of purposes kept her monitoring that direction. "Everyone wants to go to that forbidden temple these days. Ares wants the sword that is in it. Callisto wants to destroy the Goddess sequestered inside."

Artemis' face turned white. "What?! How did she?"

"Mad or no, Callisto is a highly intelligent person. She heard of the temple long ago, and has been teasing out the meaning and purpose of it ever since."

"And you stood by while this went on?"

"And I took the steps that were within my power, while this went on. Until now, the main danger was that Callisto might speak of it to someone with bad intentions. Her descent into madness has added to what I can do somewhat."

"And now she is the one with bad intentions." the older Goddess sounded ill.

"If I could change her, I could change what may happen. If I could change Ares, I could change what may happen." Erithakos turned to face her mother. "There is no way to change someone. Just the way to change can be shown to them. If they feel they do not need to change, then even if you were to lead them down the right path by the hand no change would happen." Her eyes shifted back towards the horizon. "I hate that truth."

"Yes." Artemis murmured softly. "You would. I begin to see why."

******

Xena saddled Argo with quick movements of her long arms. She was going to join the many Amazons who were going to track the maddened Goddess, hoping to catch up with her and somehow persuade Callisto not to do any harm. To wait and see if there was some other way to solve the problem. The unexpected leader of the hunters was Jenna, a youngish Amazon who was devastated at the way events had turned. Of all the women in the village, she had had the most faith in Callisto's change. She still did, and was convinced that Callisto had been slipped a drug or something of that sort, and this was causing the problem. Ordering Argo's mane to one side of her neck, Xena sighed. If only that would turn out to be true. A cold feeling ran up and down her spine. Keeping her gestures completely natural and expected for someone saddling a horse, Xena slipped a long dagger from its saddle sheath into one hand. Moving away from Argo, she slipped outside, looking around.

"Dammit, hope this doesn't take long and nobody gets hurt." the warrior muttered crossly. "I have to go help." Somehow, the aura she could feel seemed quite Callisto-ish.

"It's too late for that, bitch." The lights went out with a bang.

Callisto gave Xena a solid kick to be sure she was unconscious, then quickly dragged her away into the woods. By moving away from the warhorse Xena had made an unusual mistake, but it had occurred to Callisto that after being guarded friends for so long, the warrior would question her first 'danger here' response rather than attack immediately, if it seemed to be her. "You've gotten soft Xena, and stupid. Must run in the family." She began loosely tying loops of rawhide aound the warrior's powerful limbs. "Can't have my little plan work too fast, can we?" Then she added a set of heavy chains, meant to weigh the warrior's limbs down. Finished, Callisto threw Xena over the back of a restive, wild eyed horse. "Come on. Run fast, and you can get rid of me sooner." Jerking the horse's head around, Callisto headed straight for the strange and forbidden temple. Then she stopped.

"No, no no — no making two trips." Tying the horse to a tree, Callisto rifled through her saddlebags, managing to find a large square of soft leather. "Ink." The Goddess' eyes fell on Xena. "On second thought, I think this should be more effective."

******

For the second time in as many days, Arboria was in an uproar. But this time instead of being angry on behalf of Artemis, more than a few women were angry with her. Jenna in particular had become bold and loud in her denunciations. The square of soft leather pinned to a lintel stone of the temple with a dagger explained why.

"I don't give a flying shit about the Amazons, or even Gabrielle. I've got your precious Xena. Be at the forbidden temple before the second night of the dark Moon, or she dies. Slowly, painfully, and alive until the last possible moment. There's only one way to save her. You know what it is." The note was signed with Callisto's old warlording sigil. And there was no question of whose blood it was written in.

Gabrielle was beside herself with fury and worry. Her divine mother in law had turned up some two candlemarks before, and they had adjourned to Gabrielle's office. From where furious tirades on the theme of 'selfish,' 'singleminded,' and 'lousy mother' had been emanating. Not once had Artemis attempted to reply. For one thing, the bard was upset, and to be able to help her lover effectively would need all of the rage out of her system. For another, Artemis had been beating herself mentally over the head with a quite similar dialogue well before coming back to Arboria. There was no point trying to point out that in fact it wasn't clear what Callisto wanted, and that Artemis couldn't simply determine what a person was going to do at any given time. Worse yet, Xena, who could be stubborn to the point of suicidal bullheadedness, angrily refused to allow any of Artemis' undead Hunters to shadow her, even though Callisto's madness could logically be expected to endanger her.

"They'll kill Callisto and ask questions later — what kind of chance does that give her?" Xena had shouted angrily. Artemis had been getting shouted at a lot since she left Erithakos. She admitted to herself that she missed Erith's intense dislike of yelling at people, even though this did make her temper far more chilling for everyone who knew her. Polumatheos in the meanwhile, did tend to shout. And throw things.

Ah, speaking of which, Artemis sighed and ducked an inkwell. Gabrielle froze, more than a little stunned at her own actions.

"What do you say we go and haul Xena's butt out of trouble, and you can throw more things at me afterwards." She didn't know it, but Artemis' tone had gone empty and distant, the way Erith's tended to when she was upset. To her mind, this whole mess was a true catastrophe in every sense of the literal Greek verb. An overturning of things.

"I'm sorry..." Gabrielle whispered.

"No doubt you are."

The forbidden temple was three days away, hard riding. That was barely enough time to get there before Callisto's deadline, so the obvious option was to get Artemis to use her own Goddessly powers and transport them there. The obvious option was attempted. But instead of the expected result, Artemis had collapsed to the ground clutching her head in agony. She had writhed on the ground for several long moments, until even the recently arrived Cervexa had begun to look alarmed. Then her body had begun to fade, so much so the alarmed bystanders could see the gravelled path through it. The Goddess had pulled herself together with a shocking effort, and for several candlemarks afterwards her voice echoed disturbingly, as if she was speaking from the bottom of a well. "We ride." had been the most important of her pronouncements.

******

With slow, painful effort, Xena opened her eyes. Her head felt like someone had used it for an anvil, which was unsurprising. She didn't seem to be tied too tightly, which was surprising. Glancing carefully along the length of her body, the warrior saw that unfortunately while her bonds felt loose, some of them were chains that had been recently pinned to the stone floor, and despite attempts that left behind raw welts and rapidly darkening bruises, the chain cuffs were not large enough to pull a hand or foot through. No matter what, ease of escape was not going to happen. The room was fairly large, dimly lit by sputtering, smoky torches that stank of pine sap. A large, altarish looking block stood a few bodylengths from her, and an exit from the room was just visible beyond it. Six small streams ran down the walls of what Xena now understood was a round room, the water disappearing down small gaps between the floor and the walls. "Interesting." Xena muttered, turning her attention to the block that was in her way.

Even in the poor light, it could be seen to be a great, heavy stone box or block. The sides were carved with various scenes of Amazons arming themselves, carrying messages at a full run, taking their hunting dogs out. Riding horses, even a few at worship. The top looked carved, shaped into the form of a dead Amazon, her hands arranged across her chest, kitted out in full armour and gear. Xena squinted hard at this, and realized with crawling skin that the Amazon was no image, but an actual dead person. The small lines at the corners of her eyes and the unruly fall of her hair at the forehead and temples made her look young, and asleep. Facially she seemed unnervingly familiar. The rings she wore on her left hand glimmered in the smoky torchlight, a riding glove partially clasped in her palm, her right hand still gloved and resting underneath the left. Rather than the short skirts and brief tops Gabrielle and her tribe often wore, or the battle leathers Xena preferred, the Amazon wore sturdy trews, high riding boots, and a leather jacket over a slightly billowing shirt. The jacket had a high collar, and included join spots the quiver set at her feet would have hooked onto in life. A sword sat on the stone by her right side, a shattered labrys on the left, a curious marring of the pristine tidiness of the arrangement.

Xena cursed sharply under her breath. Closing her eyes, she struggled to silence every belief about the dead and tomb desecration her Thrakian heritage contained. The only thing worse than interfering with a tomb or grave was to disturb the body or bodies inside. Family and friend respectful visits were one thing, but the bits of stone torn out of the floor by the installation of her chains and the smelly, smoky torches made it clear this was no visit. By all accounts you couldn't be punished for desecrating a tomb you had been dumped in against your will, but seeing somebody punished for desecrating a tomb and meaning to do it was among the very last things Xena never wanted to know about. The sound of footsteps came to her ears, and she relaxed, to all appearances still unconscious.

Callisto stalked into the room, muttering to herself. "Time. No more time. Too bad, so sad. Doesn't matter if they're waiting outside." Pausing beside Xena, she dumped one of two buckets she had been carrying over her, then the second, checking the warrior was thoroughly drenched, including the rawhide. Several pieces of it would have cutting edges when fully dry, and these Callisto had carefully positioned over several major blood vessels. Xena was coughing and sputtering. "Awww — don't like that?" Callisto kicked her. "Too bad." Walking up to the dead Amazon, she glanced over her. "Lots of goodies for someone incapable of using them." She reached for the dead Amazon's left hand, and picking it up began tugging at one of the rings gracing the fingers. Callisto felt one loosen. "Good, good..." A sharp crack and Callisto was hurled across the room. On her feet again in an instant, eyes blazing, she hissed, "Who bothers to protect a dead body, huh?" Passing by Xena she gave the warrior another kick. Xena gritted her teeth. That kick had broken some things.

"Well Xena, you'll be pleased to know that I have been focussing my energies on ridding the world of a selfish and cruel Goddess. Of course, you'll probably wind up joining her, but that's hardly my fault. Fault is so complicated, like your army ruining my life wasn't your fault." Callisto kicked Xena's hands flat on the floor, and proceeded to stand on one.

"I have never claimed not to bear responsibility for what happened that night." Xena kept her voice normal with an effort.

"Of course you have. Everyone denies that they're at fault when they are — especially if they have any blood of the gods." spat Callisto, grinding a heel in.

"Is there any reason we're talking?" Xena's tone was tired.

"There's a reason I'm talking." snarled Callisto. Reaching down, she ripped the bolted ends of the chain out of the floor, and dragging her captive backwards jammed them through the beautiful carvings on the stone box, pinning her arms straight. "There's no way for you and your kind to win this one, Xena." Then she was gone.

Wincing as she tried to ease the pressure on her ribs and keep her broken hand still, Xena considered Callisto's words. "Logic suggests it's a good indicator of my own mental health that I don't understand her." The rapidly drying rawhide began to pull tight, and the water sluicing down the walls out of reach made her fiercely aware of her parched tongue and lips. "Reality prevents me from finding comfort in that."

******

The trip to the temple had been beyond nightmarish. They had ridden solid for a day and a half before taking any rest, Eponin, Ephiny, Artemis, Morgan Eponin's partner, and Jenna, who stoutly refused to be left behind. Artemis had given up paying attention to questions or comments, and withdrawn into herself, all but literally blinded by a migraine that would have dropped a centaur a stade away. Several times various other members of the party had turned and pulled the group to a stop in alarm when a glance back at the Goddess showed her weaving dangerously in the saddle. Now she was sitting some distance from the campfire, shivering as if with fever, her body sometimes fading visibly for a few moments.

The last sliver of the current Moon rose painfully into the sky as they started again, and Artemis took the lead, heading straight for what looked like a solid wall of bracken. "She's cutting us a way through, is she?" Jenna asked hopefully, looking around her compatriots. No one answered. For her part, Artemis simply vanished into the bracken, leaving the Amazons momentarily nonplussed. "It's a wall!" Gabrielle threw her hands up in disgust, and reached for her boot dagger, a gift from Xena this past winter solstice.

"No it isn't." Ephiny squinted a little. "There's a gap." There was, a cunningly concealed one, by a curtain of evil blackberry bush fronds, long thorns grabbing at clothes and cutting unwary hands. "Hang on." muttered Eponin, using a chobo to push the fronds back. Only a few bodylengths ahead, Artemis waited under a large tree, holding the side of her aching skull. Every insinct demanded she leave these people behind and protect all that the temple was meant to hide. Fighting that was far worse than suffering the headache, making it increasingly difficult to continue as she was.

The path was steep and winding now, some turns so tight, and the air so strangely dry and burning to breathe that the horses had to be left behind, and the Amazons continued on after the Goddess. Staggering to her knees with vertigo for the third time in close succession, Gabrielle stared bleary eyed and depressed upwards, vainly trying to see if there was any end to an endless feeling road. She glanced behind, and was shocked to feel an almost overwhelming urge to go straight back, to flee from an obviously unfriendly place. For several long moments she wavered, struggling to remember something. Something important...

"Don't forget your bag." Xena handed Gabrielle the object in question for the third time, with a patient, determined air.

"Look, I'm sure I won't need it..." the bard protested mildly. Just a quick meeting with the centaurs and back before lunch. She pushed her hair behind her ears and carefully straightened her diplomatic leathers — the ones Xena tended to denounce as the 'terminal wedgy leathers' based on the riding trousers that went with them. They were not cut at all for Gabrielle's body shape, and by all accounts this third and last meeting would be the last she would have to endure in them. The bag contained alternate clothes, a water bottle, and a lunch, although Gabrielle didn't know this. A few things Xena actually could cook, and one of her selected specialties was neatly wrapped in leaves and a bit of thick leather to keep it warm.

"Yes you will. Those meetings are never short, and by the time it's over you will not want those leathers on any more." Xena had learnt this the hard way while warlording. Being as as she knew about it, it seemed patently ridiculous not to her best to keep her partner from suffering. "Come on, trust me. Have one of your screaming fans carry it for you." A reference to a small group of Amazons in the ten to thirteen winters old range who tended to scream whenever Gabrielle happened to be close by. They were just a bit starstruck.

"One of my screaming fans?" Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief and gave up. "All right, all right." She slung the bag over one shoulder. "Happy?"

"Yes." Xena declared decisively, giving her a kiss.

Sprawled on the steep and winding path, Gabrielle finally lifted her head, feeling clear and lucid for the first time in what was now four days. Climbing slowly to her feet and stretching, she glanced skyward, expecting to see that the Moon had set, such as it was, and her companions far ahead. After all, the bard figured reasonably, the vertigo had obviously overcome her and she had passed out. The others were struggling just as hard, and this was why they hadn't noticed yet. In fact the Moon was right overhead, casting what feeble light it could down to the Earth. The other Amazons were audible just around the next corner, and Artemis was standing not far away, watching her through clouded eyes.

"What happened?" the bard's voice came out cracked and hoarse, as if she had been shouting loudly for candlemarks.

"The temple is forbidden. Numerous defenses are in place around it to drive away those who would force their way in." Artemis said softly, her own voice ragged.

"Not enough — who has all been making it through? Ares — Callisto — us?" Part of the story of what Ares had been up to had reached the Nation. The forbidden temple was actually famous, in a fearful sort of way. Most believed that it wasn't a real place but a horror story meant to titillate the listener.

"Extraordinary desperation, and extraordinary determination can overcome those defenses." Artemis dropped sharply to her knees, clutching her left hand under her right arm. "As is appropriate, after all, I have used those very things myself."

"What is wrong with you?"

"Have I ever explained to you how I managed to persuade my compatriots to let me find Cyrene?" Flexing her hand slowly, Artemis paused, staring at it as if she had never seen it before.

"No." Gabrielle tugged at the Goddess' shoulder. Artemis willingly lurched to her feet and they began to struggle up the path again.

"You must understand, I went into this uncontrollable state after waking in that tomb, and finding Xenoklea gone, gone beyond my reach, my sight — there was fear in the council. The only thing that returned my sanity was the realization she could be found. It would just take convincing Lachesis, and she is one of my oldest and dearest friends. Only Xenoklea — Cyrene — understands me better. I was sure she would agree." Artemis wiped her forehead with one sleeve. "And she did. But the council imposed conditions. What if I failed? They couldn't risk me rampaging around, undoing the fabric of the world before the time was right — and I can easily do that, you know." Gabrielle gulped. She was sure she hadn't wanted to know that. "So they insisted that I send a — a — sort of," Artemis waved the arm she had wrapped around Gabrielle's shoulders, nearly pitching them both to the ground. "A solid image of myself, to search, while my true body was imprisoned. In this way, if things didn't work out and if I had another obnoxious and world class tantrum, I'd be safely locked up and unable to do damage." A pause. "Perhaps a similar arrangement might have been appropriate for Callisto, for a time, to be on the safe side." The sombre walls of the forbidden temple came into view, the Amazons carefully examining it for doors and windows without much luck. "At first, the original plan would have left me accidentally defenseless. But Lachesis insisted on an amendment. If my true self gets in any danger in despite of all these defenses," Artemis stood up straight, realizing a bit belatedly that she was no easy load for the bard to hold up. "then I am free to defend myself. Do you know what Xena is like if you are an enemy who tries to hurt her in her sleep?"

"Deadly before her mind gets a chance to kick in." Gabrielle replied grimly. "Oh my gods..."

******

"And here it is." Callisto smiled cruelly, and carefully examined the hind's blood dagger. Hercules really was a fool. Any one who was determined enough could have retrieved it from where it was driven into stone, at Ares' Halls of War. She was the living proof. The first night of the dark Moon had arrived. "Well Xena, it took most of a night and day, but the posse's here." Callisto sneered. She had looked everywhere, examined every piece of information about this place that she remembered. And had at last come to the conclusion that the Amazon laying on the altarish looking box wasn't dead, but in a sort of suspended state. And she wasn't an Amazon, but a certain Amazon Goddess.

"Don't you think this is sort of ironic? Here, mortals are supposed to sacrifice to the gods, and here's the real Artemis, all ready to be sacrificed. Isn't it a pity."

Xena watched Callisto with glazed eyes. Between the cold, the lack of water, and the growing pain from her bonds, she had become feverish. Even so, the deep sadness in her eyes was unmistakable. "Don't do this, Callisto. Don't throw all the great things you've done, and the great things you've managed to earn like this."

"Great things!" Callisto snapped angrily. "What great things? I'm going to lose it all! What's the difference?"

"No, you aren't — Callisto, you didn't see what has to happen in that pool, you saw what could happen." Xena forced her eyes to focus. 'Somebody, something, help me get through to her.'

"How do you know?"

"Because I've been to that pool myself." For a moment, Xena felt certain it was a mistake to tell Callisto this. The willowy Goddess hurled herself on top of her and held her by the throat.

"And you looked?"

"No."

"No?! Why?"

"Because I remembered my past, and who made the pool, and realized it could only poison my mind." The warrior gathered her strength. "It would have been beyond my strength to fight that poison, Callisto. But I believe it's well within yours. Look what you've survived already." There was no more Xena could do or say to help either of them now.

Callisto wavered, the hind's blood dagger right within reach but laying on the floor. Her grip shifted down to Xena's chest armour. Silently, visibly she struggled to wrestle down the despair that had been plaguing her long before she had ever searched out the cursed pool. The guilt had been plaguing her, the feeling that she had had no right to live when her mother and sisters had died. The person who had seen what was going on was Melosa, who knew all too well how pernicious depression was.

"Come on, Mom. We'll get Cervexa to mix up some of the herbs for you, and we can all talk with Mama, okay? It's hard, but it'll work out, I swear." In all that anger, in that dark room in a forbidden place, Callisto saw something clearly. Melosa would overcome her demons. She would stand tall, and be able to put aside those herbs forever. Even if she decided to become a weaver in a backwater town somewhere in Greece, she would be a heroine, just for that.

Slowly, Callisto pulled the joining band from her finger. "Melosa needs Ephiny. She can't come with me. She has to stay. Tell her I'm sorry, I'm sorry I didn't think this through before. We should have waited." The harried Goddess had discovered many things while she roved about the temple, among them, how to dissolve the bond she had with Ephiny. That bond she was more than loathe to part with. But, anything else would be nothing less than one more murder to burn her conscience. Callisto would have no more of those. An old memory floated to the surface.

"Soul binding is not a complicated thing — yet it is more complicated than anything else — some say, it is safe — and others say, it cuts." Artemis' words, a lifetime ago, relative to the dark place Callisto stood in now. She had convinced herself that the only shadow over her happiness that night was that Ephiny was a mortal, and she was not. But in reality there had been many shadows.

"How could she not know?" hissed Callisto. "How could she not know about any of the other things bothering me? Isn't she supposed to be an all-knowing Goddess?" She angrily hurled her joining band into one of the wall streams, knowing that just as water made the bond, so water would wash it away.

"Such a bond cannot be dissolved. Such a bond can only be torn apart." Artemis' voice echoed around the room, seeming to emanate weirdly from the ceiling. "Until you chose to look into Zeus' pool, there were no other shadows. But you can overcome them Callisto. Just as you did before."

"I can't." Callisto's eyes filled with tears. "I can't do it — don't you understand, I'm so tired, I don't want to live forever, I want to get away — there's so much that hurts, I can't enjoy the great things."

Xena stared at her in shock. "Callisto, wait!"

Callisto swung the hind's blood dagger, but it bounced away from the supine Goddess as if she were surrounded by an invisible bubble of steel. The dagger lodged solidly just under Callisto's breasts, precisely in the centre of her chest. She staggered backwards. For several long, long breaths, her lips moved, clearly sorting through a few last words to say. None of them were spoken before she slipped bonelessly to the floor.

******

Unusually for a temple, this one was nondescript. No carvings or inlays graced the walls, no statues, no benches, no outdoor altars. The stone was dull grey and finegrained, the sort of stuff that looks sleek, black, and shiny in a good rain. Worst of all, nothing that even remotely resembled a door could be found. The Amazons had been running their hands over the stone, peering at it with torches, and even trying to chip at the stones until long after the Moon had set. By then Gabrielle had begun to pace, sorting through all she had ever heard about the place. Most of the stories skipped over getting to the temple or getting in, however. Except one, but what it said didn't make sense. Eponin glared at the empty wall in front of her. "We must be going about this all wrong — the big deal is this place is forbidden. Maybe it can't have an ordinary door."

"Yes, but there's no sign of other ways either." Morgan pointed out reasonably. "In the stories of my homeland, if there are no doors then there are crystal mountains you climb by donning bear's claws, or magic beans you plant and water to grow a ladder to the sky. I see no alternatives here at all, realistic or no."

"Me either, even though I've heard of one. Trouble is, it's far from realistic." sighed Gabrielle. Tired of picking her way in and out of the heavy tree roots that dissected the area in front of most of the temple, she stepped into the one empty space, which was curiously regular looking. "Whoever heard of the earth s..." the bard abruptly fell out of sight, through a hole previously covered over by tree branches and bracken. Until now, no one had stood on the spot, simply stepping over it as they moved to look at the temple from a new direction.

"Fine," Gabrielle's tone was vexed. "This is how you get in."

The others had to deal with the unpleasant prospect of dropping through the hole on purpose, as there were no steps and no matter how they lashed together bits of rope and pack straps, there just wasn't enough to allow them to shimmy downwards. The bard was certainly unhurt, and that was the only consolation. Artemis had followed dead last, tormented with lightheadedness the fall could only exacerbate. Which it did, leaving her semi-conscious while the Amazons turned their efforts to figuring out where to go next. Callisto had given them no pointers.

Three paths fanned out from the tiny, round room they had fallen into. The lack of regular human presence was emphasized by the lack of dust. Curious dried deposits were visible all around, looking like nothing so much as washtub rings. Drawing lots, everyone except Jenna and Artemis headed down a different passage, trying to get a sense of direction and length, no mean challenge with just small torches. Each of the passages proved to be straight with no branches. Those on the left and right smelt of sea water, bafflingly enough, and fresh air respectively. The centre one was dank and damp smelling instead, reminding Gabrielle, whose lot had been to check it, of a nasty sea cave she and Xena had washed up in once, after a shipwreck.

Artemis had mooted all of this work by stumbling to her feet at last and heading down the centre passage without even glancing at the others. Or at least, the effort seemed mooted. The passage seemed to go on for miles, and the Amazons to a woman had become heartily sick of reacting instead of acting when they came on a long, broad flight of steps. They seemed sound enough, and here at last, some sign of Xena and Callisto was visible. Marks from a body being dragged, and a plate from Callisto's ugly and thoroughly impractical old armour. The drag marks continued on down the steps, around a corner, and then almost invisibly through a variety of labyrinthine passages. Here Eponin and Jenna stepped up and began tracking. Gabrielle came up doggedly behind, even as Ephiny drew her sword, feeling increasingly threatened by the heavy darkness.

Far behind, Artemis stumbled along. Beyond the first leg, she had no idea where to go. The knowledge was hidden from her, since knowing about the rest of the insides of the temple would defeat the whole purpose of binding her body in it. Why even the first leg was known to her had the sick Goddess deeply puzzled. Things kept fading in and out around her, to her eyes, which the Amazons saw as her body fading in and out. It was like lucid dreaming, on the very edge of wakefulness, when the sounds and smells of real life have begun to intrude in a way that can no longer be woven into the dreamscape. The smell of water, and blood, and air that didn't circulate near enough refused to leave her nostrils, and Artemis kept intermittently hearing Xena, peptalking herself for another attempt at releasing herself.

"Gabrielle," Artemis called ahead. Startled, the other women turned to look at her. "No matter what, don't touch anything." Not quite clear enough. Artemis gathered herself to improve on that. The chance never came, as suddenly the scene disappeared, and all she could see was the back of her eyelids, and hear running water and Xena's rattling breaths.

******

The sudden disappearance of the Goddess was shoved out of the minds of the Amazons by Ephiny, who suddenly dropped her sword, clutching her chest. She jerked the joining band off of her finger, and it dropped on the floor, bounced twice, and rolled away, falling down a small opening by the base of the wall, one of many such openings that had first begun to appear nearly a candlemark before. "Ephiny," Gabrielle hurried forward, wrapping both arms around her friend, who was obviously in serious pain. "your ring..."

"That ring is the least of our worries." grated Eponin. Water had begun to rise from the openings, creeping across the floor with unnerving rapidity. The smell and look of it was unmistakably sea-like, although how seawater could even make it there was far from clear. She had had a problem with Callisto's rapid installation into the Nation and into Ephiny's life from the beginning. The regent had been terribly vulnerable when Callisto had arrived, lonely and hurting from chances missed on hearing of the death of Arboria's former shaman, killed in the course of defending the village she had moved to winters before from raiders. Ephiny had made up her mind to mend their relationship, which had been in tatters and the reason the shaman had left Arboria behind. It had become clear to Ephiny that she was still in love with the prickly shaman, and so it was time to be brave and act. Only to arrive in time to see the shaman die. For awhile after that, Ephiny had been on a bit of a womanizing tear, having an understandably tough time with what had happened. And then there had been Callisto, just in time to play the rebound. Eponin shook herself. "Bigger fish, weaponmaster." she told herself.

Getting Ephiny to her feet, they headed in the only direction they could, forward, following the now clear path Callisto had made. It was the only direction because that was the way Xena and Callisto had gone, and because it was the only way that trended upward, ahead of the rapidly rising water. Jenna hurried a little ahead, slipping a little and catching herself against a large mural, the first of its kind in the temple so far. It sank back a little, and an odd, hollow boom sounded somewhere.

******

The first sound she heard was water, running water. Everywhere, from all directions. The temperature was brutally cold, and her body felt weighed down. A sensible feeling, given its covering of heavy leather and bits of armour, all sopping wet. The water really was everywhere. Lucky she couldn't drown, being the daughter of a Goddess who rules the abyssal sea. Speaking of sea, the water was salty. Now surely that wasn't right? Fed up with the heavy clothing which kept her from moving, and therefore swimming, she shrugged it off. A dull throbbing on one side of her head, augmented by the sharper pain from where she hit the back of it on something hard made her realize she would need to open her eyes, or else belt herself senseless on something.

Artemis struggled upright, disoriented. She was floating gently over a sort of altar it looked like, without a stitch on, in the midst of a room that was rapidly filing with sea water via six streams arranged around its round circumference. Things were still not going together properly, apparently. Getting her limbs coordinated, she slid gracefully through the water, and glanced down. Only to see two figures, one cruelly bound by chains to the altar, the other sprawled on the floor, the hilt of a dagger protruding from her chest, expression weirdly peaceful. Things suddenly began to go together properly.

"Xena." Artemis tried to say, and made a loud blurping noise instead. If the situation hadn't been so serious, the moment might have been comic. How long had Xena been down there? Gritting her teeth and pushing back the sense of how horrible being chained down and drowning had to be, she eeled downwards, yanking the chains loose easily, and then breaking their cuffs. The warrior's body promptly began to bob upwards, but remained boneless.

Shaking water out of her eyes, spitting water, and grimly judging how much time there was before the room filled, Artemis began the worrisome task of convincing her daughter to breathe again. All of the mortal methods failed. Artemis began to feel the distinct, crawling sensation of fear. "Well, if I'm scared, you're more scared, so I say this is clearly a time to cheat." Swimming strongly for where she could sense the thinnest amount of ceiling overhead, Artemis placed her hands on either side of Xena's face. She took a deep breath. Xena gagged and choked, spitting gouts of water all over her hapless parent.

"Oh. Ewww. Okay, well, I guess you didn't need me to help." Dunking herself quickly to rinse her face, Artemis turned her attention to the ceiling above, now only a forearm'slength from their heads.

"Mets? Callisto, help Callisto..." Xena began thrashing about.

"Hey, stop that!" Artemis tightened her grip on the other woman and continued poking at the ceiling.

"Mets — where are your clothes? Where are we? What's going on? Why am I tied up?" Turning her attention to the rawhide.

"I know, very hard to do, but try to relax." Artemis neatly dissolved the rawhide, then went right back to prodding the ceiling. "Ah hah." Driving a fist into one particular spot. Mortar and bits of stone fell around them, then Artemis hurled the flagstone upwards and out of the way, threw Xena up right behind, then clambered out herself.

"You haven't answered any of my questions." Xena said in a sharp, stressd tone. Rising with an effort, she folded her arms tightly, trying to warm up.

"More pressing matters just then, and just now." Artemis dug around in the alcoves around the new room, until she found some curtains. "Here." The curtains were made of a heavy, brocaded cloth and would serve as good impromptu blankets. Having surrendered one to Xena, Artemis wrapped herself in the other. "Let's go find the posse." Xena winced. "What?"

"Never mind." Puzzled by her daughter's reaction, Artemis motioned her ahead, and they headed upwards, where Artemis could sense a small group of worried Amazons.

******

The alarmed Amazons in question were finding it impossible to find any door into the round chamber Callisto's trail had led them to. The water was creeping rapidly in after them, and Jenna had finally admitted she couldn't swim, adding to the tension. Ephiny was helping out as best she could, working around a bloody nose and an upset stomach doggedly. Gabrielle, Eponin, and Morgan had found a surprisingly weak spot in the wall across from the chamber, and deciding to see what was behind it, they had proceeded to hurriedly haul it apart. An ominous rumbling gave them pause. "What is that?" Eponin asked uncomfortably. "It sounds like the sea..." Morgan's answer was knocked out of earshot by a blast of water that carried Artemis and Xena on top of it, almost driving them both into the side of the chamber. As it was, Artemis took the brunt of the blow, loosing her wind and nearly dropping her injured daughter.

"Xena!" Gabrielle grabbed her partner.

"Where's Cal?" Ephiny shouted at Artemis over the roaring water, managing to swim clumsily out of the way of whirling debris. Jenna was flailing around, struggling to take in Morgan's impromptu swimming lessons.

"Inside that chamber, I'm afraid. Bringing her out too was beyond my strength." Artemis replied. Her bronzed skin and crisp, trimmed looking hair were at wild odds with the curtain, which she had tied off into an impromptu chiton by tearing off the sash at its bottom and using it as a belt.

"She's still in there alive?" Ephiny blurted furiously.

The Goddess stared at her in puzzlement. "Didn't you hear what I said? It was beyond my strength to bring her out. She is not alive." Ephiny nearly went under in shock, and Gabrielle glared at her mother in law, feeling her earlier anger spring to life again.

"What are you thinking? Don't you have any feelings?"

"What is she talking about?" Xena took the deepest breath she could manage. During their hurried trip from the empty room only to be caught up in a huge current of sea water blasting in from somewhere, she had been able to figure out that Artemis had more than a few blank spots in regards to the immediate past. Finding Cyrene was right up there, as was her identity, but beyond that, Xena had found that Artemis seemed to remember nothing. Frustrating, but probably for the best, at least right now.

"Gabrielle, she doesn't remember about Eph and Callisto just now. The water's getting higher, we have to get out. Mets?" Xena grimmaced, and pulled the impromptu splint on her hand tighter, another product of Artemis' partially disassembled curtain.

"You don't know how to get out?" Artemis asked in alarm.

"Yes we do, but it's full of water that way." cut in Eponin.

"Oh." Artemis frowned. "I certainly don't know the way out, I'm not supposed to."

"Wait," Morgan shouted. "There's an opening up there." High over there heads, they could just see the dawn's light through a ragged opening. Due to the rising water, they had only to tread it until they were within arm's length to what looked like their only way out, and an uncertain one at that.

Astonishingly, the stone was in bad shape there as it had been at the wall, and they pushed it aside and climbed out, finding themselves perched atop the forbidden temple, looking out across the twisted forest and the twisted path through it. "Damn," muttered Gabrielle. "this is where the stories say Ares came out." The time to ponder this was cut short by the temple, which began to sink.

"Aw crap!" exploded Eponin. The leap off the temple to reasonably solid ground reasonably clear of trees was no easy thing with two people barely able to stand, but they managed it, even as the temple began to list and splashes of salt water began to stretch across its roof. Within moments, it was gone, replaced by a deep salt water lake, produced by a spring delved by Themis' determined hands, to carry the sea all the way to that place.

******

Arboria had suffered a mild flood, and Amazons were cheerily shovelling away the resulting goop and washing away the residue with buckets of water. A flood may not seem like a cheerful clean up event, but considering the village hadn't been washed away, and there wasn't a thumb's depth of muck on the bottom of every hut, they felt highly fortunate. An unfamiliar woman with silvery green eyes of Artemis' sort and startling ink black hair was patiently sluicing slippery silt off of the steps down to the launch the village had begun using to get down the first of the river terraces some time before. The rains over the past few seasons had washed it steep and dangerous to navigate otherwise.

Finished with the sluicing, she strode over to an unmistakably built and dark headed woman, Eponin's eldest daughter. She wore the unmistakable regent's insignia that her aunt Ephiny had passed on to her. Ephiny the Elder had never expected to choose Arboria's next regent, but the Queen Mother had flatly insisted. "You know the job best. You know who's best suited for it." Melosa, daughter of Ephiny the Elder and Callisto worked sturdily not far away, leading a relay of other sluicers. Slick mud covered most of her leathers, but somehow she had managed to keep her badge of office as leader of the regular village guard shiny as ever.

"How is it going, Otto?" The silvery green eyed woman's name was actually Otreros, but most people ignored that almost immediately.

"Oh, pretty well — the steps are safe again, and we've almost got things all cleaned up." Otreros hitched up her trousers and wiped at the sweat on her forehead with a bit of tattered linen. "You're amazing, Mel. How have you kept that thing clean and kept up such a rhythmic relay?" She called to Melosa, who cheerfully tossed a mudball at her without missing a beat.

"Excellent. Did the water interfere with the burial grounds at all?"

"Nope, we put up the wall just in time. We may have to relocate them all the same though, with the way the river's behaviour is changing."

"A nice roundabout way of pointing out we'll have to move the village. Who knew my goofy sister in law could be so subtle — or is the word circumspect?" Creidne grinned broadly and clapped an arm around the younger woman's shoulders. "Did you and Eomer have an argument or something? You hardly spoke to each other this morning, and that was before the flood."

Otreros frowned at the ground as they walked towards the foodhut for some well earned lunch. "Creidne..." A glance up revealed that stubborn expression the regent always got when someone was resisting her determination to take care of some member of her family. "Look — it's — maybe it isn't..." she stopped. "I don't want to share your sister with anyone, not even for one night." Then a group of laughing Amazons interrupted them.

Inside the hut, Creidne frowned and stopped by the cunningly built handwashing station to remove the evidence of the morning's work from her hands and under her fingernails. What the furk was Otto talking about? The person who could furnish the answer popped up beside her.

No one could explain Eomer at all. There was no biological connection between Eponin, her partner Morgan and the previous regent. And yet somehow, Eomer was in a thousand ways an absolute ringer for her. As a child she had had an unnerving habit of referring to 'when I was big before' and even now she still referred to a previous life she could clearly remember that seemed eerily similar to the late regent's. Which she regularly repeated details of that no story ever told. She always became quiet and sombre around this time of the year, when the anniversary of Callisto's death came.

Eomer began washing her own hands, expression distracted. Her sister watched her intently for a moment. "You shouldn't let these strange past visions darken your life today, Eomer." The younger woman looked up in some surprise.

"Oh, sorry Creidne. Didn't even see you there. They don't darken today, I just wish to understand them. I only consider them when a free moment allows." Eomer had a burring accent that was unmistakably Celtic, legacy of her birth and first several turns of the seasons in the lands of her grandmothers, which her parents had finally gone to see for a time. They still spoke mainly the northern language of that place at home, forcing Ephiny the younger — Eomer and Creidne's other sister — and Creidne to brush up their toes to keep up. They hadn't been happy at first, but now it seemed a fine thing, because they all loved to sing warrior's songs, and the language had a thousands of songs of warrior women and Goddesses that had been made in it.

"Okay." Eomer always told the truth, even when it would be better not to, so Creidne had no doubt of the veracity of her sister's words. "So what has Otto so upset, huh? It worries me when you two argue."

"Oh..." Eomer rolled her yes. "I want to have a baby. She's balking because of that jealous streak she's got. We'll figure it out. Relax, Creidne. We'll be able to stick together this time." Creidne sighed uncomfortably. Otreros was a shaman, and had come to the village to serve there, but it was a fact that Eomer was uncomfortably close to shaman status herself, what with her references to a past life and all the rest.

They moved on to the long table where the Queen and her family sat. Grey haired Xena looking rather fetching in a new set of blue-green leathers — 'It's a sin how good she looks at such an age.' Eponin had griped, sounding quite like her own mother, and making those who appreciated her own still handsome figure laugh behind their hands. For all her mild complaints about Xena's good fortune, she was still turning heads quite successfully. The Queen Mother was working on a scroll, quill gripped in one hand and a half-eaten apple in the other. Hair streaked with white, but all the more handsome for it. The current Queen, Reguleus leaned her head on one hand and watched her parents, her pale eyes thoughtful. At the moment a campaign to persuade her to marry the woman she had been 'carrying on with' as grandmother Cyrene referred to it was underway, and they had each said something interesting in regards to it. For her part, it wasn't the getting married part that was the issue — that would be great fun, and likely cause Autolykus, whose daughter Lykomedo was the woman being carried on with, to sputter and wave his hands in that funny way he usually did just after Lykomedo had picked his pocket. It was just getting Lykomedo to realize they could still go out on trips and get into trouble periodically, as the Nation did have a regent.

Creidne and Eomer took their places at the table. After a few more moments Otreros arrived, only to be presented with a sprig of flowers by her wife. Following the blushing and the mandatory make up kiss that drew catcalls from all over the food hut, Otreros sat down and they put their heads together in discussion until the meal was being served. The shaman had a striking aptitude for languages, as did Eomer, and some time before they had settled on a curious language from east of Ionia that no one else understood to have private conversations in.

Someone began telling a story about the previous regent, who had passed away suddenly thirty winters ago now, in her sleep. Her heart had never recovered from the beating it took in the forbidden temple. Still, Ephiny the Elder had been at peace, assured of her daughter's good health and reasonably assured that Callisto would have a chance at a new life, unshadowed by the terrors and sadnesses of the former one. There were of course, no guarantees, but Ephiny had been satisfied that the way had been open.

On the regent's birthday two winters after Ephiny the Elder's passing, Eomer had popped into the world, much to the surprise of her parents, who had not planned on having any more children. Eponin had been ribbed mercilessly on being able to match Xena on all counts after all, and Morgan had simply set about enjoying her unexpected daughter, who even at a week old bore a striking resemblance to the former regent, with her golden, ringleted hair and eyes that rapidly changed from nondescript blue to flashing grey. Little Eomer was a happy, laughing child, who didn't start talking before she was four winters old, when Otreros, herself barely five winters old had arrived with her parents. The healer had said Eomer just hadn't been ready to talk yet.

Which was of course, no explanation at all.

- The End

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Sunday, November 25, 2012 20:17:21 MDT