Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Once upon a time, there was a little girl. Now of course, there are many women, and teenagers, and juveniles, and small girls, so this beginning belongs to many people. Here perforce our concern is with only one. This particular little girl was fair-headed and dark-eyed, the apple of her mother's eye. Her father had abandoned them long ago leaving them to make their way along with several of the little girl's siblings in a small town with a name of fire. Since the little girl's mother was a priestess at Artemis' great temple in Cirrha and was originally from Arkadia besides, it had seemed only natural to name her daughters with titles of her beloved Goddess. And to her youngest, who began the world as a small, wizened child, curiously old before her time although she rapidly filled out and ceased to be apparently different from the other children, she bequeathed the name of Kallisto.
Kallisto, a fine name; it means after all, 'She Who is the Most Beautiful.' But it also has an older meaning, which is also the same as the meaning Kallisto's mother was thinking of, although few realize it now. That meaning is 'She Who Consumes All' that is, 'She Who is Time.'
Like most people with such names, the little girl lead quite an ordinary life in the port town. Even the continuous traffic to and from Delphi raised no real interest. After all, Cirrha had been the main port for Delphi since anyone could remember. Only the petitioners considered themselves special. Some weren't petitioners so much as tourists, especially the barbarians from north of Magna Graecia. One of them in particular loved to regale his companions by claiming that the Pythia consumed a drug and began to writhe and moan, flashing her body obscenely and muttering gibberish that the priests interpreted. That this story was utterly untrue didn't seem to bother him at all. The priestess was always completely sobre for the purpose of prophesying, scrying from a bowl. The priests who had installed themselves at sword point some centuries ago made every effort to prevent her answers from being heard. Interfering with the querent, making 'sacral music,' knocking bundles of hemp and laurel into the torches, filling the sacred precinct with acrid smoke. For a time they had gone so far as to preempt the priestess altogether and attempt to prophesy in her place. This worked out poorly.
No querent believed any word that was said to them. The torches wouldn't stay lit. Until that moment, no priest had ever entered the precinct. The high priest decided he would do so and show the true power of prophesy rested only with men. He burst into the precinct, which was empty; he breathed the sacred vapours. At first all seemed well. The other men slapped each other on the back and opened amphorae of wine to celebrate. Apollo had well and truly triumphed after all. They didn't even bother to mix the wine, instead drinking the thick draughts from cups with designs painted in their bottoms that the unmixed drink hid from sight.
Then the high priest began to speak. Everyone froze to listen. To their horror, he made no prophetic utterances. He babbled and gibbered with terror. He lurched around the room, throwing himself against the walls, as if searching for the door. He moaned that the walls were collapsing on him and everything was on fire. Suddenly he began to scream, absolutely convinced that large, crawling insects were swarming up his body. By now the others were too terrified to enter the precinct. But the screaming didn't last long. The high priest was a portly and sedentary man. Later the doctor would declare that his heart had burst. Whatever happened, he collapsed to his face on the floor, which was smoothed from the days before the priests of Apollo came, and anyone could step into the precinct, although the unprepared never breathed the vapours.
The Pythia entered the precinct and spoke in a voice of thunder. "At last you have what you desire. The Goddess is leaving this place; there will be no protection for anyone from the likes of you." And then she left. Moments later, the earth began to quake, and the temple staff fled the Delphic cliffs. When they returned, the vapours had ceased rising and all the priestesses were gone. Yet still petitioners came. Quickly a new priestesshood was instituted, whereby an older woman of Delphi was chosen by lot to serve as Pythia. Information was carefully gathered about every querent so that she could frame an appropriately ambiguous answer where necessary. But soon, the questions devolved to those for which approval was expected. "Shall we institute the yearly sacrifice of a bull to Poseidon in gratitude for the end of the floods as we promised?" and the like.
Curiously, this turned out to be a good thing for Cirrha, or so it seemed. Petitioners came from everywhere the Greeks traded. Fortunes were made from the booming inn and guide businesses. A new temple was built for Leto, whom the Greeks had decided must be Artemis' mother, and a still larger one for Apollo, representing his triumph over Gaea. Periodically someone pointed to the strange tholos temple that was in sight of the outskirts of town, dedicated to a now mysterious Goddess. "Pull it down and use the marble somewhere else." was the cry of the oligarchs every year for ten years. Until at last, enough strange incidents had happened to the wrecking crews that no one would go near it. Weather and earthquake would ruin the temple, or nothing at all. To try to use what had already fallen led to misfortune. The fallen ceiling tiles had been added to Apollo's temple. It had promptly been struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
This was all mainly a matter of indifference to Kallisto, who grew up in and around Artemis' faintly shabby temple, so often overlooked by those who now claimed she was not a healer at all, but a causer of disease. An attitude that appalled visiting Ephesians, who often responded by helping the priestesses with their work. So Kallisto heard of many places, and even got to learn to read and write while helping her mother with the incense and vegetable offerings. The wine offered was always red, which frightened her because it looked like blood, and her mother followed tradition in regards to sacrifices. No children were present at animal sacrifices, only youths, young people who had reached puberty, and grown adults. Nowadays things had shifted back to the way they had been before with respect to Artemis' temple; no males came there, unless they were babes still swaddled and carried by their mothers. Apollo's temple was for 'men.'
One day, when Kallisto was in her eighth year, she was climbing trees outside. The common pursuit of a small child, especially in this part of the Greek world, where Athenian mores were mainly laughed at as ridiculous. Not for the right reasons, necessarily.
Perched high up in her favourite tree, where Kallisto could look into the forests that staggered up the knees of the mountains, and imagine she saw the flickers of light off of the burning glasses used by the priestesses, something new caught her eye. To the southwest, a column of smoke. Thick smoke, acrid looking and predominantly black. A periodic orange flash raised the hairs on the little girls' neck. She had seen big fires on the mountain, usually caused by lightning. They would get so hot that they would burn even the wettest tinder, shooting orange flame high into the sky along with puffs of dark smoke. But there wasn't any forest to the southwest. There were farms, towns, cities. Kallisto scrambled down from the tree.
She quickly made her way back into the main part of town, where the community leaders were gathering in an unruly, nervous crowd in the town square. As might be expected of a town that served as the gateway to Delphi, they were trying to decide if they should decide what to do about the raiding to the southwest in the local temple of Apollo, or head up to the oracle for advice. But the Pythia prophesied only one day of each month, and the number of foreign querents was high. Even if they undertook the journey, there was no guarantee of seeing the priestess. Kallisto's mother watched them keenly from the doorway of Artemis' temple, face expressionless.
"Well, what have you to say then?" the head councillor growled at her. He didn't care for women in general, and priestesses of Artemis impressed him even less. But Cirrha got its bread rather more directly from the gods than most, so he considered it politic to ungraciously inquire, although he had no intention of paying attention to what he was told.
"Last night, as I cleared away the ashes of the sacrificial fire, Holy Artemis did grant me a vision." Kallisto's mother declared simply, expression still strangely mute.
"And no doubt she will save us if only we would worship her." sneered someone from a position where the priestess couldn't see them.
"Nothing so simple, or so trite." She twitched her robes and turned away from them. "I can see that you are not interested."
"Wait, please." One of the younger councillors hurried forward. "What did you see?"
Kallisto's mother paused. She had caught sight of her daughter, who had worked her way up onto the shoulders of one of the smaller statues that ran along either side of the path to the temple door. They were ancient dedications in honour of revered priestesses who had passed away in office after many years of service. She motioned for Kallisto to go inside.
"Well?" snapped the head councillor, losing patience.
Finally the priestess turned, having seen Kallisto move obediently to go into the temple, out of earshot. "Misfortune will come to us if we think to depend upon the kindness of Apollo. He stays in Delphi, and broods over the Sight that will not come to him, the Sound he cannot hear, and the things he cannot Touch. Mere mortals are of no interest, when the power to control the future seems so close. The ones who are coming are driven by no god, and cannot be driven away by prayers and incense. We must take up arms; so Artemis did say to me, showing Apollo as he paces angrily around Mount Parnassus, searching for power, fruitlessly ordering the Muses to appear. But this is not all that I saw. Artemis did show me the fate of our home, if we do not take care of the water." She paused.
"Fire. Burning fire. That was what I was shown. Choking fire leaping from building to building, between tree and tree. Air so hot that it destroys the lungs of those who breathe it, if the smoke has not suffocated them first. Death, death at home in innocent beds, as the flame engulfs buildings faster than the people inside can wake to flee or others quell the flames."
For a few moments the air had the feeling of a place where lightning was about to strike. The head councillor broke the silence with a loud snort. "What claptrap is this? Cleaning the ashes of the sacrificial fire indeed! Clearly you were drunk among the embers. Cirrha is holy, it partakes of the same divine favour that Delphi does. Are we not the gateway to the oracle? And why should we fear fire? Look around you! This is a port city, we have all the ocean against fire, the river and three springs besides. Nonsense." And then the councillors moved away, feeling of much better cheer, and decided to adjourn to a tavern to decide on a course of action there.
"I was not finished." Kallisto's mother murmured sadly. "For Artemis showed me also that no one would believe me."
Kallisto stood still just inside the temple door, horrified by what she had heard, even as she struggled to understand it. There was burning, and death, in her mother's vision. Why would Artemis frighten her mother so, and then stand by and allow her mother to be humiliated?
The raiding and pillaging continued in the southwest, yet somehow never seemed to come close to Cirrha. After two months of unrelieved tension, the town's inhabitants began to feel that the head councillor was right after all. They really did have nothing to fear. Things returned to normal.
Kallisto's mother carefully set out the table for the day's offerings in the temple of Artemis, humming softly over her work. She couldn't spend as much time in the temple as she liked these days. Thanks to the new doctors, followers of Apollo, it was no longer possible for her to practice her own healing skills openly. This meant also that she had little help with gathering the herbs and minerals she needed. So daily she had to gather, set things out to dry, grind powders, set tinctures and the rest. And to provide for her children's hungry bellies she had to work hours in the small field that had been in her family for generations. It wasn't quite so bad now, with all of her children old enough to help. Still, the work was long.
"Why are you still here? Did you not understand what I showed you?"
The priestess dropped a jar in shock. A shadowy image of a very tall woman, with dark hair and pale eyes stood where Artemis' statue should have been. She was far darker, stockier, grimmer, than any images in the temple suggested. Instead of a chiton and sandals, she was wearing a heavy tunic and armour. "Excuse me?" Kallisto's mother managed to blurt out.
"All those willing to listen I gave a warning vision. Yet practically none of you have left this place. I cannot order you directly to do what you should; surely you must understand what it is you should do?" the note of frustration in the Goddess' voice was unsettling.
"It is not always easy to do as we should." Kallisto's mother answered slowly. "But if we should do a thing, why can't you simply order it?"
The Goddess sighed. "I get asked this question so often nowadays. What has happened? Your people once understood about this. You are not slaves, nor are you perpetual children. Your choices are your own to make. No deity can make them for you, though most will give you information it is possible for you to understand and accept. The deities are forbidden from simply forcing you to do one thing or another. It tends to cause damage far beyond the person being manipulated. You have served faithfully and well for many years, Angela. I am trying to help you, but I am not able to be in Cirrha myself."
"I understand this, Holy One." And in that simple reply, Artemis heard the undertones of a decision that she had hoped desperately to change.
"Understanding is a slippery skill. Do your best, my Angel." Then, to Angela's everlasting astonishment, the tall Goddess stepped forward, and gently holding Angela's face between her hands, kissed her gently on the lips. "I will do everything I can."
The usual statue was in its usual place again, and the Sun was creeping towards noon. Shaking herself, Angela hurried to finish what she had started. Her daughter had crept into the room some time before, having escaped her lessons for the time being. She had seen the strange, dark woman speaking with her mother, and listened too. She had seen the woman kiss her mother too. What was going on?
Angela carefully cleaned up the shards of the jar, puzzling over what the Goddess had told her. Until then, she had thought that she had reasoned out what Artemis wanted. But it seemed she hadn't. The jar had held powdered pigment, and the remnants would be carried everywhere on worshippers' feet if left where it was. Striding briskly across the room, intent upon her task, Angela never saw her daughter draw herself up and hurry away, to climb her favoured tree. Instead, the priestess picked up a sturdy bucket – amphorae were for drinking water and wine – and went with it to the large barrel set out to catch rain water from the roof. Yet instead of being three quarters full, as it had been just the night before, the barrel was empty but for a thin layer of scum at the bottom. Baffled, and plagued with a distinct sensation of unease, Angela took her bucket and headed for the nearest spring.
As she approached the familiar place, instead of the usual hubhub of voices from women sharing information as they filled their amphorae, there was a clamour of disturbed and angry voices. Nudging her way through the crowd, Angela finally saw why. The spring was dry. Not a trickle of water ran down its bed or through the settling troughs set up not long after the founding of the town, necessary mainly in the beginning of the year when the spring carried more sediment. It soon became clear from the talk of the other women that the other two springs were dry as well. And the waters of the nearby river had vanished. Already men had gone travelling upstream, trying to see where it had been dammed, since this appeared to be the only explanation for the suddenly dry riverbed. They had travelled upwards until they were a ways up the slopes of the mountains, knowing that from there they should be able to see any new lakes by their reflections. But there was nothing, nothing except a new river, that flowed much further to the north. Even now the town councillors were arguing about what this meant.
Water for washing was a minor concern compared to a much greater one; there was no drinking water, and Cirrha was a large town with hundreds of tourists and visitors. Angela headed back to the temple, feeling more uncomfortable than ever.
Foul tempered men marched and rode along, their mood matching the equally foul weather, which was hot and muggy to a degree rarely seen in these parts. There hadn't been any storms yet, but with ugly black clouds building rapidly to the west, it was only a matter of time. The leader of the army scowled, and reached unconsciously for a waterskin. But when her hand hit it, she stopped. They hadn't found a clear spring, river, or anything else remotely drinkable for three days. Water was being carefully rationed. It was important to set an example. The grumbling behind her became more noticable, and she straightened, pale eyes turning icy.
"I have no use for children, but I do have a use for battle hardened warriors. The children should leave." Xena turned fully to glare at the ranks, her voice loud enough for even the people at the rear to catch her words. No one would meet her gaze. No one left. A scout hurried towards her, sweating heavily and gasping under the blazing sunlight. Not bothering to wait for him to catch his breath, Xena snapped, "Report."
"The village has no real defenses. Not even a watch. They are fat with pilgrims' money, and complacent in their belief that the gods protect them."
"Good." Xena tapped her horse's reins against one leg. "Diocles!"
A harried looking man with prematurely thinning hair and wearing battered Greek hoplite armour ran forward and took up a position jogging beside his leader's horse. "Set camp in the field the scouts found yesterday. Everyone should try to get some sleep, we'll hit Cirrha once the sun is down. Oh, and Diocles," He had started to move away already. "See the drinking is kept to a minimum. Wine and ale are no good in this damn heat, especially after three days short rationed for water." Diocles nodded, and hurried off.
There being plenty to do to set up a camp, Xena was busy until the sun was at least visibly creeping to the westward, slipping towards the ugly black clouds that were piling ever higher on the horizon. A cool breeze had at last begun to blow, to the relief of the sweating men busy nailing down tent pegs, picketing horses, and the like. But Xena found herself discomforted by it. The breeze was chill, strangely so. As if it were dragging snow close behind. Strange.
Only after Xena had done a full round of inspections and spent awhile working on the tattered morale of her army did she permit herself to head to her own tent. Made of plain but servicable canvas, the only marker of her rank was the hawk's head penant bound to one support rope, snapped by the strange wind. Slipping inside, for the first time Xena felt truly relieved from the pounding, smothering heat. No candles were burning, and even as the daylight failed with the encroaching storm clouds and sinking sun, they weren't absolutely necessary for someone who was planning on getting some rest. Which Xena was.
Stripping out of her heavy armour, she carefully arranged her sword by the bed, her chakram by her pillow, and a dagger hooked to a cunningly arranged set of notches in the frame of her cot. Stretching out on the surface, Xena frowned as the joints of the collapsible bed creaked. No way around that unless she took to sleeping on the ground. Her eyes drifted shut, and she allowed her other senses to take over. Before she dozed off, the first change of the watch had tramped in and out, and she picked out at least three unmistakably drunk speakers. Frowning again, the last thought Xena had before sleep caught up with her was that she would have to tighten up discipline and leave the drinkers behind.
Barring the heat, and the lack of water, it was a night like any other. Angela patiently bedded down her four children, gently singing them to sleep, or so she thought. One of them stayed stubbornly awake, although why she was doing this, she couldn't be certain. After Angela had left the room, Kallisto got up to stare out the window.
The Moon was bloody red.
"Kallisto! What are you doing awake?" Angela had poked her head back in the room, and found her serious eyed daughter staring out the window.
"Why does the Moon look like someone bled on it?"
"Because we're having an eclipse, dear. It's time for bed, in you get!" Angela realized a bit belatedly that she was going to have to hope her daughter wouldn't catch her in the fib. Few adults were going to bed right now, unnerved by the red Moon at night, in a sky unsullied by forest fire smoke for weeks. Kallisto gave in, and sprawled back onto her little pallet, watching as her mother gently covered her up to the shoulders with a lightspun blanket. Still too much in this heat, but somehow comforting anyway.
"Why does the Moon look bloody when there is an eclipse?"
"Kallisto, it's time for bed." Angela shook her head gently. Then, unaccountably, she kissed Kallisto, and then her siblings, too. After she put them to bed, she almost never did that, for fear of disturbing their sleep.
Later, Kallisto would never be certain, but it seemed to her that she fell asleep for awhile. A restless, uncomfortable sleep, full of shouting and fire. When she looked out the window again, the Moon was high in the sky, still with that unnerving bloody cast. Angela's voice was audible in the other room, speaking with the smith that lived closest to them. He was very nervous, speaking rapidly in a high pitched voice. For some reason his nerves were so wrought that he had done something smiths all but never did; he had put out his forge fire. Then the fire in his house. And stamped out the coals in the oven in his yard. Unbeknownst to the smith, or Angela, or the listening Kallisto, people all over Cirrha were doing the same thing. They weren't sure why they were doing it, but it began to seem unaccountably important. The word began to spread through the neighbourhoods.
The only place it had no effect was in the richer quarter, where many of the town councillors lived. "Superstitious crap!" spat one, and threatened to beat those who came to the door suggesting he put the household fire out. There was a near riot when a determined group put out the flames of the town prytaneum. Yet somehow the riot was averted, and the smouldering ashes were left to sit. A delegation would have to go to the mother city for new coals.
Several councillors had gathered in the town square and begun haranguing the townspeople for giving in to childish fears just because of the colour of the Moon, when the first twenty of Xena's horsemen roared down the main road into Cirrha. It was broad, flat, and well maintained, nicknamed 'the Pilgrim's Way.' The men rode on, shooting the token guards, smashing through the people in the town square. By the time they had wheeled to repeat their path in the oppposite direction, the rest of Xena's army had arrived. Until that moment, the attack had gone on in eerie silence. The shock had frozen the people who now knew what was coming in silence.
Then, a long, wailing scream came from one side of the town gates, where someone had found a loved one hacked or ridden down into the dirt. The effect was electric. Cirrha exploded with panic.
Xena rode into Cirrha herself as her soldiers were ripping apart the inns, emptying the treasuries, expertly working through the rich quarter. She directed their movements, struggling to prevent her army from collapsing into a mob under the force of blood lust and the panicked townspeople fleeing in all directions, easy prey. The damn place had a sizable wall, and she had been forced to send a contingent to kick down the gates and open up some other egress points. There were still more civilians than soldiers here, and if the random flights began to coalesce into a running mob, even the mounted warriors could be overwhelmed and trampled to death. Best to just let the people go.
And then Xena heard it, a distinctive change in the noise of the melee in the richer part of town. Spurring her mount, Xena hurried over to the scene of the action, having a terrible premonition of just what was causing the change. This was a rich crib.
Sure enough, there turned out to be a second, not so main gate in the walls in the rich quarter. A good number of the richer citizens had already made their escape, and when some of the soldiers had clued in to this, determined to strip all the booty they could, they had blocked the gates shut. Now they were stuck fast, and the situation was growing ugly. Bad tempered men who weren't terribly sobre were busy trying to rape several women. Xena rode those soldiers down without a thought.
One rule she maintained. Rape and the killing of women and children meant death for the perpetrator.
It was bad, very bad, the situation was verging on completely out of control. After the initial rush, the soldiers were thirstier than ever, and the heat was worse. Then the worst possible thing occurred, which even Xena could never have predicted.
One of the lieutenants found a supply of hoarded water behind a councillor's house. Not enough for any army by any stretch of the imagination. But still water. The councillor, who turned out to be the same one who had angrily denounced the dousing of fires of superstitious crap had already seen his house all but torn to pieces, his belongings stripped and carried off. All his complacency had turned out to be a horrible mistake. When he saw the soldiers running for the water behind his house, he developed a strange, mad idea. They had taken everything else, but they couldn't have this! There were three large barrels. Somehow he found the strength and speed to push over two of them before furious soldiers hurled him to the ground and all but cut him to pieces. Their struggle over the final barrel tore it apart in turn.
Xena actually smelt the sweet water running away, and heard the desperate groans of parched men whose discipline finally fell utterly to pieces.
They began simply destroying, and nothing Xena screamed, yelled, or beat them with broke through the now mindless anger that spread through her army like an evil plague. Which, truly, it was.
One of the houses had still had a fire burning in it. Soldiers were throwing non-metallic goods into it. Then, someone, it was never clear who, got a bright idea. He, or she, Xena was fine with having women in her army – used the fire to light up the ends of several arrows, and proceeded to fire them at other houses.
The fire took fast, so fast that the still randomly fleeing people at last became a directed mob, all fleeing desperately for the main gate, and the sea.
Xena heard the rumble of many running feet, but couldn't immediately determine where it was coming from. A lurid orange, flickering light was beginning to grow in intensity, and the awful cries of 'Fire!' had begun somewhere to her left. She very nearly ran down a hapless civilian, who reacted, quite sensibly, with desperate, quick thinking terror. She grabbed two handfuls of dirt, and hurled them straight at the warlord's face. Even her quick reflexes couldn't completely save her, and Xena found herself with two eyes full of grit. Flame burst abruptly out of a window near her, and her horse reared. And then the mob collided with her.
For several, long, terrifying moments, Xena was blind, overwhelmed, and tumbling along the flow of a whirling crowd of desperate people. At last she fell with a horrific thud, rolling into the half unhinged doors of Artemis' temple, still blinded.
The bad men rode past the house, kicking over things and hitting people. Kallisto had slipped out her bedroom window, and was watching them, wide eyed with fear from a perch in a tree near her house. They couldn't see her, that was good. And then everything went quiet. And stayed that way for awhile.
Until another group of riders came by, this time in no real order. One of them threw a burning brand into the courtyard of Kallisto's house, but luckily Angela saw this and managed to smother the flames. Luckier still, the men didn't look back and so took no notice of her.
Screaming and the unmistakable sound of running feet was now audible even to the priestess, and now there were new shouts. Of 'Fire!' and even more chillingly, 'We can't get out! We can't get out!' Several families had had the same idea, hurling what they could into carts and riding at all speed for the main gate. Two, three, maybe more crashes had happened practically at the gates, which were now blocked shut.
With the bloodied Moon slipping towards Mount Parnassus, growing ever larger, now thousands of townspeople, a major part of a warlord's army, and a rapidly growing fire were trapped within the walls of Cirrha.
Angela gathered up her children, but couldn't find Kallisto. She called for her lost daughter in terror, struggling to herd her children safely through a street that was now nearly impassable. She may have had in mind to get to Artemis' temple, a solid stone built structure that was set up slightly on a small hill. For her part, Kallisto had frozen in her tree, eyes wide with horror when she turned on her tree branch, and saw a dreadful stream of fire rushing along the houses, easily jumping from roof to roof, running down walls in a terrible parody of the water that was nowhere available to put it out.
Belatedly, Kallisto realized that she was trapped, and began to scream for her mother in desperation. Acrid smoke was choking her, and flames had begun to lick at the base of her tree when an adult voice cut through her screaming.
"Come on, hold onto my shoulders, I'll get you out of here." A woman's voice, torn to shreds by smoke inhalation and lack of water. Eyes streaming, and too terrified to argue, Kallisto did as she was bid.
What followed was a dreadful, nightmarish trip through debris and burning patches. They burst out into the street, and Kallisto lifted her head, clearing her eyes by wiping them on her benefactor's shoulder, which had some kind of weird armour plate on it, and a tattered cloak over that. She immediately wished she hadn't when she saw a soldier kill a woman before her very eyes.
Her benefactor spoke a stream of harsh words in a language that Kallisto didn't know. "There's no way to stop this. Dammit, dammit, dammit!" A pause. "You still hanging in there, kid?"
"Ye-es." Kallisto managed to squeak.
"Okay, do you know where the city wall is thin? Like where there is another gate?"
"B-by the temple of Artemis."
"Show me where that is."
"Why? What are you going to do?"
And so Kallisto found herself in an even more surreal situation than before, guiding her benefactor through the streets. Sometimes they came on groups of soldiers doing terrible things to people, but the mysterious woman stopped them every time. At last they arrived at the temple. "You wait here, it should be safe for a little while." The woman set Kallisto down in a niche on the outside of the temple, probably once home to a statue which was scattered around in the form of debris now. Finally, Kallisto got to see her mysterious saviour.
Tall, taller than almost any woman she had ever seen before. Dark hair, pale eyes, but reddened, as if something had gotten into them. A nasty burn ran along the angle of the left side of her jaw. Distinctive, spiral decorated armour covered much of the woman's chest and shoulders. "You all right, kid?"
"I want my Mommy." Kallisto started to cry. Xena patted her arm awkwardly. There wasn't much else she could do for this kid. It was horribly likely that her mother hadn't made it.
Xena briefly studied the wall. It was thinner here, and mostly wooden. Everywhere else this was helping fuel the fire, but here, here it might just provide a way out. For a few moments, she hurried around, hacking at things with her sword, struggling not to let the weeping child nearby distract her too much. There was no time to lose. Satisfied there was no more she could cut, Xena turned her attention to the people milling in the street.
It took a stunning amount of effort, but somehow she got ten or so of them rounded up, and convinced them to push at the weakened section of the wall. She hadn't been able to do much, but if enough people pushed it, the wall would give way. A few others joined in, and a few more, and then the wall gave with a crash, and people began to flee en masse through the gap.
"Hey, kid! Come on, let's get out of here." Kallisto didn't seem to notice, overcome by fumes and fear. At last Xena simply scooped the girl up and hurried out through the gap in the wall herself. A flicker in the corner of her eye caused her to spin and tuck Kallisto as far behind her body as possible. A house swayed dangerously, and Xena opted for more extreme measures, all but throwing Kallisto ahead of her. The house collapsed, and the resulting fireball caught Xena's left side, burning one arm and shoulder cruelly before she could get the rest of the way through the gap.
The burning and the killing went on until the Moon dropped below the horizon, and the soldiers began to depart the burning hulk of the former town of Cirrha any way they could. Some so addled by thirst that they ran in desperation for the sea, hoping to get some kind of relief from salt water.
And as the first light of dawn finally came, bringing the ruined town into merciless relief, Kallisto found the remains of her family.
Icy water hit her, forcing her back into consciousness. "Waky waky, rise and shine." an evil, maddened voice sneered somewhere close in front of her. The priestess struggled to open her swollen eyes. An hour – or was it a day – the time was impossible to count now – when her eyes had first started swelling shut, she hadn't tried. And the beating had gotten worse. So – you did what you had to.
"Now then, where were we?" the voice said. "Oh yes, you were going to tell me all about your piece of shit Goddess."
Was she? She couldn't remember. Her eyes wouldn't open. "Mmmph."
"Oh, now, that won't do. Doesn't it hurt enough yet?" Kallisto punched the injured priestess in the gut. The day before yesterday, in a raid on an armpit village in Arkadia, Kallisto's men had found this hapless priestess of Artemis, knocked senseless in a heap by the altar. Kallisto had set a standing order that every priestess of Artemis was to brought to her. The order had stood long enough now that her soldiers had begun making a point of hiding the priestesses whenever they could. What their leader did to those priestesses could sicken the most hardened men.
But for this priestess, Kallisto seemed to be holding back. If anyone else in the army had known that today was the anniversary of the burning of Cirrha, they might have understood Kallisto's actions marginally better. But as no one else did, no one could say they understood at all.
Strung up by her wrists, and then beaten, first with a stick, then with a whip, the priestess had held up impressively to begin with. But she had dark hair and pale eyes, which seemed to have inspired Kallisto to gruesome new lows.
"So tell me, why does your Goddess give toothless warnings? Hmm – does she kiss all of her priestesses a few days before they die? You should know the answer to that one." Kallisto cuffed the priestess in the side of the head.
"D- doan unnnerstan."
"You don't understand." spat Kallisto. "How convenient. How nice. Never an answer. Never an answer why I'm still here and they're gone." She stalked away from where the priestess was trussed up, glaring away across the camp. They were in the open. The first time Kallisto had gotten hold of a priestess of Artemis, the mess in her tent had been such an unpleasant nuisance she had made sure to stick to outdoor venues ever since. "If I had stayed in bed like my sisters, or that bitch hadn't rescued me, I'd be dead too." This very softly. The priestess couldn't hear her.
Spinning around, Kallisto launched herself at the priestess again, grabbing her by the hair. "If I hadn't been eavesdropping, if Xena hadn't found me, I'd be dead too, do you hear me!" The priestess didn't answer, and this time a bucket of water did nothing to rouse her. Disgusted, Kallisto drew her dagger. There were a few things she could still do. She was about to get started when a voice interrupted her.
"What?!" Kallisto turned around in surprise, and made a strangled sound.
"Is this how I taught you, is this the daughter I raised?" Angela stood across the clearing from her, eyes blazing in a strangely pale face. "Is my memory so meaningless that you torture and destroy my sisters this way?"
"Your sisters?! Your sisters?! Where were they when Cirrha was burning? Where was your precious Goddess?" Kallisto spat.
"Everything Artemis could do, she did. I made the best decisions I could given how I understood things to be."
"That's not an answer!"
"How is this helping, Kallisto? How is helping to torture priestesses to death who have nothing to do with what happened in Cirrha? Do you seriously think it is hurting Artemis? It is only making her angry."
"Shut up!" Kallisto shouted, half blinded by tears. "Why are you scolding me?"
By now, a few soldiers had gathered uncomfortably outside of the clearing. Their leader was shouting at someone only she could see. Somehow the priestess had gotten away, because there was no one bound to the tree Kallisto had been using as a torture post anymore.
"Stop making me feel bad! Aren't I miserable enough? Don't I feel guilty enough that I live and you died? Well? Answer!" Kallisto ran at the apparition, waving a fist furiously. "Answer! Answer!"
"Boss, boss, who are you shouting at? There's – there's no one here, except you."
Kallisto stopped short, looking around herself in bewilderment. Seeing the priestess gone, and a few soldiers standing around, aghast. She took note of their faces. They would have to die. No one could survive who saw her like this, vulnerable.
But now she knew what she was going to do. The apparition was right about one thing. Destroying the priestesses was ineffective. No, it had been Xena's army. Xena's army that went beserk, killing and burning. Xena's army that blocked Cirrha's gates in order to avoid missing so much as an obol of wealth. Xena had done nothing to stop them. Xena had brought them. Xena had destroyed her family, and then to add an exquisite twist onto an already monstrous cruelty, had saved her, Kallisto, so that she could live with the emptiness and pain of loss, the guilt and self-loathing for having survived.
It was all Xena.
Kallisto raised her burning eyes.
Xena was going to suffer.
- The End