The Exchange


There was fire everywhere. It began without her, and then was within her, and at the last, without her again. For the longest time, she was indistinguishable from the fire, and, most would say, the fire was inextinguishable. But all fire, deprived of fuel or of air, cools to embers.

Perhaps it never loses its danger.

In a steep valley ran a river of flame beneath the weed-grown remnants of a city never named. In the river stood a statue of struggle. In the statue beat two unbleeding hearts. Unbleeding, but not unfeeling.

Callisto, Vengeance Immortal of Cirra, was one. Velasca, God of Chaos, was the other.

The land above the valley was never much traveled. Since the bridge above had been cut, not at all, in fact. So there was no one to notice as the riverbed ceased its flow, as the red rock dimmed to black, and under heavy spring rains, crumbled to rich soil. Under normal circumstances, this would have taken years, maybe decades. But very little about this valley was normal.

How long did not matter to the bearers of the hearts, the figures poised in perfect balance. Or at least not to one. Chaos will wait. It is inevitable.

But vengeance is different. It requires a target, and this target was not immortal. Deep inside Callisto, that beating heart counted out the limited time she had. The ambrosia had shown her so many things inside herself that she’d had no time to explore before the betrayal, and this prison, poised in perfect balance with the raw unfocused rage of the God of Chaos. But Callisto had an advantage against that unfocused rage. She had discipline. Patience is a virtue.

With the rock and just a minimal use of power, she could keep the balance. And that left her mind free to explore.

Her mind had always been quick, even as a child in Cirra. It danced among the clouds, and the trees, and the sheep in the pasture, and the blades of grass beneath their hooves. She pestered her mother with questions, availed herself of her sister’s wisdom. When their responses were insufficient, she devised her own solutions, fanciful tales about why the sky turned red from blue, the fields green into gold. And when fire consumed her life, burned away all fanciful things, her mind, even clouded with madness, raced to find answers to questions little girls should never be asking.

Within her statue, Callisto’s mind raced still, so fast she wished to catch her breath had there been any. She could not calm her thoughts; they came in snatches of picture and fragments of sound. After a while she could focus them a little, force them into sequence.

The tall grass behind her home, green all around her, soft beneath her, the vast azure sky overhead paling to white about the warm sun.  The fragrance of the earth. And if she cleared her head of all thoughts, the whisper, like soft voices, as the grass bent beneath a breeze.

The dusty, uneven road stretching before and behind as she skipped alongside the cart, heading to market. The lilting laugh of her sister, flirting with the drover. Her mother’s voice calling her to catch up as she hopped on one foot, removing a pebble from her sandal and rubbing the sore spot on her sole.

The delicious aching in her fingers as she pulled strands on her neighbor Penthia’s loom for dinars. The delicious smell of Penthia’s rabbit stew Callisto pretended, unconvincingly, to hate.

The war cries of the soldiers who invaded her home. The orange light, like day in the night, of flame leaping from one rooftop to the next. The crashing of ceiling beams onto her trapped neighbors, cutting off the cries of pain and fear below. The dark woman on horseback rounding the corner twenty paces down from where she stood in the street, who never looked her way. The frantic screams of her mother, calling out Callisto’s name. The wailing of her sister, weeping among the shrieks of pain.

The dripping dampness of the cave she used as shelter for months. The company of rats. Their squeals as she shooed them from her tiny stash of food with a branch she sharpened. The clack of the wood on the stone. The sting in her hands as she beat the branch against a pillar of rock over and over, until it split in her callused palms. The crack. The clack, as she found another branch, and began to practice with it, imagining the dark woman’s face in the stone.

The smell of the dirt she crouched in, beneath heavy weeds, above some warlord’s camp, watching the soldiers practice. Watching. Learning. Hating.

The weight of the sword she stole off a sleeping, ineffective guard. The shine of the metal in the moonlight. The muffled grunt, the surprise on his face, as she slipped the blade into the soft flesh at the base of his throat. The jingle of dinars in his leather purse as she ran back into the cover of night.

The taste of the sweat dripping down her cheeks as she swung the sword against the dead tree. Still that face there, before her, in the wood now.


The face of the first soldier she killed who fought back, a straggler from one of countless village raids she witnessed.

The laughter the first time she took on two stragglers. Three. Four.


Years of watching. Learning. Killing. Bending a dozen different weapons to her will.

A stray thought slid into the rushing flow, of how the feelings that came with the first pictures were absent with the last. She did not know when that happened, but she could remember the first time she realized it: another town, another raid, herself sweeping in from the bush to take on an isolated group of three men spending their quality pillaging time raping a girl of maybe sixteen. She dispatched the three almost without effort, and was left facing the half-naked, sobbing girl. They locked eyes, something like thanks in the broken girl’s. And Callisto thought killing the men had been a waste. They’d been distracted, and no challenge at all. She herself had been fifteen and a half, if she was still counting the seasons correctly.

The pictures kept flooding, of seaside hideouts, and dreams of a dark-haired woman on horseback, and killing a warlord to steal his army. Of facing her nemesis at last, once, twice, thrice. The pictures became surreal and distorted. Endless moments trapped in a chair.

And then it seemed to repeat. Trapped amidst the fires of Tartarus. Living in a cave with rats.

The dark-haired demon again, who she had followed so long... coming to her. Making a pact doomed to betrayal.

Outside, the lava was becoming soil. Seeds were falling. Plants were growing. The wind was whispering in soft voices.

Callisto tried to concentrate on the pictures, not the crush of sharp rock on her skin. There was something she was leaving out, something just beyond her grasp. She slowed the rush, drew it out. Did she really feel nothing as she stabbed the sleeping guard? When she met that girl’s eyes? Bits and pieces. Nothing solid.

But when she danced atop a pivoting ladder, fire all around, the demon in front of her, her little angel hanging from a rope? Perhaps.

And when she stood in a marketplace full of uncaring people, and heard the demon, her kindred, confess? Oh yes.

Even as she lied to Gabrielle, so beautiful and warm in the firelight, so different from dark Xena, that she felt nothing, she felt it again. But could she say what that feeling was? No.

Outside, the voices of the wind grew louder.

Callisto withdrew from such thoughts. She turned herself away from the past. She cleared her head entirely; it was difficult against the cacophony of anger projected from her opponent inches before her.

And she heard it. At the opposite end from chaos, she found a symmetric projection of purpose, like the focused anger of a warrior in battle, the cynosure of a hunter’s arrow.

Artemis. Floating in the wind.

Without words, Artemis spoke to Callisto. Offered an exchange. It took no thought at all to accept.

Callisto’s mind danced. She spread out her senses beyond the lava in a way the undisciplined Velasca could not. Callisto saw the green grass, the gently bending trees. Above was a sliver of sky, the roil of clouds. A tattered rope bridge, swaying in the breeze.

She slipped her mind among the leaves of the trees. She could feel them as if on her skin. She could smell their pungent odor. She rose higher, into the clouds. The water droplets hanging in the air, brushing against one another, little charges, the beginning of lightning bolts, dancing among them.

She felt the air thicken, the leaves stir more severely.

Then, like a knife blade, she felt a blast of sand, stirred up from the rocks, drive like hard rain against the statue she was within. Harder and harder it blew, wearing away the crust bit by bit.

Callisto drew her mind back within herself. She could feel the rock starting to weaken. Then, across from her, she felt Velasca sensing the shift, but too late. Before Velasca could react, Callisto was free.

The sensations she had experienced before, with only the barest thread of her mind, were nothing compared to the wave crashing over her as she left the lava prison. But she pushed that aside for now. With the rock weakened Velasca would work her own way free in moments.

“My turn,” she called out to Artemis.

Callisto lifted her hand and with it her spirit back into the clouds. She tightened her fist and they swirled together heavily, sucked in from horizon to horizon. Drops against drops. Callisto stirred them into a roiling, building tower, and when she could wait no more, slammed their gathered energy down upon her foe. Then again. And again.

The rock, covered with soil, began to glow, and melt, and crack. It moved as Velasca shifted.

Now came the rain, in a flood, cooling, cracking, seeping inside, steaming and hissing. Working its way down into the almost dormant lava bed below.

Velasca tried to scream as the scalding water worked its way through, not from pain but from the knowledge of her helplessness.

At last, again, the lightning. In a fraction of a second the statue of Velasca, and her with it, exploded with the force of a volcano. Even buoyed by ambrosia, she could not withstand it.

Callisto turned her face to the sky and held out her arms to the rain. She let it wash away the dust of her prison. She breathed deeply of the wind, finding it sweet. After a few, treasured moments, she looked back to the earth, smoking still before her, slowly changing to mud.

“You were not my enemy, Velasca. For a while you were a decent foe,” Callisto said. “Now you are nothing. No one stands between me and my Xena.” She looked to the heavens again. “Is that sufficient?” she called. “Can I take up my quest again?”

The wind blew through the trees in response, making ripples in the mud that was the God of Chaos.

Callisto raised her arms again and added to the breeze as she spun into a whirlwind of smoke and steam and disappeared.

Such a display could hardly go unnoticed, even in territory as wild and empty as this was. After Callisto had lifted herself away, and Artemis followed into the clouds, a darker soul appeared from between the trees at the bottom of the canyon. With a gesture he pushed aside the troublesome rain as he stepped toward the site of conflict — his favorite pastime.

Ares crouched in the mud, steaming around his heavy boots. He ran his hand through it, squishing it delightedly through his fingers. With the slyest of smiles, he turned his face to the sky, as though his look could chase the breeze Callisto rode upon.


I: Fire and Green Grass