The Exchange

 
 

There was fire everywhere. It began within her, and then was without her, and at the last, within her again.

Callisto was hurt. Even lacking the final strike, Ares’ blows had taken a great toll. It was all she could do to remain conscious. And it was through half-open eyes that she watched her father defend her life as she lay on her mother’s grave.

“Stay out of this, Hercules,” the God of War spoke with venom, trying to pull his arm from his brother’s grip. “This doesn’t concern you.”

“Oh?” Hercules held fast. “And how do you figure that, Ares?”

“Callisto isn’t your blood.”

The demi-god pointed to where Velasca still struggled. “And that troll you’ve been hanging around with is yours?”

Ares wrenched free his wrist. “I’m defending my honor!”

“And she’s defending the world from it!” Hercules pushed between the God of War and his target.

Ares flexed his fingers around his sword’s grip. “Step aside, brother, or I swear to Zeus I’ll kill you as well.”

There was a roaring in Callisto’s ears, a sound that she couldn’t quite place. It sounded like flames, she thought first, but no, that wasn’t quite it. Pushing aside the pain she felt in her belly and her back, her chin and her chest, she struggled to focus on that sound.

It was more of a ringing, she decided, actually. Yes, as she trained her attention the dull growl fell away to reveal a single, continuous note that went on, very loudly, from some spot not beyond her ears but between them, a place that could not be quite pinned down but flitted away from her searching mind, again and again, scampering just beyond her attempts to place it, yet all the while droning on and on, wailing, stinging her eardrums without touching them, an endless siren that became a stabbing pain in her skull, no, not became, but stemmed from, the horrible, scathing, flaming rage of agony that pressed against her temples, burning, burning away all other feelings until she could hear nothing else but the sound, taste nothing but the blood on her tongue as she bit it, smell nothing but the smoke that surely came from her own blazing body and then she knew, somehow, some way, that she was dying.

In the mix of sun and shadows across her face, darkness took hold, and Callisto forced open her eyes, fearful. But death was not in that dark. Instead she saw only the broad, muscled back of the man who’d saved her life, before, and now.

“Papa...” she said weakly. “Papa help me...”

Hercules heard the words, and a chill crawled up his spine with them. His face became even darker as he stared down the God of War. “Then you’ll have to, Ares. You’ll have to kill me, because you’re not getting past unless you do.”

*  *  *  *  *

Elaria was the hardest to take down. True to her nature, she attacked and then retreated to cover, in this case, the cover of the countless small skirmishes the battle was winding down to. Run almost to his limit by the rest of the day’s efforts, Iolaus found the chase almost more than he could take.

With several of the most trusted Corinthians watching the other captured generals, Xena and Iolaus wound through the ebbing fight in pursuit of the mountain woman. With Theodorus’ army truly headless, the Warrior Princess’ towering presence on Argo, chasing down the guerrilla warlord with Iolaus, lifted her warriors’ spirits back to the levels they’d been early in the day. The bandits were not only being routed again but, as news of Theodorus’ death and the capture of the generals spread, they were beginning to surrender.

“Can you see her?” Iolaus looked up at Xena.

She scanned the battlefield nearby. “There! She’s trying to make it to the hillside with some cavalry. Iolaus, head straight for that copse of trees and double back to the southeast. I’ll head directly that way. She can see me up here, but not you.”

Iolaus shrugged. “One advantage of my height.” Sighing heavily, he took to a sprint.

Xena urged Argo to a trot, eyes on Elaria, who saw her soon enough. Having been skulking away between the riders, the guerrilla leader abandoned that strategy and pulled a horseman off his saddle violently, then swung up in his place and bolted.

The treeline was three hundred yards away and up the slope. With a leap over a pile of bodies and a swing around some startled infantrymen, Xena drove Argo at an angle south, heading to cut the general off.

Elaria was not so courteous. With a group of soldiers in her way she merely rode right through them, scattering the lucky ones and trampling an unlucky soul, who had been, while living, her own follower. The effort slowed her, though, letting Xena gain, and she had to turn back to the north again.

The Warrior Princess changed direction as well, still trying to force Elaria in Iolaus’ direction. The general would not cooperate. The forest and safety coming ever closer, but Xena gaining faster still, she cut back and forth, intentionally scattering bands of soldiers directly into Xena’s path. Xena came close to knocking more than one Corinthian’s head off as Argo whirled and bounded.

The general looked backwards and forwards, judging distances and speeds. She decided to make a break for it, and whipped her horse savagely. Xena could not keep pace.

Just as Elaria slowed on the hill to pick a spot to enter her beloved forest, a rattle from a tree above and half behind her became a flying body that took the big woman from the saddle and shoulder-first into the ground. She rolled firmly and kicked out, and knocked her attacker off, but only as far as her feet. Iolaus latched onto her ankle and twisted, and they both lost footing and began to slide down the steep slope.

The two tumbled for fifteen yards in a heap, Elaria scratching and clawing the entire way. Iolaus lost his grip and slid away.

Oh, I have better things to be doing than wrestling with you!” he growled.

The general rolled to her hands and knees and started to scramble back towards the trees. Iolaus leapt after, not quite reaching, then ducked at a sharp crack of sound. He looked up in time to see Xena’s whip entangle the general’s legs, dragging her to a halt.

“Iolaus, go on. Go to her,” Xena said to him.

The blond warrior looked down the hill at the ruins below, the anxiety written on his face. “You sure?”

Xena half-smiled. “Go.”

He didn’t need more encouragement than that.

*  *  *  *  *

Ares considered the challenge an invitation, and with the speed of a cobra launched his attack. The point of his sword drove Hercules back on his heels, and Ares pressed in, fist lashing out to push the demi-god right over. But Hercules ducked sideways around the second blow and, grabbing Ares’ arm as leverage, spun the God of War around with a hard shoulder-to-shoulder hit of his own.

With Ares’ back to Callisto, Hercules started to fall backwards with the arm still in his grip. He leapt up, planting both feet in Ares’ stomach, and launched the God of War back over his head and into Cirra’s center. The ground shook as Ares’ impacted, and his sword skittered away.

Hercules rolled and ran straight at his half-brother, knocking him to the ground again just as he regained his feet. But Ares rolled to his hands and knees as Hercules slid past, then jumped and locked arms around the demi-god’s waist from behind. Hercules grabbed Ares’ head over his shoulder and yanked, dragging the God of War painfully over and onto his back again.

Hercules struck down with a hammer-like hand at Ares’ head, but it struck only earth as the god rolled out of the way and headed for his sword. His brother caught him by an ankle first, and dragged him backwards. Ares rolled to his back again and planted the heel of his other boot hard in Hercules’ face twice.

Reeling, Hercules got to his feet as Ares retrieved his sword and leapt with it. Ducking sideways just in time, he was only grazed on one arm. Ares turned and Hercules turned with him. The God of War feinted low with the sword, making Hercules commit to a counter, then spun away backwards and struck down from the other side, catching his brother painfully on the other arm. Hercules grabbed Ares’ arm and kicked the sword out of his hand. The blade sailed end over end across the town square, and embedded itself point down in the earth two feet from Velasca’s nose where she was trapped, half-buried, in the ground.

The demi-god completed his move with a right cross to Ares’ jaw that nearly knocked him down, then a left hook that stood the God of War back upright again. Ares struck back with two quick jabs to the face, then a spinning roundhouse kick to the side of his head.

Hercules stumbled, then straightened and barreled forwards. Ares was ready though, and turning half away, locked his arms around his brother’s waist and lifted, spinning him in the air lengthwise before slamming him back first into the ground.

The crash and rumble of the brothers’ battle brought Velasca back to her senses. It also loosened her prison. Reaching out to grip the sword’s blade just before her, and gritting her teeth as its edges bit into her flesh, the God of Chaos began to pull herself free.

Ares climbed to his feet while Hercules tried to catch his wind. There was a fatigue in the God of War’s eyes that his brother could see. Waiting until Ares began his next attack, a heavy punch aimed down at Hercules’ chest, Hercules rolled away just enough for Ares to miss, then rolled back again, trapping Ares’ hand, then arm beneath his body. Ares was jerked down, and Hercules assisted with an elbow to the back of his head. Hercules jumped to his feet and planted a kick to Ares’ ribs that sent him tumbling.

The God of War halted himself, then stood, fists ready, eyes narrowed. Hercules stood his ground.

“You’re weakening, Ares. As the battle breaks up, you’re losing your strength.”

“Maybe,” Ares snarled back. “But it won’t happen fast enough to save you.”

*  *  *  *  *

Gabrielle wasn’t sure of what to make of the sight of Xena leading a struggling, bound, bearskin-clad woman down the hillside a short ways off. She knew the woman wasn’t one of their own, but on whose behalf had Xena captured the warrior, Callisto’s, or Ares’? So it was that the bard tensed, and set her staff ready, when the Warrior Princess caught sight of her, handed off the prisoner to another soldier, and began riding her way.

“Gabrielle,” Xena began, swinging down from her horse, and approaching. “I’m glad you’re all right.” She stepped closer.

“Callisto made sure of it,” the bard stated warily, backing away, a thread of anger in her voice. “She saved my life.”

Xena seemed undisturbed by this, for the first time in days. She merely nodded.

“That was quite a show you put on down there with Theodorus,” Gabrielle pressed. “Ares was certainly taking it well.”

“He was supposed to. That was the trick.”

“What trick?” Gabrielle’s brow furrowed.

Xena looked down towards the ruins. “Callisto’s plan. She had to get Ares to separate himself from Velasca. That way Callisto could neutralize her. Otherwise we had no chance here today.”

Gabrielle was still confused. “And how did she manage that?”

The Warrior Princess held open her hands. “She offered him me, in exchange.”

“What?!”

“Callisto convinced Ares that I was turning back to evil, that what the Fates did was changing me back.”

The bard almost couldn’t speak. “So all this time, all those arguments, the way you acted—”

Xena stepped closer to her, touching her arm. “Part of that was real. There is a part of me that is different here, Gabrielle, that I’m going to have to get used to. But mostly I was acting the way she and I decided I should.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “But why didn’t she tell me?” She sighed, looking down. “You didn’t trust me.”

“No, that’s not it. I did trust you, Gabrielle. But Callisto couldn’t tell you. If you didn’t believe it, Ares wouldn’t either. He would see it in you.” She touched a hand to Gabrielle’s chin, raising her eyes to meet her own. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I hated lying to you that way. It was the worst part, especially with how difficult things have been between us lately. But I trusted that you would feel the darkness in me with all your heart, and that’s what Ares had to see.”

Gabrielle slipped into Xena’s arms and held her close, the agony of recent days pouring out in the fierce embrace. Xena kissed her hair gently.

But the bard couldn’t let it all go yet. It wasn’t over. “Xena, I’m afraid for Callisto.”

There was no tensing in Xena’s hug, as Gabrielle feared. The Warrior Princess simply listened. “Yes?”

“I’m afraid she’ll kill Velasca. She was going after her when she left me here.”

Xena pushed back to see her face.

“I’m afraid what the gods will do if Callisto kills her,” Gabrielle finished.

Xena frowned a little, something niggling in her head, some dangerous little detail just beyond her reach. “Ares went after her. To stop her. And Hercules followed.”

Gabrielle looked only half relieved. “Well she couldn’t kill Ares.”

And then it struck her. Xena’s eyes went wide. “Yes she could.”

The bard matched her friend’s look. “What?”

Xena grabbed Gabrielle’s arm and practically dragged her to Argo. “Come on,” she said, her voice very tight, “we have to hurry.”

*  *  *  *  *

She fought hard to open her eyes, and when she did, they met a sight it seemed she’d seen her whole life.

Like moments in the green fields behind Mama’s home, that hill in the corner of her vision, the grass all around her. Only with soot black clouds, not fluffy white.

Like the night an army attacked her town, all the buildings around in flames, the sounds of cruelty and death in her ears. Only daytime, not night.

Like all the days in Tartarus, distant screams of agony and the torture of the searing heat. Only she was alive, not dead.

Alive, yes, she was alive, though barely. This was a familiar place she lay in, but a different time. And lifting her head, she saw she was not alone. Her father — her father! — was fighting the God of War, so long her master, and nearby, her demon, the source of all her nightmares, was clawing her way out of the earth with, dear gods, Ares’ sword.

Hercules dodged in, landing two quick punches to Ares’ jaw before the God of War grabbed his arm, dragged him forward and tripped him smoothly. The demi-god rolled to avoid the incoming kick and sprang up again, but couldn’t step away from Ares’ diving ankle-tackle.

He spun and kicked back, but missed Ares who scampered back to his feet. Hercules somersaulted back upright and threw another hard punch. When the demi-god stepped in, Ares threw his feet upwards and locked a cinch around his brother’s neck, then twisted him right off his feet and face first into the ground. Scooting behind him, Ares locked an arm around Hercules’ throat and stood them both up, lifting Hercules off his feet entirely, strangling.

Callisto struggled to sit up. But as she tried planting her palms on unsteady arms, she heard someone approaching, and like magic, a handsome and familiar face appeared before her. Strong hands gripped her arms.

“Callisto?” he said.

“Iolaus!” she sighed, relieved. “Help me up, I have to help father.”

The blond warrior held her fast, looking her over. “Callisto you’re hurt.”

“It doesn’t matter. I have to stop—”

She didn’t need to finish the sentence, as her point was made by the brilliant display of lightning shooting skyward as Velasca pulled herself to her feet and raised her hands in triumph. Iolaus threw himself over Callisto as the bolts flickered down at random, splitting trees and digging great holes in the ground.

One bolt nearly hit Xena and Gabrielle as Argo led them over the hillside and down towards the new battlefield. Xena wheeled the horse skillfully and kept riding hard.

“If you were trying to kill me, Callisto, you failed!” the God of Chaos boomed. Hands dripping something akin to blood, she reached down and gripped Ares’ sword. “And if the God of War won’t keep me by his side,” she yanked the weapon free, “then I will become one instead!”

There was a shimmer of energy as she held it aloft, and suddenly Ares dropped Hercules to the ground, unable to hold him. The demi-god easily broke the choke-hold and reversed it, but knew instantly it wasn’t necessary. Ares was a god no more.

“Iolaus get off me,” Callisto whispered, and began to claw at her belt.

Velasca sneered at the struggling brothers before her. “You can’t use him as a shield now, Hercules. I can get to you through him or around, it makes no difference. Through might be even more fun. I don’t like betrayal, you see.”

Xena and Gabrielle rode closer, but slowed. The bard tried to catch Callisto’s eyes, but they were wild and locked on Velasca.

“Ah, another good target,” Velasca laughed. She spread her hands. “Look at this wonderful gathering. Three targets, each trying to hide, and none that can. Which shall I take care of first?”

She pointed the great sword towards Gabrielle. “There, behind my old rival, is the woman who stole my kingdom! Should I kill her first?”

Callisto’s voice shook. “Iolaus, get off me!” she hissed, yanking open the pouch at her belt.

The Amazon fixed her gaze on the Vengeance Immortal. “There, behind the only innocent here, is the one who tried to kill me,” her voice boomed. “The one whose home I burned to the ground! The one whose family I heard screaming in the night!” She shook her head. “No, my dear, you I definitely save for last.”

Then she turned her burning gaze on the two brothers, and her back to Callisto. “But this one, this one I’ll kill first, because I want his shield as much as I want him.” Velasca stalked forward, tendrils of energy flowing around her like will o’ the wisp. “With one blow, one cast of this sword,” she hefted the blade, “I’ll kill the man who betrayed me today,” her eyes touched Ares, then turned on Hercules, “and then the hero I should have killed four years ago when I butchered his family!” Her voice echoed across the valley.

Callisto squirmed out from under Iolaus, her body weak but her pain driving her. Crawling to the edge of the town square she almost shrieked in agony.

Hercules blanched.

“Oh yes,” Velasca smiled at his sudden pallor. “I had a moment of weakness, you see,” she slowly moved forward, towards them, “when my devotion to our dear former God of War slipped, just a bit, and I entered the service of the Queen of the Gods. She had only one assignment... and four names...” Velasca spun gently like a ballerina in slow motion. “Deianeira... Clonus... Aeson... and Ilea.”

Each name stabbed deeper into two hearts. The owner of one felt everything in her life click suddenly into place. Everything in her past come neatly to this moment.

By now Velasca stood directly in front of the half-brothers. She frowned briefly. “Oh, yes, there was a fifth, actually. Hera wasn’t happy when I missed her, so I came back to you,” she grabbed Ares’ chin playfully, and he turned his head roughly away. She pointed the sword behind her blindly, looking in Hercules’ eyes. “But I’ll get her today. Do you think Hera will take me back?”

“One thing’s for sure,” Hercules forced through tight lips. “You and Hera make a nice couple.”

Ares looked over his shoulder, a twisted grin on his face. “But a couple of what?”

Silence!!” Velasca bellowed, and struck Ares with a backhand that tore him from Hercules’ grip and rolled him halfway across the ruins. Velasca smiled bitterly at the lone son of Zeus still standing, and sparks flickered along the blade of her sword. “Look what you’ve ruined. Now I’ll have to kill you one at a time.”

“You won’t kill anyone else, Velasca,” Callisto said in a voice only she could hear, and raised her small crossbow. “You’ll never kill anyone again.”

Velasca drew back her blade like a scorpion’s tail.

Gabrielle lifted her hand in horror and drew a great breath.

Iolaus turned slowly to watch the wounded woman before him.

Xena wheeled Argo hard and tensed up to spring.

Ares turned his face away from the coming blow.

Hercules saw not the visage of death before him, but the one across the ruins beyond her shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Angel...” Callisto whispered.

“Callisto?” Iolaus asked.

“Callisto, no!” Gabrielle called out, but too late.

Xena leapt into Callisto’s sight line, but the goddess, seeing every motion in some grand ballet, waited just long enough that the Warrior Princess had nothing to stop.

The blood-tipped bolt sailed true in a moment that stretched almost to eternity, eyes wide all about, before embedding itself in Velasca’s back. Ares’ sword fell from her nerveless fingers and, her knees buckling under her, she clutched helplessly at Hercules’ as she collapsed to the ground.

Xena rolled to the earth heavily.

Hercules knelt down and pulled out the arrow gently, rolling Velasca over to see her empty, sightless eyes. He could see the darker brown flecks beneath the gore from Velasca’s body. “Blood of the Hind?” he whispered, incredulous.

Ares’ head whipped back and his reaction was instantaneous. He leapt for his sword.

Gabrielle dropped off Argo and ran towards Callisto.

Iolaus turned and scrambled that way also.

Callisto calmly reloaded.

Ares, sword back in hand, stood while shimmering light whirled around him.

The Vengeance Immortal put him directly in her sights.

“I’d stop her, brother,” Ares said to Hercules. “But don’t get in her way. Those things are dangerous.”

“Callisto, don’t,” Iolaus said, one hand reaching out slowly towards the bow, the other towards the woman he cared for most in the world. “He’s not worth it.”

Her voice shook. “You don’t know how worth it he is, Iolaus. This was my dream, and he’s destroyed it.”

“If you pull that trigger, Callisto,” Gabrielle said gently, “you’ll be the one to destroy it.” The bard came closer. Before her, Hercules and Xena did as well. “Look around you. This is your dream. You wanted a family.”

Callisto turned moist eyes to meet hers.

The bard smiled. “Here we are.”

Callisto’s hand began to shake.

“End the cycle here,” the wise young woman said. “Don’t let Velasca win.”

The goddess turned her head slowly, from face to face. They were blurring in her eyes. Blinking away the wetness, she put the bow in Iolaus’ outstretched hand.

Ares sheathed his sword, letting out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding.

Callisto blinked again, but the blur didn’t go away. She sank back to the ground. Iolaus was beside her in an instant.

“Herc, she’s really hurt,” he called back to her father.

Xena came closer, kneeling down. She poked and prodded. “She’s dying.”

Hercules crowded close, frowning. He took Callisto’s hand. “That’s impossible, she’s a god.”

From behind them came Ares’ voice. “Only by ambrosia. A surprisingly fragile enhancement.”

Hercules slipped his arm beneath his foster-daughter. She turned eyes towards him, but could not see him.

“Xena, do something,” Gabrielle begged, her voice tight.

The Warrior Princess shook her head. “There’s nothing I can do. I can’t fix this.”

Still Callisto’s eyes searched. “Papa?”

Hercules grabbed Xena’s arm. “Please, there must be something?”

She met his eyes, but held no hope in hers.

Iolaus sat back on his heels, covered his mouth with his hand.

Silence, for long moments.

“There is a way for her to live,” Ares said.

Hercules locked his brother’s gaze. “What’s that?”

Ares almost shrugged. “Unwish it.”

The demi-god frowned. “Unwish what?”

Xena turned an angry look on her old master. “Oh, very convenient for you, Ares. You won’t be punished.”

“I... can’t,” Callisto said, her voice weak.

“Forget Ares,” Hercules told Xena. “Callisto,” he coaxed, “if it will keep you alive, you must do it.”

“Please, Callisto,” Iolaus added, touching her cheek.

Callisto shook her head softly. “Can’t I die with a family?”

Xena cleared her throat. “I’d rather you didn’t die at all,” she said. Gabrielle met her eyes, and they shared a look that said many things, good and bad, worries and hopes.

The Vengeance Immortal closed her eyes, hearing that voice that somehow, even now, meant more than all the others.

“Bring the Fates, Ares,” she said.

It took only a gesture, and then they stood before the group, their thread stretched between them.

Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos laid their gaze upon the warrior queen, who could not return it. “Callisto Avenger—”

“—sponsored by Ares—”

“—God of War—”

“—name your wish. If it’s ours to bestow—”

“—it’s yours.”

Callisto reached out to take Hercules’ and Iolaus’ hands in her own.

“Mother, maiden, and crone, this is my wish,” she whispered. “Let the past have happened as before.”

The Fates looked as one to Ares, who nodded brusquely.

The three nodded. “So be it—”

“—all is restored.”

*  *  *  *  *

And then day was dusk, and smoke was stars, and the crash of battle was only the chirping of crickets. Argo, nibbling grass nearby, whinnied softly.

There was no flame. The ruins were intact — as they were before, at least.

“Gabrielle?” Xena said.

“Callisto?” Gabrielle called.

“Artemis?” came Callisto’s voice, clear and strong. The others turned their heads to watch a flicker of light dance closer and closer, until a slender figure within stood before them. The three began to rise.

“Why are you here, Artemis?” Callisto asked, her eyes still pale blue but clear and seeing in the fading daylight.

The other goddess’ voice was soft. “For your punishment.”

“What?” Xena frowned.

“I asked you to kill another god,” Artemis spoke to Callisto, “and for that I was punished. When the Fates changed time, my punishment was that Velasca would be reborn. But you killed her, you see, and for that you must be punished as well.”

Gabrielle stepped forward. “That’s not fair! You asked her to kill Velasca! Why must she be punished at all?”

The Moon Goddess turned to the bard. “To restore time, Velasca had to be eliminated. That is why the gods allowed me to give Callisto back her godhood, to stop her. Velasca could not be trusted in either timeline. But gods cannot be allowed to kill other gods.”

“And what is the punishment?” Xena asked.

Artemis reached out a hand calmly and a bolt of lightning brought Callisto to her knees. A bright glow moved from Callisto to Artemis. After a moment, the light faded.

“It is done,” Artemis said, and, like most gods do, vanished.

Gabrielle rushed to Callisto’s side. The warrior turned her brown eyes on the bard. “It’s not fair...” she said, her voice weak but with a touch of dangerous rage. “Nothing has changed. I’ve still lost everything.”

The bard could see a tumult behind those eyes. She swallowed, fearful.

Behind her, Xena stepped forward. “No, Callisto, that’s not true. You’ve won. You have what you always wanted.” She stopped before her old rival. “You’re home.”

Callisto looked up at Xena, defeated. The fear in Gabrielle vanished, replaced by anger. She turned a dark glare at the Warrior Princess. “Xena, that’s cruel.”

But Xena shook her head. “No, Gabrielle. I don’t mean these ruins here, Callisto.” She crouched down beside the blonde warrior. Whatever past there was now, this was something she was very sure about.

Xena touched the warrior queen’s arm. “I mean your soul, Callisto. The fates didn’t reverse that wish.”

Callisto’s brow furrowed. There were many things in her heart as she listened to Xena’s words. She struggled to keep them straight, and more importantly, to feel them.

“You’ve taken the first step on a long, hard road. This,” Xena indicated the shattered buildings, “may have not changed at all, but you have. In these past few days you’ve come a long way. You’ve come a lifetime away.”

Callisto’s voice was quiet. “But I got here with— so many things. I don’t know the way after this.”

Xena smiled softly, insecurely. “You’ll find it. For a while, Callisto, you were a hero. Even if fate has changed that, you know it’s within you. You can be that way again.”

The blonde warrior shook her head, afraid — afraid of many things, but foremost of them, the distinct lack of rage in her heart.

“Callisto,” the Warrior Princess bent to meet her eyes, “remember what you told Gabrielle before? You said you felt ‘whole’. And it wasn’t because your family was alive again. It’s because you were.”

At that, Xena reached over and took Gabrielle’s hand, and stood. She knew Callisto would not answer. She did not know if she’d listen, or accept, or change. But she’d said her piece.

They left the warrior queen there as they mounted up on Argo. Gabrielle waited for a moment longer than her friend, but knew at last that they needed to go. It was a ways to Pharsalus.

Callisto looked around after they’d left. She stood and walked through the dewy grass of the old square, eyes scanning the hillside, the close trees and distant ones, the homes, ramshackle but in place. There was so much different here now than in her other life, her sometimes happy one now gone.

But one thing, she saw with wonder, hadn’t changed. At the edge of the crumbling buildings, casting long shadows in the grass, were still the stone tombstones Callisto had had made, over the graves that she had dug.

And as the sunlight faded on the horizon and the silver moon took its place to watch over the night, Callisto decided to stay, just a while, among the headstones, and say goodbye.

 

XVII: Rest for the Wicked