~ Fallen Nation ~
by M. Keck

* * * Disclaimer * * *

     The characters Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Velasca, Solari, Eponin, Siri, Argo, et. al. are the property of Renaissance Pictures and Universal Studios. All modifications made beyond that described in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys are strictly that of the author's own imagination.

     Novella Two, "Fallen Nation," contains some violence, profanity and an explicit scene of heterosexual sex with unintended consequences (and, no, it's not pregnancy -- although that was the intent of the characters). There are also scenes of lesbian foreplay. If any of the above is disagreeable or illegal where you live, please select another piece of fan fiction to enjoy.

     "Fallen Nation" is the second story in a three story trilogy, "Worlds in Collision," detailing an epic conflict between Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, and the Amazon nation. It would be a prudent precaution to read the previous novella, "Baccha Moon Rising," if you want to comprehend the events unfolding in "Fallen Nation."

     The "Worlds In Collision" trilogy is a so-called "lost" adventure that takes place immediately after the second season X:WP episode "The Quest" and immediately before the second season X:WP episode "A Necessary Evil." Furthermore, Velasca is alive and well at the beginning of the trilogy, and not an insane goddess trapped within a hardened lava pool with Callisto. It also introduces some characters from the fourth season H:TLJ episode "Prodigal Sister" because while they weren't known to viewers of the Xenaverse during X:WP's second season, they were known to the Amazons.

     If you have any constructive comments on the trilogy, please feel free to drop me, M. Keck, a line at the following e-mail address: storymaster74@yahoo.com. And, finally, thank you for reading my fanfiction. It all comes from the heart.

* * * Disclaimer * * *

     "Bacchus, the gods of Olympus hereby find you guilty in the death of Orpheus, one of the many gods of music. Your sentence is death, to be carried out immediately."

     The silence in the Hall of the Gods on Mount Olympus was deafening, broken only by Bacchus' heavy breathing. Finally the mighty queen of the gods, Hera, spoke up. "Oh shut up, Zeus. We haven't even started the trial yet, let alone asked any questions. Besides, Bacchus is your illegitimate son. Have some compassion for him."

     Zeus' eyes smoldered at the pointed rebuke. "Okay. You have a point." He turned his angry eyes back to Bacchus. "You'll have your day in court after all. We'll begin with those who have grievances against you, related to Orpheus' death or otherwise. Afterwards, your supporters can speak. I will be the judge and executioner." He glanced around the hall; all of the major gods were present, along with many of the lesser gods. "Speak up now, or forever hold your silence."

     Artemis stood from her throne, her emerald green eyes flashing angrily. "Bacchus, a pitiful excuse of a god, has buried his talons in the Amazon nation!" She looked around the hall, her jet black hair flowing, seeing if she had any sympathy for the Amazon's plight. She didn't. "They're my followers! And he's turned most of them into his bloodsucking Bacchae! What good are they to me now?"

     "Your precious Amazons are mere mortals," Hera observed. "Besides, I thought this trial was about the death of Orpheus, even though he was only a minor deity."

     "You forget one thing," Artemis retorted. "Orpheus' death was indirectly caused by an Amazon. Velasca's her name, and she was the leader of the group which killed him." She looked imploringly at Zeus. "The Amazons don't worship me anymore! They don't hunt wild game or live independently anymore! All they do now is guzzle blood by the gallon, tear men apart and follow every order from Bacchus. His actions caused an Amazon to indirectly kill a minor god and now he's taken away my worshipers. So, yeah, I'm an injured party. I demand justice for his actions."

     Ares coughed and, surprisingly, took Artemis' side. "Besides, Hera, Zeus said 'or otherwise'. Anyway, I rather liked the Amazons as they once were: aggressive, wild and militaristic. Yet also sensuous and intelligent at the same time. Now they're just fanged fanatics bent on spreading Bacchus' vision of a new world to every woman they can sink their teeth into."

     "It comes down to this: Bacchus' minions killed a kind god whose only interest was playing the lyre and keeping the masses entertained." This thoughtful comment came from Athena. "And if that wasn't enough, then he enslaved an entire nation of women by transforming them into his Bacchae followers." She gestured in front of her, and a small holographic sphere of Earth appeared in front her. It rotated to show the Mediterranean Sea and zoomed in on the Grecian peninsula. A small red dot appeared near the rugged border of Macedonia and Thrace and began slowly expanding. "Even now Bacchus is expanding his area of influence by attacking the lands and towns of Macedonia, and bringing more and more women into his dark and wild ways."

     "Are there anymore damning words from accusers?" Zeus asked. "No? Good. Now it's his supporters turn to speak out for him. If they are any."

     "Bacchus did what any normal god would do if his scope of influence was being hemmed in by another, lesser, deity," Hera said forcefully. "He lashed out. Can it be helped that Orpheus was foolish enough to be the one limiting Bacchus' potential, and got killed as a result of it? I think Bacchus had every right to eliminate his opposition." She looked pointedly at Zeus. "You've done it. Remember the golden hinds and how they died?"

     Zeus fidgeted. "Yes. But that action was justifiable. The blood of the golden hind was toxic to the gods; a single drop of it could kill us! The golden hinds not only threatened myself, but everyone else here as well!"

     "So what? Your words just reinforced my earlier statement," Hera said sweetly. "Bacchus was merely eliminating an obstacle in his path. And as for the Amazons, he's merely making good use of a resource. Those women are trained in the arts of warfare and seduction. A fine addition to the Bacchae, I think."

     "But, but they're nightmare images of their former selves," Artemis interrupted. "Milky white skin, fangs, claws and bad attitudes!"

     "Ah, but they still know how to seduce men and women," Aphrodite chirped up. "I might not like their method of getting the job done, but it's the results that count." She called up an image of an Amazon Bacchae having intercourse with an entranced man. From the surroundings, it was obvious the image was being beamed from Themiscrya itself. The woman was clearly enjoying herself immensely and from all appearances, so was the man. Aphrodite smiled and said, "That image reinforces my viewpoint. Sure, they got bad attitudes and some, ah, new physical attributes, but they're still No. 1 in the love department." The image faded away; the gods didn't see the Amazon as she lost control of herself and frenzied, draining her lover of his blood, leaving only a desiccated corpse behind. Or the crazed, wild look in her gold eyes.

     Zeus shook his head, steeling himself to pass judgment on one of his sons. "Artemis, Athena and Ares are for punishing Bacchus while Hera and Aphrodite think he should get off with a slap on the wrist. That's three for and two against, which means ... ,"

     Ares caught the enraged look Hera threw at him. And the feared god of war gulped with fear. "Zeus, I have had a change of heart. Perhaps we should give Bacchus another chance. After all, he only killed a lesser god and enslaved some petty mortal nation." Sorry, Amazons, but my continued existence means more to me than your independence does, he thought silently. "Let him go. I'm siding with Hera and Aphrodite."

     Damn him, Zeus thought angrily. One venomous glance from his mother and he shifts his allegiance. For somebody who's so bloodthirsty, Ares sure is spineless sometimes. "Are there any other comments, pro or con, from the other gods?" Zeus glanced around, seeing no volunteers. "Then so be it. In the judgment of this court, Bacchus is innocent in the murder of Orpheus and was within his rights to turn the Amazon nation into his bloodthirsty followers." Another day, another miscarriage of justice, Zeus added silently.

     "You call that justice?!" Artemis was apoplectic with fury. "I demand the right to appeal this hoot of justice!"

     "Silence!" Hera thundered. "Zeus has made up his mind. And as king of the gods, no one may question his decisions." She glared at Artemis. "Is that clear?"

     Artemis began protesting, but Athena's firm hand on her shoulder silenced the goddess of the hunt and childbirth. "Let it go. Everything will balance out in the end. You just have to have patience."

     "But it isn't right ..."

     "No, it isn't. But right now you don't have the power to challenge Hera, let alone Zeus. Nobody ever said that justice was always sure and swift. That's what makes it different from the hunt," Athena explained.

     Bacchus was exiting the hall when a glowering Zeus stalked up and pulled him aside. "You were once one of my favorite sons," he said quietly. "But now you're close to crossing the line to my enemies list. Watch what you do, because I'm watching you!"

     Bacchus smoldered silently and watched Zeus stalk away. Soon afterwards Bacchus felt a cold presence materialize behind him. A deceptively gentle hand began patting him on the back. "I know we've had our differences in the past, but I'm truly on your side in this battle," Hera whispered seductively. "And as for Zeus, he's just an old goat trying to fend off the forces of change. I'll see to it that he stays out of your way!"

     "Thank you, queen, for your reassurances," Bacchus rumbled. He watched Hera as she ambled off in the company of Ares and Hephaestus. She really expects me to believe her after the crap she's put me through?! he thought indignantly. By Hades, she wanted to kill me so bad at one time that Zeus had to disguise me as a monster to keep me alive. Bacchus stared thoughtfully at his cherry red skin and ran his black taloned fingers through his bristly hair, touching his black, twisting ram's horns. Too bad he never got around to changing me back to my normal self.

* * *

     Nearly twelve hours had passed since the Bacchae uprising in the Amazon nation. Velasca walked among the silent rows of captured Amazons in the vast, torchlit village square. Each prisoner was dutifully watched over by one of her initiated sisters. Occasionally Velasca would bend over and lift one of her sister's heads and inspect her face closely, looking for any trace of anger or fear. More often than not she found neither; often it was only bitter defiance. The time for the initiation ceremony approaches. Soon I'll be able to share with them the gift of immortality that Bacchus has bestowed on myself and many others of the Amazon nation, Velasca thought. She looked up and saw Xena approaching, her face set in a grim countenance.

     "How did the refugee hunt go? Did my hunch about Ephiny and Solari ring true?" Velasca asked.

     Xena nodded curtly. "You were right about Ephiny heading in the direction of our border in Macedonia's interior. She had nearly overcome Electra and her guards when we came upon the battle." She smiled viciously. "In short order, we grabbed Solari and Ordahlia ... ,"

     "What about Ephiny?" Velasca asked, casually exposing her slender, needle sharp fangs. She ran her tongue slowly and seductively over them, slicking them with hot saliva. "You know how much I'm looking forward to introducing her to Bacchus' wild ways."

     "She got away," Xena snapped testily, "because Solari and Ordahlia sacrificed themselves in order to help her get free of the Bacchae who had her."

     "Hmm. How interesting. I never realized those two had such chivalrous personalities. Hopefully those positive traits will carry over once they've been turned into Bacchae."

     Xena frowned. "Aren't you just a little angry about Ephiny's escape?"

     "Why should I be?" Velasca asked. "One way or another she'll become one of us. It's only a matter of time." She gestured expansively at her imprisoned sisters. There were hundreds of women in the square. "Soon we'll expand our numbers tremendously. Every one of our sisters here will become one more Baccha we can use against our enemies ... and in hunting Ephiny down! And if that isn't enough, there's thousands of other sisters scattered across the lands and villages of the nation who can help us capture her."

     The unexpected appearance of a flaming pillar of blinding light got the attention of all the women in the square, Bacchae or not. The light faded away and Bacchus himself appeared before Velasca and Xena. He looked downright happy about something, but the two Bacchae didn't dare ask him what it was.

     "What brings you here, leader?" Velasca asked. "You usually don't employ your transport capabilities to get around. Is it anything important?"

     "Let's just say I got tired of waiting to hear back from you via the old fashioned way," Bacchus replied evenly. He looked around the square, studying the women. "I need to know when our Amazon army is going to be ready to roll. Eribas and Caria have already set their forces in motion and are besieging Pella and other Macedonian cities. They've also insinuated themselves throughout the countryside, but they need reinforcements to guarantee our rule."

     "We will be underway by dawn's first light," Xena promised. "I'll lead the strike force myself, and Diana will be one of my lieutenants." She looked over at Velasca, daring her to contradict the warrior princess. "And if Velasca will let me, I'll bring Solari along as well. Her leadership skills will be invaluable on the battlefield."

     Bacchus nodded his head and gestured at the trussed up Amazons. "Then why aren't these women changed yet? What's taking so long?"

     Velasca stepped up to the plate. "We were waiting for your arrival so you could witness the birth of hundreds more Bacchae at our midnight initiation ceremony." She looked up at the sky, where the full moon was reaching its zenith. "Which is, coincidentally, right now."

     "Then by all means introduce them to their new lifestyles!" Bacchus smiled malevolently and folded his arms in expectation.

* * *

     Artemis walked sullenly among the trees and grasses of her hunting preserve, brooding over the laughingstock of a trial that Bacchus had endured earlier. That horned bastard always gets away with murder! Why, he's not the only offspring of Zeus - yet Zeus always treats him differently than the rest of his children! Why?! Her thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of her brother, Apollo, and Athena.

     "You're thinking terrible thoughts, sis," Apollo observed. "Let's hear them."

     Artemis swung on her brother and socked him square in the face. He held his bleeding nose and looked wonderingly at his sister. "That's for not speaking on my behalf at Bacchus' trial!" she shouted. "You had the chance to support me, but you didn't. Why?"

     "I've always been one to walk the fence," Apollo said. "I've never been into these power games that Zeus, Poseidon and Hera play among themselves. And I've found that the best way to stay neutral is to stay out of Hera's way. She's one goddess you definitely don't want to have pissed at you."

     "But it's not the moral, righteous thing to do!"

     "No, it's not. But it ensures the survival of those who have no desire for power!"

     Flickers of energy danced around Artemis' hands, harbingers of her tremendous destructive power. But she held back, just barely. Athena stared coolly at her, understanding the rage and anger she was experiencing. "Justice isn't always swift or severe," she said. "But when this debacle ends, Bacchus will pay a steep price for his actions."

     Artemis snorted. "That's easy for you to say." She glared at Apollo and Athena. "It's not your followers that Bacchus has turned into bloodsuckers. And he didn't kill a god that you were particularly close to. I knew Orpheus, and he was a good natured deity. And now look -- he's dead! And Bacchus has blood on his hands for that!"

     "Now, now," Athena soothed. "Don't let your emotions ... ,"

     "Stuff it, Athena," Artemis hissed. "Your form of justice may be slow, but mine sure as Hades isn't!"

* * *

     Ephiny whirled at the sound of a twig snapping, her blade flashing in the bright moonlight. The timber wolf looked up, a small rodent hanging from its mouth, and growled before springing away into the dense foliage. Calm down, Ephiny, it was just a timber wolf. Not a Baccha. No, most certainly not one of those damn bloodsuckers. Strange, though, I get the feeling the Amazons are represented by that dead mouse and that wolf is a damn good impersonation of Bacchus and his minions.

     Then another twig snapped. And this time Ephiny knew it was no wolf. She glanced hurriedly around the path; it was much easier to see now that the moon had risen high in the night sky. Unlike when we fought Electra and Xena earlier tonight, she thought wryly. Then the horrible memories flooded her mind; Solari screaming at Ephiny to run ... Ordahlia lying insensate on the ground, a triumphant Xena towering over her.

     "For once in your damn life, Ephiny, run! Don't worry about Ordahlia or me!" Solari screamed. " ... Whatever happens to us, we'll always be your friends and confidantes. No matter what our bodies look like or how we sound."

     A questioning touch brought Ephiny out of her unbidden nightmare. She spun around and caught sight of another woman; apparently an Amazon, although she didn't recognize the stranger. Ephiny studied her closely, then said, "Obviously, you're not a Baccha. Are you one of the refugees from Themiscrya?"

     The woman nodded her head. "I'm from one of the outlying villages, though. I was with a sizable group of refugees, but we got ambushed by the Bacchae." She looked at Ephiny, and the Amazon queen noticed she had been crying. "I ran. The others stood and fought, but I ran. I'm nothing more than a coward, probably not worthy enough to be an Amazon, let alone a Baccha."

     "You did the right thing by running," Ephiny reassured the woman. "The Bacchae can't be defeated by conventional means. Your sisters have probably been turned into fanged beauties by now."

     "But it just doesn't feel right, running away like I did. I abandoned my sisters ... ,"

     Ephiny hushed the young woman, remembering the painful decision she had made hours ago that left Solari and Ordahlia in the arms of the Bacchae. "Hindsight is always 20/20. What's done is done ... besides, you're not the only one who had to leave friends behind today." The woman sniffed and Ephiny asked, "By the way, I haven't had the honor of knowing your name. What is it?"

     "Siri. My mother named me after her great great grandmother, who fought at Athens after the Athenians and their allies stole Queen Hippolyta's girdle from the nation."

     "Well, Siri, it sounds like you have quite a heritage," Ephiny remarked. "Many Amazons died at the walls of Athens. Your decedent must have been accomplished in the arts of warfare to survive that debacle." Siri nodded. Sheathing her sword, Ephiny glanced around, then said, "Well, we can't stay here forever. This is centaur land and even though I know Tyldus, it won't guarantee our safety. We'll have to make our way to Pella. Keep your eyes and ears open, because Bacchae, Amazon or not, are crawling everywhere. One bite from them, and you won't have to worry about your complexion anymore."

* * *

     Velasca stood on the coronation deck, flanked by Xena, Gabrielle and a number of her lieutenants. Bacchus stood behind Velasca, glowering at the unnecessary pomp and circumstance that was delaying the creation of hundreds of new Bacchae. He leaned toward Velasca and whispered, "Make it fast. We have a world to conquer!"

     Velasca nodded. She scanned the crowd in front of her, making sure that each trussed up Amazon had a Baccha standing next to her. The defiant looks she got from a number of the prisoners impressed her. They'll make feisty Bacchae, but that's good, Velasca thought silently. "On the count of three, initiate the woman next to you," she instructed. "Afterwards, give our new followers a brief orientation, then prepare for war. We're going aid our other sisters in taking Pella!"

     She looked over at Xena, who started counting. "One ... ,"

     Among the imprisoned Amazons, Euryleia struggled futilely against the bonds that held her hands and feet together. Dammit, I've got only seconds before ...

     "Two ... ,"

     She looked up at Sirius, scanning her chalky white face for any sign of mercy. Sirius smiled in anticipation, her crimson lips parting to reveal two saliva slicked razor sharp fangs. There was no compassion in her seductive gold eyes, only the promise of eternal life as a bloodsucking follower of Bacchus. "Please, Sirius, from one sister to another, don't ... ,"


     Sirius raised a black taloned finger to her crimson mouth. "Ah, ah, Euryleia. Ssshh. We'll talk in a minute."

     "Nnnoooo!" Euryleia's cry was abruptly cut off as Sirius squeezed her cheeks with taloned fingers, forcing Euryleia's lips into an obscene pucker. Sirius smiled, puckered her own lips, and planted a big, wet kiss on Euryleia's mouth. Her razor sharp fangs punctured Euryleia's lips and Sirius savored the sweet taste of blood as it sprayed from the wound, dribbling down her throat. It seemed like an eternity to Euryleia before Sirius ended the obscene parody of compassion and sat back to watch her sister begin the transition to eternal life.

     "You, you make a mockery out of true love and compassion," Euryleia slurred, her body twitching and trembling.

     "That's not true, and you know it," Sirius replied. "We were lovers before Bacchus ever appeared and now we can be lovers for eternity!"

     With a convulsive jerk, Euryleia broke the bonds holding her hands and feet together. She looked up at Sirius, her brown eyes slowly acquiring a seductive golden hue. "I never wanted this to happen to me ... I feel so strange. Dark, wild energy ... oh, I'm so thirsty!"

     Sirius glanced furtively around, seeing hundreds of other Amazons in various states of transformation. Then she broke an unwritten rule of the Bacchae: she embraced her slowly changing lover. "You'll get used to the new feelings soon enough. We're still Amazons at heart -- we've just been enhanced, physically and mentally."

     "It huuurts," Euryleia cried, grimacing as her fingernails warped painfully into blood-slicked talons.

     Sirius nodded knowingly and looked deep into Euryleia's gold eyes. "Well, look at the bright side. You only got bit once. When I was initiated, Gabrielle and several other sisters were biting me all at the same time." She shook her head and remembered the horrifying assault on her body and soul. "It hurt like Hades and I was covered in bite marks, but it took me less than a minute to complete the transformation because of those bites."

     "No one forced you to bite me!" Euryleia accused, her pink lips swelling painfully into full, crimson Baccha lips. The slowly sharpening points of her fangs were barely visible behind her changing lips. "We could have remained lovers! It didn't matter to me that you were a Baccha and I wasn't. Besides, I never wanted to be a bloodsucker." Euryleia moaned as patches of chalky white skin began spreading over her body. "But you ignored my wishes!"

     Sirius shook her head, trying to deny the truth in Euryleia's voice. "Velasca would never have allowed you to remain unchanged. Her orders were explicit -- the entire nation must join her in following and worshipping Bacchus." She spied Velasca in the distance, conversing with Xena. "The only exception to that rule are our sisters who take care of the infants and children."

     Euryleia cried out as a final wave of cramps rolled over her, completing her transformation into a Baccha. The entire process had taken about five minutes. Sirius helped her to her feet and smiled with satisfaction as she looked over one of the newest members of the Bacchae. Around them, hundreds of other Amazons were being helped to their feet and welcomed into the ranks of the new Amazon nation.

     "How do you feel?" Sirius asked.

     Euryleia examined her altered body, and felt the sharp new teeth in her mouth with her delicate, pink tongue. "I feel invigorated, like I'm full of dark, orgasmic energy," she admitted. Another wave of desire washed over her mind as her need for blood and physical release began building. Euryleia resisted it, but her will was slowly being eroded. "It's hard to resist these new urges," she added. "Now I know why it's so easy to just lose control."

     Sirius smiled. "Here, let me help you release your dark desires." She pulled Euryleia over and kissed her deeply on the lips. Euryleia's hands began to cautiously feel the tight curves of her partner's body. She slipped her taloned fingers up under Sirius' leather chest armor and gently massaged her full, firm breasts. Sirius' nipples swelled with desire as Euryleia continued her own electrifying seduction. It wasn't long before both were the center of attention from most of the assembled Bacchae.

     Xena smiled as she observed Euryleia and Sirius becoming acquainted with each other. It brought back some memories of the closeness between herself and Gabrielle. She looked over at Velasca and said, "Hmm. That lovemaking reminds me of how I was initiated into the Bacchae."

     "We try to alter our initiation methods from time to time," Velasca said. "The quickest way to turn a woman into one of us is to bite her on the neck, but that gets boring sometimes. That's why you were bitten on your breasts and why Sirius punctured Euryleia's lips." She gestured at the two entangled women. "It wasn't common knowledge, but Sirius and Euryleia were lovers before Bacchus appeared on the scene. They lived apart in different villages and tribes, but that didn't dampen the heat between them. Obviously, they're still lovers, even though they're both Bacchae now."

     Bacchus observed the entire process and grew bored. "Xena, begin organizing your forces," he rumbled. "It's going to take several days for your little army to reach Pella. We cannot afford anymore delays!"

     "What about Solari? I wanted to take her with me."

     "Request denied," Bacchus snapped. "You and Diana should be able to handle anything Amplitron throws at you, especially once you link up with Eribas and Caria."

     Xena nodded curtly and moved off, trailed by Gabrielle. Bacchus turned to Velasca and said, "I want you to stay in Amazon territory for two purposes: one, continue the transformations of unchanged Amazons into my followers and two, do something about the surrounding towns and villages! They haven't been conquered yet and those towns are full of native women and probably more than a few Amazon refugees."

     Velasca smiled with anticipation. She also knew that those towns and villages were full of men hoping to be selected as Amazon sex partners. "Yes, milord. It will be done as you command it."

     "I know those towns and villages are full of rutting men," Bacchus said, looking evenly at Velasca. "Conquer the towns, change the women and then do as you please with the men. But keep it in that order!"

     Velasca nodded, her plan unhampered by Bacchus' explicit orders. She watched, impassive, as he vanished in a blaze of energy. Then she left the coronation deck and walked among her many new followers, eventually finding Arianna and Helen trying to organize a number of their sisters into a cohesive unit for Xena's army. "You two are staying here with me," she said curtly. "We've got our work cut out for us -- Bacchus wants us to conquer the territory surrounding the Amazon nation."

     "What's he want us to do once we conquer our neighbors?" Arianna asked.

     Velasca shrugged. "We'll worry about that when the time comes. But it's probably not a coincidence that most of Macedonia will belong to the Bacchae once our neighbors and Pella have fallen. But in the meantime, brainstorm some strategies with the other Bacchae who are staying behind. We need all the suggestions we can get."

     Velasca strode off. "Where are you going?" Helen blurted. "We need your input as well!"

     "I've got some personal business to deal with," she snorted. "I'm sure you can survive without my guidance for a little while." I like to throw them for a spin once in a while, she thought, smiling. Her smile became even broader as she contemplated her eventual destination -- the queen's lodge. That's where Solari and Ordahlia await the pleasure of my fangs. Ooh, I'm looking forward to this!

* * *

     Ephiny and Siri slipped quietly into the silent village of Ereboa. The sun was shining brilliantly and the air was alive with the sounds of birds and insects, but there wasn't a soul visible among the thatched huts. It wasn't long before the eerie emptiness was broken by the obvious remnants of a battle. And a recent one at that.

     "It looks like several of our sisters died here," Siri murmured, shying away from the bloodless, battered bodies littering the village center. "Went down fighting, I suppose. Better to die free than live forever as a bloodsucker."

     Ephiny nodded. "Ereboa is the fifth Amazon village we've entered that's been this way. By Artemis, our sisters must have ripped through this area like a flash flood." She shook her head. "I wonder what happened to our surviving sisters ... probably all fanged beauties by now."

     A low, labored moaning echoed from one of the huts. Ephiny spun around and recognized the hut as a birthing hut. She dashed toward the source of the sound, her sword held out cautiously. Siri followed a discreet distance behind, her crossbow loaded, looking for any sign of trouble. The two women entered the hut and froze. Another woman was in there and she was moaning for a very good reason: she was going through a painful transformation into a Baccha. Her seductive gold eyes glared at her sisters and she hissed, exposing her newly-formed fangs.

     "The baby girls," the warrior slurred. "They took them away ... tried to stop them ... ," she reached toward Siri with trembling, taloned hands. " ... but they bit me!"

     "Don't let her grab you!" Ephiny warned, restraining Siri. She looked around wildly, seeing if they were alone. They were, but Ephiny knew it wouldn't stay that way for long. "We've got to get out this village!"

     "Why?" Siri stammered. "And what about our sister?! Can't we do anything for her?"

     "It's too late -- she's been bitten. The only way she'll revert back now is if Bacchus is killed," Ephiny explained as they hastily left the poor woman behind. Siri opened her mouth, but Ephiny shook her head. "No time to explain now, but we've got to get back into the wilderness."

     "Why?" Siri asked again. She wanted an explanation. Suddenly a dozen Amazons materialized seemingly out of thin air, hissing and growling at Siri. One lunged at her, but Ephiny's sword knocked the Baccha out cold.

     "It was a trap!" Ephiny explained, breathing hard. "Bacchae never, I repeat never, abandon women in the process of turning into Bacchae." She dodged a taloned fist and suckerpunched her assailant. The woman dropped insensate to the ground. "Fortunately, I just remembered that little tidbit of information."

     The two Amazons reached the edge of the village and plunged into the thick foliage. Their pursuers dropped the chase and withdrew back into the conquered village. "So that woman in the hut ... was nothing more than bait to lure other refugees into Ereboa?!" Siri stammered.

     Ephiny sat heavily and nodded her head. "Velasca is doing her best to try and initiate every single one of us into her vision of a new Amazon nation." She paused, then added, "Of course the woman wasn't aware she was bait, but that's the only reason she was alone. Usually Bacchae fawn over new initiates."

     Siri gulped. It had been a close call. "Perhaps we should make directly for Pella instead of exploring these small villages. It's obvious that Velasca's minions have taken them all over."

     "Sounds like a good idea to me," Ephiny said. "Besides, we stand a better chance of finding a sizable group of Amazon refugees in a big town like Pella than we do out here. Any of our sisters who made it past Velasca's gauntlet sure as Hades wouldn't hang around near Amazon territory for long!"

* * *

     "I've been looking forward to this moment for a long time." Velasca was circling her two prisoners, Solari and Ordahlia, like a lion preparing to pounce on its unsuspecting prey. Which she was just about to do. "You've been a constant thorn in my side, Solari. What's ironic about that is that we share the same goal, which is glory for the Amazon nation!"

     Solari snarled, glaring up at her gloating captor. "That's true. But I don't agree with your methods of achieving that glory! You betrayed the nation twice; once when you illegally obtained the mask of the queen and when you allied us with Bacchus!"

     "That alliance with Bacchus is what will make us glorious again!" Velasca rumbled. "The Amazon nation will never again be subject to abuse or degradation!" She grinned, her sharp fangs gleaming in the streaming daylight. "I'll be introducing you to the pleasures of the Bacchae soon enough."

     "Why don't you untie my hands and feet and make it a fair fight?" Solari challenged. "That way, if you succeed in biting me, you can rightly say you succeeded the old-fashioned way."

     "Nice try, but you're not goading me into a Bacchian frenzy." Velasca turned to Ordahlia, who had remained silent throughout the verbal sparring. Velasca smiled and leaned down toward the trembling woman. "I think I'll nip you first."

     Ordahlia's eyes went wide as Velasca's fanged mouth drew closer. "Don't do it. There's an intense internal struggle within yourself; you're torn between your coerced loyalty to Bacchus and your natural desire to represent the best interests of the Amazon nation." Ordahlia looked deep into Velasca's gold eyes, looking desperately for any spark of Velasca's original personality amid her dominant dark side. "You can break the cycle here! The Amazons don't have to be Bacchae in order to achieve a glorious future! You know that!"

     Velasca's mouth paused less than inch from Ordahlia's throat. Her hot breath quickened as she looked curiously at Ordahlia. "Your ability to psychoanalyze others will be a tremendous benefit to the Bacchae," Velasca snapped. Her moment of indecision had already vanished. "Prepare for your new life, Ordahlia!"

     Solari resisted the urge to avert her eyes as Velasca's fanged mouth buried itself in the side of Ordahlia's neck. Ordahlia stared steadily at her as Velasca drained her individuality away. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, Ordahlia's eyes turned into seductive gold orbs and her pursed pink lips swelled into full crimson Baccha lips. By the time Velasca removed her blood-slicked mouth, Ordahlia's fingernails had warped into sharp black talons and her skin was beginning to turn chalky white.

     "I ... feel like I don't have a care in the world," Ordahlia murmured, swooning slightly. She grimaced as her incisors warped painfully into slim razor sharp fangs. "I'm so thirsty ... ,"

     Velasca turned back to Solari and grinned. "See? Ordahlia already enjoys her new life as a Baccha, and she just got changed. Now it's your turn." She ambled over and smiled lasciviously. "Let's rock."

     Solari's trepidation turned into horror as Velasca ripped her chest armor off, exposing Solari's full, firm breasts. Her erect nipples quivered slightly as a cool breeze whispered across them. Then Velasca grabbed Solari's short leather skirt and jerked it off, exposing her sex to the world. A thick inverted triangular patch of black hair pointed to her full outer and inner labial lips, which glistened with a hot, moist coating of sexual secretions.

     "Surely you're not going to ... ," Solari stammered helplessly.

     "We're always looking for unique ways to initiate women into the Bacchae," Velasca replied, smiling sweetly. Traces of Ordahlia's blood still slicked her fangs. "I know it seems really kinky, but I'm looking forward to sinking my teeth into your sex."

     Solari screeched painfully as Velasca's fangs penetrated the soft, nerve packed skin of her sex. Blood spurted from the wound, spraying Velasca's face before she could get the sweet flow under control. She cried out again when Velasca bit even deeper, drawing gouts of blood into her stomach. Outside Velasca's timbered lodge, the four guards looked questioningly at each other as Solari's pained cries reached their sensitive ears. Seconds passed before her pain-filled cries softened and died away into muffled, pleasurable groans.

     Solari was reliving her entire life in a matter of seconds. Images and sounds washed over her -- faces, both familiar and unfamiliar flashed by her mind's eye. The solemn faces of the men she had had intercourse with during the Amazon mating cycles she had experienced since she had been seventeen years old. Most had been willing partners, but several had been unwilling captives -- traders, explorers and adventurers captured while crossing Amazon territory. The unions had produced two daughters and a son. The little boy had been born premature and had died before Solari had ever held him. Her daughters, Isis and Cera, were living with other Amazon tribes in the area -- a practice done by the Amazon nation to forge a national identity along with a tribal and familial identity. More images flashed by in a confusing whirl. Her mother's face. A threatening sky filled with the fury of a thunderstorm.

     Suddenly her life images were overwhelmed by a tremendous wave of lust, confusion and thirst that washed over Solari, drowning her individuality in the loose group mind of the Bacchae. Solari experienced Velasca's own transformation into a Baccha, felt Xena's fear and anger as she was slowly turned into a bloodsucker and experienced sexual release through Sirius and Euryleia. She found herself in Caria's place as she welcomed her sister, Thalia, into the Bacchae fold. At the same time Solari was aware that other Bacchae were experiencing events in her own life, just as she was experiencing theirs. This strong sense of sisterhood was accompanied by an absolute sense of loyalty to Bacchus, a wild and carefree attitude and a powerful, nearly uncontrollable physical lust for other men and women. This feels so good, Solari thought dreamily. And I have Velasca and Bacchus to thank for setting me free. Solari was so absorbed with her mental struggle that she never noticed her incisors slowly lengthening and sharpening into a pair of newborn fangs.

     Velasca touched Solari gently, snapping her out of the transformation-induced haze. "How are you feeling?" "Strong and carefree," Solari said simply. She examined her warped fingernails and chalky white skin. She hesitantly ran her pink tongue over her full, crimson lips and the tips of her long fangs. "I ... I experienced the lives of other Bacchae ... ," Solari faced Velasca, " ... and I experienced your own transformation into a Baccha."

     Velasca nodded slowly. "It's part of what being a Baccha is. Absolute loyalty to Bacchus and your fellow Bacchae. Because of that, we do have limited telepathic abilities; that's why you experienced important events in the lives of other Bacchae and, undoubtedly, they experienced events in your own life."

     Solari wasn't particularly thrilled about that idea of shared experiences. Some things are best left to one's own mind, she thought sullenly. "So it's not all sex, parties and drinking blood?" she asked aloud.

     "Actually, that plays a dominant role in our lives," Velasca replied honestly. "But nobody knows about the genuine love that we have for our fellow Bacchae or that Bacchus really does care for his followers."

     Solari nodded. "I also feel this strange, distant nagging desire for blood. Hot, fresh blood."

     "It's there for eternity, so get used to it. After all, blood is what keeps a Baccha going." Velasca abruptly smiled again. "I hereby officially make you one of my lieutenants, Solari. You will help me lead our Bacchae sisters to victory. Will you accept the position?"

     "Why, yes," Solari replied. "I'm honored that you offered it to me, Velasca."

     Velasca glanced over at Ordahlia, who had remained silent since her transformation. "Once you're dressed, accompany Ordahlia back to the medical quarters. Her sisters should be there waiting for her. Afterwards, just wander around Themiscrya and get reacquainted with the others. After all, you're once again one of their commanders."

     Solari nodded and helped Ordahlia to her feet. The young medicine woman smiled gratefully, her seductive gold eyes looking meaningfully into Solari's face. But she remained stoically silent. Well, Ordahlia was an introvert as a normal Amazon, so I suppose it makes sense she would be an introverted Baccha as well, Solari mused silently.

* * *

     Arista roared in fury as yet another attacker stalked toward her. Her band of Amazons had already driven off or killed six other attackers. "Haven't you had enough yet?!" she thundered. "You haven't captured or killed any of us, but you've lost several of your followers!"

     Her attacker didn't respond, but merely dove at her, blade flashing in the afternoon sun. Arista dodged the haphazard blow and struck back, her short sword buried up to its hilt in the attacker's abdomen. The unkempt pirate leader slumped forward, his lifeblood pouring freely from the fatal wound. To make doubly sure that the man was dead, Arista shoved her blade in deeper and twisted it savagely. There was no response from corpse. Smiling savagely, the Amazon commander shoved the body off her blade with a booted foot. The woods, which had been alive with the sounds of battle moments earlier, were now eerily silent.

     "Well, it looks like we won yet another battle against all odds," Atalanta observed wryly. The other three members of Arista's group nodded, small grins playing across their faces.

     "We don't have time to congratulate ourselves," Arista snapped savagely, wiping her bloody sword on the pirate leader's corpse. "Our true enemies are the Bacchae, and this idiotic battle against these moronic pirates has done nothing but alert them that something's amiss out here."

     Atalanta sniffed. "It can't be helped that we stumbled across the pirate camp and they just happened to be drunker than loons." Her boot jabbed one of the corpses. "Too bad we turned out to be party-poopers."

     "I wonder what they were doing so far inland in the first place," Elysia grumbled. "The sea isn't exactly in the immediate neighborhood. Do you think Poseidon drove them away?"

     Arista shook her head. "Remember those bands of Bacchae we ran into during our flight away from Amazon territory?" Elysia nodded. "Well, more than likely there's similar bands scattered across most, if not all, of Macedonia. You can bet some of them are close to the sea, and everyone knows that a bloodthirsty Baccha can make short work out of any man. Those weenies were probably running away from some fanged beauties!"

     "We can't stay immobile much longer," Atalanta said unnecessarily. "And we have to stay close to the road or we might miss Nadia on her way back from Pella."

     Arista nodded her head slowly. Nadia had been dispatched to Pella to locate any Amazon refugees there and bring them back to the group so a plan to retake the Amazon nation from Velasca could be hammered out. But we need numbers and Dryad weapons to be of any use against the Bacchae, Arista thought angrily. And until Nadia returns, we have neither. Although she was aware that her transformed sisters wouldn't revert back into normal women unless Bacchus himself was killed by a Baccha, Arista chose to ignore that for the moment. She hoped that if they could get their hands on Dryad weapons, they would only have to kill Velasca and her lieutenants to persuade the other Bacchae to leave the Amazon nation's territory. Of course, if they've been turning other Amazons into bloodsuckers, there might not be much of a nation left even if the Bacchae retreated. She sighed. One problem at a time, Arista, one problem at a time.

     "There's rumors going around that Ephiny and Solari are holed up in Pella with dozens of other Amazons," another warrior piped up. "Do you think it's true, Arista?"

     "I don't know." Arista closed her eyes. "We won't know anything until Nadia returns. But I know our queen is a fighter, and so's Solari. If the rumors are true, we might stand a chance against Velasca and our ... ," her voice caught, a lump rising in her throat, " ... sisters."

     The others didn't react to Arista's show of emotion. It had been a long day, and it wasn't over yet. The small group of Amazon refugees resumed their journey, forging their own trail of tears. They were painfully aware that Velasca wanted every single Amazon to become a Baccha, but they weren't going down without a struggle.

* * *

     "This doesn't look good at all," Ephiny said. She and Siri were standing on a bluff overlooking Pella. Columns of dense smoke rose from the walled city, indicating out-of-control fires burning in parts of the Macedonian capitol. Even worse, the two Amazons had spied hundreds of Bacchae streaming in and out of the city. It didn't take too long for Ephiny and Siri to realize that the besieged city was the focal point of a Bacchian assault force. What little the two had seen of the street battles indicated that Pella's defenders were losing, and losing badly. It looked like Pella might fall at any moment.

     "It would appear that Bacchus is aiming for higher objectives this time around," Siri said quietly.

     "Yeah, and we have to wade right into the middle of that hopeless battle," Ephiny replied.

     "Why? Artemis knows that Velasca's net was pretty tight. I doubt that there's any refugee Amazons in Pella, especially with the Bacchae assaulting it!" Siri retorted.

     "We have to find out," Ephiny said in a steely voice. "We can't do anything by ourselves. It's an absolute imperative that we find other Amazons and reunite with them. Only then do we stand a chance against Bacchus!"

     Siri nodded her head mutely. "I just don't relish the idea of meeting a rampaging Baccha and having her sink her fangs into me."

     "Trust me, I have no intention of letting one of those fanged beauties get within biting range of me," Ephiny replied. She looked into Siri's eyes. "And that holds true for you as well. I've lost too many friends and sisters to Bacchus' bloodthirsty ways already."

* * *

     Pella's council chamber was empty. Most of the city's ruling council had fled after Bacchus' minions started popping up everywhere within and without the city. Others had been killed in the bloody street battles, which were still raging throughout the half of the city not under direct Bacchae control. Only two nervous guards and a delusional Amplitron were in the dank chambers.

     "I want Ordron and Impectus to move their battalions over to the east side of the city," Amplitron said, pointing at an imaginary map on one of the heavy, wooden tables. "There's been reported incursions of Bacchae over there by our scout forces. I want them stopped!"

     "Milord, we ... we don't have any forces over there anymore," a guard stammered. "We lost the eastern half of the city two days ago."

     Amplitron whirled around and struck the guard across his face. "I know what I'm talking about you peasant bastard!" The stricken guard flinched, and saw the crazed look in Amplitron's eyes. "Don't you ever dare to question my authority ever again!"

     "I wasn't questioning ... ," The guard ducked as Amplitron's fist sailed toward him. The blow just missed him.

     "I am the ruler of the great and mighty city of Pella! The capitol of Macedonia! The heart of Alexander the Great's empire! And before him, Philip of Macedon!" Amplitron was babbling. "I cannot be defeated. I cannot ... ,"

     "That will be enough, milord," Dion rumbled as he stalked into the room. The guard started to speak up, but Dion motioned him to stay silent. "I know what you're about to say," he whispered, "and I agree completely. Amplitron has lost his mind."

     Amplitron smiled. "Ah, my greatest general has returned from the battlefield. How goes the war today?! I trust that you've sent thousands of the hated enemy to early residence in Tartarus, hmm?"

     "Not exactly, milord," Dion replied. He waved down Amplitron's choked cry of anger. "I just thought that it would be prudent to have you evacuated from Pella as soon as possible. We're losing control by the hour; our forces cannot hold the western half of the city for more than five or six hours." Dion looked meaningfully at his leader. "It's time to leave. We can fight the Bacchae again somewhere else on our own terms."

     "What about the reinforcements I ordered days ago? Haven't they arrived yet?" Amplitron asked.

     Dion snarled. "What reinforcements, milord? There are none! Do you really think that the rest of Greece and the outside world is going to save Macedonia's butt after what we've done to them over the past centuries?!"

     Pella's leader stood silent. His mental barriers finally collapsed and hot, bitter tears of rage began flowing freely down Amplitron's red cheeks. "I know we're facing disaster," he said meekly, "but I don't want to abandon Pella to Bacchus and his minions." He turned away from Dion. "Oh, if only Gorgas were still alive. He'd know what to do."

     "We might not be able to save Pella, but perhaps we can aid someone else in their war against Bacchus," Dion said. He nodded his head and a guard admitted two women into the council chamber. They wore metal studded black leather armor over their chests, waists and wrists. Both women carried nasty looking swords sheathed on their backs; one of them even had a cross bow balanced in her arms. Neither of them looked particularly happy.

     "Who are these delicious looking ladies?" Amplitron asked, grinning lasciviously. "And how could we, a besieged city, possibly help them?"

     "You're speaking to Ephiny and Siri and," Dion grinned savagely, "I'd be careful about what you say. They're both Amazons and Ephiny is the queen of the Amazon nation."

     "Oh." Amplitron looked down at his feet, embarrassed. "No disrespect intended, Ephiny."

     "None taken ... yet."

     Amplitron brightened. "Well, what brings you to these parts of Macedonia? My understanding is that the Amazon nation doesn't like to interact with males outside of, um, certain times of the year."

     "You're right about our hostility toward most males, but we've got far bigger problems to worry about now than actual or supposed differences between the sexes," Ephiny said. "Our territory has been conquered by Bacchus and his minions. We were wondering if you had seen any Amazon refugees in Pella lately. We're trying to scrape together a strike force so we can contest Bacchus' violation of our lands."

     It took a minute for Amplitron to digest the news. When its implications hit home he sat down, stunned. "Are you saying that the Amazons have been turned into bloodsucking followers of Bacchus?"

     Ephiny nodded. "We think some of our sisters escaped and might have come ... ,"

     "I can't believe it!" Amplitron interrupted. "By Zeus, we thought we had it bad before, but now it's even worse! With the seductive nature of the Amazons and their combat skills, all under Bacchus' control, nobody will stand a chance against that horned freak!"

     "Um, Amplitron. I think Ephiny was about to ask us something before you interrupted her," Dion whispered into his leader's ear. Turning bright red with more embarrassment, Amplitron fell silent. Dion nodded at the Amazon queen, and she resumed speaking.

     "As I was saying, we think some of our sisters might have come to Pella seeking refuge," Ephiny finished. "Have you seen any unfamiliar women around the city lately, perhaps?"

     Amplitron sighed and shook his head. "With the chaos that's overtaken the city since Bacchus attacked, I haven't had time to take a census of who's here and who isn't. I've had bigger fish to fry."

     "It looks like you're the one who's getting fried," Siri retorted.

     "Why you little ...," Amplitron suddenly went silent as Ephiny and Siri unsheathed two razor sharp swords and held them menacingly. Dion and the two guards looked on tensely, but kept their own weapons sheathed.

     "We're fighting a common enemy," Ephiny growled. "And we don't have time to argue or trade insults with each other. Now, have you or anyone else noticed unfamiliar women in Pella lately?"

     "No, I haven't," Amplitron sputtered indignantly. "Now stop pointing those damn swords at ... ,"

     "Wait," Dion said abruptly. "What about that crazy woman that tried to accost you yesterday. She was babbling something about an even bigger Bacchae army making its way toward Pella."

     Amplitron looked curiously at Dion. "What other Bacchae army? Our sources have indicated that Bacchus is throwing everything he has at us right now."

     "But that was before we knew that Bacchus had conquered the Amazon nation," Dion replied. "He's probably succeeded in turning many of the Amazons into Bacchae!" Dion shuddered at the thought. "By Hades! That's the army that poor woman was trying to warn us about yesterday!"

     "Where did she go?" Ephiny asked urgently. "We've got to find her! She might be able to lead us to other refugees within the city."

     Amplitron shrugged. "We threw her in the city's jail for disturbing my peace."

     "You bastard!" Ephiny roared. "What state of mind were you in when you made that idiotic decision?!"

     Pella's leader shrunk at the fury in Ephiny's voice and stayed silent. Dion stepped forward and whispered, "He's, uh, been losing his mind. He was delusional when that poor woman accosted him. Amplitron is very attached to Pella and the beating it's been taking has been hard on all of us, but especially him."

     "That still doesn't make it right," Siri chimed in.

     Dion nodded, understanding the women's anger. "That's not the worse news, though. The jail fell into the hands of the Bacchae a few hours ago. I don't know if your friend is still ... herself."

     "How do we get to the jail?" Ephiny asked. She was going to do her best to rescue this Amazon, whoever she was. She owed the nation that much.

     Dion pointed east, toward the part of the city under Bacchae control. "It's eight blocks away. The last report I heard from the men guarding the jail indicated that they were fighting a losing battle." He sighed. "And that report's over an hour old."

     "Let's get moving." Ephiny strode toward the doorway, followed by Siri. The Amazon queen looked back at Dion and Amplitron. "Thanks for the information you provided." She nodded at Amplitron. "Hope your mind decides to stay lucid from now on." And then the Amazons were gone.

     Amplitron sputtered, but Dion hushed him. "Come on, we've got to get you out of Pella before it's too late. You might be a nut, but you're my leader, and therefore, my responsibility."

* * *

     Strife materialized in the center of the torch lit temple. It was completely empty, even of the priests, except for a dark, brooding figure seated on the throne at the temple's center. Strife gazed at throne longingly; it was elevated a good ten feet above the temple floor, rising majestically on its base of solid granite. "You called for me, uncle?"

     Ares looked up, surprised by Strife's hasty arrival. "Well, I'm surprised. You actually got here within minutes of my command. How nice of you." Ares stood and glowered down at the minor deity. "I want you to discreetly follow Artemis wherever she goes. I think she's going to defy the Zeus' judgment of innocence against Bacchus."

     "Why would she do that?" Strife asked, genuinely curious. "Zeus is much more powerful than Artemis. To defy him means imprisonment in the lowest levels of Tartarus, perhaps even death."

     "You've heard of Artemis' little spat with Apollo and Athena?" Ares asked. Strife nodded. "Well, she said that justice may be sure and slow for Athena, but not for her. I think she's going to settle her score with Bacchus. Soon."

     "How? Is she going to finish Bacchus off? Blow him away, like he did to Orpheus?" Strife asked.

     Ares shook his head. "Don't count on it. All that would do is bring the wrath of the gods down on Artemis' head. She doesn't want that." Ares stroked his chin meditatively. "No. She's probably going to put an end to his use of the Amazons as field troops. After all, she's very, very fond of that nation."

     "So I'll follow Artemis around," Strife sniffed. "What else do you want me to do, uncle?"

     "You will do nothing else," Ares growled. "Just watch. Do not intervene in any of her actions!"

     Strife cocked his head saucily. "Wanna give me a hint as to what you'll do with the information I provide?"

     Ares smiled coolly. "You're an oily one, aren't you nephew? Well, the answer is no." I'll probably hang on to the information and see how this whole situation turns out. I'll side with whoever appears to be winning, Ares added silently. "Now go, Strife! Bring me what I want or," energy flickered around Ares' clenched fist, "you'll get a whipping from your big, bad uncle!"

     Strife gulped and vanished in a dazzle of light. Ares' dark laughter echoed off the temple's silent walls. "Oh, what fun it is being the god of war!"

* * *

     Solari and Ordahlia walked uneventfully through Themiscrya, taking in the sights and sounds of the Amazon nation under Bacchus' rule. Even with the absence of Xena and Diana and their Amazon army, Themiscrya still overflowed with women. Many were armed and armored, heading out into the woods, intent on patrolling Amazon territory while others chatted idly amongst themselves or sat mediating. Others were escorting female prisoners, Amazon and otherwise, through town, toward a date with eternity. A few were even choking down mouthfuls of apples and pomegranates mixed with liberal amounts of blood. Solari's fangs lengthened at the sight of the blood, but she kept her thirst under control.

     "Hmm, life in Themiscrya as a Baccha seems pretty much like it was before Velasca introduced us to our new lifestyle," Solari commented, turning to gaze at Ordahlia. "Boring!"

     Ordahlia's face cracked into a small smile. "Ever the humorist, huh?!" she kidded. "Even being turned into a bloodsucker didn't drain your humor away. I appreciate that."

     "Thanks." Solari looked pensively at her sister. "You've been unusually quiet since Velasca nipped you. Is something bothering you?"

     "Not really," Ordahlia demurred. She came to a stop in front of the medicine lodge and returned Solari's gaze. "At first, I didn't want to become a Baccha because I was terrified that I would become a soulless bloodsucking follower of Bacchus with no restraints or personality. You know, become just another fanged beauty with no feelings or desires." Ordahlia scuffed her feet. "But it's the exact opposite of what I expected. I cannot deny my need for blood or my instinctual respect and loyalty to Bacchus, but that's where it ends. While the dark urge to party, screw and transform others in Bacchae is strong, but I'm still in control. It's difficult at times to keep the pot from boiling over, but I am in control of myself. I guess I'm still digesting the differences between what I expected and what actually happened. That's why I'm kind of quiet."

     Solari nodded, understanding exactly what Ordahlia was saying. She was experiencing the same thing and she suspected every other Baccha was experiencing the struggle to maintain a semblance of control over their dark urges and desires. "Your explanation was a bit winded, but I know what you're trying to say," Solari said. "You can't conquer the world as a horny, undisciplined horde, but that's the most basic nature of a Baccha. It's not easy to control that wild energy and direct it into a useful enterprise."

     "Well, I'd better see what my assistants are up to," Ordahlia sighed. Before vanishing into the lodge, she added, "We'll have to continue this conversation later, Solari."

      "Anytime, Ordahlia," Solari replied, a small smile on her crimson lips. "I'll be around, like I always am."

* * *

     Ephiny slipped behind the low stone wall and hesitantly peeked over its top. Pella's prison was only a few strides away. The single, towering entrance was unguarded, its heavy wooden gates creaking ominously as a gentle breeze brushed up against them. The gates were unlocked. They had been fortunate thus far; having encountered only single Baccha since barely avoiding a Bacchae patrol several blocks back. Ephiny and Siri had hidden themselves from view each time they spied a bloodsucker and each time the bloodsucker didn't sense their presence. It's now or never, Ephiny thought. She stood and sprang across the narrow street, exposing herself for just a few seconds. Well, that wasn't so bad, Ephiny thought smugly, reaching for one of the loose gates. Suddenly a hand clamped on to her back and Ephiny whirled, reaching for her sheathed sword.

     "Hey, hey! Slow down there, pardner," Siri tittered. "You nearly left me in the dust. I'm just trying to catch up with you!"

     "Siri! Please don't sneak up on me like that. Especially in this kind of situation." Ephiny wiped her brow. "I nearly ran my sword through you!"

     "But you missed me," Siri laughed. "And that's all that matters." She gestured at the prison's dark opening. "Our destination awaits our presence. Let's find our sisters and get out of Pella while we still can."

     Ephiny nodded and her respect for Siri went up another notch. The two women slipped into the prison and made their way down the single, long hallway. Over half the illuminating torches had been snuffed out and the shattered remains of several dead guards mingled with the dirt and straw floor of the hallway. Multiple cell doors lined the hallway; each door was ajar and led to small cubicles whose highlights were few and far between: a single torch, a barred window, floors strewn with straw and human feces and a single bed. Ephiny and Siri explored every single room, but after an hour had found nothing but dead prisoners and half-eaten meals. The Amazon woman was nowhere to be found.

     "By Artemis, we're too late," Ephiny muttered. She kicked a dismembered hand around absentmindedly. "She's probably one of the Bacchae now. And if there were other Amazons in Pella, she undoubtedly made a beeline to them, leading her new allies to a feast." She sniffed. "Can't just one thing go our way for once?!"

     "We tried our best, Ephiny," Siri sighed. "But our best wasn't good enough. I think we should leave Pella now; Dion said his forces wouldn't be able to hold the city much longer. And I don't want be in Pella when the Bacchae take it over completely."

     Ephiny nodded sullenly. "I suppose you're right. It looks like all of Macedonia belongs to Bacchus now, so we'd better get used to being refugees." She snorted angrily. "By Hades, at the rate Velasca's moving, we're probably the only Amazons she hasn't caught yet!"

     "So where do we go now that Bacchus has de facto, if not outright, control of Macedonia?" Siri asked.

     Ephiny thought about for a minute. "We can rule out centaur land. That's way too close to Amazon territory, and our presence would put Tyldus at risk. That leaves Thebes, Athens, Corinth or, if we're really desperate, Sparta."

     "Athens or Sparta sound good to me," Siri opined. "Athens because it's the best defended city in Greece and Sparta because the men and women there have a mindset similar to that of the Amazons."

     "We'll try Athens first. If we're lucky, we'll encounter other Amazons or maybe even Hercules and Iolaus on the way," Ephiny said. "Some way, somehow, we have to warn everyone else about the threat that Bacchus poses. Macedonia and the Amazons couldn't stop him and neither could Xena or Gabrielle. It's going to take a massive alliance of all of Greece to stop that horned bastard."

     "In other words, we have to pull another Alexander on Greece, huh?" Siri asked.

     "Yes. And unless the gods get involved, that's going to take some doing," Ephiny growled. She viciously kicked a particularly large lump of loose straw and stomped off, followed by Siri. They sure as Hades didn't expect what happened next.

     The lump of straw groaned. And began thrashing about.

     "What is it?" Siri whispered, her targeted crossbow trembling slightly. Ephiny didn't reply as she moved forward and nudged the mass of undulating straw.

     "Uhh. Hey! Knock it off!" The sharp, clear words echoed in the small cell. But Ephiny smiled when she heard the words. For the voice that spoke them belonged to a woman. And from the sounds of it, a highly agitated woman. Ephiny nudged the undulating mass again. Suddenly the straw cover exploded outward as a woman leaped to her feet. She was bruised and covered with scrapes and cuts, but lively. "Don't you know when to leave a person alone?!" she raged. "By Artemis, I get thrown in prison by a damn madman and barely survive a screwball fight with a deranged guard and this is what I get for it?! A kick in the ass?!" The woman spied Ephiny; her eyes went wide and she shut up in an instant. "Queen Ephiny! I, I didn't realize it was you! Please, forgive me for my diatribe ... ,"

     Ephiny held her hand up and smiled. "I believe we've been looking for you. What's your name and how did you survive captivity by the Bacchae without becoming one of them?"

     The woman relaxed; she was in the company of fellow Amazons. "I'm Nadia. And the only reason I'm not sporting fangs right now is because I know when to play dead." Nadia gestured at the disembodied hand Ephiny had been kicking around. "A few hours ago one of the guards came in with my meal. But instead of feeding me, the fool tried to rape me. I fought back and had him reeling when the other guards began yelling and running to the prison's entrance. I guess the Bacchae were attacking." She paused, thinking. "Anyway, the guard hit me again and I pretended to be knocked out. He started to have his way with me, but was interrupted by four Bacchae, who tore him to shreds. I managed to burrow under the straw during his slaughter and stayed hidden. I must have fallen asleep."

     "Are there any other Amazons here in Pella with you?" Siri asked eagerly.

     "No. At least I haven't seen any until your arrival," Nadia sighed. "I was hoping some of my sisters escaped Velasca's fangs, but it looks like we're the only ones left. Arista won't be too happy about that."

     Ephiny shook her head. "That's too bad. I wanted to reestablish some cognizant command structure so we could do something against Velasca and ... ," she stopped, then sputtered, "Who's this Arista you mentioned?"

     "She's the commander who dispatched me to Pella to seek out other Amazons. She wants to hit Velasca back hard, where it really hurts," Nadia explained. "She figured that if there were enough unchanged Amazons left, we might be able to something against Velasca and the others."

     Ephiny frowned. "But I don't recognize the name. I pride myself on knowing all of my sisters."

     Nadia grinned. "That's because our little group of Amazons was from one of the outlying villages. We came to Themiscrya to witness Velasca's trial. Apparently things got out of, um, control."

     "Just a little bit," Ephiny agreed. "Anyway, take us to Arista and the others. Surely we'll be able to put a workable plan together that'll slow Bacchus down."

     "We've got to get out of Pella in one piece first," Siri observed wryly.

     "That won't be a problem now that we got Nadia with us. Three's better than two!" Ephiny crowed.

     "Um, I hate to crash the party, but I don't have any of my weapons," Nadia announced. Sure enough, her sheath was empty. "The guards were kind enough to relieve me of my sword and dagger."

     Ephiny grimaced, then reached over and grabbed Siri's crossbow. "Here, take this," she said, handing it to Nadia. "Do you know how to use a crossbow?"

     Nadia nodded. "They're slow to reload, but crossbow shots are powerful."

     "That they are," Siri cut in. "Now that we're all properly armed, we shouldn't have any trouble escaping from Pella and its rampaging hordes of Bacchae."

     Ephiny nodded. "C'mon girls. Let's hit the road. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."

* * *

     Solari's sensitive ears picked up the faint cries and gurgles emanating from the lodge long before she was near it. The sounds were mixed in with the reassuring voices of adult women and shrill questioning of youngsters. Solari approached the lodge and the four Bacchae guarding it. "What does this lodge hide that makes it important enough to absorb the efforts of four guards?" she demanded.

     "It contains some of the Amazon nation's future," one of the guards hissed, running her pink tongue over her viperish fangs. "Velasca doesn't know what to do with our sisters in there ... yet."

     "Let me in," Solari growled. The guards nodded and stood apart, exposing the entrance to the large lodge. Solari strode into the lodge, scanning its contents. And froze when she realized what the "contents" were: several dozen adult Amazon women standing protectively over tiny, screeching infant girls. Several of the women were nursing baby girls at their breasts or simply cuddling them. There were over one hundred babies in the lodge. And that didn't include the curious faces of toddling girls and some older girls who looked out from under the adult women's legs.

     "What do you want, you Baccha bitch?!" one of the women growled, a look of pure murder in her green eyes.

     The cold words lanced into Solari's tortured soul. Especially when she recognized the woman who had hurled the defiant question. "Eponin! It's me, Solari. You know I wouldn't harm any of the Amazon children or their caregivers!"

     Eponin refused to soften her stance. Solari may have been her best friend at one time, but that had been before Solari had been transformed into a bloodsucker. As far as Eponin was concerned, that made Solari the enemy. "You actually expect us to believe that?" she snarled. "They've already taken away most of the young women! By Artemis, they're only fourteen to seventeen years old!"

     "Who took them away?" Solari asked.

     "Erato, Gemini and a few more of our sisters," Eponin spat viciously. "Said they were going to transform them into Bacchae because they'd make excellent scouts!"

     "Where did Erato lead them away to?"

     "Hades if I know! Probably to Ordahlia's lodge because Velasca wanted to personally see how the transformation into Bacchae would affect the teenagers' bodies."

     Solari turned away from the captives and stumbled through the lodge's doorway. The four Bacchae guards reassumed their former positions. Solari looked back and said, "Megara, make sure to keep an eye on Eponin. I know she's a caregiver, but if she continues to make a ruckus, tell me. I'll introduce her to the wild ways of the Bacchae."

     Megara nodded and Solari struck out for Ordahlia's medicine lodge. Her loyalty to Bacchus and the Bacchae was absolute and unquestioning, but she was beginning to question Velasca's methods. Why would we have to even bring teenagers into the Bacchae in the first place? Solari asked herself. Surely by now we've got enough smaller women running around to sufficiently fill out the our needs for scouts!

* * *

     "Get as far away from Pella as you can, Ephiny," Dion said forcefully. "My surviving forces are pulling out of the city. Pella's freedom is measured in hours now -- soon it will belong to the Bacchae."

     "I'll heed your advice, general." Ephiny said. "But where are you going? You have to make a stand somewhere, and very soon."

     Dion shook his head wearily. "I know. But I've got to get far enough away from Bacchus' new territory so my men can rest, even if it's only for a few days, until reinforcements arrive, if they arrive at all." He sighed. "We've had over two thousand soldiers killed and another seven hundred wounded. And then I've got to keep an eye on Amplitron to make sure he doesn't go berserk again."

     "Why don't you head west toward Amphipolis?" Nadia opined. "It's close to the sea and reinforcements can be dropped off fairly close by triremes and sails. Plus there's some good hills north of the city that would make an excellent fortress."

     "It won't work," Dion said, shooting Nadia's plans down. "We'd be heading further away from any possible civilized reinforcements from Athens, Corinth, Thebes and the other main cities. Zeus knows, Macedonia and Thrace aren't exactly wellsprings of civilization." He pulled out a torn, ragged map. "No, we'll head south to Dium. That's about the only major city or town in Macedonia Bacchus hasn't gotten yet, not to mention the fact that it's on the Aegean Sea." Dion threw his hands up in disgust. "Hades! It's the only city he hasn't infiltrated or conquered yet. I've heard reports from other towns and villages in Macedonia: Bacchus has apparently already taken or is sieging Edessa, Berrhoea, Methone and Pydna among other population centers. And that's without the aid of the Amazon nation! By Zeus, it's only going to get worse."

     "Well, we're not giving up yet either," Ephiny said. She grasped Dion's shoulders firmly; she rather liked the quiet man. "We've still got some tricks up our sleeves." She paused. "I don't know what awaits you, Dion, but if the known world prevails over Bacchus, you're more than welcome to visit Amazon territory as an honored soldier and ... get acquainted with our lifestyle and customs."

     Dion inclined his head. "I'll keep your generous offer in mind, Queen Ephiny. But right now I've got to get Amplitron and my surviving men out of Pella before it's too late."

     "You have to do what you have to, but the offer still stands." Ephiny's lips quirked in a small smile. Then she was gone, along with Nadia and Siri. Dion stared longingly in the direction where the Amazons had vanished. Gods, the Amazons are gorgeous, sensual and intelligent, he mused idly. Suddenly reality broke into his reverie and the besieged general reentered the real world.

* * *

     Artemis emerged from the pillar of energy and looked around; she was alone in the heavily-forested wilds of Macedonia. Or at least she hoped she was alone. I can sense the presence of mortals and demigods, but full gods are another matter, she thought morosely. Wasting no more time on idle thoughts, she snicked an arrow into her crossbow and strode off into the woods. She had business to attend to. She didn't see the other pillar of light that coalesced soon after her foray into the woods. The black light faded away and revealed Strife, who smiled coldly and followed a discreet distance behind the Amazon goddess. His black armor chameleoned into a mixture of deep green and brown, blending Strife perfectly into the background. The only hint of Strife's presence was his low, ominous laugh that echoed through the forested land.

* * *

     "You will not initiate our younger sisters into the Bacchae!" Solari said forcefully. She was standing in the medicine lodge in all of her Bacchae glory. "They're too young and, besides, we have more than enough sisters to fill the role of scouts!"

     "By whose authority do you issue that order?!" Gemini shot back, her fangs bared in anger. She had been looking forward to satisfying her maddening lust for blood. "I want to taste a sister's blood for once! I'm tired of sucking down ewe and ram blood! It's not as fulfilling."

     Solari snorted in disgust. "Listen to you! You're letting your need for blood rule your mind. Control it, or it'll control you!"

     "That's not the only thing I want to do, either! I want to screw and party too!" Gemini shouted back.

     "You won't be of any assistance to Bacchus if you let your dark side become permanently dominant," Solari observed. She shifted her gaze to the dozen trembling initiates; they had been stripped naked down to their waists. Solari's eyes roved seductively over the young women's full, firm breasts. It won't be long before these women become full-fledged members of Amazon society, she thought silently. Solari closeted her desire and refocused her attention on Gemini. "Think about it -- they're several months and, in some cases, years away from graduating from their training regimens. Only then will the be able to take on the rights and responsibilities of full sisterhood!" And I'm desperately trying to resist the temptation to bring them across myself, she added silently.

     "What's going on in here?!" Solari, Gemini and the others in the lodge whipped their heads toward the source of the voice. It was Velasca, and the Mask of the Queen was balanced on her head.

     "Solari and Gemini are debating the merits of transforming our teenage sisters into Bacchae," Ordahlia piped up, breaking her previous silence. "She thinks we should wait until they finish they're training."

     "Ah, I see." Velasca moved purposely toward the trembling initiates, staring at them with her mesmerizing gold eyes. She pointed to six of them and said, "Return to the nursery lodges and assist Eponin." The young women scampered away, led by two of the Bacchae. She smiled coldly at the remaining six initiates, her slender, needle-sharp fangs glimmering in the torchlight; all of the remaining teenagers were at least seventeen years old.

     "What are you trying to do, Velasca?" Solari interjected. "Freeze them to death with your seductive stare?"

     "Not exactly," she murmured, still staring at one young woman in particular.

     That's Lexoria, Solari thought mildly. She's less than a month from being allowed into the Amazon archer corps.

     Suddenly Velasca lurched forward and grabbed Lexoria's head; she twisted it violently to expose the young woman's neck and plunged her sharp teeth into it. Lexoria's muffled scream filled the lodge as hot blood sprayed from the terrible wound. The spray slowed to a dribble, then nothing as Velasca got the flow under control. Lexoria's scream died down to a fevered moan as her body started contorting and quivering into that of a Baccha. By the time Velasca finished feeding, Lexoria's body was already mottled with patches of chalky white skin and the tips of her new fangs peeked timidly from underneath her full, crimson lips. Velasca lowered Lexoria gently to the lodge's floor and stared appreciatively at her changing sister. She can finish her training as a Bacchae, she thought.

     "Why did you do that?!" Solari hissed. She was beginning to frenzy, especially at the sight of Lexoria's rich, red blood trickling slowly from the healing neck wound down over her left breast, coating an erect, pink nipple.

     Velasca grinned wickedly and ran a finger over her bloody lips. She sauntered over to Solari and smeared the blood-slicked finger on her full, crimson lips. "Mmm. Tastes good, doesn't it, Solari?" Velasca whispered seductively. "And look at that! There's five other young sisters full of that blood still in this lodge. Why don't you do them a favor and bring them across to Bacchus' wild ways, hmm?"

     "Nnoo, I don't ... ," Solari whimpered. But her need for blood and the desire to create more followers for Bacchus overwhelmed her barriers. She frenzied and launched herself at the cowering young Amazons. It wasn't long before Ordahlia, Gemini and the other thirsty Bacchae joined Solari in the ravaging.

     Velasca stood apart from the carnage and smiled again, her bared fangs still slicked with Lexoria's rich blood. Hmm, looks like I won the debate, she thought as she stared at the five twitching, shaking young Amazons. Patches of chalky white skin were already spreading like wildfire across their bodies and their incisors were beginning to lengthen and sharpen into needle-sharp fangs.

* * *

     Elysia chewed thoughtfully on her stick of deer jerky. It had been a relatively quiet day so far, with only a few wild pigs and deer disturbing nature's cacophony of birds and insects. You would never know that Macedonia was a war zone by looking at this idyllic scene, she thought mildly. Elysia had been on point duty all day; it was her job to intercept any possible threats approaching Arista and the others in the makeshift camp on the other side of the hill. Arista's small group of renegade Amazons hadn't encountered any of the Bacchae, Amazon or otherwise, since their encounter with the pirates two days ago, but Arista wasn't one to take chances. So here I am playing guard, Elysia thought. She knew that her job was no laughing matter, but it was hard to be serious; there had been no encounters with the Bacchae or pirates, and it was a beautiful day.

     Suddenly the sounds of nature vanished. No birds sang or twittered and even the grasshoppers had stopped chittering. Elysia crammed her jerky back into her side pouch and rose to her feet; she fingered her sword, her eyes warily scanning the eerily silent forest. That's a sure sign that the Bacchae are nearby, Elysia thought. Whenever they're near, everything goes silent. I wonder if they even realize that little phenonomen happens? Her sharp brown eyes spotted movement nearby; branches and bushes were vibrating and shifting. Something's coming through! Elysia thought wildly. If it's the Bacchae, I don't stand a chance against them!

     "Who goes there?" Elysia quavered. She knew all too well what the Bacchae did to the normal women they encountered: They fought them to a standstill and then turned them into bloodsuckers. Not me, Elysia thought.

     "Hey, Elysia, it's me, Nadia!" a voice shouted from within the foliage. "Don't freak out. I'm not a Baccha." Nadia emerged from the foliage, followed by two other women. "And neither are Queen Ephiny or Siri!"

     Elysia smiled and sighed with obvious relief, removing her hand from her sheathed sword. She ran over to Nadia and hugged her tightly. Looking up at Ephiny and Siri, Elysia said, "Then it's true! Queen Ephiny survived Velasca's attack!" Elysia's spirit soared; finally, the Amazon nation would be able to strike back at Bacchus and free his unwilling followers. "You're here to reunite us with our other sisters, right?"

     Ephiny shifted uncomfortably, trying to think of a way to break the news to Elysia gently. "There are no other escapees," she said quietly. "As far as I know, there's only ourselves left to carry on against Bacchus and Velasca."

     "That can't be!" Elysia staggered away from Nadia. "I know there's others out there! I saw dozens of our sisters running from Themiscrya. They weren't being chased by the Bacchae!" She looked pleadingly into Ephiny's eyes. "And you! I saw you, Solari and Ordahlia making tracks for the countryside!"

     Just the mention of Solari and Ordahlia caused Ephiny's eyes to start tearing. "We didn't find out until it was too late that Velasca had already transformed all the border guards and patrols," she murmured. "We ran into Electra's border guards and then Xena showed up with reinforcements." Ephiny's shoulders sagged. "Solari and Ordahlia didn't make it ... they sacrificed themselves so I could escape. Velasca's probably turned them into Bacchae by now."

     Elysia nodded, understanding what Ephiny was saying. "We ran into Aridne and her group and lost five of our sisters to their fangs. I should've figured out that our sisters fleeing Themiscrya would have to eventually cross the nation's borders to reach territory not under Bacchus' control."

     "That's not a concern anymore," Nadia snorted. "Bacchus pretty much controls Macedonia now that he's taken Pella and conquered our territory."

     The small group of Amazons began walking back to Arista's encampment. "I didn't realize the military situation had deteriorated to that point," Elysia said. She looked pointedly at Ephiny. "So what do we do now?"

     "Surrender to Velasca and learn to enjoy drinking blood," Ephiny quipped. She got shocked looks from the other group members. "Hey, don't take it seriously. I'm only joking," she interjected. "Actually, I'm not sure what we can do. There's only eight of us up against thousands of our brainwashed sisters and Artemis knows how many other women from outside the nation." Ephiny sighed. "We'll talk about it when we reach the encampment."

* * *

     Xena reigned Argo to a halt and observed her advancing army with a grim smile. She had one thousand crack Amazon troops under her command; four hundred of them came from Themiscrya and the remaining women were from outlying villages and encampments. There were four hundred ground troops, two hundred horse-mounted troops, two hundred archers/crossbowers, one hundred women with catapults and battering rams and another one hundred women in the special forces corps. And that impressive number didn't include the one hundred lieutenants that helped Xena manage the massive force.

     Diana pulled up next to Xena, her horse snorting and panting with exertion. "Some of our advance scouts reported sighting a small campfire up ahead at the base of a hill," Diana explained. "It's off the road quite aways, as if the campers didn't want to be discovered by travelers, yet didn't want to get too far away from the road for one reason or another." She paused. "What do you want us to do?"

     "It's not what you'll do, but what I'll do," Xena replied. "I'm going to take a few dozen of our sisters and check the campsite out. The rest of you will continue your advance on Pella; I don't want the main body delayed any longer than necessary."

     "Why?" Diana demanded. "It's probably nothing more than some marauders settling down for the night!"

     Xena bared her fangs; hot saliva dripped from them. "Then they'll make an easy meal, won't they?"

* * *

     "Son-of-a-bitch! What do you mean he just up and ran off?" Dion roared. "Weren't you watching him?!"

     "Milord, we had six guards around him!" the soldier quavered. "The only time Amplitron was alone was when he was going to the bathroom!"

     "And that was when he vanished," Dion growled. He began pacing, which made the four hundred men around him nervous. "Damn him! Damn him to Hades! I should just leave him behind -- really he's nothing more than a raving liability to us."

     "If that's what you want ... ," the guard stammered.

     "But I won't," Dion interrupted. He turned to his second-in-command. "Zelius, take all but one hundred of the men to Dium. I don't want them caught between the Amazon army and the Bacchae forces already in Pella."

     His subordinate nodded. "But what about you? We can't leave you behind, general!"

     "You have to. I am bound by an oath of loyalty to protect Amplitron and I will not break it," Dion sighed. "Now go. Once I find Amplitron, my men and I will be able to catch up with you."

     Dion watched his men organize under Zelius' leadership and reluctantly leave the outskirts of Pella. Dion looked back toward the heart of the devastated city and shivered: tiny, indistinct figures were everywhere -- the rampaging Bacchae. He swore under his breath and growled, "What I don't do to save your ass, Amplitron." He started back toward the city, dutifully followed by his one hundred man army. They had no catapults or chariots, only men armed with swords, crossbows, bow-and-arrows and a lot of courage. It was a journey that would undoubtedly lead to death; Dion's men knew that, but followed anyway. He was their leader, and they were his soldiers. To the end.

* * *

     The eight Amazons crowded around the blazing campfire, discussing possible strategies they could use against Bacchus and their sisters. "I vote that we retreat to southern Greece, towards the vicinities of Thebes and Athens," Arista opined. "Surely by now they must be raising an army to deal with the Bacchae threat."

     "I say we go in the opposite direction," Atalanta ventured. "Towards Scythia, perhaps. The Amazon nation is finished in Macedonia and Thrace. Perhaps we'll find like-minded sisters outside of Greece."

     Ephiny stood silently, weighing her options. Atalanta had a point; although the Amazons were composed of dozens of bands and tribes yet today, scattered about the many villages in Amazon territory, they had once been much stronger in the distant past. Before the great upheaval, Ephiny thought. Before Hippolyta took on an enemy she couldn't defeat. An enemy that scattered tribes of the great Amazon nation across the known world. Yet Arista also had a good idea, one similar to what Ephiny had been thinking earlier. Sure, we could go down to Athens, but would we be welcomed? After all, the Amazons are from the "barbaric" northlands. And even if we were welcomed, we would be nothing more than a single squad in a massive army, unless there's other Amazon refugees that I'm not aware of. Ephiny gazed at the assembled faces. All were filled with resolute determination.

     "So far, all of our options have involved retreat," Ephiny said. "I don't like the word retreat and I'm sure you don't either." Heads nodded in agreement. "Therefore, I propose something radically different; I think we should go on the offensive!"

     "But how?!" Elysia asked. "There's only eight of us and thousands of our sisters!"

     Ephiny smiled. "When I say offensive, I don't mean some stupid frontal attack on an advancing Bacchae army. We'd be defeated instantly and turned into fanged beauties before we knew what hit us." She shook her head knowingly. "No. I think we should go on the offensive by striking at the heart of the Bacchae; namely, their leader, Bacchus!"

     "We've already discussed that," Arista said forcefully. "It won't work because he's an immortal."

     "Against normal weapons, yes, he is," Ephiny rejoined. "But not against Dryad-based weaponry. All we need to do is strike him multiple times and he'll either die or be seriously wounded. Either way, we win and our sisters revert back to their normal selves."

     "Provided they haven't ingested any of Bacchus' blood," Nadia piped up. "And are you going to volunteer to be turned into a Baccha in order to get the job done?"

     "That's the hard part," Ephiny conceded. "But Xena was able to withstand her Bacchae urges long enough put a dent in Bacchus' plan the last time he tried to expand his area of influence."

     Siri shook her head. "Yeah, but the last time we saw Xena she looked pretty darn proud to be sporting her own fangs and gold eyes. She wasn't able to resist her transformation the second time around."

     "Even the strongest-willed of women can't maintain their independence for long after being bitten by a Baccha," Ephiny said. "That's why, in order for our plan to work, we'll have to have somebody indecently close to Bacchus at the time she's bitten. She'll be able to bury a Dryad bone in that horned bastard and everything will return to normal again."

     Atalanta spoke up. "We're forgetting two things -- one, we don't have any Dryad-based weaponry in our inventory and, two, our actions will only knock Bacchus out of action for a short period of time."

     Ephiny nodded. "Once we reach the Dryad burial grounds, number one will be taken care of," she explained. "As for number two, once the Amazon nation is normal again we can devise a plan that will permanently knock the wine god out of action."

     "So how long is the hike to the Dryad burial grounds?" Atalanta asked.

     Ephiny sat silent for a moment. "Approximately a day if we march fast. It's deep in ... ,"

     A cold voice interrupted Ephiny. " ... Bacchae territory." Ephiny and the other Amazons whipped their heads around and gaped in shock. Xena and at least a dozen other Bacchae stood at the edge of the camp, their seductive gold eyes focused on their renegade sisters. "Gosh, you all look surprised to see us again. We're not raining on anyone's party, are we?"

     "Why didn't Cordelia sound a warning that the Bacchae were near?" Arista whispered into Ephiny's ear.

     "Cordelia didn't warn you because ... ," Xena stepped aside, revealing Cordelia. She had been transformed into a Baccha; the long, sharp fangs and the fresh bite wound on Cordelia's neck attested to that. " ... she's decided to join the ranks of her sisters. Unwillingly, of course."

     Arista lost control herself when she caught sight of Cordelia's confused-looking chalky white face. Another innocent woman had been brought against her will into Bacchus' arms. She stood and unsheathed her sword. "Why you dirty little Bacchae bastards! I'll make you pay for ..."

     "Arista, don't!" Ephiny blurted. "You can't destroy a Baccha that way!"

     Xena sighed and motioned curtly. Two dozen other Bacchae, hidden until now, suddenly appeared all around the camp's perimeter. Ephiny and her new group were surrounded. "I love it when new initiates put up a fight. They always make feisty Bacchae." She glared coldly at Ephiny. "This time, Ephiny, there's no escape. Solari and Ordahlia can't save you either -- they've joined our ranks! And once Velasca is finished with you, you'll be a bloodsucker too!"

     Suddenly the Bacchae attacked. Two of Ephiny's group went down immediately, their throats torn open by the fangs of their bloodthirsty sisters. It wouldn't be long before those Amazons would rise again, this time as Bacchae themselves. For Ephiny, time blurred. She struck out, crushing the throat of an assailant, smashing the ribs of another. She mashed another Baccha's nose in and took advantage of the brief opening the Baccha's fall created, slipping between two of her hissing sisters and dashing into the forest. She turned back briefly and stared in horror at the carnage. Arista, Atalanta, Nadia, Siri and Elysia had fallen, their necks punctured by the razor sharp fangs of their fellow Amazons.

     "Please, Ephiny, don't abandon us," Elysia cried out weakly, unaware of the newly-formed fangs gleaming wetly in her open mouth. "Don't want to ... ," she closed her eyes momentarily and when she opened them again, they had turned brilliant gold. Elysia's face softened and she smiled gently. "Come on, Ephiny, it isn't that bad. Just one quick nip and you can live forever. It won't hurt that much -- look at me!" she gushed, not aware of her surroundings.

     Elysia's sentiments were echoed by Arista and the others. Xena chortled happily; she had added seven new members to her army. "Hey, Ephiny, looks like I got another group of your friends," she called out. "You're all alone again! Just let us know when you want to come in from the rain and we'll let you in. But you know our price!"

     Ephiny ignored the catcalls and turned around, fleeing into the dark forest. Behind her, an impromptu Bacchae party formed as dozens of Amazons began dancing wildly around the campfire. Arista, Atalanta and Elysia were among the dancers. They were once again among their sisters; they were at home.

     "Your egging her on didn't work again, Xena," Arianna observed wryly. "Why don't you just chase her down and get it over with. Dragging it out is beginning to bore me."

     "I'll catch Ephiny the next time around," Xena replied. "After all, the third time's the charm!"

     A pain-filled moan caught Xena's attention. She strode forward and a small group of Amazons parted to let her through. Xena caught sight of Atalanta and suppressed an alarmed cry. Patches of Atalanta's skin had already turned chalky white and the blunt tips of her elongating incisors were visible behind her thickening lips, but Atalanta was reacting badly to the transformation.

     "What's happening to her?" Xena whispered to Charm, who had been trying to comfort the Baccha initiate.

     "I, I don't know," Charm replied honestly. "Her body's not adjusting well at all to its new configuration. I've never heard of a woman's body rejecting its Baccha configuration, but that seems to be what's happening here."

     "Can you stop the rejection?" Xena asked quickly. "Will another bite counteract her rejection?"

     Charm threw her taloned hands up in surrender. "I don't think it will do any good. By Bacchus, we can't lose her! I was the one who initiated Atalanta ... and I can't save her! I've condemned her to death when all I was trying to do give her the gift of immortality!" Charm buried her face in her hands. Her concern was genuine, but it did no good. Atalanta continued to deteriorate faster and faster.

     Then it happened. Atalanta screamed as her body's internal temperature suddenly skyrocketed to over ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit. It flared out of existence in the blink of an eye, leaving only a light dusting of ash behind to indicate that Atalanta had ever been there. Her truncated death scream echoed through the night; it was heard by Xena's Amazon army, Zelius' retreating forces and the gods on Mount Olympus. And, somewhere, in the forest Ephiny buried her face in her hands, tears coursing down her cheeks. Dear Artemis, I've lost another friend, she thought morosely.

     By this time, Xena and the Bacchae in the camp had fallen silent. Bloody tears were streaming down the faces of many of the Amazons; this time, the gift of eternal life had ended in fiery death. Xena spoke up. "Although she wasn't one of us for very long, we'll always remember Atalanta. We'll make those who stand against us pay for their misdeeds, all in the name of Atalanta and any other fallen Bacchae!"

* * *

     The morning sun rose over the lands of the Amazon nation, showering its life-giving warmth over the forested, hilly land and its inhabitants. The warmth wasn't returned, especially by the land's female inhabitants. They were too busy with more earthly matters like drinking blood, initiating sisters into the Bacchae and paying homage to their new leader, Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. And now another part of the Amazons' plan for domination was beginning to unfold.

     Helen and Clio stood uncertainly in front of Velasca, who was busy conferring quietly with Solari and Lysara. A map showing the boundaries of the Amazon nation was the object of their attention. Gabrielle sat silently near the trio, listening intently to the conversation. Velasca finally looked up and smiled expectantly. "Well, I assume you two have come up with a unique way to conquer the towns and villages on our northern border," Velasca said quietly.

     Clio nodded and spoke up. "We discussed over a dozen strategies before narrowing down our options to the three choices we thought were the best ones. The first choice is simple: We can infiltrate the villages just like Bacchus infiltrated Pella and our own nation. By the time the villages realize nothing is as it seems, it will be too late for them." She hesitated, looking for Velasca's approval. "Well, what do you think about that one?"

     "Scratch that option," Velasca opined. "By now the word of that particular strategy has reached everyone in the Greek world. No one, not even simple peasant fools, will fall for that line ever again. Especially after Macedonia and the Amazon nation fell for it hook, line and sinker."

     Clio's shoulders sagged and she glanced at Helen, who spoke up. "The second option is straightforward. We can simply overrun the villages with a frontal attack by our warriors," she said. "Surely none of the villages have defenses against a concentrated attack by Amazon mounted and ground troops. I know it's a crude plan, but it would achieve our objectives."

     "It would result in too many casualties," Gabrielle commented, breaking her icy silence. "We want to initiate the women in the villages into our ranks, not slaughter them. The same applies to the males in the villages -- they would be excellent sources of blood and would make decent breeders. But only if we keep them alive!"

     Velasca held a cautioning hand up. "Gabrielle has an excellent point. Dead people are of no use to us. Helen, put that option on the shelf, but don't forget about it. We might implement it if nobody comes up with a better plan."

     "That leaves only one other option," Clio grumbled. "We just sit back and wait for Xena and Diana to return with their forces. Xena is a legendary tactical commander -- perhaps she'll be able to come up with a plan."

     "I don't like that option," Velasca sputtered. "Those villages occupy a part of Thrace that once belonged to the Amazon nation -- and will be ours again once they capitulate." She paused, then added the obvious. "Besides, our lord doesn't want Thracians to feel left out of the action!"

      "Actually, I think we should wait for Xena," Solari hissed, her fangs gleaming in the early morning light. "It's been over a week since she left with her army and, undoubtedly, she's on her way back from a conquered Pella by now. Surely a few days of delay won't harm Bacchus' plans too much!"

     "You're judgment has always been sound, Solari," Lysara spoke up. She turned to Velasca and added, "I think we should do exactly as Solari suggests."

     Velasca smiled at her trustworthy lieutenants and passed judgment. "Then so be it, Solari. We will wait for Xena to return from her campaign against Pella."

* * *

     Ephiny sat down next to the old, gnarled oak tree and sighed wearily. It's over. I can't keep running forever, she thought miserably. And I don't dare get near any other refugee Amazons -- not that there's any left in the first place. I'm such a high profile target that my presence seems to automatically draw the attention of the Bacchae. She unsheathed her sword and stared at the her shimmering reflection. Ephiny had bags under her eyes from lack of sleep and tear tracks from hours of bawling at her and the Amazon nation's misfortune.

     "That does it," she muttered, climbing to her feet. "I'm alone against Velasca and my sisters. They keep hounding me and there's no way I can make it to Scythia or Athens by myself." Ephiny stalked into the forest. "I'm tired of running and hiding. I'm turning myself in to Xena. By Hades, I'll probably have a better future as one of the Bacchae than as a refugee." She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "I just hope blood tastes better than it smells."

     Suddenly a figure detached itself from a nearby tree and blocked Ephiny's path. Ephiny withdrew her sword and hissed, "Take me to Xena, you Baccha bitch! I want to surrender and ... become a Baccha."

     The figure stepped from the forest's shadows and into the midmorning sunlight. Ephiny dropped her sword when she realized who the tall, regal figure was. It was a woman dressed in full Amazon warrior regalia. It was Artemis, patron goddess of the Amazon nation. "Queen Ephiny, you are destined to join the ranks of the Bacchae," she intoned imperiously. Ephiny shrank back as the goddess passed judgment on her. Artemis continued, "But not as a typical Baccha."

     "What's that supposed to mean?" Ephiny asked in a quavering voice.

     Artemis noticed the fear emanated by Ephiny and took steps to alleviate it. "Don't fear me, Ephiny. I'm not your enemy and never will be. There's a reason why you're the leader of the great Amazon nation, and as that nation's patron goddess, I have nothing but respect for it."

     "Then why did you allow Bacchus to sink his talons into the nation?!" Ephiny cried out. "Why did you allow him to turn Xena and Gabrielle into bloodsuckers? Why? Why?"

     Artemis held her hand up; a halo of energy swam lethargically around it, a hint of her power. "Bacchus' actions were not sanctioned by the gods." At first, anyway, she added silently. "He has been judged by the gods and found ... innocent of any violations."

     "And that's why you're here," Ephiny finished. "You weren't satisfied with the judgment. Why? It's a rare situation where an Olympian god actually cares about what happens to those who worship him or her."

     "I have a special place in my heart for the Amazon nation," Artemis replied honestly. "I know I don't show it that often, but I really do care for you and your sisters. You're independent, aggressive, intelligent and yet caring, too. The first two traits are not usually found in the female half of humanity ... and that's unfortunate."

     "So what are we going to do about it?" Ephiny asked.

     Artemis stepped toward Ephiny and placed a small piece of golden fluff in her hand. "What you have in your hand is ambrosia, but it won't grant you immortality," Artemis explained. "Instead, it will grant you an even greater gift; namely, the ability to maintain your complete individual identity even as a Baccha." She paused. "You'll be a Baccha in all aspects except one: You won't be compelled to be loyal to him or to follow his every command."

     Ephiny stared solemnly at the ambrosia. "So I'll be able to think for myself even after getting bitten. I won't have a cloud of blind loyalty to Bacchus interfering with my perspective."

     Artemis nodded her head. "Even better, you can transmit the gift of independent thought to the other Bacchae by simply doing to them what they do to everyone else."

     "By biting them?!" Ephiny exclaimed.

     "But be careful whom you select to receive your gift of independence," Artemis warned. "The effect weakens each time it's administered to a Baccha. Besides yourself, you'll probably be able to restore complete mental independence to four or five other Amazons." She frowned, then added, "Whatever happens, do not let yourself get bitten by a Baccha after you've ingested the ambrosia and been transformed. If that happens, you'll lose your mental independence and become what you've always feared ... a fanged beauty with no independent will of your own."

     "Isn't there any other aid you can give the Amazons?" Ephiny asked quietly.

     Artemis shook her head. "I'm already bending the rules by giving you this much aid. Anymore, and I'll bring down the wrath of the other gods on my head." She grabbed Ephiny's shoulders. "I've given you the keys to destroying Bacchus once and for all. The rest is up to you."

     Ephiny nodded numbly and watched Artemis vanish in a blaze of energy. She looked at the ambrosia in her hand and, without hesitation, gulped it down. There was no tingling, no flash of light or any other unusual special effects to indicate that the ambrosia had worked. But Ephiny trusted the Amazon goddess. She paused to think her options over. I think I'll take a little trip to Pella. I should get there in time to be captured by Xena and her army, Ephiny thought. With a determined look on her face, she began a resolute march towards a date with destiny.

     Twenty minutes passed before Strife peeked out from behind the oak tree. He had overheard every single word of the conversation between Artemis and Ephiny. "Ah, nothing like a little goddess-to-mortal bonding," he muttered malevolently. "I think this is the type of information that my uncle, Ares, would be interested in hearing." He grinned and vanished in a black pillar of light.

     Fifteen minutes after Strife had vanished, Athena stepped out from behind her own oak tree, righteous fury etched into her face. "Why that little worm," she snapped, referring to Strife. "Spying on a Artemis for Ares. I think it's about time we evened up this little game." Then she, too, vanished in a pillar of golden energy.

* * *

     Dion's forces still held half a city block when a scouting party finally encountered a raving Amplitron in an alley, being attacked by no less than eight Bacchae. The fifteen men leaped into the fray and bodies, mostly that of the men, went flying everywhere. But enough of the soldiers survived to drag Pella's mad leader from the taloned grasp of Caria's Bacchae forces. Too bad ten soldiers died in the rescue effort but, oh well, that's the price of success, one of the soldiers thought sourly, slapping a hand over Amplitron's trash talking mouth.

     "Get them!" Thalia screeched angrily, standing over Silius' unconscious body. "They had the gall to knock our commander out!" Not that I have any real concern for Silius, but it makes me look like a good concerned lieutenant, Thalia added silently.

     "Ignore that order!" a woman's distant voice yelled. Thalia looked around in surprise; there was nobody present who outranked her. Then she looked up at the roof of one of Pella's tallest buildings. Sure enough, Eribas stood up there, waving gaily down at her. "Let them go. They won't get far ... ," she pointed to the north of Pella, " ... I can see the lead elements of the Amazon army approaching! We'll be able to consolidate our victory over this area once they arrive!"

     Two blocks over, Dion's forces manning their pitifully small section of the city wall also caught sight of the Amazon army. One of the soldiers scrambled down and ran over to a harried looking Dion. "General, we've caught sight of the Amazons! It appears that they've got catapults and battering rams with them! We've got to get out of the city and link up with the others."

     Dion nodded and glared angrily at the horse carrying Amplitron. Pella's leader was securely trussed up; he wasn't going anywhere, and that included the bathroom. "If we're caught, it's all your fault, Amplitron," Dion hissed. "The blood of my men will be on your hands." Amplitron's eyes darted around like a wild animal. I think he's finally gone completely over the edge, Dion thought sadly. There'll be no bringing him back to the land of the sane now.

     "Okay, let's haul ass out of here," Dion snapped. He turned to the wall, still manned by twenty soldiers. "C'mon, get down from there. We've done all we can ... ," he went silent and turned white as a cloud of arrows arched up toward the soldiers' backs; they were looking at him, unaware of the oncoming death. "Get down!" Dion screamed. But it was too late. Fifteen of his troops cried out as multiple arrows thwacked into them; they plummeted lifelessly to the blood-spattered ground. The other five soldiers spun around as one unit and returned fire. Their arrows bounced harmlessly off the Amazons' unique octopus shields and leather-reinforced body armor. Seconds later, a wave of Amazons clawed their way over the wall and ripped the soldiers' throats open, draining their life away. Dion stared mutely. Dear Zeus, the slaughter's started.

     "How'd they get here so quickly?!" a young soldier screamed. "The army looks to be at least an hour away!"

     Dion climbed onto his steed and growled, "Probably a mixture of scouts and special forces." He looked back; the young soldier was down on the ground, clawing weakly at an Amazon's breast armor as she sucked his life away. One of his buddies tried slamming a sword into the Amazon's back, but she caught the blade in mid-flight and snapped it in two with little effort. She resumed her disgusting meal, slurping the fast-flowing blood into her empty belly.

     Another wave of Amazons scrambled over Pella's walls and made tracks for Dion's dwindling forces. Some of them actually got smart and opened the gate sealing off one of the entrances to Pella. That done, the final wave of Amazon scout forces flooded into Pella. Dion and his few remaining men scurried into a building and locked the door behind them. They climbed to the third story and began raining arrows down on the assembled Amazons below. The lethal shower bounced off shields and armor, and the fanged beauties hissed angrily at the defiant holdouts. The desiccated corpses of fallen soldiers were tossed through the crowd of Amazons, each one trying to draw a last drop of blood from the bodies.

     Dion paced back and forth. He had a nagging feeling that his men had left something behind. Something important. He whirled and roared, "Dammit! Where's Amplitron?" The thirty or so men looked at each and shook their heads. "Gods, don't tell me we forgot him out there!"

     The boisterous Amazons outside the building suddenly went silent. Curious, Dion peeked out a window and spied one of the women separating herself from her sisters. She looked directly at Dion and said, "General, could we talk about this little situation we have here like responsible adults?"

     "I will not negotiate with terrorists!" Dion roared defiantly. "If you want my men and myself, you'll have to storm our little fortress and take us dead or alive!"

     "Forgive me, general, but I haven't introduced myself. My name's Diana -- I'm Xena's second-in-command." She paused, thinking. "And I don't believe we're terrorists, general."

     "Fine. You're supernatural terrorists," Dion amended. "And I don't negotiate with supernatural terrorists!"

     Diana nodded at several of her sisters. They moved aside and revealed the one thing that Dion was hoping they didn't have. Amplitron. The leader of Pella. "Amplitron will live if you agree to surrender, Dion," Diana called out. "You'll be treated well as prisoners of the Amazon nation. I personally promise that."

     "Why should I believe you?" Dion called out. "To my knowledge, Bacchae Amazons like to use men as a source of food ... nothing more!"

     Diana smiled. "To a large degree, that's true," she admitted. "But not all of our sisters have been transformed into Bacchae. We need breeding stock for those sisters. And your men fit the bill perfectly. Strong, intelligent and ornery enough to hang on to a piece of Pella till the very end."

     Dion thought about it and decided the Amazons were trumping. He repeated his original statement, with a slight amendment. "I don't negotiate with supernatural terrorists! I demand that my men and myself be let go unharmed!"

     "That's asking too much, general, and you know it," Diana hissed, her fangs gleaming in the sunlight. She motioned curtly. And Amplitron screamed through his stuffed mouth as two Amazons grabbed his arms and buried their fangs deep in his wrists.

     Pella's leader snapped back to reality as his life slowly slipped away with the cold advancing up his arms. He looked down and saw two gorgeous leather-clad women drinking him to death. Then his life began flashing in front of him. Images of his dead wife, smiling and opening her arms, welcoming him home. His two daughters, long ago lost to the Amazon nation, both now dead after the First War of the Centaurs. His son, killed by a mad harpy before the monsters were banished from the Earth. And finally, a smiling image of Gorgas when he was young, bedecked in the full glory of Alexander the Great's army. Gorgas was also reaching out, a warm smile on his face. Gorgas had been Amplitron's sergeant throughout his own time in Alexander's army, showing Amplitron the intricacies of Babylon, India and a dozen other places. Amplitron returned his friend's smile and rushed into his open arms. "Welcome home, Amplitron," Gorgas whispered. "Now you can get the rest you've always wanted."

     Dion screamed with impotent rage as the Amazons let Amplitron's lifeless body slump unceremoniously to the ground. Diana stared up coolly at him and murmured a curt order. "You had your chance to surrender, general, but now you've lost it," she hissed. "Prepare yourself for the void."

     Then the sky began falling. Literally. Huge rocks fell from it, slamming into the building and cracking masonry and plaster. Some loads didn't carry rocks; instead they carried spiked balls. At least twelve of Dion's men fell to the stone floor, dead, impaled by the deadly weapons. Dion ordered his remaining troops away from the window. Then, from the building's ground floor, a low rumbling echoed up. "What is it now?" Dion shouted down, exasperated.

     "They're using battering rams," a soldier screeched. "Damn, they're strong! I don't know how long we can hold them ... ," his voice was drowned out by a loud splintering sound. Expectant cries echoed up the stairwells as nearly fifty Amazons crowded into the building, each one trying to beat her sisters to the third floor in an effort to be the first one to nab Dion and the dozen or so survivors left.

     Dion knew his time was up. He dropped his weaponry and ordered his men to do the same. "We have two choices left now," he intoned. "Imprisonment as breeding stock or an honorable exit to this miserable life." By now the aerial bombardment had stopped. Dion stepped up onto the ledge of the window and looked down expectantly. It was far enough down that no ordinary human could survive the fall.

     Of the men in the room, eight joined him. "On the count of three," Dion said quietly. "One ... two ... and three!" The men leaped over the ledge; not a single one screamed as they plummeted to an honorable death. The remaining four men saluted silently to their brothers' choice. Dion nodded, understanding their decision, and leapt out the window. Suddenly the door burst open and fast-moving streak careened over to the ledge. A taloned hand shot out, grabbing Dion's ankle and halting his fall. The general sighed. What else could possibly go wrong today? he thought indignantly. Now I'm not even allowed the dignity of an honorable death.

     A chalky white, fanged face peered over the ledge and smiled. "Ah, ah, general," Diana cooed. "Not so fast. The Amazon nation isn't done with you yet."

* * *

     "Ah, so I was right," Ares murmured. "Artemis couldn't resist the temptation to defy Zeus' ruling in Bacchus' favor." He glanced down at Strife, who stood at the foot of the throne's towering granite base. The minor deity smiled wickedly. "Yes, Strife, this is valuable information indeed. You've done an excellent job ... ," for once, Ares said silently. "You deserve a reward for your ... ,"

     Three pillars of light flashed into existence, silencing Ares. Before him stood Artemis, Athena and Apollo. All three were in full battle gear. "So what brings my sisters and brother to this isolated temple?" Ares asked, feigning innocence. "Family matters? Or does it involve those petty mortals?"

     "You conniving bastard," Artemis hissed. "First you side with me, then against me. And now you have your little groupie, Strife, trail my every move." Energy flickered dangerously around her fists.

     "Moi? What makes you utter such nasty words?" Ares rejoined.

     Athena stepped forward. "I observed Strife spying on Artemis when she was talking with Queen Ephiny. It wasn't too hard to figure out your involvement from there, since he's your little messenger boy!"

     Strife took offense at that. "Hey, big mama, I ain't just no messenger ... ,"

     "No, you're not just some messenger boy," Apollo agreed. Strife looked at him curiously. "No, you're nothing as of now. Your life ends here!" His hands clenched into tight fists and he raised them above his head; suddenly twin bolts of piercing blue energy shot out and slammed into Strife, knocking him to the temple's stone floor.

     Athena and Artemis joined in Apollo's bombardment. Strife absorbed blow after blow, but his energy levels finally withered away. "Uncle, stop them ... pleeaassee," Strife whimpered, crawling slowly toward Ares. "I'm beginning to lose cohesion." Ares just sat dumbfounded. He had never expected this level of hostility against his follower.

     Then it finally happened. Strife's body disintegrated under a final barrage of energy and his death scream rose and faded away. When the light finally faded, there was nothing left of the minor deity except for a small, pathetic pile of gray ash. The three victorious gods turned their attention to Ares; he would be a much tougher nut to crack. "It's time to put an end to your scheming once and for all," Artemis murmured. "Family or not, your actions have exceeded even the lax Olympian standards. We don't need your presence anymore, and neither do the mortals."

     Ares finally realized that they intended to end his existence. For real this time. His survival instincts kicked in, and he leaped from the throne just as it vanished under a brilliant barrage of energy bolts. He rolled and came up snarling, "You'll find that I'm not as easy a target as Strife was! You've declared war on the god of war ... and I will emerge victorious!" He roared and bolts of black lightning shot from his hands while massive boulders materialized and hung ominously over him, waiting for their part in his offensive.

     Athena stumbled under the heavy impacts of Ares' lightning bolts, absorbing four consecutive hits before falling to her knees. She regained her footing, but went down again as two more bolts of energy smashed into her, along with one of the granite boulders. Shocked at seeing their strongest ally go down, Apollo and Artemis combined their energies and unleashed an energy storm that crackled across the spacious temple and rocked Ares' world. The war god stumbled, his defenses blown away by the massive attack. Disoriented, Ares attempted to unleash another boulder attack, but misdirected it. Instead of smashing into Artemis, it looped around and came down on his head. Ares screamed in frustration as Apollo and Artemis teamed up again, delivering another deadly dose of frenzied energy that crackled painfully over his body. I am the god of war! I cannot be defeated by these amateurs! Ares raged silently. His energy reserves at less than half of what they'd been minutes earlier, Ares rolled out of the path of another energy storm and crouched on all fours, his breath coming in choked gasps and wheezes.

     "We have to take him now before he recharges!" Artemis called out. Her own energy supplies had been severely depleted and she wanted this terrible battle to end. "Let's lasso him!"

     Apollo nodded and joined in with his sister to launch one final attack. This time, a massive ring of energy swept from their extended hands toward Ares. The war god saw it coming, but his reaction time was too slow. I don't believe it. I'm finally going to be destroyed, Ares thought. He steeled himself for the envisioned fiery destruction, but the energy ring simply wrapped itself tightly around him, pinning his arms to his body. Ares tried to move, but the ring siphoned the active energy away; his body didn't move.

     Artemis scrambled over to Athena, who was finally regaining her lost balance. The goddess of wisdom was severely damaged, but still alive. "She's going to need lots of ambrosia in order to heal properly," Artemis diagnosed.

     "Athena will get whatever she needs," Apollo agreed. "But right now we've got to deal with this deadweight." He jammed his boot in Ares' chest. The war god looked up malevolently at his brother, but didn't dare move. He needed to conserve what little energy he had left.

     "So, what are you going to do with me now?" Ares asked sarcastically.

     Artemis watched Athena vanish in a blaze of energy, then turned to Ares. "Apollo and I are going to take you down to the lowest level of Tartarus and imprison you there ... for eternity. I want you to suffer, just like you've made the gods and countless mortals suffer over the aeons."

     "Hades will never allow that to happen," Ares replied suavely.

     Apollo smiled mysteriously. "No problem there. Hades is one of our secret allies. He's going to help us go up against Hera and, if necessary, Zeus. You're going to take a little vacation, Ares. And nobody will know where you are. How's that sound, cowboy?"

     Ares knew what the lowest level of Tartarus was like. It was a terrible, cold place. Ice everywhere along with blinding blizzards. And home to the vanquished Titans for the last couple thousand years. The surviving Titans hated their Olympian conquerors and Ares suspected he would be the only Olympian god down there with them.

     Artemis knew what Ares was thinking. "And don't worry about the Titans," she hissed. "We're going to make sure you're isolated from them ... and the other denizens of Tartarus."

     "Well, what are we waiting for then?" Ares asked sweetly. "Let's get moving. I've been looking forward to a vacation." And things could be worse. I could be dead, he thought. The god of war was already planning his escape; heck, he knew Tartarus pretty good. After all, it was where he got half his supernatural troops from in the first place. No, I don't plan on vacationing for long, he thought.

* * *
Continued in Part II

The Athenaeum's Scroll Archive