~ Shattered Dreams ~
by M. Keck

* * * Disclaimer * * *

     The characters Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Velasca, Ephiny, Solari, Siri, Eponin et. al. are the property of Renaissance Pictures and Universal Studios. Any modifications made to the characters 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 Three, "Shattered Dreams," contains some profanity, scenes of graphic violence and death, and a hint of sexual tension. If any of the above is disagreeable to you, or you are under the age of 18, please select another piece of fan fiction work to enjoy.

     "Shattered Dreams" is the third and concluding 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 novellas, "Baccha Moon Rising" and "Fallen Nation," if you want to comprehend the events unfolding in "Shattered Dreams."

     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.

     Above all, please enjoy the story. If you have any constructive comments or questions concerning any of the stories, drop me, M. Keck, a line at the following e-mail address: storymaster74@yahoo.com. Finally, thank you for reading my work. It all comes from the heart.

* * * Disclaimer * * *

     The young women had been working on their projects for days now, just as the voice had told them to. The same voice which had commanded them to ignore their husbands, children and other responsibilities, and begin the projects, which were nearly finished now. A stitch here, a stitch there. Feathers -- lots of feathers. Mostly owl feathers, but mixed in with a number of feathers from the plucked carcasses of eagles, hawks and crows. Large pieces of tanned leather from the hide of an unsuspecting old cow, now dead and chopped up into meat and gristle by the village's butcher. One of the women applied the last feather to her project and smiled broadly as she held up it up to catch the first rays of the newly risen sun.

     "Well?" she asked the others. "What do you think? It's beautiful, isn't it?"

     "Very much so," an older woman replied smoothly. "But the projects that you and the others have worked on are only part of the equation. Combine it with ... ," she gestured and another woman handed her a long, lithe sword, " ... this little jewel and similar weapons, and we will be unstoppable!"

     "What about our husbands?" another voice asked. It was tinged with fear. "It's taken us days to finish these projects and we haven't so much as said a word to them. They'll be angry that we haven't been available to take care of the children or to give them pleasure."

     "What about those worthless worms?" the older woman snarled. "The voice told us to ignore them until we were instructed to do otherwise."

     A woman's sinister laughter echoed throughout the hut, interrupting the bickering. "You have done well, my friends," the disembodied voice said approvingly.

     Absolute silence reigned throughout the vast hut. Over a hundred women stopped what they were doing, what they were saying. Finally, one of the young women spoke up. "Is it time yet?" she asked timidly. "Are we ready to claim our heritage and free our lands from the enemy?"

     "Oh, you're more than ready," the voice cackled. Suddenly it grew imperious. "At high noon, you will begin the liberation of your village from the enemy. Your sister villages will begin their war of liberation at the same time. Once the liberation is completed, wait for the arrival of the others -- they will help reunite you with the rest of your compatriots."

     The woman smiled broadly. "It will be as you command," she whispered solemnly. She bent down and picked up the object she had toiled over for so long and slid it over her face. It was a large, dark, leather mask. Painstakingly crafted with precision, it gleamed in the early morning light, its face surrounded by a brilliant ocean of feathers. Long, thin ribbons of soft material flowed from the top of the mask and ran down the woman's back.

     It was an Amazon war mask. And, after a few minutes, every woman in the hut was wearing one and had a sword balanced on her back. It had taken them a long time to acquire the weapons and craft the masks under the unsuspecting eyes of their husbands and children. Now their time was at hand -- and their village would be freed from the stench of those who had taken advantage and abused them for so long.

* * *

     I can't believe the lengths Velasca goes to to try and legitimize her claim to the Queen's Mask, Ephiny thought sourly. She was standing to the right of Velasca while Xena stood silently to the left of the usurper. Gabrielle and at least a dozen of Velasca's other lieutenants stood quietly behind the trio on the coronation deck. In front of the deck stood a sea of pale-faced Amazon women -- representatives from every single tribe that composed the great Amazon nation. Each tribe had its chieftain's official headdress tied to the top of a long pole, which was driven into the ground next to the tribal representatives the headdress represented. None of the tribal headdresses were as elaborate or as splendid as the Queen's Mask, which was perched precariously on Velasca's head.

     "We all come together this morning to celebrate the complete unity of the Amazon nation!" Velasca's voice boomed. The crowd fell into a solemn silence. "For weeks we have struggled to initiate the last of our renegade sisters into the ways of the Bacchae -- and with the initiation of our former regent queen, Ephiny, into our ranks, that task has been completed!" Velasca smiled broadly and crooked a finger at Ephiny, who was clearly uncomfortable with all of the unexpected attention. "Come on, don't be shy," Velasca whispered. "Say a few words!"

     And so she did. "I'm glad to finally be among all of my sisters once again," Ephiny admitted quietly, her voice echoing in the crowd's silence. She stared stoically at the chalky-white, warped faces of her sisters and tried to ignore the worshipful, golden eyes and crimson-lipped, fanged mouths. In a rising voice she boomed, "Because of our lord, Bacchus, we will once again make the world tremble with fear every time it hears the word Amazon!"

     Several minutes passed before the roaring crowd finally quieted down. Velasca stepped forward and announced, "Come now. Everyone drink to the celebration of our eternal union with Bacchus!" She hopped off the coronation deck and made her way over to four large cauldrons that brimmed with fresh blood. Velasca began filling wooden mugs with the rich, red elixir and handed them to surging throngs thirsty sisters.

     Nearby, Gabrielle accepted the mug offered by one of her sisters and took a sip from the vessel. She spied Ephiny standing by herself and sidled up to her friend. She asked, "What did you think about Velasca's theatrics?"

     "Not much," Ephiny sighed. She took a long draught from her mug, savoring the sugary taste the blood had. "We have better things to do than throw parties hailing Velasca as our queen -- especially when nobody's challenging her claim to the Queen's Mask." Ephiny looked pointedly at Gabrielle and added, "Isn't that right, Gabrielle?"

     The bard shook slightly at the coolness in Ephiny's voice. "I know what you're trying to say, but it won't work. Not yet anyway," Gabrielle mumbled. "Velasca's doing a decent job and I won't challenge her until Bacchus stops sending us on these war parties to defend his realm. She's the military genius, not me."

     "If she's such a genius, why haven't we conquered those Thracian villages yet?" Ephiny hissed. "Five little villages full of rutting men -- and Velasca had to wait for Xena to return in order to even get an attack plan laid out!"

     Gabrielle's eyes flashed angrily and she spoke harshly. "Look, I don't know why you have such an attitude problem, but once the peace returns, then I'll lay claim to the Queen's Mask! But not before then!"

     Ephiny unsheathed her sword and ran a taloned finger lovingly over its sharp edge. "What if I don't want to wait that long? What if I make my move sooner -- if I succeed, I'd be more than happy to give you the Queen's Mask."

     "Don't!" Gabrielle cried out in alarm. "If I had realized your initiation was going to transform your personality so radically, I might have reconsidered my actions and ... ,"

     "What's going on here?" Xena called out. She had been talking to Thraso when she noticed Gabrielle's voice growing shrill and agitated. "Ephiny? Gabrielle? Are you two having a little catfight?"

     Gabrielle opened her mouth, but Ephiny interrupted. "Nothing serious, warrior princess. We were just discussing career moves ... ," she ignored the face Gabrielle made, " ... and your plans for conquering the Thracian villages. You do have plans, don't you?"

     "As a matter of fact, I do," Xena said warily. "I ran them by Velasca and she approved ... ,"

     "Finally, some good news!" Ephiny replied sweetly. "Perhaps you and, if you like, Gabrielle, can explain it to me later since our Queen has been too busy preening over herself to tell me anything important."

     "Name your time and place and we'll be there," Xena challenged.

     "You can tell me everything tomorrow morning," Ephiny said brusquely. "Until then I plan on being, uh, occupied with Solari."

     Xena and Gabrielle watched Ephiny retreat into the distance and looked curiously into each other's faces. "What was that all about?" Xena finally asked.

     Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and took another draught from her mug. "Beats me. This is the first time I've seen her so agitated since she was initiated. I think she's upset with Velasca and her theatrics -- and me, to a degree."

     Xena grimaced and said, "Well, Velasca does have a penchant for angering some of her sisters, what with her showing off about possessing the Queen's Mask." She gazed at the bard, then asked, "Why is she mad at you?"

     "Ephiny thinks I've abandoned my responsibility to the Amazon nation because I haven't challenged Velasca's claim to the queenhood," Gabrielle murmured.

     Xena held back the wave of anger building up inside her. Why, the sheer brazenness of Ephiny! To question Gabrielle's loyalty to the nation! She wrapped her arms around the bard's shoulders and promised, "After tonight, Ephiny will come to realize that you are one of the most loyal members of the Amazon nation!"

* * *

     "Tauri, get your damn ass in here. Now!" Sidon sat down heavily and began removing his dirt-caked sandals. He had spent the entire morning in the field, pulling weeds and hoeing and, afterwards, fixing a pot of chicken stew so his daughters could have a decent meal. Zeus, I hope nothing's wrong with Tauri, he thought silently. It's been four days now since she left to visit her friends. He knew she was home when he had stepped through the door and saw her white tunic draped across a chair. Hearing no response from his wife, Sidon sighed and called out, "Please, Tauri, come and talk to me. I know things haven't been great between us lately, but the girls and I really miss you!"

     Suddenly she was there. How did she sneak in so quietly? Sidon wondered. "What do you want, Sidon?" she asked coldly. "You're not welcome on our territory -- make your statement and then leave. Immediately."

     "I, uh ... ," Sidon's voice trailed off as he stared, flabbergasted, at his wife.

     Or, rather, what used to be his wife. He took in the details of the exotic, brief leathers that Tauri wore and grimaced. The outfit was nothing more than rough, short black leather skirt bursting with feathers and ribbons of tough, dried grass wrapped around her waist that reached halfway down her thighs. The breast armor was studded with small bits of metal and one of the breast cups had a concentric, silver circle wrapped around and over it. Whorls of black and white paint were smeared in strategic places on her exposed skin and Tauri's wrists and forearms were protected by leather-and-iron armbands. A sheathed sword was balanced on her back and the hilts of two daggers stuck out prominently from two waist pockets. And she looked mean, to say the least.

     "What's with the makeover?" Sidon demanded, not cowed by his wife's apparent change in fashion. Then he recognized the uniform and grew angry, his face reddening. "You're dressed exactly like those Amazon barbarians that live among us! What's the meaning of ... ,"

     Tauri had heard enough. "That's enough!" she snarled. She unsheathed her sword moved in on her former husband. "I am one of the so-called barbaric Amazons now! And you're standing on our land and questioning how we dress? How dare you!" She lunged forward and her blade just missed Sidon.

     "What in Tartarus are you talking about, Tauri?" Sidon screeched, sidestepping another blow. "The Amazons haven't lived here for centuries. Our ancestors reclaimed this land from the wilderness ... ," suddenly his breath exploded from him as Tauri's blade impaled itself in his chest, skewering his wildly beating heart.

     Tauri smiled savagely and twisted the blade cruelly. "We're back now -- to reclaim our lost heritage!" She ignored Sidon's loud, gurgling keening and withdrew the blade from his tortured chest. Sidon crashed lifelessly to the floor and Tauri wiped the bloody blade clean on his bare back.

     In their bedroom over the gory scene in the living quarters, two little girls trembled violently, stew-laden spoons held in mid-air. "Mama and Daddy got into another fight," the younger one whispered fearfully. "I heard Daddy scream. Do you think he's all right, sis?"

     The older girl strained to hear anything from the living quarters below, but there was nothing except silence. "I don't know -- it's never been this quiet after a fight before." Then both of them heard the steps creaking as someone advanced up them. They threw their spoons down and hugged each other tightly.

     "I'm scared," the younger one whispered. "I'm really, really scared."

* * *

     "The news isn't good, milord," Caria said timidly. "Our search for Lana's patrol group has turned up nothing. No bodies, no obvious battle scenes -- nothing!" She paused, afraid to add the obvious. "That makes three patrol groups that have vanished now since Eribas began patrolling Macedonia's so-called border with the Amazon nation!"

     Eribas whirled on Caria and hissed, "Are you trying to say something, Caria?"

     "Yes I am," Caria sniffed. "I'm beginning to question your judgment -- the decision to patrol our border with our allies has probably done nothing to improve our relations with them!"

     "And what would have you done, Ms. Tactical Genius?" Eribas asked haughtily. "Oh, I already know the answer to that question -- your solution to our degenerating relations with the Amazon nation would be to get drunk and vent your frustration out on some unfortunate ... ,"

     Bacchus had heard enough. "Silence! Both of you!" he roared. He glared angrily at his lieutenants. I should never have sent Antiope and her sisters away. They never fought amongst each other like Eribas and Caria do. Those two are a disgrace to all the other Bacchae. "Now, what have we found during these searches? Surely someone must have stumbled across something."

     "There's nothing out there, milord," Eribas sputtered. "We double and triple checked Lana's patrol route and found absolutely nothing!"

     Caria nodded in agreement. "All we found were piles of dirt left by badgers digging for roots and berries."

     Bacchus' eyes widened at the mention of the dirt piles. In his thousands of years of existence, he knew what the remains of a dead Baccha looked like. And they could easily be mistaken for piles of dirt, he thought darkly. He clenched his hands into taloned fists and slammed them down on his throne. "Those piles of yours weren't dirt -- they were the remains of your fellow Bacchae," he told Eribas and Caria. "Someone's targeting those patrol groups and taking them out." He paused, then dramatically rumbled, "Somebody's hunting the Bacchae for sport!"

     Eribas' eyes flashed angrily when she heard her lord's explanation. "Who ... what could destroy the Bacchae?" she asked tightly. "Everyone who possessed Dryad weapons in our territory -- soldiers, collectors -- have been killed."

     "Then look beyond our territory," Bacchus snorted. He jabbed a finger at his lieutenants. "You're both going to have to work together on this one. Combine your talents and find out who, or what, is attacking our patrols. Is it another god, our Amazon allies, or something far worse? I want answers, and I want them soon."

     "When we find out who the attacker is, I have first dibs on his body," Caria announced.

     Bacchus shook his massive, horned, head. "No. Whoever can kill an entire patrol group of armed Bacchae would make short work of you peasants," he spat. His choice of words shocked Eribas and Caria. "Whoever the attacker is, he will die at the hands of the Amazons!"

     Caria retreated from Pella's dank council chamber, followed meekly by Eribas. Once they got down the hall, Caria whispered, "Did you hear what he called us?! Peasant women! I thought he had more respect for us than that."

     "We'll just have to earn that respect again," Eribas replied calmly.

     "And how do we do that?"

     "By capturing our sisters' murderer and making an example of him before our lord has an opportunity to sic the Amazons on him," Eribas hissed, her ego beginning to swell again. "Only then will we finally escape the long shadow of our Amazon allies."

* * *

     Astyanax had been sitting in the ancient, gnarled oak tree since Apollo began his daily trek across the sky. He checked the sun's position in the morning sky and shook his head wearily. It can't be much longer now, he thought. I've been sitting above this patrol route since last night -- there's got to be a patrol coming along soon. He paused, and thought sourly, Surely the Amazon nation patrols its lands more frequently than this! Then he heard branches rustling in the distance and saw the grass undulating about a hundred feet away. A-ha! It's about time my little targets decided to show up! Astyanax thought triumphantly. He slipped an arrow into his compound bow and listened intently as the patrol drew closer, their voices drifting through the still air.

     "I tell you, Arista, I still think that Bacchus made a mistake when he dismissed myself and my sisters," Antiope complained. "Eventually he's going to pay the price for that decision."

     "Don't you ever talk about anything else?" Arista asked acidly. "We left Ereboa two days ago and all you've managed to talk about is Bacchus this, Bacchus that."

     "Arista's right," Nadia added. "Surely there's more to your life than Bacchus."

     Antiope shook her head. "No, there isn't. Xena assigned me to lead the detail of our sisters to protect our lord," she said. "We protected him and quelled the dissent against his rule in occupied Macedonia, and what does he do? He dismisses us because his peasant Bacchae don't like being left out of the picture!"

     "Those peasant Bacchae, as you call them, seem to be doing a decent job," Arista observed. "At least I haven't heard any commotion from their zone of control since they took over." She thought a moment and added, "Antiope, I really think you should give Eribas and Caria a fair shot before shooting them down."

     "No! The only reason those two haven't had any trouble yet is because we sent in enforcers to destroy those who openly opposed our lord's rule," Antiope hissed. "Don't you see? We did all the work and they got all the credit!"

     Nadia sat down and began rummaging through the supply sack she was carrying. "I don't know about you two, but I'm thirsty," she said, pulling out three corked gourds filled with blood. She offered two of them to Arista and Antiope. "I suggest we talk about this over some blood -- maybe that will calm somebody's ... ," she glared at Antiope, " ... temper down enough so we can have a rational discussion."

     Up in the tree, Astyanax saw his chance and took aim at Nadia's unprotected chest. He released the bowstring and smiled as the arrow slammed into the Baccha's chest between her armored breasts and threw her to the ground. One down, two Bacchae bitches to go, he thought angrily. Below him, chaos was the order of the day as Arista rushed over to Nadia and Antiope reached for her own bow, trying to figure out where the attack came from.

     "Nadia, stop thrashing about and let me look at the wound," Arista begged, trying to calm her dying sister down.

     "It huurts!" Nadia howled. "Oh, Artemis, it huurts! I -- I feel like I'm on fire ... ,"

     Arista managed to hold Nadia still long enough to grab the arrow's shaft and shove it through her chest so the bloody tip poked out of her back. She ignored Nadia's screech. "Yes, I know that hurt! Dammit! Keep still so I can snap the shaft and get it out of you," Arista said mirthlessly, trying to ignore the horrible grimace on Nadia's face.

     Meanwhile, Antiope managed to track the arrow's flight path back to a nearby oak tree and let loose with her own reply. Two arrows screamed from her bow and into the dense foliage. The first one missed, burying itself in a branch, but the second one cut cleanly through Astyanax's trigger hand, disrupting his concentration. He screeched and fell from the tree, landing on his back. In a matter of moments he jumped to his feet and, ignoring the burning pain in his hand, pulled his sword from its sheath and circled warily around Antiope, who mirrored his movements.

     "Oh, the pain! It's getting worse," Nadia whimpered. She shoved Arista away as her body suddenly grew hot. "Please just let me go, Arista. Don't want to ... ,"

     "I can't do that ... ," Arista raised her hands and shielded her eyes as a blaze of energy erupted from Nadia's head and moved down her body. Seconds later, only a pitiful pile of ashes remained where the Amazon warrior had once been. Arista just stared in shock at the pile, surprised at the swiftness of Nadia's demise. Suddenly Antiope's blood-curdling scream shook Arista from her nightmare and she whirled around, only to see Antiope impaled on a stranger's alien-looking blade.

     "Two down, one to go," Astyanax hissed. Then he twisted the blade in deeper and ripped it back out of Antiope's violated body. The Amazon warrior slumped to the ground, gouts of blood erupting from her fanged mouth.

     "How did you obtain Dryad weaponry?" she asked weakly. Her golden eyes snapped shut and when she opened them again, they had turned light blue. Antiope was returning to normal, but only at the highest price. "What, what happened to me ... ," her final words were lost as her body exploded, reducing itself to scattered drifts of dust.

     Arista took advantage of the fireworks and withdrew two daggers from her belt. She let one fly at the stranger's position and took an educated guess before letting the second one go in a different direction. Astyanax avoided the first dagger, but in the process he ended up in the path of the second projectile, which buried itself in his left thigh. The scout dropped to the ground and Arista dove on top of him, using her superior strength to hold him down.

     "It's time for you to die," Arista gurgled happily. She opened her crimson mouth and Astyanax's eyes widened as her incisors elongated and sharpened into needle-like fangs. Then she paused, smiled wickedly, and puckered her lips. "But first, let me kiss you -- you deserve that much before dying."

     Astyanax felt his member stiffening at that prospect and cursed his body for its weakness. Arista felt it too and smiled even wider. "Well, if you insist ... ," she cooed. The Amazon maneuvered herself over him and, using her taloned hands, shredded the crotch in his pants, exposing his erect member. She hiked her leather skirt up, exposing her swollen, moist, sex and proceeded to slide down -- and froze, shock etched into her face. Arista looked down and knew she was dead. The assailant had managed to slide an eight-inch dagger between his body and hers and now it was buried up to its hilt in her stomach. "That wasn't very warrior-like," Arista complained. She rolled off her conquest and wrenched the serrated blade from her belly.

     "Who ever said life was fair?" Astyanax replied, climbing unsteadily to his feet. He crossed his legs and turned red. "Now I've got to find a new pair of pants -- as if I didn't have enough to do already!"

     Arista knew she was dying the moment she saw the blade's unique construction, but she continued to keep the enemy's attention focused on her. If I can keep him occupied long enough, perhaps another patrol group will finish the kill, she thought. "You should complain?! You defeated two Amazon warriors today and tricked a third one to her death -- that's no small feat, especially when we were all Bacchae." Her fangs began to blunten and retreat and her swollen, crimson lips turned light pink. The murky haze that had clouded her mind began fading away. "Who do you represent?"

     "I am one of Zelius' scouts and the first of thousands of soldiers who will liberate Macedonia from Bacchus' rule," Astyanax said, pride tinging his voice.

     "Hmm. Zelius, did you say?" Arista murmured. "Wasn't he Dion's second-in-command?"

     "Yes, but why do you care?"

     Arista felt her body beginning to burn from within. "Actually, I don't care. But Zelius might want to know what became of Dion after he was captured."

     Astyanax cocked his head. "What are you implying?"

     "Let's just say that Dion hasn't been himself ... ," her voice faded and Astyanax backed away as Arista's body was consumed by ravaging flames. When the flames vanished there was nothing left of Arista, not even a pile of ash.

     What was she being so cryptic about? Astyanax wondered. Everyone knows what the Amazons did to Dion -- they killed him, along with Amplitron, when he went back to Pella to rescue that crazy old bat. Twin jolts of pain brought Astyanax back to reality and he realized his wounds would need tending to -- and soon. They weren't life-threatening yet, but if they weren't disinfected and bandaged, that would quickly change.

     He began rummaging around the patrol's belongings and quickly located some medicine and, most importantly, some maps. Asytanax blanched when he looked at the maps. I never knew I was so close to Themiscrya itself -- and look at the number of patrols! Zeus! No wonder the Amazon was so calm and collected after I stabbed her ... she probably thought another patrol would make short work of me even if she died. He looked around and realized he had to keep moving, wounds or no wounds. I've got to reach those Thracian villages before Bacchus does!

* * *

     Ephiny pulled out a small mirror and stared listlessly into its reflective surface -- and at the alien visage which glimmered back at her. It's been days now since Gabrielle turned me into a Baccha, and I'm still not used to seeing my features twisted like this. It's me and yet at the same time, it's not me. She dropped the mirror and reached for a cup, which brimmed with some unfortunate soul's blood. She sipped some of it and, like before, felt her barriers against the wild, dark ways of the Bacchae weakening. Suddenly a particularly nasty wave of lust and wildness crashed into her mental barriers, nearly shattering them. Ephiny dropped the cup from her taloned hands and held her throbbing head. I've got to stop drinking so much blood -- Artemis said the ambrosia would only grant me mental independence from Bacchus, but not from physical or mental effects ... which seem to grow stronger with each drop of blood I ingest!

     "Are you all right, Ephiny?" a concerned voice asked.

     Ephiny recognized Gabrielle's voice and turned to face her. "Yes, I'm okay. It's just really hard to maintain control over myself after I've drank blood."

     "I don't know why Ephiny, but your initiation seems to be really hard on you," Gabrielle replied. "I mean, what with these mood swings of yours, bad-mouthing our lord and, for Bacchus' sake, even talking about trying to dethrone Velasca!" She paused, thinking, then added, "I suppose it could be worse. At least your body didn't reject the initiation and go up in flames."

     "Like Atalanta did, right?" Ephiny said coolly. "Trust me, my body isn't whacked out to that degree." Inwardly, Ephiny grimaced at the cold words. She had heard Atalanta's death scream -- and it hadn't sounded pleasant. Ephiny abruptly changed the subject. "Where's Xena? I thought she was coming with you."

     Gabrielle rolled her golden eyes. "Velasca hauled her off to some tactical meeting with Diana and Arianna. Don't worry, she'll be here soon enough to fill you in on her plans for the Thracians." Which, honestly, don't amount to much yet, she thought silently.

     Ephiny reached down and picked up the overturned cup and then grabbed a gourd, which contained more blood. She dribbled some of the elixir into the cup and offered it to Gabrielle, who bridged the distance between the two women in a flash. The bard savored the sweet fluid and sighed, "Eventually you'll get used to your new life, Ephiny. It might take some time -- heck, we still got sisters wandering around in a daze who were initiated nearly a month ago."

     "Whatever you say," Ephiny said noncommittally. She used Gabrielle's fascination with getting the last drop of blood from the cup to her advantage and circled around behind the pre-occupied bard. "But I really don't want to take that long to get used to my new body."

     Gabrielle noticed the pronounced coolness in Ephiny's voice and looked up. "What do you mean by that?"

     Ephiny reached over and wrapped her arms around the bard's mouth before Gabrielle could react. Ephiny smiled, revealing her long, slim, viperish fangs, and hissed, "I got these things in my mouth because of you. Now it's time to put them to good use!"

     Gabrielle's eyes widened and the empty cup dropped from her taloned hands, shattering on the lodge's floor. "Don't do it, Ephiny!" her muffled cry came. "Even this is too kinky for me ... ,"

     Ephiny ignored the bard's cries and plunged her fangs into the side of Gabrielle's neck. The fluid which gushed into Ephiny's mouth was far from sweet -- it was a horrible, bitter-tasting greenish liquid with the viscosity of bile. Ephiny choked the vile stuff down and, after a minute, removed her fangs from Gabrielle's neck. "Pretty soon you'll realize that I did you a great favor, my queen," Ephiny sputtered. Suddenly she began to retch violently, and the fluid she had just ingested came flying out of her mouth, splattering all over the floor. Ephiny watched, astounded, as the fluid slowly turned vibrant red and assumed the viscosity of clotting blood. I'll be damned, Ephiny thought. The ambrosia is causing the Baccha blood to revert back to human blood. Ephiny looked up at the roof and sang mentally. It really works, Artemis! It really works! Where ever you are, Artemis, thank you!

     Gabrielle slumped over and felt the scorching fire burning in her veins. She tried to scream, but her muscles refused to work. Then, deep inside the Baccha's suffocating personality, the true Gabrielle began to struggle against the mental chains which held her in place. The chains began to creak and tremble -- suddenly they shattered into a million pieces. The dark tendrils of the Baccha retreated to the outskirts of Gabrielle's subconscious mind, which began to reassert dominion over its own mind and body. After several minutes, Gabrielle managed to push her Bacchic needs and desires further into the shadows. She opened her golden eyes and saw Ephiny looking on, her face steeped in worry. "What, what happened?" Gabrielle croaked. "Gods! It feels like I've been sleeping for weeks now!"

     "You have been sleeping, in an indirect sense," Ephiny said quietly. She helped the bard to her feet. "What do you remember of the past month or so?"

     "Very little ... ," then images began flashing through her mind. Cheering Xena on as the warrior princess conquered her Baccha enemy. The unexpected ambush and subsequent violation of her body and soul by Velasca. The terrified faces of Erato and Lysara ... the faces of thousands of other Amazon women, twisted and warped by Bacchus -- all because of Gabrielle. Countless other images, all blending together to form a horrifying menagerie of horror, madness and chaos. " ... let me take that back," Gabrielle said slowly. She faced Ephiny and whispered, "Will you ever forgive me for what I did to the nation ... and you?"

     "There's nothing to forgive, Gabrielle," Ephiny said sincerely. "Everything that's happened -- to us, the Amazon nation, Macedonia and countless other men, women and children -- is all Bacchus' fault."

     Gabrielle felt the horrifyingly familiar fangs in her mouth. They were identical to the ones that had sprouted after she had been initiated during Xena's earlier donnybrook with Bacchus. "It's different this time. Bacchus is much more powerful and there's so many more Bacchae to defend him. How can we even hope to defeat him again?"

     "This time we have Artemis on our side," Ephiny confided. "She gave me ambrosia before you initiated me, which defeated the mental effects of the Baccha ... ,"

     "May I ask what you're talking about?" Xena asked. She appeared at the lodge's entrance and slinked in. "What's this about Artemis and ambrosia? Has she interfered with the will of our lord, Bacchus?"

     Ephiny knew she had opened her mouth too soon. My cover's blown, she thought frantically. Knowing that Xena's keen mind, Baccha or not, had already latched onto the words 'Artemis' and 'ambrosia,' Ephiny did the next best thing. She launched an attack on the warrior princess.

     Gabrielle watched her two friends go down in a tumble of arms and legs. She sprang forward and joined the fray, without a thought to her own safety. I have to get Xena's chakram away from her before she uses it on Ephiny, she thought desperately. By this time, Xena had frenzied and the warrior princess was nothing more than a slavering, fanged Baccha who was foaming at the mouth. The only thing that kept Ephiny and Gabrielle in the fight was the fact that they, too, were Bacchae -- and fighting mad. Suddenly Xena's taloned fist smashed into Ephiny's face, sending the Amazon flying out of the fray. Xena turned her attention to Gabrielle and deflected the bard's deft grab for her chakram.

     "Nice try, Gabrielle, but not this time," Xena snarled. She punched the bard in the stomach, knocking the wind from her, and smiled as Gabrielle dropped like a fly. "Mad Baccha or not, I still rule when it comes to one-on-one combat!" She sensed another attack coming and sent the contested chakram flying without even looking at its destination -- which was Ephiny's throat.

     Ephiny dove out of the way, but not before the razor sharp edge of the chakram opened a thin crease on the side of her neck. Blood sprayed from the wound and Ephiny stumbled, pain shooting through her head. The chakram zinged back into Xena's outstretched hand and the warrior princess smiled grimly. "This time I'm going for your jugular, Ephiny," she hissed. "Even a Baccha needs her head on to get anything accomplished!" She took aim -- and Gabrielle jumped up and knocked the weapon from Xena's hand. Gabrielle snarled and glanced at her staff, which flew across the room and into her hands. Before Xena knew it, she was being pummeled across her stomach and legs. The tables turned, Gabrielle sent a blow cracking across Xena's legs, and the warrior princess tumbled to the lodge's floor. She tried to regain her feet, but her bruised and bloodied body protested.

     "Now's your chance, Ephiny!" Gabrielle yelled. "Get moving! I can't keep her down much longer."

     Ephiny knew her neck wound was already closing. That's one advantage to being a Baccha -- you heal a lot faster than if you were a normal human. She saw Gabrielle smack Xena once again and regained her footing. Then she was across the room and on top of Xena, her fangs buried in the warrior princess' neck. The same horrible, bitter-tasting, greenish fluid flooded her mouth and Ephiny choked it down. Seconds later she rolled off an insensate Xena and began puking.

     Xena's mind was in a whirl of confusion, anger, lust and hatred. Why are they attacking me? What have I done to them?! I ... suddenly a bright white light blinded her mind's eye and the Baccha personality shattered and retreated, freeing Xena's real personality from its mental bondage. It surged outward, reclaiming its own body and mind for itself. Then it froze as it experienced the horrors it had done while under the murky haze of Baccha domination. Thalia crying as she was transformed by Xena ... the sense of betrayal she felt from Charm and Gemini during their transformation into Bacchae. Thousands of pale faces looking up at her, standing next to Velasca, their golden eyes flaming ... long, sharp fangs behind their swollen, crimson lips. Nnnooo ... !

     Xena opened her eyes and, sensing danger, jumped to her feet. "Oh, it's only you two," she laughed, spying Gabrielle and Ephiny standing behind her. Ephiny held her sword in a defensive position and Gabrielle held her staff close to her chest. "What's with you two? You both look like you just went through Tartarus and back."

     "That's because we almost did!" Ephiny retorted. In a softer voice she asked, "How are you feeling?"

     Xena felt the Baccha part of herself gnawing at her from the shadows of her mind, but it was no longer completely dominant. The blind loyalty she had felt for Bacchus was gone. "I feel just fine ... but what was it with you biting me?! That hurt!"

     "It was the only way to clear your mind," Gabrielle interjected. "Ephiny bit me too. I guess Artemis gave her the ability to transmit mental independence to those Baccha she bites. We're no longer blindly loyal followers of Bacchus, Xena! We're free -- mentally, anyway."

     "I can probably free three more of our sisters from Bacchus' mind control," Ephiny added. "But that's it. Artemis said we'd have to figure out a way to free the rest of the nation by ourselves."

     "Six of us against thousands of Amazons who've been turned into bloodsuckers?!" Xena yelped. "Artemis certainly has confidence in us, if nothing else."

     "If we can free only three more of our sisters, which ones should we free?" Gabrielle asked.

     Xena remained silent, thinking. "Ideally, the ones we free should have abilities and genius that will directly benefit our campaign against Bacchus," she announced. She turned to Ephiny and added, "May I suggest Solari, Siri and Ordahlia?"

     Ephiny shook her head. "I agree with you about selecting Solari and Siri, but I think we should substitute Thraso for Ordahlia."

     "Why Thraso?" Gabrielle asked.

     "Thraso? I've never heard of the name," Xena murmured.

     Ephiny held her hands up. "That's because she wasn't always one of us. Thraso was once the Pellan general Dion, but Hera turned him into a her." She paused and sighed, remembering the traumatic event. "I guess it was Hera's gift to Bacchus -- apparently Thraso is a tactical genius who's supposed to play an integral role in Bacchus' plans to conquer the known world."

     "If it's what you want, I won't disagree," Xena agreed. "But we've wasted enough time -- let's get moving."

     "Uh, where are we going?" Gabrielle asked.

     Xena smiled malevolently. "Velasca sent me over here to fetch you and Ephiny. I guess she's got some big plans she wants to run by us."

* * *

     "It's time to make our move against the Thracians," Velasca explained. She pointed at five dots near the Amazon nation's northern frontier within Thrace. "All of the necessary ingredients are in place -- Diana is already beginning preparations for the attack and the Amazon tribes living near the Thracian villages have started picking off individuals who are foolish enough to be outside the villages by themselves." She took a deep breath, then added, "Thraso will accompany the attack against the Thracians ... it's time to see if the tactical potential Hera said she had survived her sex change."

     Xena held her hands up. "Wait a second here. I thought I was in charge of all the preparations. Since when did you start delegating responsibilities out to Diana? How many others have you let in on my battle plans? I don't want anybody, Baccha or not, to know about them unless it's absolutely imperative."

     "Cool your jets, Xena," Velasca replied stiffly. "Diana's involvement is limited to armament and supply details -- she knows nothing about your tactical plans. Which, I might add, is the situation I am in. Just what are your plans?"

     "I explained it to you earlier," Xena snapped. She ignored the pouty look on Velasca's face and explained her plans again, enunciating each word. "We will take a force of several hundred warriors and conquer the villages. On the way back, we will split up my little army and distribute Hera's crushed rock into the entire water supply for the Amazon nation."

     "What about those two ... ," Velasca pointed at Gabrielle and Ephiny, " ... where do they come into play?"

     Ephiny stalked forward and stared unwaveringly at her foe. Then she sternly said, "If the blood supply is as low as Ordahlia claims it to be, it is necessary that Hera's special dust gets distributed to all of the tribes correctly the first time around. The distribution groups will need guidance and that's where we come into the picture."

     "And there will be a few more group leaders," Gabrielle interjected. She looked meaningfully over at Xena. "They have yet to be selected, though."

     "Is there anything else you want to know?" Xena asked.

     Velasca's smile slowly widened to reveal her long, viperish, fangs. "Speed is of the essence, my lieutenants. I want that army ready to roll in two day's time."

     Ephiny stared in shock at Velasca. "There's no way we can meet the deadline! It will take at least that long just to get our warriors assembled into anything akin to an army!"

     "The deadline is not an option, Ephiny," Velasca sneered. "Nor for Xena or Gabrielle. Our lord Bacchus has wanted those villages for himself since the fall of the Amazon nation. If we don't move soon, we risk offending him -- and even a Baccha can't withstand the fury of an enraged god."

     "Your wish is our command," Xena announced abruptly. She turned on her heels and walked toward the chamber's entrance. Just before leaving, she turned around and hissed, "I suggest you start trusting the intelligence and capabilities of your lieutenants a bit more, Velasca. You can't deal with everything by yourself -- there's too many variables to take into consideration, what with all the land and tribes that together form the Amazon Nation!"

     Velasca opened her mouth, but Xena and the others were already gone. She slumped down in her throne and sat brooding. Several minutes passed before Solari appeared in the lodge's entrance, flanked by six of her guards. Velasca perked up at seeing the striking commander of the royal guard. "By Bacchus, you're just the one I wanted to see," she bubbled happily.

     "Um, yeah," Solari responded delicately. "It's time for our daily security meeting." She noticed the distracted look in Velasca's eyes and asked, "Is everything all right? You look like you just went through the wringer."

     "Xena just dressed me down for trying to micromanage the affairs of the nation," Velasca explained nonchalantly. "It's a little galling to have one of your lieutenants do that in front of others."

     Solari bared her long, slim fangs. "Do you want me to do something about her attitude, my queen?"

     "Just observe her from a distance," Velasca said. "I want to know if Xena's positive can-do attitude is having a good effect on that nation's moral. Her arrogance might bother me, but I'll gladly overlook that if increases the confidence among the rank-and-file troops."

     Solari bowed her head. "I will be as discreet as possible. Is there any information you're looking for in particular?"

     "It's not information that I want," Velasca replied tiredly. "I have no choice but to trust Xena in that capacity to the fullest extent possible. Just shadow her and the others who are going to participate in the Thracian attack -- if nothing seems awry, don't even bother reporting back to me."

     "Your wish is, as always, my command," Solari said tersely.

     Solari and her guards left the lodge and Velasca was once again alone. Alone with her greatest fears and reservations. What if the Thracian attack doesn't go off as planned? What if Thraso doesn't turn out to be the tactical genius that Hera promised she would be? What if Bacchus doesn't understand all the parts of the equation and screws up? Velasca thought miserably. Ah, leadership -- everyone seems to want it. But now that I have it, it's not fun and games anymore. There's too much responsibility for one individual to handle alone ... perhaps I'll take Xena's suggestion seriously and begin to delegate more responsibilities out to my lieutenants.

* * *

     Solari nibbled playfully on Ephiny's ear as the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon. The two women had made love to each other the entire night and Solari had lost track of the time after four orgasms. And it all went whizzing by way too fast, she thought sadly. The good times never seem to last long enough. Solari felt her lover shift beneath her and rolled off the regent queen, who sat up, breathing heavily.

     "I haven't experienced sex like that since ... ," Ephiny paused momentarily, thinking, " ... since Dion made love to me nearly two weeks ago!"

     "Humph. That's not much of an accomplishment on my behalf," Solari snorted. "My best attempt at satisfying you, and it only ranks up there with a man?!"

     Ephiny smiled and gently kneaded one of Solari's swollen, reddish breasts. "Give it time, my love. This was only our fourth lovemaking session -- you'll get better with time. Besides, it was unfair of me to compare you to Dion ... when we were making love, it was an effort to conceive a daughter -- the highest goal possible for an Amazon practicing the art of lovemaking."

     Solari broke into a broad grin, her razor sharp fangs glimmering in the early morning light. "That session with Dion must have been a doozy -- all of Themiscrya was buzzing about it the morning after."

     "Oh, really?" Ephiny demurred.

     "Really," Solari reaffirmed. "Velasca must have forgotten to tell you about it. Probably because she was so intent on transforming you and Thraso into her Bacchic lieutenants."

     "She succeeded in that part of her mission," Ephiny admitted. "But she also inadvertently succeeded in sparking open passion between you and I for the first time."

     Solari grinned wolfishly. "I never told anyone this ... but when I was screwing the fathers of my daughters, Isis and Cera, I fantasized that they were really you!"

     "I'm honored to hear that," Ephiny growled playfully. She leaned over and locked her full, red lips on Solari's. A minute passed before the passionate kiss ended. Ephiny sat back and said, "Thraso, however, probably wouldn't be too amused with your fantasies -- after all, she came into existence because I made love to her. Hera certainly knows how to throw a wrench into a person's life, doesn't she?"

     "I've heard enough about Dion's transformation into an Amazon," Solari scolded lightly. "I want to resume our lovemaking session and, for once, outgun somebody else in satisfying you."

     "Hold your horses," Ephiny replied. She crawled over and pushed Solari to the lodge's floor. "This time, I'm going to be the one on top."

     She proceeded to straddle her prostrate lover and began to gently suckle a swollen nipple to attention. It seemed like an eternity to Solari before Ephiny released her aroused nipple and began to gently rub her swollen sex against Solari's wet orifice. In an instant both of the women's swollen, furry mounds were connected to each other, labial lips sliding over each other's sex-slicked pubices. Solari screamed joyously as electricity seemed to arc between Ephiny and her -- she exploded outward and saw her pent-up passion spray over Ephiny's sweaty, naked body. Moments later Ephiny climaxed as well, slathering Solari's sex and inner thighs with her own hot love juices.

     Ephiny's mind was a wild ocean of lust and constant tidal waves of orgasmic energy and lust slammed up against her steadily weakening barriers. See? whispered the Baccha within her. It's not that bad. What's better than an eternal life of lovemaking, orgies, drunkenness and immense physical power? You and Solari, together, can help millions of other downtrodden women across the known world experience life as a Baccha. Don't resist it!

     Ephiny railed mentally against the Baccha that she had been transformed into by Gabrielle. Oh gods, yes it feels great! she cried out silently. But the price is too high -- too many broken lives, too many destroyed families and the needless deaths of the innocent!

     Who cares about the so-called innocents? the Baccha snarled. Men! Amazons hate most of them for a very good reason ... they seek to dominate the female half of humanity! And then there are the traitors to women everywhere -- the pampered female royalty of the ruling classes. And what of the innocent children? It's so easy to conceive a child, so why should we be concerned with their deaths?

     Ephiny had been losing the war against her Bacchic alter ego, but the mere mention of dying children steeled her will against the dark side that was nearly successful in seducing her. The price is too high, she reiterated mentally.

     Unaware of Ephiny's struggle, Solari continued to enjoy the pure lust that Ephiny poured down on her like an enormous, sky-engulfing, summer thunderstorm. "When Bacchus resumes his offensive against our enemies, we will have thousands of new women to introduce to our ranks," she cooed mindlessly. "Together and with our other sisters we can show them the benefits of ... ," suddenly Solari's voice was cut off as Ephiny slapped a taloned hand across her mouth.

     "That horned bastard won't resume any offensive, if I have anything to say about it," she hissed. She twisted Solari's neck, exposing her lover's carotid artery, and plunged her fangs into the pliable flesh. Solari whimpered painfully, but Ephiny was too busy spitting out grotesque green slime from her mouth to even notice. The slithering slime was what was left of Solari's blood after it had been corrupted by her transformation.

     For Solari, time blurred -- but only momentarily. She hadn't been a Baccha as long as many of her Amazon sisters, so the extent and depth of the horrid memories which had drowned Gabrielle and Xena after Ephiny bit them wasn't quite as severe for her. But it was bad enough. Images of Ephiny struggling futility against Gabrielle's ravishing fangs. Thraso's confused face as it slowly acquired a chalky white visage and a pair of viperish fangs -- all because Solari had bitten the newly-formed Amazon. Countless images of her talking with Ordahlia and another image of her holding a newborn girl while attempting to converse to Eponin, who refused to even look at her corrupted friend. A flash of light blinded her mind's eye and the suffocating Baccha personality shattered into a million pieces and retreated in shock and confusion to the edge of her conscious mind.

     Ephiny's worried face creased with a smile when she felt Solari stirring weakly beside her. She looked down at her friend and grinned even wider when Solari's eyelids fluttered open, revealing stunning golden eyes. "By Artemis, that was one Tartarus of a hangover," Solari grumped weakly. "What was in that Athenian wine we drank? Some of Artemis' personal stock?"

     "Don't try to deny it, Solari," Ephiny said firmly, seeing past the barrier her friend had erected against reality. "I know you're feeling terrible about some of the things you did while under your dark side's complete domination."

     "I tried to fight the desires," Solari whispered. "But I failed -- and Lexoria and so many others paid the price for my failure!" Solari's barriers came down in an instant. "It was awful ... some of the things I did. By Artemis! The way I initially came on to you right after your transformation. I took advantage of ... ,"

     "You took advantage of no one," Ephiny replied quietly. "It was only a matter of time before you, or I, made our feelings for each other public. Bacchus managed to hurry up the process somewhat -- and in a more erotic, lusty manner than we ordinarily would have."

     "There were no ceremonies or rites announcing our pairing. Just plain hard-core sex," Solari moaned.

     "We can worry about the formalities later on," Ephiny announced. "Right now we have to finish ridding the nation of Bacchus' presence. Without the support of the Amazon nation, the rest of his little empire in Macedonia will collapse like a house of cards." She paused, staring at Solari, then asked, "You do remember everything, right?"

     Solari tapped her head knowingly. "Everything up to and including Velasca's sinking her fangs into my sex. After that it's kind of a haze."

     "She bit you where?!" Ephiny asked, astounded.

     "I, ah, we can talk about it later," Solari said haphazardly. I don't really want to talk about that particular experience right now, she added silently.

     "You bet we will," Ephiny declared. "I heard that Velasca was somewhat kinky -- but that takes the cake! I wonder how many other sisters she's violated in her quest to unite us under Bacchus' aegis."

     "Too many," Solari replied quietly. Velasca had bragged to her about the dozens of ways she had introduced other Amazons to the wild ways of the Bacchae. Tit bites, ass bites, lip bites and she even bit a few of them right on their vaginas, Solari thought. If there's a way to initiate a woman into the Bacchae, Velasca's done it.

* * *

     "We have terrible news, milord," Eribas intoned solemnly. "There is a threat against us massing in the Macedonian town of Dium -- the remnants of Dion's army have gathered together and are preparing to stab north into our territory. It also appears they're numbers are much larger than we initially anticipated."

     Bacchus rocked back and forth on his throne, eerily silent. "What of it?" he finally spat. "Dion himself is now a full member of the Amazon nation and his successor, Zelius, doesn't have half the capabilities of Dion. Besides, the so-called army massing in Dium is composed of mere mortal men and material ... they don't stand a chance against us or our Amazon allies."

     Caria stepped forward. "Shall we dispatch some of our sisters to conquer Dium and destroy this little tumor before it grows into a malignancy?"

     "At this time, I cannot allow that," Bacchus rumbled. He ignored the surprised looks on his lieutenants' faces. "My father, Zeus, has forbidden me from expanding my earthly empire for the time being -- and even I dare not cross swords with the king of the gods."

     "But, but ... ," Eribas stammered helplessly. "That's not fair! We earned this land and its inhabitants fair and square. We defeated the soldiers on the field of battle and transformed their women into ravishing, eternal Bacchae!"

     Bacchus nodded in agreement. "It's not fair, yes, but right now there's nothing we can do about it. I am working on a possible solution to Zeus' interference, however. After all, I do have allies on Olympus." Bacchus fell silent, then tersely asked, "What about this hunter who's been picking off our patrols? Have you learned anything else about this monster?"

     "There haven't been any further attacks against our patrols along our frontier with the Amazons," Caria supplied.

     Eribas turned on Caria and shrieked, "Well, duh! If there had been, we would have heard about them by now!"

     "Silence!" Bacchus roared angrily, deflecting the argument before it could really begin. He held his taloned hands up to his throbbing temples. Don't they ever stop bickering?! he thought indignantly. "I don't have any time for this insane infighting! What have you discovered about the attacker?!"

     "The attacks against us have ceased," Caria resumed. "There's been no word from our Amazon sisters about any attacks in their territory so I think it's safe to assume that the attacker was an aberration."

     "What do you mean?" Bacchus asked, genuinely curious.

     "The attacker was probably someone who had access to a small cache of Dryad weaponry and decided to use it against the oppressors -- us," Caria said darkly. "It was probably a collector of Dryad weaponry who committed the crimes. It was our understanding that our Amazon sisters managed to kill all of the collectors and anybody else with Dryad weaponry -- but they obviously must have missed one of them."

     "And the attacker was a male," Eribas interjected, adding her two cents worth. "I studied some of the footprints near the site of Lana's untimely death. They were much too large to have belonged to a woman and the deep impressions lends credibility to my supposition that the male was fairly heavy -- probably around 200 pounds."

     Bacchus smiled malevolently, finally piecing the puzzle together. "The footprints this man left behind means that he's not a god. He's a mere mortal who happened to have a small stash of Dryad weaponry." He swiveled his head toward Caria and asked, "What are the odds this murderer will resurface?"

     "Slim to none," Caria reassured her lord. "He used up his stash of Dryad weapons when he dispatched Lana's patrol group. Undoubtedly he has resumed his normal day-to-day activities by now -- and we won't be able to find him in order to dispense proper justice."

     "I wouldn't say that just yet," Bacchus rumbled ominously. "How many villages are within the vicinity of the attack which killed Lana and the others?"

     "Salimus, Quasius and Carnae are nearby," Eribas replied. "Why?"

     "I want those villages eradicated from the face of the Earth by sunrise tomorrow," Bacchus hissed. "Transform any women you find in the villages, kill the men and, last but not least, slaughter all of the children."

     Eribas' own transformation had rendered her cold-hearted, but even she blanched at the monstrous order. "Milord, that, that's over a thousand villagers you've sentenced to death!"

     "That seems to be a reasonable price to exact from those who would execute their protectors," Bacchus mused idly. "Besides, what are a thousand dead mortals compared to the unwarranted deaths of Lana and the others? Who's more valuable, Eribas? Mere mortals or eternal Bacchae?"

     "B, Bacchae, milord," Eribas gulped.

     "I knew you would agree with me," Bacchus said softly. "Now go ... and don't take as long to finish this assignment as it's taking the Amazons to conquer those damn Thracian villages!" Eribas skittered from the throne chamber, trailed by Caria. Suddenly she was frozen in place by Bacchus' evil voice. "Not you, Caria. I have another assignment for you."

     She spun around and faced her master. "What is your command, milord?"

     "While Eribas is wiping those villages out, I want you to gather a significant force of your sisters together and make preparations for a possible invasion by Zelius' army."

     "I thought you said they were mere mortals," Caria grumbled. "What threat could they possibly pose to us?"

     "Never underestimate your enemy," Bacchus replied sweetly. "Zelius may not be as good a general as Dion was, but an invasion by his army into our territory would be ... ," he paused, thinking, " ... disconcerting, to say the least. And it would give some of our subjects a reason to rise up in rebellion against our rule."

     Caria smiled, her fangs glimmering wetly. "Our defenses shall be tripled within a week, milord!" Then she vanished through the gaping doorway, her footsteps echoing hollowly behind her.

* * *

     "Thraso, it's time we had a little talk," Ephiny announced. She wrapped her arm around the young woman and stared meaningfully at her. "It's time to answer any questions that you might have about your new nation."

     "Gabrielle answered all my questions for me," Thraso replied evenly. "Please let me go -- Xena wants to discuss some of my responsibilities as one of her lieutenants in the upcoming Thracian campaign."

     Another woman slid up next to Thraso and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "That can wait," Eponin said firmly. "Surely Gabrielle didn't have the time to answer all of your questions."

     "Aren't you supposed to be overseeing the care of Themiscrya's children?" Thraso inquired. "And isn't it a little bit dangerous to be wandering around alone? You're not a Baccha, but that can change -- and quickly."

     Eponin opened her mouth, but Ephiny interceded. "She's under my protection. No one will transform Eponin while I'm around," she hissed. "And I've entrusted the care of our infant daughters to the other caregivers -- Eponin isn't the only caregiver, you know. Now, are we going to sit here all day and argue or are you going to ask us some meaningful questions?"

     Thraso realized that she was sandwiched between Ephiny and Eponin and really didn't have a choice in the matter. Anyway, I do have some questions I would like to ask them, she thought. Gabrielle was a bit heavy about the glory that lay ahead for the nation under Bacchus' rule. She looked into Ephiny's beautiful golden eyes and mumbled, "I will follow wherever you go."

     "That's better," Ephiny said, smiling. "I know this great place about a candlemark north of Themiscrya where Solari and I always go to celebrate good times. That's as good a place as any to discuss any questions you have."

     The trio proceeded north out of the bustling Amazon capitol, winding their way on a broad path through hilly, forested land. Before long a smaller trail branched off from the main path and disappeared into a copse of heavy, old oak trees. Before long Eponin and Thraso were seated on a big log -- Eponin was roasting a wild chicken she had caught for herself while Ephiny rummaged about her rucksack. Eventually she pulled three corked gourds out and offered two of them to her companions.

     "I don't drink blood," Eponin sniffed haughtily.

     "That's why I filled your gourd with Athenian wine from my own personal stock," Ephiny countered. She uncorked her gourd and took a deep draught of rich, red blood. A wave of lust washed over her, but she resisted the temptation. "Are there any other complaints?"

     Eponin's eyes lighted up the moment Ephiny mentioned that the pro-offered gourd was brimming with Athenian wine. "None whatsoever, my queen," she said humbly. "I shall enjoy your precious gift."

     Thraso savored the last drop of blood as it slid down her throat, barely registering the banter between her sisters. Finally the buzz in her head faded away and she realized, again, that she was sandwiched between Ephiny and Eponin. Why do I always end up in the middle of things? she asked herself sourly. She tried to move, but Eponin was sandwiched too tight against her. I see the concept of personal space has no meaning to Eponin.

     "Here you go, Ephiny," Thraso remarked, reaching to hand the empty gourd to her regent queen. Ephiny reached to grab the gourd, but instead she made a feint and grabbed Thraso's arm and held it tightly. Ephiny smiled cruelly, exposing her razor-sharp fangs, which dripped with hot saliva. "What are you doing?!" Thraso asked excitedly.

     "I am going to free you from your blind loyalty to Bacchus," Ephiny replied. "Hold still. This should take only a minute or two -- and, yes, it will sting."

     "Are you out of your mind?!" Thraso yelped. She jerked her arm from Ephiny's grasp, but the regent queen was quick; she managed to reacquire Thraso's arm after a brief scuffle. "Let me go!"

     Ephiny was shocked at the raw strength exhibited by Thraso. I didn't realize she was so strong! she thought angrily. Ephiny glanced over at Eponin, who watched in slack-jawed wonder. The way she looks, you'd never imagine she was aware of my plan -- even though I told her everything yesterday! "Eponin, I could use a little assistance here!"

     Eponin snapped out of her reverie and reached over to help, but Thraso saw what she was doing and lashed out. "I told you to watch your step -- now it's time to join our ranks!" she hissed. "Together we will defeat Ephiny!" Eponin saw the attack coming and jerked away, but it was too late ... she screamed in pain and flopped off the log as Thraso's taloned fingers sliced across her bare arm, drawing blood.

     It didn't take long for Ephiny to realize that she had lost control of the situation. She managed to quickly subdue Thraso and bit her hard and deep, drawing mouthfuls of greenish ichor into her unwilling mouth. She dropped an insensate Thraso to the ground, spat the repulsive ichor out, and scrambled over to where Eponin lay twitching and trembling violently. "It wasn't supposed to happen this way," Ephiny sobbed as she watched as Eponin's eyes slowly acquired a sickly, golden hue. "You weren't supposed to be transformed!"

     Eponin's mind registered Ephiny's words, but she didn't respond immediately. I don't want to become like the others -- Ephiny, I don't have the protection she has against the Baccha I'm turning into! She felt her lips puffing and swelling into full, red Baccha lips. Suddenly the roof her mouth exploded in pain as her incisors abruptly erupted into half-inch long needle-like fangs that were barely concealed by her new lips. She saw her beautiful, trimmed fingernails elongate and sharpen into inkish black talons. Words finally escaped from her tortured mouth.

     "It appears that I'm becoming a late blooming Baccha," Eponin whispered painfully. Her mind was still her own, but not for much longer.

     "This isn't funny, Eponin!" Ephiny cried bitterly. "Artemis said I could only free five of my sisters with the ambrosia she gave me. I've got one bite left and I have to save that one for Siri!"

     "Then let me go," Eponin wheezed. She sat up and hooked her taloned fingers beneath her twitching chest armor. The insane lust was building inside her, threatening to erupt -- and then it suddenly exploded outward and Eponin ripped her leather armor off, exposing her swollen, chalky-white breasts to the blazing noon sun. She growled like a trapped animal and grabbed Ephiny. "I'm losing control. You have to knock me out hard so I won't remember anything. Do it and get out of here -- one of the patrol groups will be along soon. I will ... ," Eponin's mouth twisted upward into an unwanted evil smile, " .... come back with them."

     "But you will be a full-fledged Baccha by then," Ephiny finished. When Eponin didn't reply, but merely stared at her mindlessly, she knew her friend's mind had finally been conquered.

     "There's nothing wrong with becoming another follower for milord, Bacchus," Eponin cooed deliriously.

     "You don't know what you're saying," Ephiny replied calmly. She pulled her arm back, curled her taloned hand into a fist, and slammed forward with all of her power. Her rock-hard fist slammed into Eponin's unsuspecting face and the warrior fell backwards, unconscious. "Forgive me, my friend," Ephiny whispered.

     "What, what happened?" a weak, wavering voice asked.

     Ephiny whirled at the unexpected voice before realizing that it was Thraso. "You managed to transform Eponin into a bloodsucker before I could free you from Bacchus' mental domination, that's what," Ephiny spat.

     Thraso shakily climbed to her feet and weaved her way over to her sister's unconscious, half-naked chalky-white body and shuddered. "I didn't realize what my attack would do to her. I, I regret my actions now -- I didn't want to change Eponin into a Baccha."

     "I know you didn't," Ephiny replied dejectedly. "Gabrielle, Xena and Solari said the same exact thing -- I was just hoping that your scratch wouldn't have such a profound effect on Eponin."

     "Unfortunately, it did."

     "Let's get moving -- I don't want to be around when Eponin wakes up. Memory or no memory, the first thing she's going to want is blood," Ephiny explained. "And I used up our supply during my attempt to keep you distracted long enough to bite you."

* * *

     Diana pushed aside the guards that Solari had assigned to protect Velasca in the Queen's Lodge and stalked up to the foot of her throne. Diana's chalky white face was flushed with what appeared to be rage. "My queen, I have received distressing news from Electra's patrol group ... ,"

     "I already know about it," Velasca whispered angrily. "Electra told me herself about twenty minutes ago about stumbling upon the remains of Antiope's patrol group -- or, rather, what was left of them."

     "This is a provocation! I knew those damn peasant Bacchae were jealous of our nation's bond with Bacchus, but now they've stepped across the line," Diana hissed. "I say we strike now and ... ,"

     Velasca held her taloned hand up, silencing her ranting lieutenant. "It wasn't Eribas, Caria or any of their followers who did this," she intoned imperiously. "This act of war was done by those marauding Thracians!"

     "But how? We haven't made any obvious moves against them and we haven't strengthened our border defenses along the Thracian frontier," Diana said, exasperated. "They have no reason to suspect an attack from us -- we've hidden our plans from them too well."

     "Bring Xena and her lieutenants to me," Velasca sniffed. "The Thracians have discovered her plans and compromised them -- she will have to move out immediately before the Thracians can organize any further!"

     Diana shook her head. "It's too late to alter Xena's war plans -- her forces are scheduled to move out tomorrow at the crack of dawn ... not a moment sooner! That's when the last of the women from the outer Amazon territories will arrive! She can't effectively control any newly-acquired territory and peoples with only half of her projected strength present!" A brief pause. "Even supernatural soldiers have their limits."

     Velasca bared her fangs and hissed, "Don't you dare to criticize the warrior princess! She's one of your ablest sisters and I'm sure she's had carefully calculated timetables turned into chaos before." She paused dramatically, then added, "She will adjust her timing accordingly ... and with the likes of Ephiny, Solari, Gabrielle and Thraso at her command, that shouldn't be too difficult."

     Confusion clouded Diana's mind. "My Queen, I wasn't criticizing Xena! You were the ... ,"

     "Yes you were!" Velasca rumbled ominously. The murderous look in her eyes conveyed to Diana just how much she suddenly, and inexplicably, felt for Xena.

     Diana knew that she had crossed some invisible line and dared not push Velasca any further. Bacchus knows what she does to those who question her judgment. So she simply nodded mutely and left the lodge to inform Xena that her presence was required by the Queen. And to warn her and the others about Velasca's peculiar mood swings.

* * *
Continued in Part II

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