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by Quest

The breath of life fluttered in my chest for the first time, as I heard the ringing of hammer on anvil fade away into the darkness. "Arise, warrior. I have wrought well for my brother, in form and feature you are perfect. Arise, so that you may meet your master."

His voice was rough, deepened by breathing smoke, textured like a granite boulder. When I opened my eyes, I saw him. I had no basis for comparison, to me, he was beautiful. It was only later that I would find out that others thought him ugly. But at that moment, I worshipped him. For I knew that he had made me. For him, I would do anything. I rose.

He gave me instructions then, my god. Told me to stand in the corner, poised just so, and wait. I did so, content. I had no concept of the passage of time. I waited, I know not how long. But eventually, my god returned, bringing with him another being. I listened to them speak, for I had not been instructed not to.

"There she is, Ares. Just as you specified. The Warrior Princess, down to the last detail."

The being Ares smiled. "Yes, she is perfect. You've out done yourself Hephy. I'm impressed."

My god spoke again. How I marveled at his voice. "Brother, I don't know what you plan to do with her. I don't want to know. But don't you think this is just a bit unhealthy? I mean, the real one turned you down, and now you're obsessing enough to want living statuary? . . ."

Ares laughed, "No, I'm not loosing my mind, brother. I don't want a lifelike copy of Xena to take back to Olympus as a plaything. If I needed a sex toy, I could get something a bit less . . . cold. No, I have other plans for your metal marvel here. But that does not concern you, really. Come, let's go have a drink."

Then they left. I stood in my corner and pondered. The being Ares did not seem to have the proper respect for my god. In fact, I thought I had heard derision in his voice. This angered me. Worse yet, it appeared that I had been made for him. I wondered what he meant to do with me. A horrible thought crossed my mind, and I could not rid myself of it. He meant to take me away. Away from my god, whom he did not love.

Later, and later still, they returned once more. This time my god addressed me. "Go with Ares. He is your new master. Obey him as you would me, in all things."

It was, then, as I had feared. Greatly daring, I spoke my first words. They seemed to come naturally. "Lord, will I see you again, when my task is finished?"

I think I surprised him by speaking. He furrowed his brow, and waved a dismissive hand. "No. You belong to Ares now. You will see me no more."

Despair washed over me, a black tide. But soon enough it gave way to anger. Anger at Ares, that he should tear me away so harshly. But worse still, anger at Him, that he should so easily dismiss me. My sacrilege shocked me to silence. How could I be angry at Him? And yet, I could not shake the feeling that I had been betrayed. I bowed my head, and when I looked up, we were no longer in familiar surroundings. Ares stared at me thoughtfully.

"What shall we call you, my pretty trinket? A bronze copy of my favorite warlord, Hephaestus did a remarkable job. If you weren't so shiny, I could almost mistake you for the real thing."

"But master, I am real."

Ares shook his head, laughing. "No, you're but a pale imitation of a great warrior. Here, let me show you. . . " He waved his hand, and images began to flash before my eyes. A woman warrior fought, and lived, and almost died. By the time the images ceased, I knew everything there was to know about this princess. Her humble origins, her rise to power, her redemption, her deep friendship with the bard. All in all, she seemed a noble character. And I was pleased to be a copy of so great a warrior. My god had chosen a good model.

I think Ares had an ulterior motive for showing me those pictures as well. I had a much better understanding of human society now, and I thought I could copy the warrior's fighting style fairly exactly as well. I felt well prepared. For what, I did not know, but I was sure he would enlighten me soon. He seemed the impatient type. But I would have to wait at least a while longer, as he was no where to be seen. Perhaps he had other business, and left me to be occupied by his animated history. . .

After a while, I began to study the room. A sumptuous bed, lavish furnishings.... I recognized it from one of Xena's encounters with Ares. Along one wall there was a full length mirror, and I wandered over to stand in front of it, curious to see how I compared to my role model. Ares was right, my god had wrought well. In stature and detail, I copied the Warrior Princess exactly. There were her cheekbones, her piercing eyes... But I was made entirely of metal.

A pale bronze my skin, my hair was darker, tarnished black. My armor was removable, I wondered at it's suppleness. My eyes, I wondered how he had achieved that shade of blue . . . a glaze perhaps? Enamel. It was fruitless to wonder. He was a master craftsman. THE master. What mattered was that I lived. Breathed. Moved. That proved his godhood. None other could have done so well.

I put my armor back on and returned to my previous post, to wait. Somehow, I didn't want Ares to know that I had been curious. Of course, he might be watching me. But then, he might not. I did not trust him.

Finally he returned, and beckoned me to follow him. I did, and we stepped through a door that lead to nothing. I blinked, and we stood in a green field. It was the first time I had seen the light of day. I decided that I liked it.

Ares turned to face me, and waved his hand at the wide world. "Well, here it is. Your new home, reality. Don't get too used to it, I hope you won't have to be here for long. After all, I only have one job for you, and it shouldn't take you long."

I nodded, listening intently. He paused, for dramatic effect I think, and then went on. "I've decided what to call you, my little poison arrow. Nightshade shall be your name, appropriate, don't you think, for a darker ghost like yourself?"

He preened at his cleverness, and I shrugged: it really didn't matter to me what he called me. He pouted, but then seemed to brighten. "Well, I'm sure Xena will get the joke, anyway. Now here's what I want you to do. Find Xena and her bratty sidekick, and kill the girl. Without her, Xena has nothing to anchor her to her goodness, and I'll get my favorite warlord back. So simple, really. I don't know why I didn't think of it before . . ."

With that, my master vanished from view, leaving me standing in the middle of the field, alone.


I had been alone before, but this was different. Standing in that wide field, the wind blowing across my face, I was truly on my own. I had been given a task, and left to accomplish it. This was what I was made for. I should be exultant.

I was not.

My god had given me into the hands of one who could not be trusted. And then, that one had sent me to destroy the very being I was modeled on. To crush her soul, her fighting spirit, by killing the one she loved.

This was wrong.

I wonder if my god meant for me to know right from wrong. Surely he must have. How could I possess a capacity that he did not include in me? But, if he knew, then did he not also understand that I might have doubts? How could he release me to Ares without further guidance? A small voice whispered inside me, "But he did. He told you to obey this man. This is where your duty lies." I shook my head, torn.

I must know.

But there were no answers. My god did not call out to me from his mountain. There was only the breeze, and the silence.

Finally I set out, determined to find Xena and her companion. I was no closer to the answers I desperately needed, but perhaps if I could find them, watch them, I would know. Perhaps.

At any rate, I didn't know what else to do.

Laughing brightly, Gabrielle splashed handfuls of water at Xena, fending off a playful grab.

"Oh no you don't, warrior princess! I'm on to your wicked ways."

Lunging through the spray, Xena grabbed the bard around the waist, swinging her around.

"Really? I thought I had deceived you into believing that my intentions were pure . . ." Her voice was a throaty growl that made Gabrielle's breath catch in her throat. Things were just starting to look interesting when Xena stiffened, backing away and scanning the treeline warily.

"What is it?" Gabrielle inquired, a slight frown creasing her brow.

"I don't know." The warrior paused, still alert for danger, and then moved towards shore. "Stay here." she ordered. With that, she was out of the water, into her leather gambeson, and off into the trees before Gabrielle could even make it to shore.

Sighing, she dried off and got dressed, sitting down in front of the fire to wait.

"I hate it when she gets cryptic on me."

Perched on a high rocky outcropping, I watched as the warrior and her companion set up camp, set their dinner to cooking, and stripped down to swim in the small pond below.

In some ways, my god had made me superior to the original. Even from here, I could easily hear what they were saying. There was no need to get any closer to observe. And observe I must, if I was to carry out my orders. Or... if I was not.

From all I knew about the warrior, I could see that I would never get to Gabrielle while she was around. Though I might be able to beat her in battle, I could never do so without killing her, and killing her was not what Ares had in mind. If nothing else, she would shelter Gabrielle with her body, forcing me to strike through her to get to my target. This was unacceptable.

I could also attempt a long distance strike, with the chackram my god had given me. But I did not doubt that Xena would intercept it before it reached it's target.

No, my only alternative was stealth, and treachery. I rebelled against this thought, but I could see no other way.

Still, this gave me an excuse to watch, and wait. And perhaps, to learn.

So I watched as they played in the water, mock fighting and dunking one another. I quickly determined that this was not, in fact, some sort of altercation, but rather, both seemed to be enjoying it immensely. I wondered why.

And then, in the middle of their mock battle, they embraced. I was confused, but paid close attention. After all, the parts I least understood were the most likely to provide valuable insight. They traded words that seemed to mean the opposite of what was said, and pressed close together.

My heart lurched, and I experienced the strangest sensation.

Anticipation, and a surge of something else. . . jealousy.

Confused, I backed away from the ledge, trying to figure out what was happening to me. As I moved, my chackram clanked lightly against a stone outcropping, ringing lightly.

Instantly Xena became alert. Her hearing must be almost as keen as mine after all, to pick up so soft a sound, from so great a distance. I marveled at her ability.

And then she was out of the water and running into the trees. I had a feeling that I knew which direction she was coming.

She was headed right for me.

For a moment that seemed to last an eternity, I panicked. I was not prepared to meet Xena yet, not in any way. I froze, my mind running over possible solutions. Finally I moved, making my quite way up among the rocks. I climbed further on the hill, sticking to the stones so that I would leave no trace of my presence. I had to hide, and I had to do so quickly.

Reaching the pinnacle of the hill, I started down the other side. I couldn't hear her coming, but I had no doubt that she was right behind me. Finally I found a crevice wide enough to wedge myself into. I clawed my way back into the darkness, as silently as I could. Then I became perfectly still, neither breath, nor movement, nor even a heartbeat to betray me.

Mere moments later, she passed my hiding place, searching. She knew someone was up here, but fortunately she had not crested the hill in time to see me hide. I waited, and waited. Sure enough, almost an hour later, I heard her move again. She had been hoping to convince me that she'd left, patient as a stone. Only the fact that I was made of metal enabled me to out last her.

My respect moved up another notch. She was magnificent. . .

Finally she moved on past, but I knew that she would be even more alert now than before. I waited for another hour before stirring from my hiding place. Then I circled around, unwilling to return to my former vantage.

As the setting sun set the surface of the lake awash with molten gold, I found another hiding place from which to observe the Warrior and her friend. They were sitting at their campfire, eating, talking, watching. Every line of Xena's body screamed tension, and her sword sat at her side, sharp and ready. I wondered if I should fear it.

When they finally prepared for bed, Xena propped herself up against a tree, covered by a blanket, sword ready at her side. She obviously did not intend to sleep that night. Gabrielle, sighing, pulled her blankets over next to the warrior, laying her head in Xena's lap. Xena stroked her hair absently, watching the faceless darkness. I felt her eyes on me, and wondered if she could feel me watching her....

I followed them for a week or more, learning their routine, watching them together. Along they way they conquered warlords, almost casually; freed villages; moving through a world of danger like they were dancing. And I, their shadow...

Then, one day, Ares came to me as I watched. I put him off, telling him my doubts about taking Xena without killing her. He doubted I could beat her at all. Which only proved my point, I argued... that I had to wait until she left Gabrielle alone. He offered to help. I turned him down . . . not that it mattered. I don't think he was really listening to me talk . . . he was busy with thoughts of his own. He left me with instructions to watch carefully, for he would soon see that Xena was occupied with troubles of her own.

I sighed, and settled in to wait.

The next morning, some foolish looking man clanked into their camp, yelling and scaring the wildlife for miles around. Absorbed in my own thoughts, I didn't pay close enough attention to follow the story he fed Xena, but then, it didn't really matter. He was there because that's where Ares wanted him to be, and the particulars were unimportant. Less than half an hour later Xena was saying her good-byes to the little bard, promising to return, dictating the particulars of where they were to meet . . . all so simple and clear cut. I envied them their plans, their history, their hope. . .

I waited until Xena had been gone for a couple of hours before I moved in closer to the bard. Alone, she walked with staff in hand, heading for the meeting place that Xena had specified.

I was close enough to hear her breath, to hear her heart beat. That same heart that I was created to still. I caressed my chackram, holding it gently, contemplating the angle of the throw. And yet, even as I raised my arm, I knew that I could not. Sighing, I hung the chackram back on my belt.

"Gabrielle . . ." I called to her. She started in confusion at my voice, at Xena's voice. I raised my hands in that universal gesture of peace, and stepped from my concealing trees. Spinning to face me, she raised her staff in defense.

"Gabrielle, don't be afraid. I mean you no harm. I . . . I wanted to speak to you, just once . . . and to offer a warning."

Tilting her head to one side, she looked at me, evaluating. "Who are you?"

"My name, my name is Nightshade. I was made, by Hephaestus, as a gift for Ares. And Ares wanted me for only one purpose. . . To kill you."

It was obvious to her that I had no intention of killing her, so she followed up with the logical question : "BUT?"

I shook my head. "I do not know. He can not have made a mistake in my making. He is a god, after all. But I find that I can not, after all, fulfill my function. I am certain I will be punished for my disobedience, perhaps destroyed. But it seemed that you should know that a god is out to kill you. To destroy Xena's soul. Be careful, Gabrielle."

She set her staff down, walking up to me, close enough that I could smell wildflowers in her hair. Laying a gentle hand on my cheek, she gazed into my eyes.

"So very like her, you are amazing. The metal of your skin is soft, and smooth. . . What an astounding piece of work. Tell me, why are you defying Ares?"

I shuddered beneath her touch, closing my eyes and breathing deep to control the fluttering in my chest. "Because, I think he wrought too well after all. I am like Xena. I look like her, I walk like her, I fight like her . . . I love, like her." That last came out in a strained whisper, and I backed away from Gabrielle even as she drew in a deep breath. Not quite of surprise, for I think she knew the answer even before she asked . . . but of *something*, something else which I could not identify.

Before either of us could speak again, a sound, as of the rumble of distant hooves, shook the earth. It built and built, ending in a crash like a thousand swords crashing against shields in the brilliant morning. Even I flinched. When I looked about again, the god of war stood before me in all his untamed glory, burning with fury.

"HOW DARE YOU DEFY ME?? " He roared.

I stood unflinching, protecting Gabrielle from the full glare of his power by keeping her in my shadow. I was made of sterner stuff than she, who would have been consumed at once. . .

"I dare."

He seethed with anger, stalking towards me like a hunting cat. And as he moved, I noticed that he was just as careful as I to keep Gabrielle out of harms way. Something about this struck me as curious, tho' it took me a moment to make the connection. As he approached, ever closer, I readied my only defense . . . words.

"If you wanted her dead, O' mighty one, tell me . . . why didn't you just kill her yourself?"

He paused, and I could see the force of his anger shift focus, away from me. "Because, you useless hunk of scrap metal, she is protected. I cannot touch her, directly. That was what you were for, and you have failed me! " Now the force of his will bent on me again, and I could feel the metal of my skin begin to boil away.

"Kill her now," he snapped, "and I will let you live. Fail . . . and you will find that no one fails me twice!"

I stood my ground, wincing as droplets of liquid metal formed on my face and rolled down to drip, sizzling, into the grass.


He roared in fury, and the sound shook me like an earthquake. Then, out of no where, a silvery laugh echoed across the clearing, and Ares spun away from me, though the heat of his anger did not abate.

"Aphrodite! You . . ."

The goddess laughed again, taking great joy in seeing her brother left speechless. "You twit, you don't think I'd go to the trouble of protecting the little blabbermouth, just to let you kill her off so easily, now did you? I mean, puh-leease..."

He shook his head, "But how?"

"Oh, it was your own slimy little trick that undid you. You specifically told Hephy to give your robot a free will. He had to, didn't he? That was the only way you could get around my protections. But you forgot something, didn't you?"

The god of war ground his teeth in frustration.

"" He spat out the last word as though it tasted of acid.

She smiled sweetly. "Duh. So it was no trouble at all for me to stir the pot a little, and wham-o, your little toy has a bit more free will than you wanted. You can't have it both ways, big boy. Either it's a weapon, or a person . . . but not both."

And with that, she raised her hand in the air, obviously intending to pull a disappearing act. At the last moment, tho', just as she was beginning to fade away, she threw out one last comment.

"Love can always conquer war, big brother. Otherwise we'd have total chaos. You're welcome to try to prove me wrong, but you're going to have to do it the old fashioned way. I won't let you disturb the balance just to get that cute babe back into the sack . . . go find another dark haired beauty to torture, that one's taken."

And then she was gone. And Ares, angrier than ever, needed someone to take his frustrations out on . . . As he turned back to me, the heat of his passion burned ever brighter. I could feel parts of myself slipping away, but I stood firm, knowing that if I moved, Gabrielle was dead.

Finally, releasing one last blast of hatred, he vanished, leaving a smoking hole in the sky where he'd stood.

Realizing that I was now the biggest threat to her, I toppled away from Gabrielle, burning the ground where I hit. She stood up, walking towards me, but unable to approach too closely lest she be burned.

"What has he done to you?" She whispered, tears in her eyes. My eyes were blurry too, but not from tears. In moments, I'd not be able to see at all. Glad that my last sight was of her, I pulled the last of my strength together to whisper,

"Don't worry, little bard. I don't feel any pain . . ." Darkness now, and my chest was tight, my throat constricted. "Go. . . to Xena. Love her, and keep her safe from darkness. My blessing on you both. Please, go. . ." And then the breath of life fluttered in my breast, one last time, and the tide of darkness washed over me.


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