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If you’re sticking with it this far, that must mean you like it, which I think is pretty cool. The names and back story from X:WP aren’t mine, but Delta the Deluded Amazon is.
For those of you who may be stumbling across it for the first time, this story probably rates a strong PG-13 or a mild R in terms of violence and language. There’s no sex, though, and Xena and Gabby just have that boring ol’ sisterly bond thing going on.
Blah, blah, blah. On with the story.
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Delta just stared, reeling.
Velaska was here. It had worked. It had worked!
Peals of laughter started forming from deep inside her. Delta hugged herself, all but jumping up and down. Velaska arched an eyebrow, but seemed only mildly amused at the girl’s jubilance.
Suddenly remembering herself, Delta struggled to calm down. "Forgive me, my queen. I wasn’t expecting you."
"Now how can that be, when you are the one who set about freeing me?" Velaska asked, the smile never leaving her face.
Delta’s exuberance faded. "I thought I failed, my queen. When I went to the gorge yesterday and —"
"Ah, yes." Velaska said, waving her into silence. "It took me awhile to break free after you woke me. Perhaps the delay was mentioned in the spell?"
Delta shook her head, confused. "No, my queen. There was nothing of the sort indicated. The summoning was to be nearly instantaneous."
"Really? How odd!" Velaska exclaimed, coming to stand directly before Delta. "Perhaps there was something you overlooked, mm? Some element of the spell you omitted?" She looked down expectantly at Delta, like a schoolteacher awaiting an answer from her student.
"Nothing at all, my queen!" Delta assured her. "I read over the text so many times before the working! I prepared everything in advance, so there would be no errors! I made certain I understood every last part..." her voice trailed away as a horrible thought occurred to her.
"What is it, Delta?" Velaska asked, her smile finally giving way to a look of concern. "You’ve gone pale."
Swallowing hard, Delta regarded her with wide green eyes. "The blood offering." she said weakly.
"What about it?"
"I — I didn’t know exactly how it should be done. The text wasn’t specific. That was the only thing I wasn’t sure of."
"What was called for in the text?"
"It said, ‘Shed the lifeblood of a believer with a blessed blade’." Delta quoted.
"And did you use a blessed blade, Delta?"
"Oh, yes, my queen! My own dagger, blessed by a priestess of Artemis for the hunt."
"I see." Velaska’s voice was perfectly calm. "What did you do?"
Delta held up her hands, palms out, displaying the thin, pale scars. "I used my own blood. I thought it would be the most fitting."
Velaska took the girl’s hands, running her thumbs over the scars, caressing them lightly. "Delta," she sighed.
"Yes, my queen?" There was eagerness in her voice.
"You freed me from my prison. You let me back into the world. My world. I am so grateful for that. I should find a way to thank you, don’t you think?"
Delta ducked her head humbly. "I didn’t do it for thanks, my queen. I did it out of loyalty."
"Loyalty to your queen," Velaska said softly, still stroking her thumbs over the girl’s palms.
"And to my goddess." Delta added.
"To your goddess." Velaska dropped Delta’s hands and reached out to grasp her chin gently. "Delta, I’m going to tell you a secret." She leaned in close, putting her mouth next to the girl’s ear. "The blood offering the ritual called for," she whispered, as if revealing some girlish confidence at a slumber party, "was a not a few drops from the conjurer."
"It wasn’t?" Delta asked, uncertainty making her voice tremble just a little.
"No, no, my dear, it wasn’t." Velaska’s grasp on her chin slid towards her throat. Delta tensed, and Velaska felt the first currents of fear in the girl’s tightening muscles. "Would you like me to tell you what it was?" she went on, increasing the pressure on Delta’s throat ever so slightly.
"Hush." Velaska chided. Never loosening her hold on Delta’s neck, she reached up with the index finger of her other hand to tap the end of the girl’s nose, emphasizing her words. "It was a_human_sacrifice_Delta. The lifeblood of a believer. Do you understand?"
Delta’s eyes got even wider. Velaska had the amusing notion that they might pop right out of their sockets. She let go of Delta’s throat and walked behind her, putting both hands on her shoulders. She leaned in close again.
"Would you like me to tell you another secret?" she whispered. "I’m not a goddess anymore. I had to give up my powers to be free, because there wasn’t enough blood spilled to raise a god."
"Hush!" Velaska hissed, giving Delta a little shake. "It’s alright, though. Really. I was upset at first, but it’s alright."
Delta felt her heart hammering in her chest. This was not what she had planned for.
"I hope you’re not disappointed. I know you wanted a goddess to champion your cause. And it is a great cause, Delta. I’m still going to help you. We will reshape the Amazon Nation. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?"
"Y-Yes, my queen."
"Wonderful!" Velaska cried. She laughed then, but there was an edge to the sound, almost like hysteria. "I may be less than a god, but I am more than a mortal. Artemis told me that. Well, not exactly that, but I’m learning. I’m learning what she meant."
A sudden flapping sound made Delta jump. She looked down at the book. It sat open at her feet, and the pages were fluttering in the wind. When had the wind gotten so strong?
"I have one more secret." Velaska continued, drawing Delta’s attention back. "Can you keep it if I tell you?" Her voice sounded different. Distorted. Something about it made the skin on the back of Delta’s neck crawl.
"I will keep it, my queen." she made herself say.
"I’m going to tell you what I really am. What you made me with your spell. I’ll even show you, if you promise to keep the secret. Do you promise?"
"I promise." Delta croaked. She felt nauseous.
The hands left her shoulders. "Take a look then, as long as you promise."
This is wrong. All wrong. But Velaska was her rightful queen. No matter what. Delta turned around.
And she screamed.
"Gaia, it’s hot." Gabrielle complained, reaching back to lift her hair off her neck. "I’d do anything for some of that rain we had a few days ago."
"Don’t wish for it while we’re on the road." Xena cautioned. "Traveling in the rain is not exactly enjoyable."
"You call this enjoyable?" Autolycus scoffed with a vague gesture that Xena knew was intended to indicate the weather.
"It’s preferable to trekking around flooded rivers and mudslides, yes."
"She’s out of her mind. I would welcome a little flooding right about now." Autolycus groaned.
"No, she’s right. It’s uncomfortable, but it could be worse." Gabrielle defended.
They were on foot, leading the horses. The weather had become unpleasantly hot and dry, almost drought-like. The farther north they went, the browner the grass was, the thinner the leaves on the trees. The last couple of nights Xena’s hunting hadn’t found them anything more than a couple of skinny rabbits. Droughts were not uncommon, but it troubled Xena. Here lately, of course, many things troubled her. Not the least of which was the sudden absence of her chilling dreams.
They were well into Amazon land now. They’d be at Ephiny’s by midday tomorrow. Gabrielle had offered to explain the situation. She’d expected an argument, but Xena had actually thought it a wise idea, given the circumstances. Xena and Autolycus would both be outsiders among the Amazons, accepted only because they were Gabrielle’s family in every aspect but blood. There was a time when Xena was accepted as an ally on her own terms, but given the events of the previous year, she wasn’t willing to assume that was still the case. Oh, she had made her peace with Ephiny, but things would never be the same between them.
There was no changing the past, in any event. Worrying about such things now was a waste of energy.
By early evening, all three of them were exhausted, and as soon as Xena found them a campsite they stopped for the day. Nearby was a small lake fed by a river coming down from the mountains. After the gear was unpacked, Gabrielle wandered over to the water’s edge. She found a broad, flat rock jutting out from the bank and sat down, removing her boots. As she lowered her tired feet into the water, a sharp, sour odor made her wrinkle her nose distastefully.
Is that the water? she wondered. She glanced down at the tiny crests, lapping gently at the rock. There was plenty of movement in the lake; it shouldn’t be stagnated. Then again, that wasn’t really what it smelled like. There was none of the decaying, earthy smell that came from stagnant water. This odor practically burned her nose.
Oh well, she hadn’t planned on going swimming, and she didn’t have to drink the water. She was just going to dip her feet in. After a while, she laid down on her side and closed her eyes, trailing her fingers in the water. It was nice and quiet here, and she could take a moment to unwind.
The small -PLOP- sound of something breaking the surface of the water made her open her eyes, and something slimy brushed her lax fingers. She withdrew her hand quickly and peered over the edge of her perch. "Oh, uck!" she exclaimed when she saw the dead fish floating below. It must have been stuck underneath something below the water and had just now come loose. Grimacing, Gabrielle reached down and grabbed the fish by the tail. "I don’t need the company right now, but thanks anyway." she told the slippery little corpse, and flung it away from the rock, back out into the lake. She watched it hit with a splash. Then her eyes widened as they swept over the shining surface of the water. Gabrielle rose to her feet, backing away from the edge, revolted.
With a sound like pebbles dropping into a puddle, dozens of other shapes surfaced out on the lake, all just as dead as the fish that had popped up right under her nose.
Snatching up her boots, Gabrielle whirled and ran. "Xena!" she called shrilly. "Xena!"
Autolycus knelt by a small pyramid of dry wood, striking a piece of flint against the edge of his dagger. His hands were positioned carefully low over the wood so no sparks would fly beyond the ring of sand around the pit. It wouldn’t take long to ignite the countryside in weather this dry.
That was assuming he could even get any sparks, of course. So far his attempts had been unsuccessful. He cursed under his breath and took a moment to shake out a cramp forming in his hand.
Xena sat opposite him, leaning back on her hands, watching in amusement. "Do you need some help with that?" she asked lightly. Autolycus lifted his eyes just enough to glare at her. "Okay, fine. Just thought I’d offer."
He was so irritated that when he went to strike this time, he missed completely and nicked his thumb on the blade. He cursed again, significantly louder than previously, dropping both the dagger and the flint, and Xena lost it. She fell back, laughing until tears blurred her vision.
"You think that’s funny?" Autolycus demanded indignantly.
"No," Xena gasped out, still in hysterics. The insulted thief stuck the tip of his injured thumb into his mouth, and Xena curled up in the grip of fresh laughter. "I wish...you could...the look on your face..." she gave up. She could hardly breathe, much less speak.
"I’m glad you find me so entertaining." Autolycus snapped, struggling to keep his face straight. "I hope you hyperventilate."
Catching her breath, Xena sat up again, wiping her eyes. "Maybe I should start the fire. I’d hate to see you do any permanent damage to those ‘magic’ hands."
Something in her tone made Autolycus give her a searching look, but the calm mask was settling back into place, covering whatever he thought he might see in her face.
"Speaking of which," Xena went on, "come over here and let me take a look at that cut."
"It’s barely a scratch." he said, holding up his thumb.
"Not that one. On your palm. The one I gave you."
"You say it like you meant to do it." he said, sitting down in front of her. "It was an accident, Xena."
"A hell of a lot that would have been worth if I’d killed you." she retorted. She unwrapped the bandages around his hand and examined the wound. "It’s healing well. Does it hurt?" she asked, tracing the cut with a feather-light touch.
"No." Autolycus replied. "But it’s sweet of you to worry." He curled his fingers around hers, expecting her to pull her hand free and tell him to quit fooling around. She didn’t.
This is where you get up, a voice inside reminded her. This is where you get up and walk away. If he looks too close he’ll see the monster. He’ll see everything. Is that what you want?
And a second voice inside of her said, Yes.
"Xena! Xena!" Gabrielle’s cries pierced the mist in her head, and at once she was on her feet, alert.
"Gabrielle!" She started towards the sound of the girl’s voice. Gabrielle had been by the lake. Xena could see her running towards the camp barefoot, her boots in her hand. Never hesitating, Xena took off to meet her.
"Gabrielle, what’s wrong?" Xena asked, catching Gabrielle’s shoulders and steadying her.
Gabrielle was breathless. She pointed behind her.
"The lake." she panted. "The fish."
"What about them?"
"They’re dead. Poisoned, I think."
Xena’s eyes widened, and she released Gabrielle, jogging swiftly to the lake. Her companions followed. Xena stopped short when she reached the water’s edge, shocked.
Dead fish floated on the water as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of them. Xena doubted if there were any left alive in the entire lake.
"Ugh, what’s that smell?" Autolycus wondered aloud. "That’s not the fish."
"No, it’s what killed them." Xena replied grimly, kneeling on the bank. "It’s sulfur."
"It must be a hell of a lot to stink like that." Autolycus mused. Xena nodded in agreement.
"The whole lake must be saturated with it."
"How did it get there?" Gabrielle asked.
"There are sulfur springs that would give off a smell this strong," Xena said thoughtfully, swishing a hand through the water. "But the water would be warm if a spring had opened up. The source must be upriver somewhere, in the mountains."
"What do you think the source is?" An unpleasant suspicion was gnawing at Gabrielle’s stomach.
"I’m not sure." Xena admitted. "But it must be subterranean, something that’s releasing sulfur into the water underground." She surveyed the lake. "From the look of things it happened recently."
"What happened recently?" Autolycus asked, not sure where this was going but plenty sure he wasn’t going to like it.
"An earthquake. Volcanic activity. Whatever the cause was."
Gabrielle bit her lip. "I’m having a bad thought, Xena."
"So am I." Xena agreed, looking up towards the wooded foothills.
There was a wrongness to this place. The lake and the drought were part of it, but it was more than that. It was in the air, prickling along her skin, breathing down her neck. It felt like walking into an ambush, knowing it was lying ahead somewhere, but unsure when it would come. Xena had felt this way that night in the inn, staring out into the rain. But today, here, it was stronger. There was an enemy waiting for them.
Xena recalled something she used to tell her troops when preparing them for battle. A patient enemy is the worst kind of foe. They will not be rushed. They will not let you force their hand. They will take all the time in the world to make ready for your attack. A patient enemy will wait a fortnight and kill you in a heartbeat.
The land was holding its breath. Waiting.
"Let’s get back to the camp." Xena said. "And no one leaves the sight of the others. Not even for a little while."
The wind blew hot and dry, stealing the tears from her face. All around her, flames licked at the night sky. The roar of the fires was the only sound.
Xena walked past the funeral pyres. There were so many. Gabrielle. Autolycus. Ephiny. And more. Too many to count. Tonight, the Amazon Nation burned.
Xena closed her eyes against the wind and added her mournful dirge to the music of the fires. She sang for her fallen loves, for the slaughtered warrior women, and for herself. She was as dead as they were. The only difference was that she still breathed. That was her punishment for failure.
Velaska’s laughter cut into the sad spell of the dirge like a dull razor. "I told you that you would watch them die, didn’t I?" She stepped out from behind one of the pyres. Xena couldn’t see her face. The shadows danced over it, concealing her. "Well, don’t worry, Xena. I’ve come to make sure the three of you are together again."
Xena didn’t move as Velaska came towards her. She didn’t draw her sword. She didn’t even flinch when Velaska wrapped her hands around her throat.
"You all deserve each other. You belong together."
Her hands tightened, and Xena heard her neck start to snap.
"You’ve caused me enough trouble for one lifetime."
Something was wrong with her face. Xena couldn’t make it out.
"Give my regards to your friends."
Her hands constricted, and Xena jerked once in her grip —
"No!" Xena shouted, clutching at her throat. She caught herself then, remembering where she was, and checked quickly to see if she had disturbed Gabrielle or Autolycus. They were both sleeping soundly.
She found her waterskin and took a long swig. One image stuck in her mind from the dream. The shadows playing over Velaska’s features, masking her.
"She was faceless." Xena murmured thoughtfully. She’d seen the Amazon clear as crystal in her other dreams. Why not this time?
Think about it tomorrow, she told herself, and settled back in to try to sleep.
This was almost enough to make her nostalgic for Ares’ brand of trouble. It was so much simpler.
Velaska reclined idly on one elbow, running her fingers through her long hair. She sat on one of the cliffs overlooking the gorge, enjoying the night air.
Delta was back in the village on Velaska’s command. It was hilarious how that girl simply delighted in taking orders. She’d be a useful little thing in time. Granted, she’d botched up rather badly, but that was when she’d been trying to manage things on her own. Not very bright, that one. From here on out, Velaska planned to do the thinking. That would avoid any future mishaps.
Delta wanted Velaska to rule the Amazon Nation; bring back the old ways. The poor child didn’t realize the Amazon Nation was already dead. In due time she’d understand. Velaska would see to that. But for now, Delta could keep her daydreams. Promise a dog a bone and it’s much easier to train.
Velaska had daydreams of her own. Lovely ones full of bloodshed and terrorism.
She’d probably start with Ephiny. Or better yet that little half-breed brat of hers. The idea of killing a child was mildly distasteful, but then again, little centaurs grew up to be big centaurs. Like the big centaurs across the river. It shouldn’t take her long to make them an endangered species.
Then there was Xena. That should be entertaining. Not every kill need be an easy one. And that thief. She didn’t really remember his name, but he’d pissed her off enough that she was fairly certain she’d go ahead and kill him, too. Well, she’d kill him eventually. There was no reason she couldn’t have some fun first.
Which brought her to Gabrielle. Gabrielle she would save for last. She wanted to savor the moment she ripped the little usurper’s heart from her chest.
"So much to do." Velaska sighed. "So much to plan for. And the company will be here before long."
She’d known they were coming quite a while ago. At first it had just been something troublesome in the wind from the southwest, but now she could smell them. They were very close. No, it wouldn’t be long at all.
Come see me, Gabrielle. I’m waiting for you.
Continues in Part 5
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