Ch 3

Darkness drained the sky of color as stars splayed out overhead, making up for the loss with these sparkling gems as they emanated their own blazing white fires. Artemis caressed the earth with her presence, the moon high and bright as the stars. Though a day until the goddess reveals her glory through a full moon, the Amazons below rejoiced all the same as they praised her with dance, food, and a ceremonial fire. The Amazons took on the night's chill with no more garments than they had taken on the day, fore they had no need for warmth beside what the flames enveloped them with, as the dancers displayed their forms to their goddess. Marked in dark blue paint, each warrior had seemingly marked the other with swirls that trailed off and traced the contours of their legs, arms, and torso. Each had marks that emphasized their best features, some having marks under the muscles of their abdomen, some outline the jawlines and cheekbones they prided themselves with, and some marked their chest as they stood bare to the moon. Drums beat again, signaling the approach of the newly betrothed couple, the Champion allowing her Princess to hold onto her offered arm. The darker woman walked on with determination and purpose, playing her part perfectly as an honorary warrior at the service of her beloved. Though the dancers went on with their tribute to Artemis, the couple found that a good number of amazons stopped to stare on in awe at Gabrielle's new Champion, enough that it made the blonde uncomfortable. Xena reassured her with her grip though she looked onward towards the Queen, her gaze unwavering. Queen Melosa sat upon the same throne the ex-warlord had seen earlier that morning, though it now sat behind a long wooden table that held a grand feast of bread, cheese, wine, and even fruits, littering the table as if to merely provide the setting color. The centerpiece lay directly in front of the the amazon's leader: a wild boar, roasted with an apple placed in its mouth. The dark-haired Queen arose to meet her sister with nothing but an expectant look upon her face and everything around them stopped. Standing before Artemis' chosen, Xena bowed like a true gentleman,

"Gabrielle's Champion has graced us with the Princess' presence. Welcome sister." Xena rose so see a genuine exchange of smiles between the two amazons, pleased that Gabrielle did have a family here that truly loved her. The dark warrior then turned to face her beloved and bowed in reverence, kissing the blond's seemingly delicate hand.

Loosening their hold on one another hurt more than either thought it would as Xena released her hand, still bowing, though getting a good glimpse of her love's ripped stomach and smooth legs that her Princess' choice of dress did so kindly expose. Gabrielle wore the same leathers that the warrior attempted to shield her eyes from the first time she'd seen them: a dark brown doeskin bodice covered her chest, a short leather skirt with a beaded belt inlaid with silver holding it in place and allowing it to hang off her hips freely, and her hair braided on each side and clipped back into one. As the Amazon Princess made her way to her sister's side, Melosa took her in a loving embrace. Both members of royalty took their seats and the Queen addressed the Champion again, "Take my blessing, Xena of Amphipolis, and take your place beside your Princess." Xena bowed again graciously before she quickly made way for Gabrielle, Melosa now speaking to the crowd, "May the goddess bless us this night. May she take great joy in our offerings to her. Dance Amazons! Warriors show her the power you provide her! Praise be to Artemis!" The cries resonated off everything in sight, ringing in the new comer's ears, as the Amazons attempted to have the very moon receive their exclamations. Not much conversation went on during the feast as everyone sated their hunger, danced around the fire, sparred with fellow warriors, or placed offerings of food upon the altar dedicated to Artemis directly across from the Queen's seat on the other side of the center fire. As the night went on, rigid relations and formal tensions ebbed away with the free flowing wine. The Queen laughed along with her subjects as Xena finally got to witness her embrace them as her fellow sisters. Many of the dancers had found relief by refreshment. Those who had satisfied their hunger had moved out onto the dance floor to join those still remaining, slowing down the movements and the music's rhythms accommodating them. The ex-warlord found it all so intoxicating as the scene reminded her of the times after battle, after they had wrenched victory from the jaws of death itself, where she rewarded her men with wine and women. The thoughts brought about the visions of bloodshed and death her army had caused that now disgusted her. Soon distracted from her dark reverie, the Warrior Princess noticed a hand on her thigh, stroking farther upward as her beloved became bolder with each passing second. The excitement flooded through the dark warrior all too quickly. Though she loved being touched by Gabrielle, the indecency of her reaction might startle her if not those around her. Xena grasped the blonde's hand before it could reach her center. Giving her beloved a warning glare seemed to disappoint the smaller woman as much as it thrilled her. The pout Gabrielle gave at her Champion's thwarting her attempt to touch her nearly made the warrior laugh aloud. Settling for showing her amusement through a wry grin, Xena proceeded to lift her hand above the table, kissing it tenderly as she gave the blonde a subtle wink. Melosa glanced the couple's way only seconds before the ebony-haired woman raised the Princess' hand with her own. Clapping her hands swiftly to get her subject's attention, all stopped to look upon their Queen as she spoke.

"Gabrielle's Champion has requested a dance with our Princess." The Amazons cleared the floor as all eyes turned their sights to the Warrior Princess who had unknowingly given the signal that meant she was asking the Queen's permission to dance with her consort to be. In her confusion, Xena's body hesitated to move, glued to her seat by their scrutiny. Not wanting to be an embarrassment to her beloved, the ex-warlord arose, bowing deeply before the blonde and offering her hand. Xena had surprised her yet again, her actions making Gabrielle swear the warrior had always been an Amazon. Taking the hand offered her all too willingly and with a slight haste that nearly made the blonde trip over the leg of her chair, the skillful Champion lead her Princess to become everyone's source of entertainment. The Queen commanded the drums to take up their rhythms once more with a clap of her hands. Xena watched her beloved begin to dance around her as she swung her hips in an undulating motion, the blond placing a hand on each of her thighs and dragging them up the sides of her body, accentuating her curves, before finally allowing her hands to go up into and flip out her long, golden hair as she threw her head back as if beseeching Artemis to bless her with her eyes. Following the Princess' lead, the amazons rallied themselves for another round of frivolity of their own. The Warrior Princess soon learned that there were no learned steps to this style of dancing but that each individual sought to show off the best parts of their body such as Gabrielle surely did quite well. Summing up her assets quickly, the dark woman decided it best to utilize her strength as she took the blonde's hand and guided her into a twirl that brought the Princess within the safety of her arms. Pleasantly enough, the aspiring bard found her Champion using the blonde's own arms to bind her as they wrapped around the woman's smaller frame, her opposite hand left only able to place it in Xena's own. The ex-warlord allowed Gabrielle to feel that no force could release her until the warrior decided to let her go, making sure to hold her tight enough for her beloved to feel the power that trapped her but also gentle enough that she didn't cause Gabrielle distress. Though by the expressions playing across the face of the gorgeous creature positioned in her arms, Xena determined that the blonde welcomed a little discomfort. As the captor released her eager prisoner, she continued to lead her golden-haired goddess in the motions that were apparently second nature to the ex-warlord. Her desires for the bard she held, though prohibited there in the crowd of amazons, were reflected through the way the dark woman placed her partner's arm up and around her neck, Gabrielle's swaying of her hips earning the warrior's mirroring the motion in turn. The blonde still facing away from her consort to be, felt Xena place her hand atop her free one, spreading her fingers to match Gabrielle's much like they had in the hut. Though this time their palms didn't touch each other, the Warrior Princess soon revealed her intentions as she helped her love to feel what she was privileged to, taking charge of the touches Gabrielle distributed across her own body. The Princess offered no resistance as her Champion revealed to her the places she most desired to explore. A source of warmth, burning hotter than the mere fire illuminating their steps, emanated from the blonde's core as Xena ran their hands down across the Princess' ample chest, over her chiseled abdomen and down to her inner thigh, leaving her golden goddess submerged in the deep seas of euphoria. Luckily enough, the two dance partners had a veil of amazons shrouding them from the semi-enthralled Queen, as Melosa would surely detest their erotic display. However, only one pair of vindictive eyes penetrated through to the sight before their owner. Ephonin positioned herself along one of the nearby huts, leaning against its walls with her arms crossed and her lips pursed together. One of her sisters approached her, a woman with deep red hair and wispy green eyes standing near Ephonin's height, by skipping over to the weapons master. The wry smile plastered on the amazon's face provided great contrast to Ephonin's seriousness.

"How goes it, Ephonin? Why do you look like you've just sucked down a whole lemon?"

"This Xena is ruining everything. Even if I manage to beat her in the Challenge there's no way Gabrielle will bond with me now. She's voiced her opinion clearly and surly enough that Melosa wouldn't have it so."

"Now don't worry with all that..." the red-head came closer to stroke Ephonin's upper arm with her fingertips, "...you'll beat that good for nothing slag, take your place as Champion, and then you'll be free to take the mask."

"Its not that simple, Nava. No, the Princess' new Champion will aid them, she will fight...Xena has to die." The diabolical lust for power in her eyes making her partner swim with desire and the red-head near wrapped around the weapons master, Ephonin rose and placed an arm around her waist to kiss her all too hastily for their affections to be anything but carnal and vile. The beats of the music ended for the Princess and her Champion soon enough that the Warrior Princess got a glimpse of the ending of the exchange. The ex-warlord's blood ran hot at the treachery. Gabrielle's very honor had been tainted with this new information, though Xena managed to resist the urge to cave the weapons master's face in if only to leave the night a special experience for her beloved. Then again, the blonde seemed to like it when she used force to put people in their place. In the few seconds that passed, amazons still crowded around the couple as Gabrielle beamed up at her love to only come back confused at the intense hatred playing across Xena's face, looking off into the night. Feeling the grip on her arm tighten, the warrior realized she had to do something to keep from attacking Ephonin, the darkness within her at risk of releasing the beast that it had become. The dark woman took a vehement kiss from the Princess, harnessing the energy flowing through her body and conducting it through the act. Astounded, the aspiring bard had yet to feel a kiss like this from her Champion. It was as if the dark warrior sought to consume every part of her. Her mind swimming once more, Gabrielle couldn't hear the cheers from her sisters, approving of Xena's passions. The sound near defended the Warrior Princess' acute senses, and for it she broke the exchange much to her beloved's dismay. Though not all of the crowd stood convinced, as they still believed the non-amazon held no more if any right to their Princess' hand. The majority's voice came through as the tribe's Shamaness rose from her spot near their statue of Artemis,

"The goddess is pleased with the Princess' choice of Champion. Rejoice in her blessing!" Xena stood confused as she held Gabrielle's hands, more for the fact that the woman had seemingly come out of nowhere, "Artemis would have the warrior show her strength. Who here would challenge the Dark One?" Ephonin's ears perked up at the opportunity,

"I would see our blades crossed." All eyes upon the weapons master, their Queen arose from her throne,

"As I'm sure you would, Ephonin, but your overstep your bounds. Though your eagerness to fight the new Champion is well received you will have to still your desires until the full moon, as is law." Ephonin shrunk away, bowing to Melosa,

"Yes, my Queen, forgive me." Her apologies received no indication of their acceptance, as the amazon leader took her seat again.

"Well, come forward Amazons. Artemis has demanded it. Show this new comer what we're made of!" An array of amazon warriors stood before their queen, their arms crossed over their chest, at her command and disposal. Immensely pleased at her selection, the Queen motioned to her sisters as she spoke to the Warrior Princess, "Who would you have, Champion, to best show your skills to Artemis?" Gabrielle was chilled by the maniacal grin that turned high upon her beloved's face. The crowd parted as Xena made her way to the Queen and her challengers.

"All of them." Her deep, sultry voice enforced the warrior's celebrity status amongst the younger amazons as their subtle shrieks sounded behind her. Though it made the blonde proud of her Champion, she couldn't help but give her sisters loathsome glares for admiring the woman she'd claimed as her own. Xena even earned an amused smile from their dark-haired Queen,

"Very well then...too the arena!" Their arena served its purpose well, leaving space enough for the six amazons and one Warrior Princess for their sparing match, but still significantly smaller than some of the arenas of Rome that Xena had witnessed before. Wooden posts and rope tied off a ten foot radius patch of dirt where the grass had obviously been torn and ripped up by several foot falls. The crowd gathered round as the warriors and Queen positioned themselves. Xena stood the full distance across from her challengers as they prepared with swords, staffs, and bows, Melosa stepping up to a raised platform that put her voice above her subjects, "The rules are simple..." she announced, "the last person standing in the ring will be declared the victor. Those within the ring should be prepared to loose their lives." This statement was given a moment in order to give anyone a chance to save their life for another day. None gave up their spot in the ring, the amazons not wanting to disappoint their Queen and Xena all too ready for a fight as the dark warrior gave them a toothy grin. A swift move of the amazon leader's hand signaled their permission to proceed, "Begin!" Drawing her sword from the scabbard strapped to her back, Xena approached her prey slowly, spinning it loosely in her hand. The amazons filled out the farthest points of the ring, surrounding the new comer all too sure of themselves from their numbers. Her keen senses picking up steel sliding against leather, the ex-warlord determined two of her opponents had drawn their swords. On either side of her, footsteps dug into the ground, preparing their owners to charge. One lost her wit, letting out a yell and charging before the other. The first went for a hard side slash which Xena easily blocked as she directed the force of the swing behind her, causing the challenger to tumble and fall out of the ring. The second took advantage of the distraction caused by her sister to run and jump for a crushing blow. Xena stopped the overhead assault easily and pushed her back onto her feet, laughing with child-like amusement. The taunt enraged her opponent and the Warrior Princess fended of several offensive combo attacks at either side. Waiting for the girl to come closer, the new comer clashed swords with the amazon, holding the the force steadily at bay before head-butting her. The young warrior laid upon the ground out cold. Her other challengers were hesitant, having hoped that their finer sword masters would have dealt with Xena quickly.

"Come on, surly you can do better than that." They all charged at the dark woman, causing another chuckle to rise from Xena for the entertainment provided her. Forgetting their weapons, one amazon after another came at her with punches and kicks where they thought they could get them in, but to no avail as Xena easily thwarted their attempts one after another. The scene put on before the crowd seemed to pass by in a whirl, amazing the rest of the tribe that the new comer had yet to break a sweat. Grabbing the girl's leg as it came at her abdomen, the dark-haired woman took hold of the amazon's calf where she wouldn't dislocate a joint and twisted her body, causing her to fly out of the arena as well. The challengers then made sure to cover all sides, making it impossible for her to block all the hits simultaneously. But the warrior outsmarted them again as she jumped with a boundless strength and flipped over and out of the rain of fire. Xena never let them have her back to them again as she abandoned her defensive stance and went for a more blunt approach. Stilling her opponents with a bond chilling war cry, "Ayiyiyiyiyiyi-cheia!", Xena charged, taking them out one after another. Dodging a left then right hook combination, she pivoted on one foot and side kicked another through the air and into the crowd. As her foot came down she back handed the next returning her to her sisters. Blocking kicks to her torso with her arms, the hits never reaching above her waist, Xena grabs hold of the amazon's arms and flips her over and through the air though the dark warrior lands back on her own two feet without difficulty. Her icy blue gaze fell upon her last victim, the amazon's staff in hand, though as Xena got closer she swore to have witnessed the younger girl shake. Taking mercy on her, the Warrior Princess put a hand on her hip with her eyebrow raised, allowing the amazon to make the first move. Though all the young warrior could do was drop her weapon and fumble out of the ring all too willingly. The silence that followed resulted from astonishment rather than uncertainty, but soon Melosa spoke to her glib subjects.

"Though Valexis still remains in the arena in body, I'm afraid her mind has left us." The Queen snapped her fingers and immediately two amazons came forward to carry the girl Xena had knocked out cold to the healer's hut. "Artemis has smiled on you this night. Congratulations. I declare Xena, Victor!" The howling of the tribe was beginning to irritate Xena as much as it verged on normal as those for her victory crowded around their Princess' Champion. Gabrielle, at the forefront of the invasion, leapt into her warrior's arms. Holding her betrothed made the Warrior Princess feel whole again and soon the people around them vanished from thought as they kissed one another lovingly. Soon enough, the crowd dispersed, the sound of the drums calling them to continue their feast as the couple stood there with their foreheads resting on one another. The last to leave, the Queen observes the newcomer, how she holds Gabrielle so tightly to her, as if to shield her from the world, looks upon her with eyes laden with a boundless love. She knew her sister loved this woman, truly, unlike when she'd matched her with Ephonin, but she wasn't an amazon and Melosa couldn't show favor until the woman had proven herself to her, the tribe, and the goddess of her worthiness, as she was sure only time would tell. Meanwhile, the conniving weapons master felt she had been defeated herself. All the tribe loved Xena and she knew she could never best the Warrior Princess in a proper fight. At the end of her rope, Ephonin sulked away as her rage maddened her. What could she do? What could even be done but to let her ambitious quest to rule as Queen fall and shatter? In her sudden weariness and panic, she'd tripped and a nearby hut kept her from falling as she used its walls to prop herself up. Under her breath she let out a subtle plea,

"Artemis above, please help me." She let her spirit be washed over with her grief in hopes that her goddess would hear the request. As the minutes passed on, anger filled her again, more for the so called goddess she'd been taught to pray to her whole life but who's answer never came. Storming off, Ephonin soon found herself walking to the outskirts of the village, and again even further as she entered the dark wood. Having no idea of which direction she headed, the weapons master let her feet lead her farther and farther away until she came upon a clearing where she saw some sort of temple. As she approached, she could tell that it had been abandoned for years. The statues and structures that had once identified its patron long since crumbled to heaps of useless stone. As the amazon entered she saw a woman in stone, gilded with golden armor with a jeweled scabbard strapped to her side. The effigy's visage screamed determination, strength, and that the woman it represented possessed an unmatched prowess. Staring on in awe, Ephonin's steps slowed as she took in every detail. Then she heard the sounds,crashing and shuffling, coming from deeper in the temple. Drawing her sword, the weapons master stealthily made her way around the statue and through the building's halls, and as she rounded the next corner she saw two men scavenging from the bits of silver and valuables the priests of the temple obviously abandoned.

"The things people just leave lying around." They laughed together.

"They even left all their offerings in a nifty little chest for us. Perfect for when your on the go." Laughing harder for their easy plunder, they had no idea what awaited them as Ephonin filled the doorway into the next room,

"Drop everything, or feel my wrath."

"Whats this?" The men dropped their treasures and drew their own swords.

"I won't say it again, leave this place, now."

"Run along girly before you hurt yourself." Ephonin exploded, and startled the duo with her cry before charging. She quickly disarmed the first, then stabbed him in the gut. The other man looked on in shock, but managed to retaliate with a swing in the amazon's direction. Ephonin was able to dodge the mediocre attempt and then cut at his calf, making the thief fall to his knees,

"No, no... no please..." the warrior would not here his pleas as she flipped behind him, taking his chin in her hand, and sliced his neck open. Leaving the men's blood to pool on the floor, Ephonin saw the red stains on her hands but didn't care. She went to exit the building, but as she passed, wiping her hands clean on her skirt, she went to look upon the golden clad woman's face again. The statue was missing. Panicking, the amazon prepared for another fight when she heard a voice.

"You chose a quick and painless death for those thieves...I wouldn't have been so kind." The woman on the pedestal she had marveled at stood before her, stone turned to flesh. Dumbfounded, Ephonin backed away, her sword dropped to the floor, and eyes widened in fear. "You've defended my temple, Ephonin, and for that I thank you."

"You're temple..." the amazon looked to the ceiling as if the answer to her next question would be there. Looking upon this notably beautiful woman, "Who are you?"

"I am Athena, goddess of war, wisdom, and justice." Taking stock of her temple defender's clothing, "You are an amazon, then? What business do you have here, servant of Artemis?"

"Artemis is no longer my goddess." Ephonin's quick reprisal impressed Athena by her forcefulness.

"Curious...you amazons are usually so strong in your convictions, so certain that she embraces you as children like the moon would embrace the earth."

"I'm tired of worshiping a goddess who will not be seen or heard. Where is she when Amazon villages are attacked, when the number of tribes grow smaller and smaller as each warlord looking to get rich sees us as fresh slaves ripe for the picking? We are no stronger with our goddess. My sisters are but fools. Artemis was never there." The goddess standing before her knew full well the opportunity laid before her.

"An amazon beseeching Athena and forsaking the moon...a wise decision indeed. But first your reward..."

"Reward?"

"For defending my temple. Such an act must be encouraged amongst you mortals. So what can Athena do for the non-amazon?" Ephonin needed only seconds to allow her desires to speak to her, and soon revealed to the goddess her wish to be fulfilled.

"Kill Xena of Amphipolis."

"The Warrior Princess?!"

"Who?" Athena ignored her question, not having the time to explain herself to a mere mortal. Alisha's angle face flooded the goddess' memory. She was truly a mortal unmatched in strength, skill, and beauty. So beautiful that Athena had planned to preserve her beloved using the Ambrosia of the Gods. She'd led her Chosen straight to its hiding place only to have Ares meet her there with her own death. Though the act had torn the goddess' heart out, Zeus had justified his actions by bringing up Athena's unlawful assistance of a mortal to become a god. She could still remember the smug look on his face at their father's ruling as he left Olympus to return to his Chosen's side with a could of red smoke. Ares had killed her chosen decades ago and now she had her chance to return the favor.

"I have to deny your request, mortal. Gods cannot kill each other's chosen without probably cause. It so happens that this Xena is the chosen of my brother Ares. Though I cannot slay this demon, as I'm sure she has wronged you beyond compare, I can give you the means to justice." Athena then brought her hands together, concentrating on an unseen center of power, and caused a bright orb of light between them. The surging sound whirled around them, and though Ephonin struggled to keep from falling, the goddess managed to further show her immortal strength, acting as if the thunderous winds it caused were nothing more than a mere breeze. A blade appeared out of her hand, out from the very flesh of the deity's palm, and presented it to her new chosen. The weapons master looked upon the most curious and beautiful sword she'd ever seen: gold plated with an inlaid design of emeralds, sapphires, and rubies in the handle, glowing with an foreign blue hue. The amazon nearly missed the goddess speak for her admiring the gift, touching and memorizing every detail as Athena held it towards her, "I've enchanted this sword, given it a strength beyond what Hephaestus can forge...though sharpness has been doubled that of the skills of any blade, you must only use it when needed. And as much as your heart may desire it, you must not slay Xena." At this the amazon seemed suddenly appalled,

"But you said this would be the means to her end. What use is it if it cannot be stained with Xena's blood?!"

"SILENCE!" Athena caused the earth to quake with the ferocity of her voice. Small pieces of rubble fell from the ceiling, causing Ephonin to cover her ears and cower. The goddess carried on with her explanations to the conveniently obtained chosen, "Ares has bestowed upon her the Chakram of Darkness. No blade made by the gods can match it. But this blade will aid you in other ways. Use it to signal the armies I send you. Command the men and women dedicated to Athena to attack your village and send Xena to Tartarus."

"But what of my sisters, my friends? They won't be killed, will they? And the Amazons...what's to happen to them?"

"The Amazons represent Artemis, the goddess you have forsaken, an illusion just as the moon shines but no warmth comes from it. To have the means to destroy Xena, you must pledge your loyalty to me, Ephonin." All reluctance left the now ex-amazon for being blinded by the hatred she felt towards the Warrior Princess, the woman who had stolen her future from her, and for Artemis, the goddess that never was.

"I pledge my body and soul to you, Athena. Your wish is my command."

"Then by my right as Goddess of Justice, I make you, Ephonin, my Chosen." Laying the legendary weapon in the mortal's hands, Athena then officially made her a willing servant to command and obey. Ephonin watched the retreating form of her goddess as she seemingly vanished into thin air. She felt the unmatched power of the gift in her hands as she raised it high above her head,

"Athena's will be done! And may Xena burn for an eternity."