The Dark Side of my Soul

Chapter 1

what have i become?
my sweetest friend
everyone i know
goes away in the end
you could have it all
my empire of dirt
i will let you down
i will make you hurt
--Nine Inch Nails, "hurt," The Downward Spiral (Nothing TVT/Interscope, 1994)

"Wake u-up, XE-na!  It's time to play-ay!"

The annoyingly childish singsong of Callisto's voice broke in Xena's consciousness, followed immediately by a drenching shock of icy cold water.  Xena jerked, realizing that she was chained, hand and foot, and she was naked.  A chain around her waist was connected to the cuffs that held her wrists behind her back.  She awkwardly managed to sit up, shook water off her face, and, trying not let her jolting shivers reach her voice, said coolly, "What's this all about, Callisto?  You were buried under the lava.  How did I get here?"

"Welllll," said Callisto, "a long time ago, I used to play with my friends, but then my friends all went away."  Her face darkened momentarily before resuming a manic smile.  "I didn't know who to play with any more, but then I thought, 'I'll invite Xena over!'  So here you are!"

"This hardly constitutes an invitation, Callisto," retorted Xena drily, battling down the shadow of fear that was creeping across her consciousness--Callisto's mania seemed terribly and terrifyingly focused.  "Where's Gabrielle?"

Callisto pouted and sighed.  "Gabrielle doesn't interest me.  She's probably waking up just now wondering where her best pal is!"  Callisto laughed gleefully at the image.  "I just spirited you away in your sleep, Xena.  I'm a goddess now, remember?  And I'm much stronger than I was--strong enough to burn my way through that lava--fight fire with fire, they say!" she said brightly.  "You'll be glad to know I left that bor-ring Velasca behind.  She was terrible company.  I think you'll be so much more FUN!" she exclaimed, her voice rising almost to a squeak on the last word.  Her mood changed instantly to a dark fury.  "So amuse me, Xena!" she declared as she slapped Xena sharply across the face, once on each side.

Xena winced slightly as her cheeks burned.  She snapped, "I'm hardly in a position to be amusing, Callisto," while gesturing toward her chains.

Callisto's expression took on a wide-eyed innocence.  "Well, that only makes it more challenging, dear!"  Callisto stood looming over her prisoner, legs apart, hands on her hips, looking like nothing so much as a recalcitrant and demanding child.

"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you," remarked Xena in the most bored and nonchalant tone she could manage, "but I'm just not interested."

Callisto grabbed Xena under one arm and yanked her roughly to her feet.  "Well, I'm sorry, darling Xe-na," she hissed, " but you're going to amuse me whether you like it or not."  She struck Xena a powerful blow in the gut, followed immediately by another.  Xena collapsed backward, her head striking the cave wall, and darkness pounced on her.

* * *

Xena's eyes fluttered open, and the first thing that caught her attention was the throbbing ache in the back of her head.  The strain across her back and arms, from having been left slumped over in an awkward position with her hands chained behind her back, was the next thing she noticed.  When she tried to move, she became aware of a deep knot of pain inside her stomach.  This was when she remembered everything that had happened.  As Callisto laughed at her struggles, Xena was finally awakened to a complete understanding of her situation.  She was truly helpless.  She couldn't wriggle her way out of iron cuffs, the way she could out of most rope bindings.  She tested the strength of the chains, but Callisto had picked her materials well, and she couldn't break them.  Her weapons were back with Gabrielle.  All she had was her tongue, but trying to talk Callisto out of whatever her plans were seemed completely futile.  She knew at least that she could deal with physical pain very effectively, and she determined not to give Callisto the satisfaction of seeing her break down.  The only thing that mattered was that she get out of this and get back to Gabrielle.

Furious and frustrated, Xena used her hands to brace herself and shoved herself into a sitting position.  As Callisto approached her, Xena pulled her legs back and kicked out.  Callisto easily stepped out of the way, but snapped, "Xe-na!  You're not cooperating."

"No, I'm not," responded Xena flatly.

Callisto giggled.  "Well the great thing about this is you don't have to cooperate.  I can think of plenty of games we can play anyway!"  The artificial brightness in Callisto's voice grated on Xena's already strained nerves.  Callisto pointed at Xena's ankles, and the short chain between them vanished.  Instead her legs were spread, and the cuffs connected to iron rings embedded in the cave floor.  "Now that's better," noted Callisto, eyeing her prisoner appraisingly.  "You're more accessible."  Striking an exaggeratedly thoughtful pose, she mused, "How should I take you first?  I'm a goddess, Xena, and the possibilities are endless."

* * *

Gabrielle woke up, sleepily pushing aside the blanket that was now too warm. The day before they had come upon a village recovering from a rockslide, and Xena had set to work using her medical skills, stitching up wounds, setting fractures and in a couple of cases, amputating gangrenous limbs.  Gabrielle had been shaken by the extent of the injuries, particularly to children, but she had been pleased at how much more competent she had become as Xena's assistant in treating injuries than she used to be.

After two days of treating the injured, she and Xena had continued on their way, with Xena clearly embarrassed at the villagers' expressions of gratitude.  Exhausted, they had set up a minimal camp, and curled up together spoon fashion to go to sleep.  Gabrielle was expecting to wake up as she often did, with Xena's hand inside her bodice, cupping a breast.  There was no hand.  Gabrielle rolled over, only to realize that Xena wasn't there at all.  Instinctively, she reached for her staff and leapt up.  "Xena?" she called out tentatively.

When she got no answer she inspected their campsite, with a thoroughness born of experience.  Xena had simply vanished into thin air.  There should have been footprints in the relatively soft ground, but there weren't.  Gabrielle's face went white.  "No, that's not possible," she murmured.  "Could she have really gotten out?"  Or, as she reflected, another god might be involved.  Ares, perhaps.  Xena wouldn't just disappear on her, and even if she had, she would have left prints.  As Gabrielle scoured the small clearing and the area around it for any clues, she increasingly realized that she was out of her league.  She gathered up Xena's armor and weapons, where they had been discarded the night before, loaded everything on the patient Argo, and set off to find some help.  If the gods were involved, she at least knew where to start.

* * *

There was a long chain that could be attached the chain around Xena's waist, when Callisto led her outside to a conveniently leafy bush to tend to bodily needs.  She was also hobbled by a short chain between her ankle cuffs.  Godlike powers or no, Callisto wasn't taking any chances.  While she amused herself in confining Xena in various positions--sometimes standing with her hands pulled above her head and her legs apart, sometimes hogtied, sometimes lying on her back or her side, sometimes sitting up against the wall of the cave--she always made sure Xena's arms were immobilized before she did anything to her legs and vice versa.

There were routines.  When Callisto tired of playing, she usually knocked her prisoner out with a blow to the back of the head.  Xena's head throbbed in multiple places.  She almost always woke her up with a bucketful of icy water from a nearby stream.  Xena was always cold, and the iron of her cuffs chafed and ached.  "Poor thing, you're so cold," Callisto would mock, lightly brushing her thumbs across Xena's goosebump-pricked breasts and hard, throbbing nipples, and Xena inwardly cursed the small part of herself that wanted that touch repeated.  Callisto did not want to endanger her "playfellow's" life, however, and she would point to the floor, creating a warming fire each night.  On particularly cold nights, she allowed Xena a cloak, which was always yanked off in the morning before the inevitable cold splash.

On the first day, she was denied food and water.  She woke up faint and parched the next day, feeling nauseous from dehydration.  Callisto crouched in front of her, took a long drink from a water skin, then offered her mouth to Xena.  Xena shook her head, furious and defiant.  Her defiance didn't last long.  If she was to have water at all, it was passed from Callisto's mouth to hers, and Callisto always made her wait so long, that she clung to her gaoler's lips greedily, sucking down every drop of secondhand moisture.  Mouthful after mouthful she drank from Callisto's lips, simultaneously boiling inside at the degradation and hating herself for the faint thrill she felt when Callisto's lips touched her own.  What little food she was allowed, Callisto fed her by hand.  Xena knew she had no other choice but to eat it to survive.  She had no idea how long the goddess intended to keep her there.  And she realized that Callisto had no intention of ever allowing her prisoner use of her hands.  There was one possible way out of this, but it was one she knew she could never take.

* * *

"Do you ever think of yourself as an Artist, Xena?" asked Callisto rhetorically, as she paced around Xena, who was bound in a standing position, arms above her head.  Callisto was tossing a knife in the air and catching it as she circled her prey like a vulture.

"Look at me, Xena!" she demanded, standing directly in front of her prisoner.  Xena's eyes traveled over the short leather skirt, the sheath for the knife, the bare stomach, the breasts swelling slightly out of the leather that molded them, the gauntleted arms, and she was mortified at how desirable she found the sight before her.  Under other circumstances, Callisto would have been just the type the old Xena would have felt compelled to try to conquer--or let herself be conquered by.  A mirror suddenly materialized on a stand.  "Now look in here."  Xena saw a blonde happy girl with bright eyes, dressed in a long skirt, playing with another girl that could have been a sister.  The girls reminded her disconcertingly of Gabrielle when she first met her in Poteidaia.  "That was me," said Callisto flatly.  "And my sister.  Now look at me again.  I'm what you created, Xe-na!  You molded me from that village girl just as surely as if you'd used your own hands.  Do you like your handiwork?"

"Not particularly," muttered Xena.

"Aha!" cried Callisto.  "The Creator rejects her Creation.  You claim to despise the gods, sweetheart, but you're no different."  Xena winced, partly at Callisto's statement, and partly at the continuous rise and fall of her voice, a voice that made her skin twitch with both fear and irritation.

"I didn't make you," Xena protested weakly.

Two sharp slaps exploded on her face.  "You know you did," said Callisto, her voice hard.  "Did you know then you would try to turn your life around?  Did you anticipate you would need a new body for the old Xena?  Someone to do all the things the new Xena denies herself?  When we switched bodies, I felt so . . . ," she paused, frowning in childish concentration, one finger slightly pulling her lower lip.  "So . . . at home.  You made me, and you made sure you'd be the only influence in my life.  You killed Mommy.  Where else could I find a role model?  And I'm convenient for you, aren't I?  You still haven't thanked me for killing that insignificant farmer your girlfriend married."  Callisto's voice thickened with menace, then abruptly shifted into a singsong, babyish tone, while her face broke out into a sunny smile.  "Yes, I wanted to do Xena a favor.  A big favor.  I couldn't bear to see her unhappy, for her to lose her little friend.  I know you wanted that Perdy-jerk to disappear.  So he did!"  Callisto's voice rose to a squeak, and she beamed and cackled triumphantly.  Suddenly, the hard edge returned.  "So where's your gratitude, XE-na?  Why don't you thank me for making your happiness possible?  Why don't you thank me for being the cold-hearted, self-interested BITCH you really are inside, but keep trying to hide from yourself?  Perdicas is dead, and Xena gets the blonde--all thanks to Callisto!"

Xena felt her heart crack inside her at the partial truth of Callisto's words.  A knot of panic whipped cords around itself in her chest, cutting off her breath.  She gasped for air.  How could she make love to Gabrielle, when she had secretly wished that Perdicas had never existed?  How could she claim to love Gabrielle, when her first reaction to Callisto's murder of Perdicas had been an instant--and instantly extinguished by a horrified conscience--secret flash of joy and relief?  And how could she play the games she did with Gabrielle, knowing the truth about herself?  The games--Xena had a vision of Gabrielle, naked, lying on the grass with her hands bound above her head to Xena's chakram, which was embedded in the ground.  Xena felt the cuffs on her wrists dig in a little deeper, and the connection was too much.  She threw up.

Callisto laughed a bright tinkling laugh, then remarked, "Dis-gust-ing.  The truth hurts, doesn't it, dear?"  She waved her hand impatiently, cleaning up the mess on the floor and on her prisoner.  The humiliation it would have afforded Xena was not worth the assault on her heightened senses.

"Of course," explained Callisto, as if nothing had happened, "sometimes Creator and Creation can trade places.  I'm the Artist now.  Do you like what I've made of you dear?  The raw material was a little rough, but I think I've worked wonders."  She positioned the mirror in front of Xena, grasping Xena's chin with her other hand, and forcing her to look.  Xena looked into a hollow face, with red eyes outlined with bruised flesh.  Her hair was matted and tangled into a Medusa-like horror.  Her lips were cracked with dehydration.  With an oddly detached curiosity, she studied her figure as Callisto moved the mirror.  Her arms held above her head were rail-thin and covered with purple bruises on the underside.  Her collarbone and ribs stuck out of very pale skin, and red marks stood out against her breasts.

"Nice work, Callisto," she muttered wearily.  "You must be very proud of yourself."

"No prouder than you are of your Creation, my love," retorted the goddess.  "But I'm not at all through with you yet.  There's plenty of untouched surface."

Callisto drew her knife, and Xena briefly sagged against her cuffs in horror.  She knew Callisto had no intention of killing her, but, having been both the victim and the inflicter of torture before, she also knew very well that Callisto could hurt her in any number of ways without causing permanent damage.

"Now, let's see-ee," mused Callisto, her lips pursed and her eyes gleaming ferally.  "I'm in rather a bardic mode.  What shall I write?"

Callisto snapped her fingers, so that another mirror appeared behind Xena.  "This way you'll be able to admire my handiwork, Xena."

"You're too kind," sighed Xena.

"Aren't I though?  I just knew we'd have so much fun together!"  Callisto licked her lips and moved into position behind her victim.  Xena forced away the fear rising in her, and through sheer will battled back the tear that was threatening to leak from her eye.  She hadn't cried yet and wasn't about to start now.  Instead she willed her body to relax, drawing on every pain-controlling mechanism she knew.  By the time she looked in the mirror before her, reflecting her backside from the mirror behind, she had adopted a resigned passivity, knowing she had no other options.  She drew on her inner strength to endure, an inner strength that in recent years had taken on the form of a blonde bard.  Even if everything Callisto said was right, loving Gabrielle was the essence of what she had to live for.

Callisto was poised with the knife, her face in a calculatedly thoughtful attitude.  "Got it!" she exclaimed, then pulled Xena's hair out of the way, and began to carve letters into Xena's back.  Xena's face contorted into a silent grimace of pain, and the slightest sigh escaped her lips.  At the same time, she had the distance to observe that it was a good thing the knife was sharp and cut cleanly--a duller blade would do more damage.  The pain was sharp and intense, little concentrated ripples of lightning on her skin, but she had suffered worse.  Callisto took her time, however, cutting each letter with exquisite precision, while Xena concentrated on keeping her body limp and her breathing steady, as she watched lines of blood ooze up on her skin.

After an indeterminate amount of time, Callisto finished.  She walked around in front of her victim, carefully and sensuously licked every drop of blood from the blade, and scrunched up her face with pleasure, "Mmm-mmm."  Biting her lower lip to arrest a dangerous tremble that was making its way there, Xena gazed impassively in the mirror.  Her back was emblazoned with "CALLISTO OF CIRRA WAS HERE," and thin tendrils of blood ran from the wounds.

"So, it's not very poetic, but it's the best I could do on short notice," said Callisto with a shrug.  "I'm sure your little bard friend could do better."

The wounds throbbed with contact with the open air, but Xena remained quiet and resigned.  She had a fierce drive to survive, but she could see no way out on her own.  Callisto's powers were too great, and her control of Xena's every move too complete.  Her helplessness terrified her, but her life had afforded her a lot of practice at suppressing any show of her feelings.  She tried to empty herself of need and desire and even anger, as Lao Ma had taught her, as it seemed very clear to her that revealing her own feelings would only fuel the desires of her tormentor even more.

Xena's passivity enraged Callisto, who flared out in fury.  Suddenly a bucket appeared in Callisto's hands, and she flung the contents at Xena's back--it was salted water.  Xena choked the scream that rose in her throat, and distorted her face, emitting only a stifled, "Uggghh!"  Callisto's arm whipped through the air, and Xena found herself on her stomach, arms and legs spread and cuffed to iron rings embedded in the cave floor.

"Let's see just how stoic you can be, old friend!" snapped Callisto impatiently.  She was a frustrated child in the midst of a tantrum, and Xena merely pressed her cheek against the cold floor, intending only to ride it out.  Callisto fetched a candle, then sat down next to her victim and began systematically dripping hot wax into the wounds.  Each drip of the candle was a brief shock of liquid fire that quickly turned into a deep and ferocious itch, but again Xena had suffered worse.  Having serious wounds cauterized on the battlefield hurt far more than this, even when Callisto repeatedly dripped wax on the same spot, and the pain lanced through layers of skin and nerves like a thick needle.  Again, what made the annoyance turn into torment was the time Callisto was taking.  She had lost her angry mood, and was now entranced by the patterns she was making with the hot wax, humming to herself, and cocking her head first on one side and then on the other as she worked.  Xena was surprised at her tormentor's patience.  One after another, in an endless series, came the hot splashes of wax.  In a dreamy voice, Callisto murmured, "You know, Xena, there are other places I can use this too."  She was true to her word.

* * *

//She had Gabrielle lying on her back on a platform, her hands tied to her chakram, embedded somehow into the platform itself.  Iron cuffs held Gabrielle's legs apart.  She was systematically dripping hot wax onto Gabrielle's breasts, stomach, and thighs, while Gabrielle writhed and moaned.  She was strategically positioning the candle, so as to cover as much flesh possible.  Every splash elicited a sharp cry from the body beneath her . . .

. . .  Callisto writhed and wriggled in her bonds, making little squeaks of delight as the hot wax struck her body.  "Ooh, Xena, I like your technique," she purred.  "You know how to give a girl a good time."  She had to quiet that voice, that voice that irritated every nerve.  She bent over Callisto, pressed her mouth to Callisto's, and plunged her tongue down her throat . . .

. . . Gabrielle cried out, "Please don't!  Please stop!"  She raked her struggling victim with her eyes.  So delicious.  She licked her lips, and as she did she glimpsed a mirror that hadn't been there before.  Her eyes flicked there briefly, and she saw Callisto's face . . .//

Xena woke with a start. Just a dream, just a dream, just a dream, she told herself.  Where she was wasn't a dream, however.  Her arms ached from being cuffed behind her back, and the cuffs on her wrists and ankles chafed.

Callisto wandered into her field of vision, and, as if bored, casually tossed the morning bucket of cold water on her prisoner.  "You stink," she said, raising her eyebrows in mock exasperation.  "Time for a bath.  Get up."  Xena struggled to her feet, and Callisto led her outside, tugging on the chain that went around  Xena's waist and connected to the cuffs on her wrists.  She was hobbled by a short chain that connected her ankle cuffs.  Weak and hungry, Xena stumbled, and Callisto swatted her hard on her buttocks.

"You're filthy, Xena.  I don't like it," declared Callisto decisively.  "Hurry up."  Xena concentrated, finding the appropriate gait, and she allowed herself to be led to a nearby pool fed by a mountain stream.  Her heart ached at the contrast between the beauty of the place and the horror of her companion.

Callisto waded into the water, pulling Xena after her.  "Now hold still!" she demanded.  Callisto tossed the free end of the chain over an overhanging branch, and the links fused to make a closed loop.  "I love being a god," she said laconically.  "It's so convenient."

"You could get me clean instantly with your powers," commented Xena helpfully, but without much hope.

"I know," said Callisto, her eyes brightening, "but this way will be so much more fun.  After all, that's why we're here.  For my amusement."

Callisto held out her hand, palm up, and a soapy sponge appeared on it.  Xena endured the indignity of a thorough scrubbing without another word, as her gaoler first washed her hair, then washed her body from head to foot, lingering more on some areas than others.  The soap stung the carved places on her back, and Callisto's vigorous style with the sponge revealed to Xena sore spots she hadn't even been aware of.

She could feel a tremor begin to run through her, as she realized her body was responding to certain touches, as it had at other times during her captivity, despite her all-consuming hatred of the person touching her.  She stilled the tremor and silently moved into the positions Callisto indicated.  "Any job large or small . . . " chanted Callisto cheerfully as she worked.

"Your devotion to duty is touching, Callisto," murmured Xena dully.

"I'm glad you think so!" responded Callisto with her usual manic enthusiasm, as a large comb appeared in her hand and the sponge winked out of existence.  She was surprisingly gentle in combing out the numerous tangles in Xena's hair.  She worked the comb carefully through a small section at a time, until Xena's hair was pristine.  Callisto continued to glide the comb through Xena's silky black hair, and the sensation was so comforting that Xena almost relaxed for a moment into a feeling of safety.  She glanced back quickly, and the look on Callisto's face startled her--affection shone out of warm, concerned eyes.  Moments later, Callisto recovered herself, smacked Xena sharply on the buttocks several times with the comb, then tossed it into the air, where it vanished.

"Come on!" she snapped, freeing the chain from the tree branch and yanking hard.  "I have a lot of plans for you today!"  Xena followed, her mind lost in the amazement of realizing the feelings Callisto had buried for the warrior princess.  The expression on her face as she had lovingly combed Xena's hair had resembled nothing so much as that of a young girl with an adolescent crush who was being allowed to minister to her idol.  It reminded her disturbingly of Gabrielle the first few weeks they had traveled together.  But Gabrielle was no longer that starstruck child--she had grown into the woman Xena loved, and Xena once again resolved to be strong.

* * *

She lost count of the days.  Any improvement in her condition from her bath was long gone.  Her hair was a mass of tangles, and her body was encrusted with dirt from the cave floor layered here and there with dried blood.  Callisto had been getting increasingly frustrated with her visitor, and had lost patience with subtle torments.  While Xena was immobilized, hands over her head, Callisto struck and kicked her all over, punctuating each blow with a shriek.  Day after day, Xena endured a severe beating, bruises erupting under other bruises and welts emerging from Callisto's flesh-wrenching pinches.  And after each beating, she was chained in a kneeling position and forced to take her food and water from the fingers and lips of her tormentor.  One day, Callisto re-carved the legend on Xena's back.  Some days she amused herself by dancing around her victim with a stick, striking her with it at random.  Xena never knew when or where the next blow would fall.  As Xena took it all with dull resignation and passivity, Callisto got more infuriated, and would kick or punch Xena in the back or stomach before chaining her up for the night.

One day, Xena made the mistake of muttering, "I would have thought you'd be more inventive, Callisto.  You're going to kill me with boredom."

"Oh, I'm so happy to hear that, XE-na!  You'll just love what I have planned for you today!"

Callisto waved her hand, and Xena's manacles and chains all disappeared.  "This will be more interesting if I give you a sporting chance, old friend," she taunted.  Callisto was between Xena and the cave entrance.  Without warning, she pointed at Xena and a streak of flame shot from her finger, burning Xena on the arm.  Xena instinctively slapped the tiny flame out.  As Callisto pointed again, Xena ducked and rolled, but her extensive injuries and minimal meals left her sluggish and her reactions slow.  Although she dodged some of Callisto's bolts of flame, most of them hit their mark.  Xena had to be in constant motion, so the flames that did connect did not burn too long in the same spot.  Patches of skin began to redden and blister, but Callisto didn't stop, and Xena either rolled to put out the flames or slapped them out with her increasingly painful hands.  Every muscle throbbed from the daily beatings, and any movement was torture enough.

Callisto's aim was terrifyingly precise, as she avoided Xena's hair, yet managed to deposit small burns systematically all over Xena's body, yet none were life-threatening.  She cackled with manic glee, dancing merrily with the flames shooting from her fingertips.  After a while, she switched to lighting bolts, but Xena didn't discern much difference in the sensation.  It hurt either way, and it was harder and harder to spin out of Callisto's way.  A desperate idea formed in her mind.  She ran toward her tormentor, enduring the increasingly intense flashes of pain, and attempted a flip over Callisto's head.  She didn't have the strength however, and collapsed on her back at Callisto's feet, able only to roll enough to avoid smacking her head on the cave floor.

"I was wondering when you'd try that that," said Callisto casually, before switching into a patronizingly syrupy tone:  "Poor, poor dear--so weak."  Still lying on the floor, Xena pushed herself partly up and tried to grab Callisto's ankle, but Callisto nimbly leapt out of the way.  A moment later, she was flat on her back with Callisto straddling her and yanking her arms over her head.  Even the pressure of Callisto's hand on her wrists ached--every part of her body was so sore.  Callisto slapped Xena once on each cheek, leaving a hot hand-shaped imprint in the process, about as red as a sunburn.  "That's for stupidity, Xena," she said in a hard voice.  "Old habits die hard, even when they work against you."

Callisto bent down to cover Xena's lips with her own, invading Xena's mouth with her tongue.  She replaced the cuffs so that Xena had her arms still pulled above her head and her legs apart and proceeded to lay claim to her victim's body, while Xena mutely endured.  Afterward, Callisto had pulled Xena close and proceeded to stroke her matted hair and caress her abused flesh, all the while crooning endearments.  "Why did you make me hate you, Xena?" she would ask with genuine bewilderment.  "Why did you make me live to hurt you?"  Still manacled at the wrists and ankles, Xena remained mute, while she recoiled inside in horror at her desire for those gentle touches to continue.

* * *

A few more days passed, with the usual beatings and other torments.  Callisto opened the wounds on Xena's back once more and occasionally tried to play her fire game, but Xena was too weak and exhausted to provide much sport, and Callisto had to content herself with flicking small flames at a victim who was almost too weary to slap them out.  Xena gazed at Callisto continually with the same blank, dull stare out of red-rimmed eyes.

One night, after the usual humiliating meal, and a trip outside to relieve herself, she had been chained all night to the wall, arms and legs far apart.  The rough stone was a continuous torment to the knife wounds on her back and to the blisters that dotted her back, buttocks, and legs.  It seemed that every muscle in her body screamed with pain.  Her cheeks flamed from Callisto's burning slaps, and strands of hair kept sweeping her face, and she couldn't shake them away.  If she looked down, she saw a carpet of bruises, blisters, and welts covering the front of her body.  The accumulation of agonies was almost more than her will could bear, but she clamped down hard on the shriek that kept trying to force itself out of her throat.  She tried to divert herself by thinking of a time before, but she wondered if such a time was merely an illusion, and she had always been right here--nothing but a plaything for a sadistic and demented god.

She was exhausted enough to catch some merciful snatches of sleep.  She woke in the morning with a start, expecting the usual bucket of cold water to be flung at her.  She had begun to wake each morning moments before this daily ritual, all of Callisto's routines having become terrifyingly familiar.  Some were so familiar as to be banal.  She hardly thought anything of taking her water from Callisto's lips or her food from Callisto's hand every evening.  Some part of her still remembered that she should find this deeply mortifying, but she was so anxious for the food and drink and so impatient to get off her aching knees, that she eagerly took whatever Callisto offered her, and it had never been enough to sate her hunger or thirst--just enough to keep her alive and conscious.

The cold splash never came.  Callisto was sitting on a rock, elbows on her knees and head in her hands, obviously brooding.  Xena waited silently, trying to ignore the stinging of her various blisters and wounds, the constant jumping and trembling of strained muscles, the gnawing hunger and parching thirst.  She was beginning to think that in crucifying her and breaking her legs, Caesar had been a model of humanity and mercy.

Callisto suddenly leapt up.  She stood in front of Xena, placed her hands on her hips, and declared, in a flat tone, "The problem, Xena, is that I'm bored.  I thought I would enjoy tormenting you for at least a few years, but you really aren't nearly as entertaining as I thought you'd be."

"I'm crushed, Callisto," muttered Xena in a dull whisper--all her parched throat could manage.

Callisto smiled delightedly for a moment at this indication that Xena was not entirely broken.  "We had some fun times," she said in a wistfully nostalgic tone, "but . . ." she stretched at full length, with her hands laced high above her head, and yawned ostentatiously, "you've ceased to amuse.  So I'm going to let you go."  She waved her hand wearily, and the cuffs winked out of existence, leaving Xena to drop on her hands and knees with a dull thud.  She almost yelped at the pain to her bruised knees and to her blistered hands, but her brain was beginning to process what Callisto was saying.

She remained on her hands and knees in an almost stupor, unused to moving of her own volition.  Callisto tossed Xena her clothes with an irritated flip of her arm.  Xena didn't flinch when one of her boots hit her arm.  "Put them on, Xena," ordered Callisto, the edge of annoyance in her voice belying the falsely patient tone.

Xena pulled on her undergarments slowly as if in a trance.  She carefully pulled her leather garment over her head, wincing at the muscle pain involved in doing so and the shock of the material touching her abraded flesh.  She considered her boots for a moment, and decided it was too much to attempt and simply held them in one hand.  Callisto held out a hand and pulled Xena to her feet.  Suddenly she reached over her shoulder and drew her sword.  Xena jumped slightly, and Callisto laughed harshly, and sliced a quick gash into Xena's upper arm, saying, "To remember me by."  Xena stood carefully, barely reacting to the flash of pain and the welling blood.  Callisto smacked Xena on the rear with the sword and snapped, "Go on, get out of here.  I'm tired of you."

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