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The Path

by Marulus

Chapter One

Dusk has come to the Valley of Grendays. The only sound which can be heard is the gurgling of the river which winds its way through the middle of the Valley. Even at dusk the overwhelming beautiful greenery and lush undergrowth is clearly evident to all. Over the years, many have sacrificed themselves for the preservation of this land and its legends. The coming week would be no different. 

As nightfall approaches, Xena and Gabrielle begin the work of setting up camp. As Gabrielle unpacks the blankets and sets up the bedding, Xena goes off in search of dinner. After the camp is ready, and Xena has returned triumphantly with a skinned rabbit, the two women sit down in front of the fire and share a rare moment of quiet and pensiveness. Finally, Gabrielle decides to break the silence.

Gabrielle: "Xena, do you want to talk about what's bothering you?" 

Xena: "What?" 

Gabrielle: "You've been edgy ever since we entered this Valley, what the matter?" 

Xena: (with a patient smile at her friend) "You didn't notice?" 

Gabrielle: "Yeah, I noticed you've been edgy!" 

Xena: "No Gabrielle, not me, the Valley." 

Gabrielle: "The Valley's been edgy?" 

Xena: (a bit exasperated) "No, the Valley's not edgy, what don't you notice about it?" 

Gabrielle: (thoughtful) "Well, it is quiet." 

Xena: "Yes, its too quiet. And its been that way all day." 

Gabrielle: "What does it mean?" 

Xena: "It means we get little sleep tonight I'm afraid. You stay here while I check on Argo. Oh, and (half smiling) yell if you need me, I'm bound to hear you." 

Gabrielle: "You'll hear me all right, other noise or not!" 

Xena, using her convenient excuse to circle the camp and check up on the noise she heard earlier, slowly creeps up on the dark, crouching form spying on their campsite. With a quick movement of the hand, Xena brings down a fist on the neck of their pursuer. The man crumbles to the ground without a sound. As Xena bends to turn the man over, the shock registers on her face.

Xena: "Joxer!"

Xena halfhearted reaches down and hoisted Joxer onto her back and makes her way back to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle: "Xena, what happened?" 

Xena: (plopping Joxer down unceremoniously) "Joxer happened." 

Gabrielle: "oh" (they both walk away from the now waking Joxer). 

Joxer: "Hey, wait a minute, where are you going?" (rubbing his neck, looking up at Xena) "What did you do that for?" 

Xena: (she shares an impatient look with Gabrielle) "Joxer, when will you learn not to sneak up on us?" 

Gabrielle: (before Joxer can answer) "What are you doing here anyway?" 

Joxer: (gathering the few wits he has and puffing out his chest) "Like all good warriors, I go where the action is!" 

Gabrielle: "Action?" 

Joxer: "Rumor has it there is about to be a war here, a big one. And I'm here to fight for the right side!" 

Xena: "And what side would that be?" 

Joxer: "huh, I'm not really sure, I was hoping you could tell me." 

Xena: "Right. Let's get some rest. Joxer, make yourself comfortable (she pauses) way over there" (points towards the woods). 

Gabrielle: (as they walk away from Joxer), "What war? Don't you think you should share these things with me?" 

Xena: "Gabrielle, we are here in case there is a war, like Joxer said, it's just a rumor." Now, let's get some sleep, we have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow." 

Gabrielle: "Sure, no problem. Why should I know anything." 

Xena: (eyebrows raised) "Gabrielle..., you'll know everything tomorrow, for now, we need to get some rest." 

Gabrielle: (hands up) "okay, okay"

As Xena and Gabrielle settle into their bedrolls, we see an anxious Gabrielle and a wary Xena listening to the sounds of the night that aren't there but should be. 

Morning finds Xena breaking down the campsite while Joxer noisily puts on his clanking armor. Gabrielle, coming up from behind Xena, looks at the pitiful sight that is Joxer.

Gabrielle: (to Xena) "He reminds me of a traveling pot salesman" (Xena just looks amused). 

Xena: "Joxer, come here." (Joxer comes to stand before Xena and Gabrielle). 

Joxer: "You beckoned, Princess?" 

Xena: (looking as if she wants to ring his neck) "What?" 

Joxer: "I meant; (gulping) yes, Xena" 

Xena: "Joxer, I need you to run a vital errand for me" 

Joxer: (with hope and excitement) "Vital errand?" 

Xena: "I need you to deliver a message to the villagers of Nytosia. Tell them that unless the Terislitines are stopped here in the Valley, that their village will be in great danger." 

Joxer: "Okay, after I warn them, I come back and help you here, right?" 

Xena: "No, these are innocent villagers, they will need your wisdom to help prepare." 

Gabrielle: (catching on) "Yes, Joxer, they will need someone with your vast experience in the art of warfare to make them feel safe" 

Joxer: "True, very true" (he starts to walk off) "uh, Xena?" 

Xena: "Yes" 

Joxer: "Which way" 

Xena: "West, Joxer, go west" (Joxer leaves) 

Gabrielle: "okay, Xena, was that all about?" 

Xena: "Nytosia is just beyond this Valley and will be destroyed if we fail, but the Terislitines will never get that far." 

Gabrielle: (laughing) "so, off goes Joxer to save the day" (they share a smile) 

Xena: "let's get going"

As they walk on, Xena fills Gabrielle in on some of the details. 

Xena: "The Terilistines are coming here to fight for control of the Valley. The Nytosians have been defending this Valley for centuries, successfully so far." 

Gabrielle: "But Xena, why? (looking around) It is beautiful but there really isn't anything here." 

Xena: "Gabrielle, sometimes legend has a way of taking hold on the mind. Eventually, the legend becomes something real and valuable." 

Gabrielle: (looking around again with renewed interest) "So, what's supposed to be here Xena?" 

Xena: (points towards a lush, green mountain going up from the base of the valley and stretching into the sky) "look there Gabrielle" 

Gabrielle: (nodding) "uh-huh" 

Xena: "That's where we are going. To The Path"

They both look off into the distance. 

Later that day, on the outskirts of the Valley itself, is a well organized, busy looking war camp. Horses with red and yellow blankets are being lead to a fenced area. Men are practicing firing arrows and hand to hand combat. All are moving with military efficiency. 

Two men are caught in conversation outside a large red and yellow tent.

Sophalus: (a large man, badly in need of a bath) "General Locupit, as you can see, we are ready to begin our battle with the Nytosians. The Valley will be ours by nightfall." 

General Locupit: (a well dressed man, looking at Sophalus with some disgust) "Fool! Don't you think others have tried to conquer these lands? We will fight these Nytosians in due time and we will have this valley and its treasure. But we will do it not only with our bodies but with our minds as well. (gestures towards his head) Are the supplies ready?" 

Sophalus: "Yes General Locupit, as you ordered. But what do we need picks and rope for?" 

General Locupit: (walking past Sophalus with a slight shove, surveying the supplies being gathered) "Do not question, just do!" 

Sophalus: "YES, SIR!" (he begins to walk away) 

General Locupit: "And, Sophalus" (Sophalus turns) "Take a bath"

Later on during the same day, Xena and Gabrielle approach the entrance to a small cave located at the base of the mountain. Xena puts a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder to stop her from walking further. The entrance to the cave is dark and uninviting but that doesn't seem to be what Xena is interested in. She looks towards the wooded area that they have just walked through. 

From behind Xena, a sword is raised over Xena's head. Xena whirls around while pulling her sword out at the same time. The sound of metal meeting metal is heard before Gabrielle figures out what has happened. She turns around to see a woman with a sword hanging toward the ground staring at Xena. Xena for her part, has her sword hanging toward the ground as well, looking just as incredulous. Gabrielle looks from one to the other. Suddenly, Xena and the women cry out simultaneously.

Xena: "Mari!" 

Mari: "Xena!"

The two women hug. Gabrielle stands watching this strange exchange. She sees a women, about Xena's age, with red hair, held back by a ragged cloth. Her eyes are green and clear and hold wonder as they look upon Xena. The woman is slight but strong looking and wears serviceable brown clothing. As Gabrielle sizes her up, the women called Mari turns to smile at her.

Mari: "Well hello there" 

Xena: (gesturing toward Gabrielle) "Gabrielle" 

Mari: "Pleased to meet you, I'm Mari" 

Gabrielle: "Nice to meet you. You, um, know Xena?" 

Mari: (smiling at Xena) "Not for a long time actually, but once, yes I did" 

Gabrielle: "oh great, another one with cryptic answers" (Xena and Mari exchange a smile). 

Mari: (gesturing toward the opening the cave) "Come on in, I'll fill you in. Xena, you can hide your horse over there with the others." (points off into the woods) "I'll take Gabrielle inside. If you're hungry, I have plenty of supplies." 

Gabrielle follows looking delighted by the prospect of a feast. Xena walks off in the direction indicated by Mari to settle Argo in for the night. 

As Gabrielle and Mari enter the small opening of the cave, the lighting increases with each several hundred yards they travel. Eventually, they come upon a large room in the cave, large enough to accommodate thirty to forty people. In the center is a large, dark hole leading downward, surrounded by a protective wooden railing. As Gabrielle roams around the large cave, she notices a series of other openings, darker than the one they entered to get to this room. A ladder leans up against the wall by one of these smaller caves as if waiting for someone to put it to use. She peers down into the dark opening, turning to try to take in the vastness of the whole thing. Xena rejoins the two women.

Gabrielle: "This is amazing, I would never have known this was here from the outside." 

Mari: (to Gabrielle) "We call this part of the cave the Beginning. A rather unceremonious name for the beginning of a vast complex of caves. But you'll see what I mean later." 

Xena: "Mari is right, so be careful and stay close!" 

Gabrielle: (surprised) "You've been here before?" 

Mari: "oh, I can tell, (looking at Xena) you and I have lots of stories to tell this young lady." (Xena just rolls her eyes). 

Gabrielle: (hopefully) "Stories?" 

Mari: "Come on, let me get you settled in first and I will share the story of Xena before she was the Warrior Princess and she was just Xena, my friend!" 

Xena: "You two go ahead and share stories, I want to check out what is going on in that Valley before the sun goes down." 

Gabrielle: (torn) "Don't you need my help?" 

Xena: "I'll make do, besides, I want the story hour finished before I get back." 

Mari: "The two of you should follow me now so you know where you are going. Xena, you can set out on your adventure in a few minutes and Gabrielle and I can tell tall tales after you are gone." 

Gabrielle: "You mean the stories won't be true?" 

Mari: "oh, no, they are true, I was just referring to Xena's height" (Xena grimaces)

Mari leads the way over to the ladder leaning against the wall. She sets the ladder up so that it reaches one of the small openings and the women begin their ascent. On hands and knees, in the dark, Mari leads them through a winding trail of caves, using the map in her head to lead them to another large room. Just like the Beginning room they have just left, this room contains multiple entrances to other caves. Off this room, are smaller rooms set up to offer rest to the weary and wounded.

Mari: (pointing to one of the smaller rooms) "this one will be yours, make yourselves comfortable. Gabrielle, join me in the anteroom (she points) when you are ready."

Xena and Gabrielle enter the smaller room which will serve as their resting place for the next few days.

Xena: "okay, I'll be back soon, and remember (smiling), believe only half of what you hear!" 

Gabrielle: (grabbing and holding Xena's arm) "You are sure you will be safe?" (Xena just gives her the look). 

Chapter Two

At the camp of the Terislitines, Sophalus walks across the open camp to the tent of the General Locupit. He cautiously opens the tent flap and walks in. Several men are gathered around a map of the Valley and are speculating as to where The Path begins. A small hole appears in the tent fabric, made by a silent and listening Xena.

1st Soldier: "Its got to be here (pointing), it is the densest part of the Valley and is the only place where the entrance could be hidden!) 

2nd Soldier: "No, you idiot!" As the General Locupit has said, if the answer were obvious, someone would have found it by now." 

3rd Soldier: "How do we know no one has?"

Upon hearing this last comment, the General Locupit spins and lands a blow across the head of the 3rd Soldier.

General Locupit: "Do I have to do all the thinking around here?! "The legend still exists for a reason. Besides, (he smiles) my source has told me where to look, that is, before I killed him of course (laughing). 

Sophalus: (from behind the gathering) "Then where is it?" 

General Locupit: (turning to look) "Sophalus, let me give you a lesson of the Warrior. If someone asks a question like that and you dain to give an answer." (pauses) 

Sophalus: "Yes?" 

General Locupit: "Kill them immediately" 

Sophalus: "forget I asked!" 

General Locupit: (pulls out a knife and throws it at Sophalus, killing him instantly) "I never forget! (turns to his second in command, Wyce) We start tomorrow, we kill everything in the way, and we don't stop till we hit the caves."

Xena backs cautiously away from the tent trying to hide her alarm at hearing where the soldiers are headed. To herself she says "I wonder if he really knows or if he is just bluffing?" 

Back in the Caves, in the small anteroom, Mari and Gabrielle are visiting and enjoying one anothers company. There are cheese, smoked meats, wine and sweetened water spread out on a table before them.

Mari: "Gabrielle, it is so nice to have someone so young and vibrant here in our small home." 

Gabrielle: (taken aback) "There are other people here? What is this place?" 

Mari: "Oh yes, I guess I've done you a disservice by not showing you around. You are in the midst of, as far as I know, one of the largest healing centers in all of the countryside. This series of caves houses at least fifty people who tend to every injury, sickness and wound that comes our way. As part of our work, we follow warlords, caring for the carnage they leave behind. The most serious of cases we bring back here. People come to us in need and we do what we can to help." 

Gabrielle: "I never would have guessed. Why haven't we seen anyone around?" 

Mari: "To be perfectly truthful, I have sent all but the most serious of patients back to their villages with my people. Only I, my assistant and a handful of patients remain behind. They are in another part of the structure, as far into the caves as I feel safe. These caves not only provide safety for our work but the air contains a gas which patients report eases pain. If you are not in pain, you are not affected by it." 

Gabrielle: "That's amazing! But, why did you move everyone?" 

Mari: "For the same reason Xena has made her way here, the devastation to come will be directed at these caves." 

Gabrielle: "Here! Why? Does it have anything to do with the healing gases?" 

Mari: "Yes and No" 

Gabrielle: "Ugh, You and Xena! I don't think I can stand it!" Okay, so you won't reveal the whole story, tell me how you know Xena." 

Mari: "I did promise didn't I?" (smiling) 

Gabrielle: "You did indeed!" (returning the smile) 

Mari: "I left my village when I was quite young after raiding warriors wiped my home from the map. My family and my friends were destroyed in a battle that took less than a day. Afterward, I traveled around without much purpose or direction trying to figure it all out, trying to find the answers as to why such a thing could happen. One day, I just strolled into this little village by accident." 

Gabrielle: (excited and questioning) "Amphipolis?" 

Mari: "Yes, Amphipolis. I must have looked pretty ragged and worn out because this beautiful young lady approached me almost immediately and asked if I needed help. 

Gabrielle: "Xena?, you knew Xena when she was young?!" 

Mari: "Yes, Gabrielle, well, she was younger anyway. I was amazed because she was about my age and she was kind, kinder than anyone had been to me in a long time. I didn't even answer her question, I was so shocked. She just grabbed my arm and led me to her Mother's Inn. She feed me, she clothed me and she gave me a warm bed without so much as a single question. When I awoke the next day, she was there. In fact, she didn't leave my side for days, she cared for my every need." 

Gabrielle: "Xena?!" 

Mari: (smiling) "Well, Gabrielle, I suspect she had less on her mind at the time then she does now but, yes, she is a woman of many skills." 

Gabrielle: (laughing) "So I've heard!" 

Mari: "At any rate, we were inseparable for awhile. Xena and her brother Lyceus taught me many things as we roamed through the Amphipilus woodlands practicing sword play, strategising war games and growing stronger every day. Those were the best days of my life and Xena the best friend I've ever had." 

Gabrielle: "I wonder why she has never mentioned you then?" 

Mari: "Good question. But what I'm about to tell will probably answer that for you. Would you like me to continue or have you had enough for tonight." 

Gabrielle: "Please, continue!" 

Mari: (laughing) "Okay, you've convinced me. Xena and I made great plans for our future. We were going to go out and rescue a world desperately in need of us, or so we thought! Goddess, how I loved her and the dreams we shared!" 

Gabrielle: "She has that effect on people!" 

Mari: "You too, huh?" 

Gabrielle: "Yup" 

Mari: "So, we had our plan. But the day came, or I should say, Cortez came to Amphipilus. And everything changed." 

Gabrielle: "What happened? Did you run from the fight because of what had happened to your village." 

Mari: "oh no, I didn't run, in fact, I wanted to fight!" 

Gabrielle: "So what happened?" 

Mari: "Patience, Gabrielle, patience! I not only wanted to fight, I did fight! With Xena, her family and the whole village. But as the body count mounted, as more men and women fell, I felt a growing disgust for the fighting, it wasn't the game I thought it was. But I wanted to please Xena, I wanted to be there for her as she was for me. The conflict built inside me just as the conflict built within the village. One night as the fighting raged on, I stood outside the circle of the fight and watched Xena. She was magnificent! Swirling, turning, twisting, jumping, swinging her sword. Her eyes were dancing, you could tell how she loved the fight, loved the challenge, loved the way her body responded to her commands. But, I couldn't share it with her. I found it frightening." (she pauses, tears coming into her eyes). 

Gabrielle: (reaching out to hold Mari's hand) "It must have been very hard. Did you ever tell Xena how you were feeling?" 

Mari: (squeezing Gabrielle's hand and holding on) "Not until the battle was over. And by then, I knew we would be going our separate ways. Xena was going to continue to fight, to fight anyone who even mildly threatened her village. I guess you know the rest?" 

Gabrielle: "Yes, but, Xena has changed. She had done so many good things since I've known her. She's left behind that life." 

Mari: "I know, the traveling bards have spread the stories of her heroic exploits and made her something of legend. I'm sure you've helped that spread a bit yourself, Gabrielle." 

Gabrielle: "I hope so!" 

Mari: "Anyway, I told Xena how I felt. She told me that I should leave because she was staying to protect her home. The last thing she said to me was "I knew you would run, just as you've done before. This isn't your village and you don't want to defend it!" So, I left." 

Gabrielle: "Just like that? After all you and Xena had been through?" 

Mari: "I felt I had let her down. But, I knew I couldn't stay either." 

Gabrielle: "And that was the last time you saw her?" 

Mari: "No, there was one other time. Right here in fact, but that is another day's story."

Meanwhile as the two women talk, Xena has found her way to the camp of the Nytosians who are preparing to defend their Valley as they have many times before. This time was different though, they were badly out-numbered and out-weaponed. Walking carefully into the ring of men who surround a small fire, she trains her eye on their leader, Teflus, a man who has grown old preserving the treasure he is only half sure exists. Xena speaks quietly to him.

Xena: "Teflus, we must talk about tomorrow." 

Teflus: "Yes, I suppose we should. (tiredly) I can only hope you are here to help." 

Xena: "I am, but I don't like the odds." 

Teflus: "Xena, I have defended this Valley all my life, I can do nothing else but try to do so again." 

Xena: "I thought you'd say that. How long do you think you can hold out?" 

Teflus: "We are going to try to give Mari two days, but that's all I can hope to provide. She will have to depend on her own resourcefulness after that to guard the Path. And maybe you?" 

Xena: (patting Teflus on the shoulder) "I'll be here." 

Teflus: "Well, (smiling) at least she has competent help." 

Xena: (returning the smile) "And, good friends and protectors." 

As Xena makes her way back to the cave, she formulates a plan which she can only hope will serve their purposes. By the time she rejoins Gabrielle and Mari, she has that spark back in her eyes.

Xena: "Done with your stories yet?" 

Gabrielle: "Yes, in fact, we just finished. What did you find out?" 

Xena: "The Terislitine Army will be on the move tomorrow. The Nytosians will try to counter their attack just as they reach the river." 

Gabrielle: "Will the Nytosians be able to defend themselves?" 

Xena: "They will hold out for awhile which will give us a few days to prepare. We must stop the Terislitines from gaining control of the caves." 

Mari: "Absolutely!" 

Gabrielle: "Will someone please tell me why?!" 

Mari: (looking at Xena) "I think it's time to tell, don't you? (Gabrielle nods in agreement) I'll tell you what, I need to check in on my patients. Why don't you two settle into your room and (looking at Gabrielle) Xena can explain it to you." 

Xena: (with a look of ill concealed annoyance) "Thanks, Mari" 

Mari: "My pleasure!"

Mari gets up and exits the room. Xena and Gabrielle make the short walk to their room. Gabrielle with her head down (thinking) and Xena with a concerned expression. Gabrielle silently walks around the room waiting for Xena to gather her thoughts. Gabrielle moves over toward the large bed in the center of the room, sitting down on the side.

Gabrielle: "Xena?" 

Xena: "What do you what to know?" 

Gabrielle: (smiling) "How about your whole life story... with nothing left out!" 

Xena: (returning the smile) "It's kind of late, could you narrow it down a bit?" 

Gabrielle: "Okay, first, what's The Path and what do these caves have to do with it? Then will you tell me about your relationship with Mari?" 

Xena: "Didn't Mari tell you?" 

Gabrielle: "Yes, but I want your side too." 

Xena: "I don't have a side, I am sure that Mari represented what happened fairly. Besides, I would think you would understand her struggles with killing." 

Gabrielle: "I do, but why did your difference have to cause the end of your relationship?"

Xena walks over to stand before Gabrielle, resting her hands on her shoulders.

Xena: "It was a different time Gabrielle. Let it rest." 

Gabrielle reaches up to cover Xena's hand with hers. 

Gabrielle: "All right, maybe later. (Gabrielle pauses, Xena grimaces) "What's The Path" 

Xena: "Actually, it's a fabled path, it's existence has never really been proven. But, it is said that anyone who walks down The Path, upon reaching it's end, is granted their most fervent desire." 

Gabrielle: "What would that be? Happiness? Money? Power? 

Xena: "That's what makes this legend so particularly appealing to so many people, The Path grants that persons most fervent desire, whatever it is." 

Gabrielle: "And no one has found it yet!?" 

Xena: "I didn't say that, did I?" 

Gabrielle: "You know where it is! Have you been there? Did you use it to become a powerful warrior?" 

Xena: "I know where it is, but I have never walked it. Mari knows too, but she has never walked it either. We talked about it the last time I was here but since each person can only walk it once, we decided to wait." 

Gabrielle: "Wait for what? Neither of you has needed it yet?" 

Xena: "I can think of a time or two where it might have been useful, but since I wasn't here, I couldn't use it. (pauses) We have long days ahead Gabrielle, let's get some rest."

Xena and Gabrielle settled in for the night, each with their own thoughts. Gabrielle replaying all the things that Mari had told her and Xena remembering her happy and full days with Mari in Amphipolis. 

When she first saw Mari, she was touched by how fragile and scared she was. Xena was convinced that she could help and maybe even make a difference in Mari's life. Instead of the one-way relationship she originally envisioned, it turned into one of the most mutually giving relationships she has ever had. Something she had found again with Gabrielle. Only this time, she was determined not to see it destroyed by her own foolishness. 

Chapter Three

Morning dawns in the caves. The rising sunlight reaches down into the caves through a series of small holes which serve to supply light and fresh air. Gabrielle is up early, filled with the thoughts and excitement of the night before. Xena has already gotten up, mentioning a need to look in on Argo. 

Gabrielle begins walking through the cave structure, amazed at the complexity of the caves and wondering how anyone could go about finding The Path. Cave openings leading to larger caves, leading to more cave openings. The scope of it was amazing. 

She finds Xena and Mari in the large entrance room of the cave they called the Beginning. In the daylight, the room took on a less formidable look. Gabrielle peers over the railing into the hole as Xena and Mari enter from the opening they used last night, obviously coming in from surveying the activity in the Valley. 

Gab: "Hi! How are things outside?" Xena joins Gabrielle, leaning up against the rail. 

Xena: "Lots of activity, its going to be a tough couple of days" 

Gab: (looking at Xena and Mari alternately) "So, what are we going to do?" 

Xena: "We are going to get this place ready. Mari, you get ready for the wounded, Gabrielle, I'm going to need your help." 

Gabrielle: "What do you want me to do?" 

Xena: "Mari will tell you where to gather what we need. Bring it all here. I'm going back out." 

Gabrielle: (to Mari) While we are at it, can you fill me in on what's going on?"

Xena looks out on the whole expanse of the Valley. From this vantage point she can see the two armies beginning to square off. She sets off to join the fray, silently making her way through the trees. As she draws closer to the battle, men are seen chasing one another through the woods, the sounds of swords clanging, men shouting and the wounded groaning. Xena joins with several Nytosians as they begin their defense of the precious Valley and its secrets.

Xena: (recognizing one of the soldiers from last night) "Are you ready?" 

Soldier: "Yes, and with you here, we might even stand a chance." 

Xena: (Xena smiles her crooked smile) "Let's go."

And, so, the battle begins. Xena, with a determined look on her face, pulls her sword from its sheath as several Terislitines begin to rush at her. The first soldier meets with a quick and easy swipe across the abdomen and falls immediately to the ground as three soldiers rush at once from behind. "YiYiYiYiYi" goes the cry as Xena flips backward, going over the trio as the run. One of the three rushes headlong into a tree knocking himself unconscious. The other two spin around and with a growl, charge Xena with their swords. Xena quickly counters the two weapons with one stroke, striking with such force that the two men flip over on their way to the ground. 

More men rush forward and Xena begins to fight in earnest. As soon as one group is dealt with, another moves forward or is encountered quickly in the field. As the day goes on and the sun begins to set, it is clear that while the battle is not finished, it is over for today. Men file past carrying the wounded bodies of their comrades. 

As Xena arrives at the Nytosian base camp, she sees Gabrielle and Mari tending to the wounded without regard to the loyalties of the wounded. Gabrielle looks up, taking in the sight of a tired, but healthy Xena walking towards her. Gabrielle fills a mug and runs up to Xena.

Gabrielle: "Xena, I was worried. Are you all right?" 

Xena: (taking the mug and drinking deeply) "Yes, but there are a lot of men who are not." 

Gabrielle: "Here, sit down and tell me about it." (they sit down by a small fire) 

Xena: (tiredly) "Gabrielle, its war, there is nothing new to say about it. (pauses and looks at Gabrielle who acknowledges what Xena has said with a frown and a nod) Did you get the caves prepared?" 

Gab: "Yes, we did all you asked. Do you think it will be enough?" 

Xena: "It will have to be. It doesn't look as if the Nytosians will last as long as I had hoped. Where is Mari?" 

Gab: "She's been tending the wounded for most of the afternoon but had to go back into the caves for more supplies. She worked so hard Xena, but there were so many she couldn't save. I don't know how she does it." 

Xena: "Mari believes in what she does. She always has." 

Gab: "Xena, what if this doesn't work, what if we cannot stop Locupit from entering the caves and finding The Path. What will Mari do?" 

Xena: (looks at Gab with a sad but determined look) "Mari will defend it to the death. (Gabrielle nods) Let's go find her and she what we can do."

Xena and Gabrielle walk slowly through the men sitting around in small clusters, exchanging story of the day and trying to rest. They continue on to the woods and to the entrance of the cave, going into the first room. The transformation from this morning is simple, yet clearly obvious. Everyone of the many smaller cave entrances now has a ladder, making them all accessible. Xena and Gabrielle share a smile at the sight of it as Xena pulls Gabrielle to her side.

Gabrielle: "Tomorrow we will finish putting ladders out on as many layers of the cave as we can manage. The villagers were only too happy to lend us theirs!" 

Mari enters the room from one of the caves. 

Mari: "Xena! Glad to see you back in one piece. (looking around) So, what do you think of Gabrielle's work?" 

Xena: (smiling at Gabrielle) "We were just looking around. But now I think it is time to rest. Tomorrow will probably go much as it went today." 

Mari: (with a frown) "It didn't go well, did it?" 

Xena: "No." 

Gabrielle: "I'll get the bedding ready" (exits room) 

Mari: "Xena, I have never seen this great a threat to the Path. I thought the Nytosians could defend us against anything, but Locupit is determined to find it." 

Xena: "This time you will just have to rely on human nature." (they exchange a wry smile).

Just as expected, the following day held much the same as the first day, fighting for Xena, healing for Mari, placing ladders for Gabrielle. At evenings end, the three women gather back in the cave to share a small dinner of rabbit and tea. The Nytosian army (what remains of it) is encamped just outside the main entrance to the cave.

Mari: "Xena, tomorrow is the day, isn't it?" 

Xena: "Yes" 

Gabrielle: "What will we do, do all those men outside have to die?" 

Xena: "No, tonight we will tell them to leave and return to their families. Mari, you will assist the wounded home?" 

Mari: "Of course." 

Xena: (pulling Gabrielle aside) "I want you to help Mari." 

Gabrielle: "But Xena, I want to stay and help you." 

Xena: (to Gabrielle) "I will just be a spectator by tomorrow. Besides, Mari will need your help with the men." 

Gabrielle: "Okay, but you find a safe spot and stay there!" 

Chapter Four

When morning comes, a surprised General Locupit is seen peering into the small cave entrance. The lack of resistance he has met with this morning has made him even more cautious than usual. There are clear signs that an army has been here but there are also indications that that same army has abandoned the area.

Locupit: (loudly to Wyce who is standing by his side) "Wyce! Take ten men through this entrance, but be careful it could be a trap!" 

Wyce: (looking around) "Looks to me as if the Nytosians finally figured out that they were destined to die if they continued to resist." 

Locupit: "Just do what you are told. Get in there! If you are wrong, you'll be the first to know." 

Wyce: (a bit more timid and turning to his men) "You two first, the rest of you, prepare to follow."

The men crawl through the entrance with torches lit. They arrive at the Beginning room without incident. There are no signs of life or resistance.

Wyce: (pointing to one man) "Go back and get the others." 

Soon after, most of the Terislitine Army stands in the room looking up at the cave entrances and wondering what comes next. Xena looks on anxiously from her vantage point at the top of the cave in a hidden alcove but smiles when she hears Locupit's next words. 

Locupit: "I want this entire place searched, take ten men into every cave and keep an eye out for any entrance which may look slightly different than the others." The men start climbing the ladders and crawling into each opening.

Outside the caves, Mari and Gabrielle have finished delivering the wounded to the healers in the village of Nytosia. Unfortunately, they have also met up with Joxer again who has done little but run around the Village looking panicked since Xena sent him on his mission.

Joxer: (running to catch up) "Gabrielle! Hey! Wait up!" 

Gabrielle: (aside to Mari) "oh, brother" 

Mari: "He's your brother?!" 

Gabrielle: "Oh, no, no, no, No! I meant, Oh, Brother!" 

Joxer: (coming up to the two women) "I've done my work here, what's next?" 

Gabrielle: "You've done your work here? What exactly have you done?" 

Joxer: "Well, I warned them and I, uh, (pauses), well, I warned them!" 

Gabrielle: (bored) "Mari, this is Joxer" 

Joxer: "the MIGHTY!" 

Gabrielle: "Yeah well, enough with the introductions, we have got to get back to Xena."

As Gabrielle, Joxer and Mari head back to the caves, Locupit is impatiently waiting for his soldiers to report back what they have found. It is taking far longer than he anticipated. Xena, from her perch above, is enjoying his growing frustration. 

Xena's enjoyment is short-lived however as the small ledge she is hiding on begins to give way. As the structure collapses, Xena loses her battle to maintain her balance and falls with the rock and debris to the ground below. The remains of the ledge continue to fall on top of her, completely covering her with small rock and dirt.

Locupit: "Xena destroyed! This is a good day. The Path and the Warrior Princess in the same day. (looking around) Where is Wyce? What's the delay?" 

Wyce: "Here, General. The men are still searching, we just keep finding more caves. We've been looking for hours and found nothing. What do you want to do?" 

Locupit: "I know it's here, it has to be. Gather up the men, we will search again tomorrow." 

Wyce: "What do you want to do with that (pointing to the pile covering Xena)." 

Locupit: "Nothing, leave her there."

As the men make their way back to the larger room, it is clear that not all those who went into the smaller caves are coming back out. In fact, almost half have failed to return. Locupit, recognizing that his men were lost, storms out of the caves with his remaining men in tow. 

Chapter Five

Minutes later, Gabrielle, Mari and Joxer return and cautiously enter the caves. They saw Locupit and his men storm off in anger but could not even venture a guess as to why. Upon entering the Beginning room, they immediately notice the pile of rocks and dirt. Gabrielle see Xena's chakrum half exposed, half buried in the pile.

Gabrielle: (alarmed) "Look at this! (Turning to Mari) "You don't think..."

The two women and Joxer begin to frantically dig through the pile. As they dig, they begin to expose Xena now unconscious body which is twisted and bleeding. It takes almost an hour to get Xena out from under the rubble. Carefully they lay Xena down upon the hard floor of the cavern. As Mari begins to do an examination of Xena's injury, the look on her face tells Gabrielle that the prospects for recovery are not good, but she has to ask anyway.

Gabrielle: "Mari, can you help her? 

Mari: "No, there is nothing I can do, she has too much internal damage. It's up to you now." 

Gabrielle: "Up to me? What can I do?" 

Joxer: (pointing at Gabrielle) "her?" Why her?" 

Mari: "Gabrielle, there is only one way. What is your most fervent desire at this moment?" 

Gabrielle: (looking confused) "For Xena to be well again of course." 

Mari: "Then you must take Xena down The Path if she is to recover."

Joxer, Gabrielle and Mari begin the work of constructing the litter and lift that Gabrielle will need to take Xena down the path. The three friends work frantically knowing that Xena may not last as long as it takes to prepare the way. 

Twenty minutes and much sweat later, the litter is ready and Xena has been moved to a resting position on it. Carefully, so as not to disturb the wounds and broken bones, Gabrielle takes her place with Xena on the litter. Mari and Joxer pull ropes which run through a makeshift pulley attached to the ceiling of the cave. They work the ropes until the litter is raised above the level of the railing which protects people from falling in the large hole in the center of the cave. Mari carefully pushes the litter out over the center of the hole. Joxer, at Mari's direction, removes his sword from its sheath and, with one swift move, cuts the rope holding the litter. 

Gabrielle's yell can be heard for some time as the two women fall deeper and deeper into the mouth of the cave. As they continue to fall, Gabrielle remembers the words Mari spoke just before the rope was cut. "Keep your focus on what you desire most." Gabrielle began to think of all the good times, all the adventures, all the danger, all the love she had experienced since she had taken up with Xena. Without a doubt she knew that she had Xena to thank for leading her to her life's dream, her life's fulfillment. Gabrielle, with tears streaming, thought of what life would be like without Xena and knew she couldn't face it. 

Suddenly, the falling stopped. Abruptly but without force it ended. It was as if they had landed on a cloud. And, as Gabrielle looked down at the form beneath her, a rather shocked and confused Xena looked back.

Xena: (annoyed) "What are you doing?" 

Gabrielle: (wiping off the tears) "Xena, are you all right?" 

Xena: (looking around) "Of course, now, if you'll get off me, we can figure out where we are." 

Mari: "Oh, I don't think that will be necessary. Well, you could get off her Gabrielle, but the figuring out process won't be necessary. You are where you started." (Gabrielle, somewhat embarrassed, moves off of Xena as both women awkwardly struggle to stand). 

Joxer: (to Mari) "Hey, how'd you do that? How can they end where they began?" 

Xena and Mari: (in unison) "The Path"

Later, as Xena and Gabrielle gather their belongings and prepare to leave, Joxer and Mari wait outside the cave discussing the recent events. Mari is trying to explain to Joxer why he wasn't chosen to take Xena down the Path.

Mari: "Joxer, when Xena was hurt and couldn't be saved by ordinary methods, it was clear to me that she and Gabrielle had to go down the Path. Who else could I send but Gabrielle? (As Joxer starts to protest, Mari silences him with a single, raised hand) Joxer, you don't know, you may have wanted other things. If they had crept into your thoughts, Xena would have died. Only Gabrielle would be so clear about her desire to save Xena." 

Joxer: "What about you Mari? Couldn't you have gone." 

Mari: "No, Joxer, I am the keeper of the Path. Each generation a traveler finds their way here and is somehow drawn to make the protection of the Path their life's goal. No one really knows why or how but for whatever reason, I am that person. However, like everyone else, the keeper of the Path can only go in once, (pauses) upon their death." 

Joxer: "What happens then?" 

Mari: "I don't know, no one has ever come back to tell. But soon after, another traveler will find their way here. The cycle continues as it was meant to."

Xena and Gabrielle join Joxer and Mari outside the caves after having erased all traces of the events of the last few hours. 

Xena: "Locupit's men will continue to search these caves for a few days before they get frustrated and leave. Unfortunately, some of them will never find their way out." 

Mari: "Very true. I have been living in and exploring these caves for years and still do not completely understand their complexities. Those men will be in there forever." 

Joxer: (looking around frightened, pointing to the cave entrance) "you mean there are a bunch of dead men in there?" 

As Mari, Xena and Gabrielle nod in agreement, Joxer makes up his mind to vacate the area quickly. "Well, folks, looks like everything is okay here, guess I'll be moving on." He turns, takes a few quick steps and then breaks into a full run. The three women share a smile. 

Xena: "Mari, are you sure you will be all right? We can stay around a little longer to be sure Locupit doesn't stumble upon something he shouldn't." 

Mari: "Xena, the Path has remained a secret these many years and with your help, it will not only remain so but with Locupit's help, the legend should lose some of its luster. You know what they say, when you want to hide something..." 

Xena and Gabrielle: "Put it right out in the open!" 

As Xena and Gabrielle walk away, Gabrielle puts her hand on Xena's arm, stopping her progress.

Gabrielle: "Why didn't you go down the Path the last time you were here. You could have had anything you wanted." 

Xena: "I came here just before I met you, when I was ready to give up. I thought if I came here, went down the Path I could find some meaning for going on." 

Gabrielle: "What happened?" 

Xena: "Mari convinced me to look for meaning elsewhere." 

Gabrielle: "And did you find it?" 

Xena: (looking deeply into Gabrielle's beautiful blue eyes) "Yes, I did." 


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