Convert this page to Pilot DOC FormatPreface: This is an old story, that was lost from the net for a while until Lunacy helped me find it and asked me to repost it. Maybe a few words are needed to explain the context... Killing Time was written... over a year ago, for sure... and was written at a time when we all believed (the old Forum crew) that this thing we had discovered, called Xena, would go on forever as a sweet, powerful, wonderful fairytale. We adored the show as if it were our own... we thought of the characters as friends... and we loved them. This story was written in that context... before Callisto was a god, before Ares turned into the... I don't know what the writers are doing with that character now... when Gabrielle was the very meaning of innocence and second chances. Anyway, Killing Time was pesented originally as a serial... and took several weeks to post... if the writing is not up to par with some of my later stuff, it's only because I was blinded by love and in a wonderful haze to create for my lover. So, here's the story, for what it's worth... tim
by Tim Wellman
"Xena?" Gabrielle walked to where Xena was sleeping and kicked her softly on the back. She was holding her stomach in pain. "Xena!" She kicked again, a little harder this time.
Xena rolled over and looked up at Gabrielle. She focused her eyes, then quickly sat up. "What is it? What's wrong?" She noticed Gabrielle holding her stomach and jumped to her feet, then helped Gabrielle sit down on her blanket. "What is it?"
"I don't know...." She tried to smile through the pain, but it was impossible. "It just hurts...."
Xena brushed Gabrielle's hair off her forehead, then felt for a fever. "You're not hot. Are you sick?"
Gabrielle reached her hand up to Xena's face, smearing her blood across her cheek. Xena grabbed her hand, saw the blood, then reached down to Gabrielle's stomach. She lifted her hand and it was covered in blood. "Gabrielle, you're wounded." She looked around the parameter of the camp, looking for any sign of an attacker, then turned her attention back to Gabrielle. She nervously brushed the tears from her eyes, and grabbed the corner of the blanket, then she held it to Gabrielle's stomach. In seconds, it was soaked in blood. She took a deep breath and bent Gabrielle back, then removed the blanket to see the wound. Finding the cut, she turned her head away. It had been so long, she had lost her immunity to blood. She felt her own stomach tighten. She held the blanket back to the opening. "Gabrielle, hold this on tight. I'm going to have to sear the wound."
Gabrielle fought the pain, and pressed the blanket against the source. She nearly passed out, but shook her head and regained her senses.
Xena held the end of her sword in the camp fire until the end glowed bright red. Then brought it back to Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, stick the end of the blanket in your mouth." Gabrielle obeyed. "Oh, sweet... I have to hurt you." Xena cleared her eyes and pulled the blanket away, then, as she had done a hundred times after battles, she pressed the tip of her sword to the wound. As Gabrielle's scream filled the forest, Xena closed her eyes and bit her lip until she tasted her own blood in her mouth.
Then, everything was silent. She tossed the sword away and laid Gabrielle's limber body back on her blanket. She looked at the wound again. The blood had stopped. She tore off a strip of the blanket and tied it around Gabrielle's waist... it was not much of a bandage, but it would have to do. She sat down beside her and pulled Gabrielle's head into her lap, then brushed the hair from her face. She kissed her forehead, and held her softly till daylight broke.
She could see the wound more clearly, now. She had been cut by something.
Gabrielle moaned, then opened her eyes. She managed a slight smile, then put her hand on her stomach. "What happened to me?" She winced in pain as Xena helped her sit up.
"You were cut by someone... or something...." Xena looked around again. "I don't know how they got into the camp without me hearing them." She looked at Gabrielle. "Do you feel well enough to stand?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "Xena, I could hardly wake you last night."
"I had to try several times to wake you up." She realized, now, that something must have been wrong. Xena usually woke to the slightest rustle of leaves.
Xena turned her eyes to the ground and tried to understand what was going on. "I slept through it? But even if I didn't here them, I should have heard you." She turned to Gabrielle and braced her as she stood, then walked around the camp looking for any sign of an intruder. "Gabrielle... were you sleeping here?" She pointed to a small pool of blood on the leaves beside Gabrielle's blanket.
Gabrielle forced herself to walk through the pain, and joined Xena. "Yea, right here..." She looked around the camp.
Xena pressed her lips together, then looked around. She walked into the trees, disappearing for a moment, then returned. "I couldn't find any signs.... Why you? If I was asleep, why not me? Why not kill us both?" She picked up Gabrielle's blanket and tried to look at it, but it was covered with blood. She dropped it.
"Xena?" Gabrielle touched Xena's shoulder. "Something's wrong."
Xena looked at Gabrielle and smiled, but everything was getting more confusing. "I know, but what?"
"No, look at my blanket. There's not a drop of blood on it." As she spoke, she pointed to the ground in time for both of them to see the pool of blood evaporate.
Xena looked up as Gabrielle's expression turned to wonderment. Then Gabrielle smiled, and grabbed her stomach. There was no pain. She lifted the bandage and there was no wound. Xena untied the bandage and poked Gabrielle's stomach. It was as if none of last night had happened.
Xena looked into the forest. "This is getting interesting."
"Xena, I don't think I like this." Gabrielle looked around, then shivered.
Xena walked to her side and wrapped her arm around her shoulders. She touched her cheek and tried to smile, but she, too, was becoming frightened. "We can't fight what we can't see." She looked through the trees, then pulled Gabrielle closer. "Whoever did this wants to hurt you... not kill you."
"Aaa!" Gabrielle winced in pain and grabbed her arm, as blood squeezed out between her fingers.
Xena turned around quickly, trying to find any sign of an enemy. She turned back to Gabrielle, but the wound had already healed itself.
"Xena, this is scaring me." Gabrielle looked around, trying to prepare herself for another attack.
"I know, Gabrielle... but I don't know what to do." She picked up her sword, then wrapped her arm around Gabrielle and held her, trying desperately to shield her. "What do you want from us!" Her voice disappeared into the forest. There was silence.
Before Gabrielle could even react, a cut opened up on her leg. She grabbed the wound and fell to her knees. Xena held out her sword and circled around her, trying to find the direction of the assults..
Gabrielle stood up and looked into the forest. "Come on, you bastard... I'm not afraid of you!" She squinted her eyes, hoping whatever the thing was, it didn't take her seriously. The wound closed on her leg.
Xena went back to Gabrielle and looked for the next attack, but for several minutes, nothing happened. Gabrielle started to breath normally, again, and Xena quickly got Argo ready to go. They walked out of the camp and back onto the road, hoping they had left whatever it was, behind.
"Could it be Bacchae, Xena?"
"If it is, why can't we see them?" She kept her eyes on the woods. "They're fast, but not that fast."
Xena's gaze locked on something ahead of them in the road. Gabrielle looked at Xena, then followed her stare. As they got closer, they saw dozens of rocks, carefully placed, spelling out the word, 'Gabrielle'.
Gabrielle shivered and folded her arms around herself. "This thing wants... me."
Xena kicked one of the rocks, then turned to Gabrielle trying to hold back her tears. "With every drop of my blood, I'll defend you."
Gabrielle ran to Xena and hugged her. "Xena, it's not your blood it wants."
Xena felt Gabrielle's body shaking in her arms, but there was nothing she could do. She held Gabrielle and looked into the trees. "I'll figure this out." She put her fingers under Gabrielle's chin and lifted up her face. "I always do." She tried to smile and Gabrielle tried to smile back. She took a deep breath, and fixed her concentration on every sound, every movement. She let go of Gabrielle and walked to the edge of the woods.
"Aaa!" Gabrielle screamed again, this time grabbing the back of her hand.
Xena quickly rejoined her and pulled Gabrielle's head to her chest. She wrapped her arms around her head, unable to stop Gabrielle from crying. She felt her take a deep breath and knew the wound was once again healed.
Gabrielle pulled away and stared a Xena with tears in her eyes. "Xena, I can't take this anymore." She fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around herself. She looked up, as if praying to Xena, begging her to help. Xena could only drop her eyes. "Aaa!" Another cut opened up on her thigh. She rolled over on the road and clawed her fingernails through the dirt. "Xena... please... just kill me." The cut healed.
Xena picked up Gabrielle the from ground and held her in her arms, then looked into the woods. "Why her!" There was only silence. "Take me!" She sat Gabrielle back on her feet and ran to the edge of the road. "Take me!" Still, there was only silence.
"Xena." Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm and pulled her back from the forest's edge.
Xena pulled away from Gabrielle's grip. "Come on... You like flesh?" She yelled as loud as she could. "I'm bigger than she is, take me!"
Suddenly a dark cloud crossed the sun and a chill went through her body. The whole forest seemed to get darker, more ominous.
Xena turned to Gabrielle and Gabrielle pointed down the road. A man, dressed in black, was slowly approaching. She stood in front of Gabrielle and waited. The man didn't seem to be in any rush. He looked into the forest, as if looking at flowers in a shop window. Xena drew her sword and waited.
As he got closer, Xena saw his face. He smiled and walked closer, as if he were an old friend. Xena made sure Gabrielle was behind her and she walked out to meet him.
"Hello, Xena." He smiled and tried to look over her shoulder at Gabrielle. "I wonder if the people you cut up with your chakram also experienced the same pain?" He smiled again.
Xena swung her sword at his head, but the sword when right through him, doing no damage. She raised her eyebrow. "Who are you?"
He smiled again and lifted his shirt. A large scar ran across his stomach. "Just another one of your victims." He smiled and let go of his shirt. "But, I'm better, now." He walked around Xena, trying to see Gabrielle, but Xena turned with him, holding Gabrielle behind her, and her sword out in front. "Sorry about the pain, my little one... but you see, it was the only way to hurt Xena. She's trained to ignore her own physical pain."
"You bastard..." Xena's face filled with hatred. But there seemed to be nothing she could do. How could she destroy someone she couldn't even hurt? She took a deep breath. "You still haven't told me your name."
He smiled and turned toward the forest. "Such beauty... the trees." He turned back to Xena. "You remember battles in the forest, don't you Xena. The fighting is so close you can see the life drain from the face of your victims." He stopped smiling. "You can hear their pleas for mercy, see the fear in their eyes."
"Listen, whoever you are, Xena has changed." Gabrielle couldn't keep quiet for another second.
The man smiled again. "Has she really?"
"Yes." Gabrielle looked down at the ground, then looked back with tears in her eyes. "How could you put anyone through the pain you put me through?"
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and pulled her close. "You obviously hate me, so what do you want?"
The man smiled at Xena, then turned to Gabrielle, again. "Sweet Gabrielle, you don't know what pain is. Imagine lying on the wet ground of the forest, watching your life pouring out from a hole in your chest. No one to help you... only the warrior princess' horse, stomping your arms, your legs. Imagine all your wounds at once."
Gabrielle turned away and grabbed her stomach. She tried to breath deeply to keep from getting sick.
Xena kept him in her cool gaze. "You still didn't give me your name."
"There will be plenty of time for that." The man smiled again, then started walking away.
"Finish this, now!" Xena lifted up her sword and started toward the man, but he had moved quickly, and was just disappearing from sight. She looked down at the ground and lowered her sword. "What am I fighting against, here?"
"Xena, this is something different." Gabrielle had straightened up and gathered what little strength she had left. "How do we defend ourselves against a dead man?" She put her arm around Xena's waist and laid her head on her shoulder, then closed her eyes.
"I don't know, Gabrielle..." Xena lifted Gabrielle's head and looked into her eyes. She tried to smile. "But we can't just stand here and wait." She pulled away from Gabrielle and grabbed Argo's reins. "Maybe the answer is somewhere up ahead."
Gabrielle followed Xena, walking faster until she caught up. "Xena...?"
"It was a long time ago... but it's all true." Xena answered Gabrielle's question, even before she asked it. "I didn't care whether I lived or died... How could I have cared about anyone else." She looked at the ground. "If I could change it, I would." She pressed her lips together and cleared her throat. "But how do you give back a life you've unjustly taken."
Gabrielle dropped her head. She had sometimes imagined what Xena had been like, but the reality, the details.... She took a deep breath. "You're right... it was a long time ago."
Xena grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulder and stopped her. She stood for a moment, until she found herself in Gabrielle's eyes, again. "I would give anything if I could erase from your mind what you must think of me, now." She squinted to hold back a tear.
Gabrielle touched Xena's face and tried to smile. "What I think of you?" She dropped her eyes and touched her foot to Xena's. "You are my friend... and my hero." She looked up in time to see the tear roll down Xena's face.
The two women continued their walk up the road. Xena watched the forest and occasionally looked behind. The sun hadn't returned to warm the day as usual, and a slight mist filled the air, settling the dust and making it hard to see too far ahead.
"Xena, this has to be the gods, right?" Gabrielle was finally coming back to her old self. "I mean, Hades, or Morpheus, right?"
"Whoever is doing it, kept me from hearing you last night." Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's back and rubbed. "But a sword can't pass through real flesh and bone." She looked for answers as she spoke, but could find only more questions. "I've been enchanted by the gods before... but this time is different. Not even the gods would use an innocent to punish the guilty."
"Xena!" Xena suddenly realized Gabrielle was no longer walking beside her. She turned and ran back to her friend, as Gabrielle pointed into the forest.
"What? What is it, Gabrielle?" She tried to see what Gabrielle was pointing at, but nothing was there.
"Oh, no!" Gabrielle dropped her head.
"Gabrielle!" Xena grabbed her shoulder and pulled her around. "What is it you see?"
Gabrielle looked up with tears in her eyes, then backed away from Xena. "I see you in battle with your army."
Xena closed her eyes and turned away. For the first time, she saw fear in Gabrielle's eyes... fear of her. It was something she thought was so well hidden in the past that it would never affect the only person she loved. "Gabrielle...." Xena was afraid to open her eyes.
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice was softer, this time, barely above a whisper.
As she opened her eyes, she saw Gabrielle on her knees, as if looking at a body on the ground. She moved her hand over invisible hair, then cradled her vision in her arms and clutched it to her chest. "Why?"
"Gabrielle!" Xena ran to her, and tried to pull her up by the shoulder, but Gabrielle kept falling to her knees. "Oh, Gabrielle..." Xena started to cry. "Come on... please."
"Xena?" Xena turned to face the same man they had met earlier. "She can't see you... you see, she thinks you're dead." She turned back to Gabrielle, but there was an older woman kneeling, where Gabrielle was. She was crying and holding the same invisible body. "My mother." The man walked over to the woman and stroked her hair. "When she found my body in the forest."
"What did you do with Gabrielle?"
The man pointed again, and as Xena looked, Gabrielle was back. He smiled. "More than you ever did for me, Xena. I give you another chance to see your beloved."
"What do you want from me?" Xena tossed her sword to the ground. "I'm not fighting... just tell me what you want?" She bite her lip and walked toward the man. Xena became aware that he was backing away from her. She raised her eyebrow. "You're still afraid of me." The man suddenly disappeared and she turned back to Gabrielle.
"Xena?" Gabrielle looked up at her with a confused look on her face. "What happened?"
"You were dreaming." Xena looked into the forest, trying to put the pieces together.
"But we were walking, and then..." Gabrielle shook her head, then stood up. "Do we keep going?"
"Gabrielle, we always keep going." She put her arm around Gabrielle and grabbed Argo's reins, then together they moved on.
"Xena..." Gabrielle ran her hand across Argo's back, then looked at Xena. "There must be some way to fight this guy?"
Xena looked straight ahead. "I think I've found his weakness, but he's not the one we're fighting against." She looked at the ground, as the old memories came pouring back. She suddenly became aware of all the people she had killed. "I don't even know if this guy ever existed... I can't remember."
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's back and looked up, catching her eyes. "Xena... surely, over the past two years you've done enough good to make up for everything you did before." She smiled and bit her jaw. "You just need to forgive yourself."
Xena bowed her head. She couldn't understand Gabrielle. After the pain she had been through, she could still find comforting words. "Gabrielle..." She couldn't think of an ending for the sentence, and allowed the silence to say what she was unable to say.
Gabrielle smiled. She had understood. She looked up and shivered. "Did you feel that? Gez, where's that wind coming from?"
Xena watched as Gabrielle shivered again. "Gabrielle, I don't feel anything." Xena watched as a small fog gathered around Gabrielle.
"Oh, I'm so cold." She shivered again and rubbed her hands together.
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. Her body was cold. Xena stopped her and turned her around, then watched as the color left her face. Suddenly, her lips turned blue and her eyes clouded.
"Xena... I can't see." Gabrielle felt for Xena's face and finding it, touched her cheek. "Please do something." Her voice was barely above a whisper. "Xena..."
Xena grabbed Gabrielle and held her next to her body. She could feel how cold she was, and she knew the feeling... she had held a dead body in her arms before. She ran her hand over Gabrielle's hair and kissed her head. "Oh, Gabrielle..." She could feel her getting colder and her body losing strength.
"Xena, it's so dark... I'm afraid of..." Gabrielle collapsed in Xena's arms, and Xena let her fall softly to the ground.
She ran her shaking hands over Gabrielle's body, and fought with all her might to hold back her tears. "Oh, Gabie..."
Xena turned around. The man was back, this time, keeping his distance. She quickly regained her warrior's heart, and narrowed her eyes. "I don't fear you." She jumped toward him and he backed away. She smiled, trying to keep her emotions together. "Ha!"
"I killed Gabrielle." The man was starting to get angry. "I can deliver her to Hades."
"You can't do anything." She jumped at him again and he nearly stummbled, trying to get away. She raised her eyebrow. "Such a little man.... I didn't kill you, you were a fool."
"No!" He backed farther away. "I was a warrior... I was Sentes!"
"Sentes..." Xena nodded her head. She remembered the name, the events leading to his death. "You were drunk when you fell beneath my horse."
"Not true!" He seemed to forget his fear for a moment and ran toward Xena. She quickly drew her sword and swung it through Sentes' body, causing it to splinter into a thousand tiny shards, disappearing in the misty air. She dropped her head and took a deep breath.
As she turned, Gabrielle was lifting herself from the ground. She brushed off her legs and bottom, then smiled. "So, that's what it's like to be dead." She opened her eyes wide, and refocused on the world, then exhaled. "Not so bad, really." Suddenly her eyes filled with tears.
Xena ran to her and took her in her arms, then kissed her neck. "Oh, Gabrielle..." She bent back and looked at her. She touched her fingertips to Gabrielle's cheeks, wiping away her tears, then letting go, she helped brush some of the dirt off her arms. She tried to smile, but she couldn't stop her tears. "I thought I may have lost you, there." She took another deep breath and finally managed a smile. "The man is gone... this time, for good. I stopped fearing him... he was powerless, then."
Gabrielle nodded and looked up at Xena. "But he's not the one who's responsible, is he?"
Xena shook her head and put her arm around Gabrielle. They both walked back to Argo. "He was doing someone else's dirty work."
"Any idea who?" Gabrielle, Xena and Argo started walking up the road, again.
"Not yet..." Xena pursed her lips together. "I've tried to remember anyone cruel enough to do this...." Her voice trailed off, as she suddenly got a thought. She kept it to herself.
"Well..." Gabrielle chose her words carefully, not wanting to seem frightened. "I hope it's over."
"I don't think we'll be that lucky." Xena stopped and grabbed Gabrielle's arm. "Gabrielle, it may be safer for you if we split up. You stay here and I'll ride on ahead."
"No!" Gabrielle's expression turned to anger. "I knew this was coming." She dropped her eyes, then looked back and smiled. "We're together and we're going to stay together."
"Whatever is happening to you is because of me."
"You're right.... Everything that's happened to me is because of you... the adventure, the good times... you've saved my life so many times, I would have to die a hundred times to repay you." Gabrielle breathed deeply and smiled. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to make a speech."
Xena smiled and started walking again. She looked ahead. "Then we'll solve this together." As she spoke, a figure slowly became visible ahead of them on the road. "Well, looks like here comes another piece of the puzzle."
She watched the figure coming closer. Finally she could see it was a woman. As she approached, Xena stepped away from Gabrielle and drew her sword. The woman kept getting closer. Xena's expression changed as she recognized the face. "And now they send you."
"Were you expecting your mother?"
Gabrielle lifted her staff and ran at the woman, but Xena grabbed her collar and held her back. "Xena, let me go. I'll kill her."
"Gabrielle... Callisto's already dead." She dropped her head and thought for a moment. "I killed her." She looked back at Callisto who was smiling. "And what did you bring... tricks or torture?"
"I am your last victim, so far. But then, I _was_ your creation." Callisto smiled, but made no attempt to get closer. "Unfortunately I'm weak, now." She changed her expression and looked at the ground. "Do you know what I'm going through?" She looked up with tears in her eyes. "Do you?"
Xena dropped her eyes to the ground and took a deep breath. "I was as much a victim as you were." She looked up and Callisto was standing close to Gabrielle. She ran toward them. "Get away from her!" She lifted her sword, but couldn't find the strength to bring it down on Callisto.
Callisto looked at Xena and furled her brow. "If only you'd had a heart then... I wouldn't have lost mine... wouldn't have lost the ones I loved the way you love Gabrielle."
Xena dropped her head and backed away. Callisto followed her, getting closer.
"Xena! Don't listen to her!" Gabrielle ran around Callisto and grabbed Xena's arm. She rubbed her arm and tried to lift her head. "Xena, remember she's dead. It's a trick." She pulled Xena's face toward her own.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and started to get her strength back. She pushed Gabrielle behind her and lifted her sword again. She walked toward Callisto and started to swing.
"Xena, please..." Callisto was crying, now. She dropped to her knees and put her hands together. "Don't kill me again." She dropped her head and continued to cry.
Xena dropped her sword to the ground and started walking toward her. She reached down and touched Callisto's hair and then started to grab her arm and lift her up. But Gabrielle suddenly ran toward Xena and pushed her away. Xena fell to the ground, helpless; she felt as if her soul were being sucked into the ground.
Callisto looked up with hatred in her eyes and hissed. She jumped to her feet and started toward Gabrielle, but Gabrielle stood her ground, and as Callisto got close, she swung her staff at Callisto's head. Callisto ducked, but Gabrielle spun around, this time swinging her staff through Callisto's body. The image again splintered into the air.
Gabrielle smiled. "That should've been my job, the first time." She walked to Xena who was trying to focus again on the world around her. "Xena. Are you all right?" Gabrielle gently slapped her face, until it seemed Xena was able to see the real world again.
She looked down at Gabrielle and tried to smile. "I've been better." She walked over and picked up her sword, then put her arm around Gabrielle. She knew Gabrielle had just saved her from whoever was torturing them. "At least he's picking on me, now."
Gabrielle smiled at Xena. "It wasn't your fault, you know. You changed, she could've changed, too."
"But I started it.... Gabrielle, I wonder how much I've really changed." Xena looked into the forest, then grabbed Argo's reins and they again began to walk.
"Xena... I know you have nightmares you can't fight, but remember someone is doing this to us." She put her arm around Xena's and laid her head on her shoulder. "And you have changed... you know it."
Xena looked straight ahead and thought for a moment. She pressed her lips together, and tried to control her doubts. But she still doubted.
"Xena... I've got it!" Gabrielle's face lit up, and she pulled Xena around. "This is Morpheus, again. He showing you all this like it was a dream. Don't you get it? He's trying to destroy you." Gabrielle smiled. She had figured out everything.
Xena looked down and shook her head. "Gabrielle... maybe." Xena knew the answer was much more involved than a simple trick of the gods.
"Okay, what if Morpheus is working with someone else?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle and raised her eyebrow. "But who?" She smiled and they started walking, again. "You see, even if Morpheus _is_ involved, we still don't know who is helping him." She looked ahead, trying to see through the mist. "And I don't think it's Morpheus, at all. That would be too easy."
Gabrielle bite her jaw. "Well, that's the best guess I have."
Xena stopped suddenly and looked into the forest. "Gabrielle, get ready..."
"Ready for what?"
"I don't know... but something is out there." Xena's senses sharpened as she focused on the trees in front of her. She waited for several minutes, not dropping her stare, but whatever was out there was going to stay out there.
"Xena... do we go into the forest?"
Xena took a deep breath. "Just stay close behind me." She grabbed Argo's reins and tethered her to a tree, then Xena and Gabrielle stepped off the road into the darkening, damp forest. Xena was getting all her strength back and she held her sword out, ready for anything. "We're getting close... I can feel it." Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed some sort of movement. She turned in time to see a figure disappear into a cave in the hillside. She looked down at Gabrielle and saw her watching the same thing. "I guess that's the next piece of the puzzle."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena and tried to smile, but she was too scared. "I guess so."
"Gabrielle, if you want to stay here..."
They walked to the mouth of the cave and started inside. The walls were lit with torches, and the path seemed well traveled. Xena tried to focus her eyes to the new light and walked carefully, ahead of Gabrielle, leading them both into the unknown. The cave leveled out and the passage became wider; the walls were painted with symbols, like temple drawings. An altar-like stone sat in the middle of the path. On it was a small, glowing orb.
"Oh, look." Gabrielle ran toward the object.
"Gabrielle, no!" But it was too late. As Gabrielle's hand made contact with the orb, she and the orb vanished. "Gabrielle!" Xena heard only the echo of her own voice. Her heart sank. "Gabrielle, don't leave me alone." She started to panic, wondering if she should leave the cave, or travel on. She took a deep breath, and seeing the cave well lighted up ahead, she moved forward.
As she walked closer to the light, she tried to convince herself that Gabrielle was all right. But she realized if she didn't solve the puzzle, didn't find out what was going on, she would never see her again. She squinted to adjust to the brighter light ahead, and walked into a large open area. She was at the end of the cave. She looked around, trying to memorize everything; it was a trick she had learned in battle... one that had saved her life countless times. "Gabrielle?" There was still no answer. "Anyone... why have you brought me here?"
Suddenly, a few rocks crumbled from the back wall, and a smaller passageway opened up. Xena had no choice. She walked to the small opening and climbed in. She crawled on her hands and knees in the dark until she could feel the passage open up. She could finally stand, and she made her way along, holding the wall to help keep her balance and direction. She could tell by the echo of her feet on the loose rocks that she had entered a larger area. She stopped and took a deep breath, then, as she tried to make out anything in the darkness, she heard the sound of Gabrielle softly crying. "Gabrielle..." She whispered, afraid to raise her voice.
"Xena?" Gabrielle sounded all right and Xena's heart renewed itself. "Xena, I'm next to the wall."
"Which wall?" The echo obscured the direction of Gabrielle's voice. Xena walked forward, then almost stumbled over what felt like another altar. "Gabrielle... are your eyes accustomed to the dark? Can you see me?"
"I'm to your left."
Xena looked and could barely make out Gabrielle's shape. "Hold on, I'm coming." She made her way slowly toward Gabrielle. She stumbled again, falling to her knees. "Damn!" She stood up again.
"Xena, be careful." Gabrielle could hear the rocks hitting against each other, and although she couldn't make out the black armor, she could see the faint sparkle of metal.
"Perhaps this will help!" A voice, oddly familiar, broke the near silence, and torches on all the walls suddenly blazed up.
Xena fell to the ground and covered her eyes. For a while it was too painful to open them, but gradually, she adjusted again to the brightness. "Gabrielle!" Xena ran to Gabrielle, and for the first time, saw she was chained, hand and foot, to the wall. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's neck and hugged her. She kept holding on, feeling the warmth of Gabrielle's body against her own. "Oh, sweet Gabrielle..."
"Xena, you're kinda choking me."
Xena pulled away, and tried to smile. "I didn't know where to look, where to go.... Without you, I would be lost." She reached up and tested the chains, but she couldn't jar them loose. "Gabrielle, keep your head down." She pushed down Gabrielle's head, then brought her sword crashing into the metal links. Sparks showered down from the contact, but no damage was done. She swung again with the same results, then again. She was nearly frantic now, swinging as fast as she could.
"Xena! Xena!" Gabrielle finally got the word through all the noise, and Xena stopped. "You're going to catch my hair on fire."
"Then I don't know what to do, Gabrielle." Xena was out of breath, and leaned against the wall with the tip of her sword resting on the ground. "The chains are too strong." She was breathing so hard, her words came between breaths.
"What?" She looked up at Gabrielle, then straightened up to face her.
"Could you scratch my nose?" Gabrielle twitched her nose several times, and frowned.
Xena smiled, then rubbed Gabrielle's nose. "Is that it?"
"Perfect." Gabrielle tried to straighten her back and took a deep breath. She shook the chains on her wrists and then tried to kick her feet. "You know, this could get very painful... especially if I have to use the bathroom." She smiled.
Xena smiled and touched her cheek, then looked around the opening, memorizing again. "Did you hear the voice?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle tried to follow Xena's eyes all around the area, but she couldn't keep up. "It sounded familiar. It was the same guy who chained me up."
Xena kept looking at the walls. "Yeah, it was Ares."
"Ares?" Gabrielle's face turned to anger. "That bastard."
Xena turned to Gabrielle, still breathing hard. She took a deep breath, then put her sword back in it's sheath. "That 'bastard' has you chained to a wall, but even he wouldn't be cruel enough to do everything that's happened to us." She looked around again. "Ares!" The name echoed. "Show yourself, old friend." She frowned at her own sarcasm.
"Hello, Xena!" Ares stepped out of the shadows and walked toward her. He was smiling, as if seeing an old friend. "Sorry about all this, but it was the only way I could be sure you'd come."
"If I find out you were the one who hurt Gabrielle, I'll hunt you down for the rest of my life." Xena looked back at Gabrielle and tried to ignore Ares.
"You've got me all wrong, Xena." Ares walked to Gabrielle and her and grabbed Xena's arm. He smiled again. "I owe you one... just trying to repay you."
"By chaining me to a wall?" Gabrielle frowned and stared at Ares. She didn't blink; she didn't drop her eyes.
"I chained your spunky friend, here, to the wall so they couldn't get her." Ares smiled again. "So you see, I'm a hero in this story."
"Ares, you're hardly a hero anyplace, except in your own mind." Xena turned back to Gabrielle and grabbed the chains holding her arms. "If you did this, loosen the chains."
"Well, there's a small problem."
Xena turned and faced him. "I figured there might be."
"It's not that I can't... but if I do, she's going to fall directly into Hades." He shrugged his shoulders and laughed, filling the cave with echoes. He reached up and grabbed the chains. "These are the only things keeping her alive."
Gabrielle dropped her head, then looked up at Xena. "So, I'm stuck here?"
"Well, not exactly." Ares walked around the opening, looking at the walls. "Didn't I do a fine job making this little refuge?" He looked back at Xena. "If you can find them and stop the curse, she lives. Otherwise..." He pointed down.
"You keep saying 'them'.... Who?" Xena walked toward Ares, then stopped, losing a little of her nerve. She could never tell by his eyes exactly what mood he was in.
"Xena, do you remember burning a village... oh, about seven years ago? There would've been a large temple to Hades in it."
Xena thought back, but there were so many villages. Seven years ago, her army was at the height of it's power, she was at her most ruthless. She shook her head. "I don't remember."
"Well, Hades does. He calls them the Village of the Damned, or something like that. The 'they' is that destroyed village." He laughed, and started walking around again.
"You mean Hades is behind this?" Xena followed him across the cave and grabbed his shoulder and turned him around, forgetting her fear.
"No, the Village of the Damned. Hades just gave them enough power to destroy you." He laughed again.
"Xena?" Gabrielle looked at Xena and moved her head, motioning for Xena to come close.
Xena walked back to Gabrielle and bent her head down close to Gabrielle's face. "What?"
"Remember, that's Ares. Has he ever once told you the truth?" Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together. "Why would he suddenly start telling the truth, now?"
"Xena, I told you once before... I've never lied to you." He walked back to Xena and Gabrielle and tried to put his hand on Xena's shoulder. She pulled away from his touch. Ares shook his head and smiled. "I've waited for months to get Hades back for stealing my godhood." He laughed and turned away. "Oh, the look on his face.... Listen, I can only help you a little bit. But I promise Gabrielle will be safe until you return."
"Where can I find the Village of the Damned?" Xena turned Ares around again. "How far is it from here?"
"Well, that's the tricky part." He rubbed his beard and frowned. "It doesn't exist anymore."
"Great.... My life depends on Xena finding a village that doesn't exist anymore." Gabrielle lifted her head in disgust, and bumped it against the stone wall. She frowned and started to rub the bump, but only succeeded in rattling her chains.
"Listen, I said I'd protect her, but I'm getting sick of listening to her." Ares looked at Gabrielle and put his index finger against his lips. "Quiet."
"But, if Hades gave them power, can I destroy them?"
"You just find the village and try. I don't know everything, Xena. I'm a god, not a fortune teller."
"How do I find this nonexistent village?" Xena was getting more confused, and Ares' random speeches weren't helping. She pulled him around again. "How?"
"The ground is still there. You just have to find where the village was." He laughed. "Trust me, if you get that far, they'll find you."
Xena shook her head and tried again. "But how do I find the place?"
"Look, all I know is, when you get close, this little orb will start glowing." Ares took the golden orb from his pocket and handed it to Xena. She examined it closely, then tossed it in the air like a ball. "Okay, the orb will glow."
"Just think back... try to remember where you were seven years ago. That should get you close." Ares laughed again and wiped his mustache. "I'm guessing by all the things you just went through, that you'll find it close by. Hell, it might be right outside the cave." He walked over to Gabrielle and patted her cheek. "Xena, I've got to go... there's a good battle in Sparta I don't want to miss. I've got money on the Athenians." He turned to face her. "You foil Hades' plans... I'll protect Gabrielle." He walked back into the shadows and disappeared.
Xena walked back to Gabrielle and touched her face. "Gabrielle, I don't know how long this is going to take, but I will be back." She rested her arms on Gabrielle's shoulders and touched her forehead to hers. "I promise I'll be back."
Gabrielle tried to smile. "I'll be waiting." She suddenly got a worried look on her face.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
"I wish I hadn't had the extra glass of water this morning." She smiled.
Xena smiled, then kissed her cheek, and turned toward the opening. It was well lighted, now, and she could make her way, easily.
Gabrielle yelled as Xena disappeared into the passage. "Xena, be careful." She bowed her head, wondering how Xena could get along without her. She closed her eyes, causing a tear to run down each cheek.
Xena stepped out of the cave, the last few yards, gradually readjusting her eyes. It was evening, and the midday mist had turned to a drizzling rain. She shivered as the first few drops hit her shoulders, but soon became accustomed to the coolness, and actually started to feel refreshed by the uncommon bath. Her hair soaked quickly, and she brushed it back over her head and out of her eyes. She looked at the orb in her hand... it wasn't glowing. She hadn't expected it to. A part of her wanted to run back into the cave, to stay with Gabrielle forever, and even if she had to remain chained to the wall, Xena could take care of her... feed her... even help her.... It was a foolish thought, but tempting, still. But Gabrielle deserved a real life.
Xena walked through the forest and back onto the road, to where Argo was waiting. She climbed up, and her legs squeaked as they rubbed across the wet leather. She patted Argo's neck, and slowly started on up the road. Deep inside, she even wondered whether Ares was lying... perhaps it was another one of his tricks. No, she knew him, and as terrible as he had been to her, he wouldn't have tortured Gabrielle. She looked at the orb, again... still nothing. For a moment, she remembered what it was like to ride on evenings like this, before Gabrielle came along... her eyes filled with tears. A loneliness she thought she had forgotten, gripped her heart, causing her whole body to slump. "Argo, sweetie, don't get used to this." She wiped the heel of her hand across her cheeks, and looked ahead, trying to clear her eyes. "Gabby will be back with us, soon." She shivered again and took a deep breath. "I'm losing my mind." She held up the dark orb and shook her head. "I'm looking for a nonexistent village, using a cheap trinket as a guide."
She quickly turned her eyes to the side of the road, and looked into the forest.
"Xena, get in here."
It was Ares' voice coming from the trees. Xena hopped down and tethered Argo to a bush, then parted the limbs and stepped into the forest. Ares grabbed her arm and pulled her down to the ground. As she looked up, he pointed on through the trees. She followed his finger, and saw a small fire in the distance.
"Take a look at the orb."
Xena held it up in the air and it started to glow, weakly. She tried to squint and look through the drizzling rain, but couldn't make out more than the glow of the fire. "But how do they have a fire in the rain?"
"Come on, Xena... get a clue." Ares stood up and walked into the trees.
"Ares..." Xena whispered as loud as she could and he came back. "Listen, you said you owe me... so help me." She stood up and grabbed his arm.
"Okay, you want help? Walk around with the orb. When it glows bright red, you'll know you're about to be attacked by an entire village of angry dead people." He laughed out loud and Xena cupped her hand over his mouth.
"On second thought, you take care of Gabrielle, I'll take care of the curse." She flipped her hair back, and the water flew across the trees, sounding like a momentary downpour.
"You're going to catch cold, Xena." Ares smiled then walked back into the trees.
Xena shivered and knelt down, keeping an eye on the mysterious fire. Then she held out the orb again, and nearly crawled along, trying different directions. Something caught the corner of her eye, and she turned toward the fire, but it was gone. Suddenly, the orb glowed brightly and she stood up, dropping it to the ground, and pulled her sword. She walked with her back forming a circle, waiting for an attack. She heard the leaves rustle behind her and turned, ready to confront her attacker. But she was not prepared. From all sides, a large mob ran toward her, grabbed her and forced her to the ground. She struggled, but the combination of the rain in her eyes, and all the hands on her, made her enemy anonymous. They quickly tied her hands and feet, then several men lifted her to her feet. She was caught tightly in their grip, and as she looked around at the angry faces, her eyes dropped. They were the faces of every village she had ever destroyed, only remembered with fear in their eyes, instead of hatred. She looked up and the rain streamed down her face; then she stood calmly, as a man lifted a sword and stuck it to her throat.
"Xena, Warrior Princess." His eyes burned and Xena could feel he was restraining himself. He would have preferred to run the sword through her neck. Mine was the last house destroyed... after we could fight no more."
Xena dropped her eyes again. She was used to having Gabrielle there to defend her, and could think of nothing to say. There was no defense for her past. She looked up and felt the sword scratch across her neck, and felt her warm blood mix with the rain and trail down her body. She took a deep breath, but showed no pain.
"And now, you slowly die... one cut at a time." He drug the sword across her chest, opening another, deeper wound.
Xena had to wince in pain, but the only thing that passed her lips was Gabrielle's name. She realized their lives were tied together, now. She wasn't afraid to die, but it was Gabrielle's life at stake. She cleared her eyes and tried to breath deeply.
"Warrior Princess... any last words before the pain becomes unbearable?" He pulled the sword away from Xena as all the others circled around her.
Xena looked around again, memorizing the faces, trying in sheer desperation to find Gabrielle's face, but she knew she was surrounded by strangers. She cleared her throat and looked back to the one with the sword. "Do you know the meaning of love?" She tried to smile as a tear ran down her cheek. "I do... she's waiting for me to save her... she's relying on me... and I've never figured out why.... Everything you say is true. I went through most of my life knowing nothing but hate, until she found me... saved me from what I had become." She looked up in the sky, and let the beating rain cover her face. "She gave me pure love when it would have been so easy for her to hate.... And if I destroyed your village, I'm sorry... but _you_ have become what I was." She looked at the faces surrounding her and tried to smile, again. "You see, nothing you can do to me matters... but don't kill one of the only bits of innocence and beauty left in this world."
The villagers were unmoved, seeming to grow even more angry as she spoke, but the man with the sword dropped the tip to the ground. "Untie her." He pointed to several of the villagers who obeyed him.
Xena twisted her wrists in her hands, trying to ease the pain of the burns the ropes had caused. With her feet again free, she could stand on her own.
"Hades has given us the power we requested. You can not fight us, here." He walked closer and held the sword to her throat again. "Don't even try. Gabrielle's life depends on it."
"Greetings, all!" Ares stepped out of the trees and approached the villagers. "Is this a private lynching, or can anyone join?"
The villagers turned to see the mysterious man, as he pushed his way through them and joined Xena. She could feel her spirits lifting, but she wasn't sure why. She felt like smiling.
"Who are you?" The man with the sword pointed it at Ares' throat.
"Who am I?" Ares laughed, then his mood turned black... it was as if the sky itself had darkened. The villagers backed away from his frightening glory, but the man with the sword stood his ground. Ares reached out and grabbed the blade of the sword and pulled it from the man's hand. "I'm Ares."
The man backed away in fear. "Hades will hear about this." He backed further away, until he and the villagers disappeared into the forest.
Ares put a smile back on his face. "Well, Xena, that bought you some time, but the curse can't be broken by me."
"Ares... why?" Xena grabbed his arm and turned him around. "Why did you help me?"
"Call it a temporary lapse in judgment." He tried to pull his arm away from Xena's grip, but she wouldn't let him go. His mood softened. "Look, you saved my life, once... and I want to get Hades. Besides, I've still got hopes of you coming back to my side."
Xena could tell he was lying, but she didn't press it. For whatever the reason, he had saved her and saved Gabrielle... for now. She tried to smile, but the cut on her neck hurt too much. She rubbed the shallow wound, and then wiped the blood off her chest. "For whatever the reason, thank you." She felt herself being drawn into Ares' eyes, and for a moment she moved toward him and her breath quickened. But she quickly came back to reality and shook her head. "Oh, no you don't."
"It's not too late for us, Xena."
"It's much too late for us." She narrowed her eyes, still wearing a slight smile, then let go of his arm and backed away. "We need to get back to the cave."
"Gabrielle is still safe... but like I said, you have to free her. The curse still has to be broken." He smiled. "Look, you can follow them through the forest..." He looked away, as if guarding a secret. "They may not be as powerful, if you can find them away from this spot."
Xena opened her eyes wide and pressed her lips together. "And you couldn't think to tell me this before?"
"Hey, a god's gotta have some fun." His laugh filled the forest. "They need this ground to feed their hatred. You keep them away from here, and you've got a chance." He laughed again and backed away, vanishing into the trees.
"You bastard." She whispered softly, but smiled, again grabbing her neck. Her expression changed. "But how do I keep them away from here and still go after them!?" There was no answer. "Ares!" The only sound she heard was the rain. She quickly pulled her sword and walked around the perimeter of the clearing. She realized it would be impossible to guard the entire village. "Ares!" She screamed as loud as she could.
"What!?" Ares came back out of the trees. "What is it, now?"
"You've got to stay here, while I go after them."
"Xena, it's raining. I'm wearing leather."
Xena dropped her eyes and thought of Gabrielle. She would do anything to save her. "Then a deal?"
Ares lifted her chin and smiled. "I'm listening."
Xena took a deep breath, knowing she was giving herself away. "You help me save Gabrielle, and I'll do whatever you want."
"Xena, I know when you're lying."
Xena dropped her eyes, then coming back with the most attractive face she could manage under the circumstances, she tried to look pitiable. "Please?"
"One hour, Xena." Ares shook his head. "I've got to be going crazy."
Xena smiled through the pain. "I'm leaving, now."
Ares grabbed her arm and turned her around. "It would've been good between us."
Xena smiled again. "Some things are best left to the imagination." She walked away, leaving Ares in the clearing, and slipped into the trees.
She headed in the direction the man with the sword had taken, hoping to get to him, first. He seemed like the leader, and Xena's training had taught her to take out the commanders first. She picked up her pace, nearly running, now. The villagers had gotten a good lead, and if they believed they were being followed, they could be so far ahead, that she could never catch up. She made her way through the water laden limbs and branches, and each one showered her with rain.
She broke through another branch and suddenly, standing in front of her, was one of the villagers. Without slowing, she lunged at him, knocking him to the ground. She landed on top of him, with her hands around his neck. He struggled for a moment, but Xena's violent attack had left him breathless. With a twist of her hands, she felt the villager's neck snap. His eyes rolled back, and he limbered in her hands. She stood up over him and rubbed her hands on her legs. "Next time, don't piss me off." She looked around, then as she looked back at the man, he dissolved into the ground. She was growing accustomed to the bizarre. She looked back into the trees... the others were close... she could feel it. There were many more villagers to go before the curse would be broken.
She turned, as one of the villagers ran toward her. She ducked, then flipped him over her head, impaling him on the branch of a tree. She tried to smile. This was going to be easier than she thought. But the smile quickly disappeared. She was again surrounded. The villagers were more cautious, now, and kept their distance, but the leader, with his sword, stepped forward and challenged. Xena drew her sword, then the two of them circled each other. She forced a smile to her face and she saw her attacker back away. He looked so frightened, Xena wondered what horrors he had gone through to bring him to this point... selling his soul to Hades in a last attempt to make her suffer.
"The same smile." He sneered at Xena and took another step back.
Xena lost the smile. She hadn't thought about it until then... riding into battle, smiling. She had been ferocious as a warrior, a vicious animal stalking her prey.. The man in front of her, for seven years, had remembered her smile... and it still frightened him. She took a deep breath and dropped her eyes, and as she did, suddenly, the entire mob ran toward her, grabbing her again. She twisted her body to get away, and swung her sword into the group, but they again subdued her, and wrestled her to the ground. Her sword fell from her hands.
The few villagers who remained standing, dragged her back to her feet, then the leader picked up Xena's sword.
"The blood of my family is on this sword. My future is in this blade." He held it up into the darkened sky, as if trying to draw energy from the blackness around him. "Gabrielle's blood is flowing."
"No!" Xena yelled so loud the villagers let her go and backed away. She regained her strength and her countenance darkened. She now understood the game. "I may have killed your family years ago... but you created the monster you've become. You can't hurt Gabrielle... I won't let you." She remembered the past, now, and realized she _had_ changed, had regained herself, by surrendering to Gabrielle's love. She felt stronger, and suddenly her wounds disappeared. She smiled and took a deep breath. "I'm through blaming my past..."
One by one, the dead and wounded bodies dissolved, as the rain spread them into the ground. The few remaining villagers gathered around the leader, then stood behind him as he approached Xena with her sword in his hand. She lifted her hands into a defensive position and smiled again.
"I'm not afraid of you, anymore... not afraid of my past." She looked into his eyes and saw them weaken.
He dropped his arms, but then, as if one last breath had filled his body, he raised the sword again and swung it at Xena's head. She ducked and then kicked him in the chest, sending him backwards into the others.
"Hades! Help us!" He ran at Xena again, but she rolled out of the way and found the man's sword on the ground.
"Ha!" She held it up and jumped toward him. "Now, let's see how brave you are." She could see his body weaken, seeming to become transparent. She ran toward him and swung the sword and a million drops of rain exploded from the strike, drenching her in a shower of dirty water. Her sword lay on the ground, and she grabbed it up, and turned toward the other villagers, but she only caught a glimpse, as they, too, melted into the ground. Then there was silence... except for the rain.
She touched her chest and neck. The wounds were gone; there was no pain. She took a breath, tasting freedom again and put her sword back in it's sheath. "Ares!" There was no answer. "Ares, it's over!" Still, there was only silence. She looked around for a moment and got her direction back, then ran out of the woods, back to Argo. She hugged her neck, almost singing, and mounted up, then rode back toward the cave.
Ares was waiting for her at the mouth of the cave, smiling. "Well, we did it."
Xena ran up to him and hugged him, too. Suddenly she felt like hugging the world. She laughed and held his face in her hands. "Do you know what true freedom is?"
Ares dropped his head and bit his jaw. "So, it's all gone?"
"It will never be _all_ gone... let's just say it's _all_ better." She smiled again and lifted Ares' head. "You did a good thing... for whatever the reason."
Ares smiled and stared into Xena's sea-blue eyes. He knew why he had helped her, but Xena never would. "Next time, I won't be there."
"You were here this time... and I won't forget." Xena looked into the cave and started to enter, but Gabrielle stumbled out, holding her stomach. Xena ran to her and hugged her, then she kissed her lips.
Gabrielle seemed stunned for a moment, then backed away. "Xena..."
Xena grabbed her again and squeezed her tight to her body. "Oh, Gabrielle... it's over."
"Xena?" Gabrielle managed to get the words out through her pain.
"What? What's wrong?" She held Gabrielle at arm's length and looked into her eyes.
"I've got to take a little trip into the forest." She stood on one foot and then the other.
Xena laughed, and ran her hand over her hair.
Gabrielle smiled, still fidgeting. "So, you saved me, again."
"No, Gabrielle, you saved me." She touched her cheek. "You saved me." She turned around. "And Ares..." Ares was gone. Xena smiled and said, Thank You, again, under her breath. As she turned back around, Gabrielle was stepping behind a tree. Xena smiled and nodded her head, then stuck out her arms and let the cool rain run down her body. Freedom....
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