PART III: GENISIS
Gabrielle prayed for the release of unconsciousness, but each time it seemed she would be granted relief from the pain, Dioclese would throw another cup full of water into her face to rouse her. Just when she knew she couldn't take another moment of this torture, she thought of Xena. She knew that she was alive, and trying to get to her, the king's revenge would have little effect if Xena was dead. Just the thought that Xena would be coming for her gave her the strength to endure. But it was also more; Gabrielle knew that so long as she lived, the king will have failed in his plan and she feared what might happen to Xena if he suceeded. She knew in her heart of hearts that she held a part of Xena's soul, a trust she did not take lightly.
LASH! The whip burned its path across her body. She long since stopped flinching when the whip made contact with her back, now thinking only of survival. Survival for herself and for Xena. She felt the blackness coming to claim her yet again, silently pleading that her torturer allow it to take her this time. As the edges of her vision began to grow dim, Gabrielle felt a pull in the dark reaches of her mind. The longing of the rage and hatred she thought to have put to rest in that peaceful glade forcing its way to the surface yet again. This time she would not stop it; did not even try. Gabrielle used the hate, anger, rage as a weapon against the agony she was forced to endure. She would use whatever was necessary to survive, even the darkest regions of her own soul. She only hoped that she would not lose herself entirely to the darkness.
Gabrielle's eyes slowly slid closed even as the whip danced across her back, her legs, and she faded from consciousness. Dioclese knew how far to push, and when to stop. The key to torture was to not only destroy the body, but also the mind and the will. He would allow her a respite, for now. Dioclese loosened the manacles that bound Gabrielle to the wall and uncaringly let her body slide to the ground. Without another thought, he turned and strode from the room.
Xena's backtrack through the forest surrounding the small village took most of the day, and as twilight fell she had reached the outer walls of the castle. The last time she visited King Antonius' realm she had an army at her back, now she had only herself. During the battle fought those many years ago, she had learned that several of Antonius' soldiers had managed to secret themselves out of the castle to attempt an infiltration of her camp. The assasins had been unsucessful, but she had learned the location of their secret entrance and had used that information to defeat the palace defenses. It had led into the lower regions of the castle, very near the dungeons where she suspected Gabrielle was being held. She only prayed the hidden entrance still existed.
Xena slowly worked her way closer to the castle walls, wary of the patrolling guards upon the parapets. When she had drawn as close as she dared, Xena concealed herself within the cover of the shadows to wait for full dark. Her mind drifted back to when she had first met Gabrielle. Gods, she had been annoying! And at first Xena herself didn't know why she kept the girl by her side. It wasn't until the priests of Morpheus had kidnapped Gabrielle intending to sacrifice her to their god that Xena truly realized how important Gabrielle had become to her. She had faced her own nightmares to rescue the girl, and she would gladly do it again. A slight shake of her head relieved the memories and Xena looked about, deciding that it was now or never. It was pitch black leading up to the castle, the only light cast by the torches above. If she was careful, the soldiers standing watch would never know she had been there until it was too late.
Moving from her concealment, Xena kept to the shadows. As she neared the hidden doorway, she realized that something looked different. Darting between the low bushes that disguised the door, she saw that the entry had long since been barred from ever being used again. Heavy beams of oak had been placed cross-wise to block any entrance. Xena's heart sank. If she was forced to fight her way into the fortress, the chances of her being able to find Gabrielle and making it back out again were slim at best. She was good, but not that good. No, the only way was through this door. Xena drew closer to inspect the portal, running her hands over the beams blocking her path. It appeared that they had been pounded into place and held there with large steel spikes, but that had been six years ago. Time and the elements had taken their toll and Xena could feel the wood around the spikes had become soft and pealed away easily.
Feeling a wave of hope, Xena drew her dagger and began the arduous task of loosening the beams from the spikes that held them into place. Xena worked as quickly and quietly as possible, knowing that every moment brought her closer to daylight and discovery by the soldiers above. If she had not gained entry by morning, she knew she would have to leave Gabrielle inside for another day.
Gabrielle thrashed about on the cold stone floor, the nightmare taking hold of the young girl. She could see him coming for her, his leering face, the stench of the room filling her nostrils. Dioclese' face mere inches from hers as he drew back the whip yet again. She attempted to cry out in fear, but no sound issued from her lips. Gabrielle had never been so terrified in her life, not even in the forests of Thessilay. Just as the whip was about to make contact with her unprotected body yet again, Gabrielle jerked awake, the taste of her fear still lingering in her mouth. But now there was something else, cold fury. Fury at those who had taken her freedom, stolen her innocence. Fury at herself for allowing herself to be captured, fury at Xena for allowing it.
The door to her cell burst open, but Gabrielle seemed to barely notice. She knew who was there without looking, knew what would be coming, knew the pain. But now she had a weapon. The rage served her well; the cold hardness it brought blocked out the cruel hands that reached for her, blocked the pain, blocked any emotions other than hatred. The darkness Gabrielle had sensed within herself now overwhelmed her. Any semblance of the young, innocent bard disappeared piece by piece with each blow that rained down upon her. She was no longer Gabrielle the Amazon Queen, she had become something much darker. She cried out now, not in pain or fear, but in furor. It was a feral sound, primitive in its origins, the will to survive. The sound reverberated throughout the passageways, reaching the ears of those outside the castle walls.
Xena paused in her task, listening to the cry that reached her ears and sent chills down her spine. She had heard similar cries uttered by men as they were beaten to death, tortured at her hand or the hands of her men. Only the exceptionally strong willed had howled that way. It was then that she would know they had been consumed by the hate and rage leaving nothing of the former self behind. Then that sound had envigorated her, now it terrified her. With renewed energy, Xena heaved on the final beam barring the entrance, using brute strength fueled by her emotions to remove the obstacle in her path. The beam gave way with a groan, falling heavily into her arms. She laid it aside as quietly as she could looking to see if any had heard the sound. She then turned and entered the darkened passage.
Xena herself had led the squad that had breached the castle defenses six years ago. She could only hope that her memory served her well now. Drawing her sword from its scabbard, she worked her way in the direction she thought would lead her to the cells that housed the prisoners. The screams that had chilled her soul before were now gone, silence ruling in their absence. Xena cautiously rounded the final corner that led to the prisoner cell blocks. Two guards had been posted at the top of the stairwell; they appeared bored with their present assignment and were talking in hushed tones. She knew she had found the right passage, Antonius was not a fool. He had to know that she would come, and would not waste two men to guard an empty cell block.
Stealth her ally, Xena moved silently down the corridor, careful to remain in the shadows as much as possible. The first man to drop never even had time to draw his weapon before he was felled by a lethal slash from Xena's sword. The second guard was startled by the sudden death of his comrade, but still managed to draw his sword. Xena disarmed him with a single blow so powerful it sent his weapon clattering to the floor. Fear was reflected in his eyes, but to his credit he did not beg for his life. The tip of Xena's sword nestled in the hollow of his throat, the soldier waited patiently for the final blow.
Coldness reflected in Xena's eyes as she held the man's life in her hands. With blinding speed, her sword arm dropped and her precise fingers found the pressure points she had used so often in the past. The soldier fell to his knees, gasping.
"I've just cut off the blood to your brain. You'll be dead in seconds unless you cooperate." Xena said harshly. "Where's the girl?"
The soldier felt the edges of his vision darken as he gasped for breath and he knew the warrior woman spoke the truth.
"There..." he croaked, motioning to the stairwell. Xena glanced down the flight of stairs and made a quick decision. She reached out and released the soldier from her touch and hauled him to his feet.
"Show me." Xena breathed, keeping her sword to his back, "If anyone trys to stop us, you're the first to die." The soldier nodded dumbly as Xena shoved him roughly down the darkened stairwell.
The flight of stairs led to a long, narrow corridor that stretched for about 100 feet and then turned a corner. There were approximately ten cells on this corridor, any of which could be Gabrielle's. Xena and her captive encountered no others in the hallway and they made their way slowly through the dimly lit passage. A sound reached Xena's ears that seemed to emminate from the last cell on the block, a sound she knew all too well. The sound of torture; the sound of a whip. Each time the whip cracked, Xena's pace increased as she propelled her captive along the passage, fear clutching at her heart. The soldier knew enough to keep his mouth shut, knowing he would be dead before any sound escaped his lips.
Xena approached the door to the cell, the sound of the whip coming unmistakably from inside. Xena reached out to grasp the shoulder of the man in front of her. She turned him around so that he was facing her and forced him against the far wall, her sword at his throat. She brought her fingers to her lips demanding his silence, then faster than he could follow used her skill at pressure points to render him unconscious. He slid to the floor without a sound.
Xena then turned her attention to the cell door. The lock hung open, the door merely pulled closed. Xena eased open the latch, hoping that whomever was within would be too occupied to notice the door. As the latch was freed from its housing, Xena stepped back and kicked the door open with all her might. The sight that greeted her was enough to stop the Warrior Princess cold.
Gabrielle stood, her arms chained over her head, her feet barely touching the ground, her back, legs, and arms a bloody mass, her face turned away, hidden from view. Over her stood an enormous man, dressed entirely in black, poised to unleash his weapon of torture yet again. His head jerked at the sound of the door crashing open, the look on the face of the warrioress enough to freeze him where he stood. Never before had he seen such rage as that which was reflected in Xena's face. She took in the scene and simply reacted. Dioclese never had time to draw his weapon before Xena's sword pierced him through the chest. He was dead before his body hit the ground.
Xena was shaking, the ease of the kill doing nothing to still the feelings of anger coursing through her, demanding revenge for what they had done to her Gabrielle. She fought to calm herself, turning her attention to Gabrielle. The bard seemed unaware that the beatings had ceased, her head still turned away. Xena snatched the keys that hung from Dioclese' belt and turned to release Gabrielle from her bonds. At Xena's touch, Gabrielle started and twisted to face her friend. What Xena saw in the young woman's face staggered her. She was Gabrielle, but yet at the same time she wasn't Gabrielle. Horror flooded through the warrioress. Gabrielle had been twisted by her rage into someone barely recognizable to Xena, a perversion of her former self. Realization struck Xena like a blow. The screams she had heard had been Gabrielle. The thought of what had driven the bard to her present state sickened Xena like no battle, no amount of carnage ever had.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked hesitantly.
The young woman merely stared at her, the coldness of the stare caused Xena's blood to run like ice in her veins. All of the beauty and vibrancy Xena had come to know was gone and in its place was left a hatred and anger Xena knew all too well. It was like looking into a mirror of her former self. Gabrielle continued her cold stare, her features etched as if carved from stone.
"Gabrielle, it's me, Xena..." she began gently, looking for some spark that her friend was still there, hidden beneath the mask. Xena reached again for the chains that bound her friend, this time Gabrielle made no move to pull away. Xena eased the bard's arms free of the chains and moved to support her, an arm wrapped around the the smaller woman's waist. Gabrielle's eyes never left Xena's face, her gaze hard and unemotional.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked uncertainly. "It's ok. I'm going to get us out of here. You're safe now." Xena said soothingly.
The tone of the warrior's voice seemed to awaken the woman buried deep beneath the mask now so firmly in place. Xena saw a softness briefly return to those green eyes and was relieved. Gabrielle was still there, her Gabrielle, no matter how twisted by hate. The one she loved was still there, buried deep. So long as she could still see that spark in Gabrielle's eyes, Xena had hope she could bring her back from the darkness. But now they had to flee.
Gabrielle let herself be led from the cell and back toward the staircase that led to freedom. Xena's voice had awakened her as if from a nightmare, but the demons had been released. All the hate, grief, and rage she had fought to control now washed through her out of control, and the small part of her that had managed to remain untouched by the darkness feared she might never be able to capture her demons now that they had been set free.
Xena half carried Gabrielle up to the top of the stairs and out the narrow passageway that led outside, amazed the bard was still able to walk. Xena closed her mind to the vision of Gabrielle chained and broken, the fury carved into her face. She would deal with that after she knew they were safe, after she knew Gabrielle was safe. It was still pitch black as they exited through the hidden doorway and slipped silently into the trees beyond.
Xena pushed Argo through the rest of the night and part of the next morning, wanting to put as much distance between them and Antonius' men as possible. By now the king had discovered Gabrielle's disappearance, and after anticipating his revenge for six long years, was not likely to give up easily. His soldiers were sure to be pursuing them even now. Xena allowed herself a moment to look upon the face of the woman cradled in her powerful arms. Gabrielle slept fitfully, seemingly at war with herself and her nightmare. She had lost consciousness shortly after they had reached Argo, her strength finally at its end. Xena had held her close, the proximity of their bodies having a calming effect at first. Now, however, Gabrielle's slight body was rigid as her mind was trapped within the world of her nightmare and there was little Xena could do to comfort her.
The guilt again bubbled to the surface of Xena's psyche, taunting her. She savored the feeling briefly before willing it from her mind. Now was not the time for self pity, not when Gabrielle needed her. Xena had seen the darkness reflected in the eyes of the bard, and it had terrified her more than any threat to her own life. The one thing Xena knew she could not bear would be the loss of her friend, but yet it was that very fact that now stared her in the eye. Gabrielle was alive, and that was something to be treasured; but the Gabrielle she had come to know, to trust, and yes, to love may be gone forever, lost to the monster that once ruled Xena's own soul.
Was this to be the punishment wrought by the gods for her misdeeds? To watch as one she loved was consumed as she had been? NO! She would not let it happen! Her Gabrielle was still there, buried deep; she had seen it, back in that dank cell. A small spark still burned, she just had to find a way to bring it to life so that it might cast its light once again in Gabrielle's soul, before the dark extinguished it completely.
Breaking through the edge of the forest, Xena was greeted by a familiar sight. A small glade opened before them surrounded on two sides by imposing cliffs. The sheer rock walls formed a natural defense narrowing the avenues of approach to simply north and south. There were no other ways in or out, and no way to reach to the far side without passing through the center. From here she would be able to see an attack coming and would have a better chance of mounting a defense. The rock walls hid many caves and depressions, nearly invisible to the naked eye, unless you knew exactly where to look. It was here, early in the battle with Antonius, that Xena had ambushed an entire division of the kings' best men and had slaughtered them to a man. She knew Antonius would remember it and its secrets. She only hoped the memory of what had happened the last time he had met her in battle here would keep him from searching the area too soon.
It was among these caves and depressions that Xena intended to secret herself and her charge until Gabrielle had recovered enough to travel again. Xena entertained thoughts of exactly how she would make Antonius pay for what he had done to Gabrielle, but was wise enough to know that eventually he would seek her out and then she could meet him on ground of her choosing. Until then, her only concern was the young woman before her.
Xena brought Argo to a stop directly in front of a rather ordinary looking shrub, but looks could be deceiving. Xena eased from the saddle, careful not to jar Gabrielle unnecessarily as she drew the girl down with her. Xena cradled the bard in her arms as she would a small child, precious and vulnerable. She then turned and slipped between the reaching limbs of the shrub to the waiting dimness of the cavern beyond. In the soft light, Xena searched for a dry spot to lay Gabrielle, then returned to Argo to retrieve their supplies.
Xena hurriedly built a small fire and arranged a bedroll for Gabrielle. It was not until she had made Gabrielle comfortable that she withdrew her healing provisions. She heated enough water to cleanse the bards' terrible wounds and pulled out a soft cloth with which to clean the injuries. Gabrielle's nightmares had subsided for a time, and she now rested quietly. Xena gently rolled Gabrielle onto her side so that she might get a better look at the extent of her injuries. Xena cringed at the sight of the criss crossed lash marks that marred Gabrielle's small body from her thighs and calves to her arms and back. Tears sprang unbidden to her eyes as she worked to clean away the blood and dirt from the wounds. Xena wiped roughly at the tears with the back of her hand, not ready to give in to her emotions. She worked slowly and carefully, not wanting to wake the sleeping bard, but needing to tend the wounds thoroughly so as to prevent any infection. With the discovery of each new mark, each new injury, Xena's fury and anguish grew. Oh yes, Antonius would pay! He would pay for each lesion that would now forever scar Gabrielle's body and mind. He would pay many times over, Xena swore silently to herself, seething with a rage barely under control.
When she had finished meticulously cleansing the bard's wounds, Xena reached for the wine skin and a clean cloth. Wetting the cloth with the disinfecting alchohol, she gently swabbed the bard's back, arms and legs, wincing each time she felt Gabrielle's muscles contract in pain even through her exhausted sleep. Upon completion of her task, Xena tenderly covered Gabrielle with a blanket from the saddlebags her hand lingering over Gabrielle's face, tracing a gentle line across her cheek. Gazing into her companions' sleeping face, she felt the emotions she had fought to keep at bay suddenly overwhelm her and she found herself shaking.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle.....so sorry...." Xena trailed off softly, her voice stumbling on the feelings now lodged in her throat, a single tear making its way down her cheek. This time Xena made no effort to stop it. Sitting beside her friend, her soul, Xena wept quietly, her knees drawn to her chin. The thought of the torture and agony Gabrielle had been forced to endure was more than the warrioress could bear. The grief and pain poured forth, unhindered by pride or ego. But Xena did not weep as others might. She was still the Warrior Princess, she was still in control and Xena wept almost willfully, purging herself of the emotions so that she might move past them, knowing that in order to draw Gabrielle back from the darkness, she had to first come to terms with her own sense of grief and loss. Gabrielle had been sacrificed to revenge and hate just as surely as if she had died within the castle walls. A part of her soul had died, and with it part of Xena died. The warrioress only prayed that the light could yet be revived. And with the redemption of the light, perhaps a rebirth of the girls' gentle soul. That hope was tenuous at best, but Xena clung to it as if her own soul depended on it.
Xena prayed then, as she only rarely did, as she had only done with any feeling once before. She prayed to any god who might listen; she prayed for strength. Strength to face the darkness now before her, strength to face a life devoid of the light she had become used to, light that had become her beacon, leading her through life. She prayed for strength to return to Gabrielle that which had been cruelly taken from her, not knowing how, only knowing that she must try. Finally she prayed for Gabrielle, that she might find the will to beat back the demons Xena knew to be raging within her friend, fighting to destroy what remained of the light, fighting to conquer yet another innocent soul.
As the last of her tears dried, Xena lay back on the ground next to the young woman. Physically exhausted and emotionally spent, Xena fell into a restless sleep. Suddenly she was once again outside the castle walls working her way past the barred entryway, the sounds of Gabrielle's screams echoing within her mind, relentlessly, over and over. The feral cries touching a chord deep within the Warrior Princess she had hoped buried forever. Within her dream, her own darkness now had a mate and it longed to be freed to join her.
In a blinding FLASH, Xena felt herself being drawn from the nightmare to a place of infinite calm.
"Xena." An ethereal voice called. "I am here. And I have heard your prayers."
Xena searched for the source of the reassuring voice. "Who are you?"
"You have known me throughout your life, yet you did not know it. I am the Goddess of the Hunt, Protectress of Women, Patron to my Sister Amazons." Came the voice in reply.
"Artemis." Xena breathed.
"Yes." The goddess answered simply. "I have watched you, Xena. You and the young one. I am pleased. You champion those who cannot stand for themselves and you have served the Amazons well. You both have."
Xena reacted to the goddess' words with mixed feelings of mistrust and fear. Artemis seemed to be able to read Xena's thoughts.
"Do not fear Xena, you called and I have come. Gabrielle is favored in my sight, she took up the mantle of Protector and Leader for the Amazons when they needed it most, and showed them the way. Now Ephiny leads the Amazons with Gabrielle's vision of peace. They have become stronger for it. And now I wish to repay my sister Amazon for her gift."
Xena's eyes widened, hope sprang anew within her heart. "You mean, you can take all of this from her? As if it never was?"
The Goddess' eyes fell slightly. "Nothing is ever that simple warrioress. What was taken can be restored, but there is a price to be paid."
Xena's heart lept for joy. Here was one who could return her Gabrielle! She did not care what the price, any price was worth the return of the light in Gabrielle's eyes.
"Know this Xena, the price is high, and may not be paid without careful thought to its consequences."
"I would give my life for her." Xena replied confidently.
"Yes, but would you give the lives of hundreds of others, simply for her."
Confusion now tore through Xena's mind. Why did the gods always have to be so mysterious?!
Reading the look on the Warrior Princess' face, the Goddess continued, "There is an ancient Amazon ritual long since forgotten. A ritual to cleanse the mind, spirit, and soul. The darkness that has invaded Gabrielle can be driven out, but it will not die. It will seek a new home, a new soul."
Realization suddenly hit Xena like a slap in the face. Her eyes met Artemis' and held them.
"You prayed for strength, warrioress. Do you have the strength to bear her burden as well as your own? Do not answer too quickly. If you are wrong, the darkness that dwells within your own soul could become more powerful than ever."
Xena contemplated the Goddess' words. She would gladly accept the rage that threatened Gabrielle, gladly accept the burden. But she knew all too well what her own dark side was capable of, what she could become. Could she release that woman to reek havoc yet again? Could Gabrielle live with the knowledge that it had been her rage that had driven Xena back into darkness? Her thoughts in turmoil, Xena heard Artemis' voice as if through a fog.
"Consider well, Xena, but do not delay. Once Gabrielle's light has been extinguished, there can be no turning back. If you decide to accept the price, this sacrifice of yourself, come to me by the end of the next moon, I'll be waiting at my temple outside Athens. Only you can show Gabrielle the path toward the light. You have traveled that path before, now you must be the beacon. But do not undertake the journey lightly, Xena."
Xena awakened with a start, quickly looking over at the figure still resting beside her. Was it a dream? she asked herself. No, it had been too real. Artemis had given her what she had asked for, the chance to save Gabrielle from herself and a life filled with anger and sorrow. Now she had only to pay the price, but was it too much, even for her iron will? Xena was being asked to sacrifice a measure of her own hard won self worth and possibly her own soul in order to restore Gabrielle's. Xena knew Gabrielle may never again be the woman she once was. No one could be touched by the darkness and not be forever changed. But the reward was well worth the sacrifice being asked of her, she decided. Xena knew how to deal with the darkness; it had been a part of her for a long time, an eternity it seemed. She was confident she could control it, as she had in the past and would continue to do in the future. As soon as Gabrielle was able to travel, they would set out for Artemis' temple on the outskirts of Athens.