PART V: THE JOURNEY
Xena was unable to sleep after her encounter with the Goddess, but forced herself to rest, knowing she would need all her strength to endure the coming days. Gabrielle continued to sleep next to her, seemingly free of her dreams, for now. Xena was aware of how difficult it would be when Gabrielle did awake, not knowing who her friend was anymore. The darkness had nearly consumed Gabrielle entirely, and Xena was well aware how close she had come to losing the bard completely to her darker self. The concern formost in her mind at that moment was that she had yet to hear the storyteller utter a single word.
Gabrielle had enjoyed a dreamless sleep, for a time, but inevitably the nightmares had returned. She fought against their reappearance, but to no avail. She returned to that night when it had all changed, when she had first heard them speak to her. Gabrielle saw herself a captive in the dank cell once more. All she could see was Dioclese' arm, his hand curled around that hideous whip. Again and again she relived the pain the weapon had inflicted upon her, each time telling herself, Xena's coming, she'll be here soon. But the reassurances soon failed to comfort as the agony became unbearable. Gabrielle called to the warrioress, and was answered by the demons now lurking in her soul, waiting to be embraced.
"She's not coming for you!" the voices hissed. "She has abandoned you! We are all you have left now. We are your salvation!"
"Who are you?" Gabrielle asked.
"We are that which you tried to deny. You wanted to lock us away but now we are FREE!" the voices proclaimed. "We are the darker side of you, bard. And we are all you have left! There is no other."
Gabrielle's mind reeled. Where was Xena? Why did she not come for her? She couldn't believe that Xena would truly abandon her to this torture. But where was she! The demon voices answered her unspoken question.
"Forget the warrior woman! She is gone, but we are here! Trust in us. We will not desert you." the voices assured. "We can protect you. With us, there is no more pain. With us you can be strong!"
Gabrielle found herself wanting to believe, wanting to accept the voices. Gabrielle in a moment of decision reached out to the voices and allowed them to encompass her, rejoicing in the feeling of protection they lent to her. Suddenly the pain fell away like a cloak, and she knew only rest. As she lay in the arms of the specters, they quietly spoke in her ear.
"With us you will never again know suffering. We can be your weapons! Use us!"
"How?" Gabrielle asked. "What are you?"
"We are the dark. We are hate! We are rage! We are fury!" the voices answered, their voices rising to a crescendo. Gabrielle's true and pure soul recoiled as the names of her protectors were spoken, but another side of her welcomed them into her heart. It was a side of her that had grown tired of the suffering, tired of losing those she loved. Tired of the emotional hills and valleys, tired of it all and yearning for it to end. The demons promised it would end, and it was that dark side of her that now took control. The purity that still dwelt within her fought against the dark, but was too weak to repell the invaders. The light that had shone in Gabrielle's soul now retreated to the smallest corners of her mind to await their opportunity to reemerge. The pure could feel the press of the dark against its defenses, drawing ever closer, and struggled to keep the light from disappearing all together, but could feel that it was just a matter of time before all was lost.
Xena glanced over at her friend. For a moment it had seemed that perhaps the nightmares had returned, but just as suddenly as it had begun, Gabrielle quieted again returning to her deep slumber, a small smile playing at her lips. Xena saw the smile, but rather than reassuring her, it chilled her soul.
It was well past daybreak when Xena saw Gabrielle begin to stir. Xena moved to her side, wanting Gabrielle to see a familiar face when she first awoke, hoping to spare her any feelings of fear or disorientation at her unaccustomed surroundings. As she tentatively opened her eyes, Gabrielle had expected to see the now familiar dark walls of her cell. What greeted her eyes was the expectant face of the Warrior Princess. Gabrielle drew back, not trusting her eyes.
Xena saw the young woman's reaction and instinctively reached out to comfort her.
"Gabrielle, it's all right. You're safe now. It's over." Xena soothed. At the touch on her arm, Gabrielle pulled away, a coldness reflected in her eyes.
"Xena? Is it really you?" Gabrielle asked skeptically.
Xena was visibly shaken by the bard's reaction to her touch and the look in her eyes, but recovered quickly. "Yes, Gabrielle, it's me."
Gabrielle attempted to sit up, wincing in pain. Reaching out to help, Xena stopped short, not wanting to upset Gabrielle further by touching her again.
"Just lie back, Gabrielle. You're still hurt." Xena reached for the water skin lying nearby. She held it out tentatively, "Here, Gabrielle, drink."
Gabrielle accepted the skin, only then realizing how thirsty she was. She drank deeply, and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, returned the skin to Xena.
"Thanks." Gabrielle said simply, her eyes belying the feelings that burned just beneath the surface. The look was not lost on the warrioress.
"What is it, Gabrielle? What's wrong?" Xena asked, afraid she already knew the answer. The bluntness of the reply shocked her.
"Where were you?" Gabrielle half screamed, ignoring her pain to sit up and face Xena. "Why did you just let them take me?"
"Gabrielle...I...I tried...." Xena stuttered.
"Do you know what they did to me?" Gabrielle asked, the hate and furor bursting forth, lending her strength. "You just left me there!"
But Xena would not be defeated so easily. She saw this as yet another battle, but one with far greater consequences than any other she had ever fought. The warrioress emerged then, prepared to battle the forces of darkness for possession of Gabrielle's soul.
"Listen to me! I would never just leave you, Gabrielle. You must believe that!" Xena shouted, unsheathing her verbal sword. "You are my life, Gabrielle. I know you're confused, but I'm here, and I'll always be here."
"Oh no, Xena, I'm not confused. I've never been more sure of myself. You abandoned me!"
"Gabrielle, that isn't you talking! It's the hate and the anger! I should know! Those demons once ruled my soul, and I won't let them take you!" Xena parried.
"You're too late, Xena. You were able to defeat those monsters once before, when Perdicas died. But that was then. I was weak, now they make me strong!" Gabrielle asserted, the demons mounting an attack. "I'll never be hurt that way again, Xena, never!" Gabrielle spat.
"No, it's not too late. I saw that spark, Gabrielle. I know there is something of you left. And the strength you feel is an illusion. Your strength is still there Gabrielle! Use it! The love is there and it *is* the most powerful force on earth, Gabrielle! You showed me that." Xena countered, mounting an attack of her own.
Gabrielle felt the last vestiges of purity coming forth to join in Xena's struggle for control and the demons were momentarily halted in their assault. Xena saw the struggle taking place and it lent her strength. Xena pressed her attack, taking advantage of the chink in the armor of the darkness.
"Gabrielle, you must believe me, I have been where you are now. There is no strength in the dark, there is no protection except that which comes from love. Let that be your strength. Let me be your strength." Xena's verbal strike having the desired effect.
Gabrielle could feel the light growing brighter with each of the blows Xena leveled at her darker half. She felt herself wanting to believe her, wanting to accept her love. But the demons would not be silenced.
"She left you!" they cried. "We are your true allies!"
Xena witnessed the war being fought within her friend, and leveled the crushing blow.
"Don't you give up, Gabrielle! You've never once given up on me, and I won't let you give up on yourself! Love can save you, Gabrielle! My love! I love you more than my own life! That is the reality and the truth! Grab onto it!" Xena knew her foe had been wounded, but was not yet vanquished.
Gabrielle felt the power of Xena's words, the power of her love and reached out to take that power and strength into her heart. It was then that the light struck upon the opportunity and burst forth, overtaking the dark. The light was shining once again, but the dark still lurked, not yet gone.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked weakly, the exertion tiring her quickly.
"I know Gabrielle, I know." Xena said quietly reaching out to cradle her, feeling the sobs that now coursed through Gabrielle's body.
"I don't want to give up, Xena." Gabrielle said in a small voice, so very much like a frightened child.
Xena rocked her gently, shaking with relief at the first battle won. But the war was far from over, now they had to reach the temple. The first victory had been an important one, however. If the demons had prevailed, Xena doubted that there would have been any hope for Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, I know you're strong enough to get through this. And I'm here with you." Xena hesitated, wanting to tell her of the Goddess, but unsure of how much she should reveal to the girl. "I know of someone who can help."
Gabrielle pulled away slightly, a questioning look on her face. Xena told her briefly of her encounter with Artemis in her dreams the night before, but left out the price that had been demanded of her for Gabrielle's redemption.
"As soon as you're well enough to travel, we'll leave for Athens." Xena said, gently laying Gabrielle back onto the bedroll. "Rest now while I get us something to eat, all right?"
Gabrielle nodded, weariness seeping into her, closing her eyes. Xena was as exhausted as if she had battled ten men, but her battle was over for now. She spent the rest of the morning preparing their meal and scouting the area to look for any signs of pursuit. Finding none, she returned to the secret cavern to tend to Gabrielle. She cleaned Gabrielle's wounds and made her as comfortable as possible, prepared to wait until Gabrielle was physically strong enough to make the journey.
But her spiritual journey was nearly half over. Gabrielle had come a long way that morning out of the darkness and back into the light. The hardest battle was yet to come, but Xena was sure of the young woman's strength of will, confident she would be able to defeat her demons once and for all.
It was two days later that Xena and Gabrielle set out from the glade, heading toward Athens. Xena had sensed Antonius drawing closer, knowing he would follow them, but that was of little consequence at the moment. She only needed to keep ahead of him and his men. Xena would deal with him once she knew Gabrielle would be safe.
The four day journey to the temple was uneventful. Gabrielle still suffered from the nightmares, both old and new. But each time she awoke shaking in fear and anger, there would be Xena, a rock of stability for her to cling to, unmovable in her strength and love. Gabrielle held onto that love, knowing that if she were to let it go she risked the very survival of her soul.
Upon reaching the temple mid way through the fourth day, Xena and Gabrielle made their way inside, where Xena prepared the traditional sacrifice demanded by the Goddess. They then sat down to wait. It was nearly dark when they were startled by a brilliant flash. When their eyes had adjusted, Artemis stood before them. Dressed in traditional Amazon garb, Artemis approached Gabrielle, extending her hands. Gabrielle accepted them a little fearfully.
"Do not fear me my sister. I have come to help." the Protectress of Women said gently. She then turned to Xena, "Are you prepared to make the sacrifice, Xena? Are you prepared to pay the price?"
Xena nodded, "I am ready."
Gabrielle turned sharply to face the warrioress. "What sacrifice, Xena?"
Xena said nothing in reply, but simply stared deep into the beautiful green eyes that now regarded her worriedly.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle." the Warrior Princess said finally, "Everything is going to be fine."
But Gabrielle was not so sure, a fear suddenly taking hold of her. A fear that she may now gain everything back and more, or lose it all, forever.
Gabrielle saw the look on Xena's face, and knew she wasn't going to like the response she was about to hear. She voiced the question again.
"Xena, answer me," the bard began calmly, "what sacrifice?"
Xena saw the determination in the eyes that regarded her. Her decision had already been made, she was not about to turn back, but Gabrielle had a right to know what was at stake.
"Gabrielle, Artemis has offered to help you, but everything comes at a price."
"Why do I have the feeling I'm not going to like this." Gabrielle said, her fear growing.
Xena took a deep breath, steeling herself for the argument she saw coming.
"Gabrielle, the feelings you have, the demons, I told you before there is a way to rid you of them. But they cannot be destroyed." Xena stopped, looking to Artemis. The Protectress of Women took up where Xena had left off.
"Gabrielle, this ritual you will undergo merely draws the dark from you, but it will look to reside elsewhere. In order for this to work, someone must willingly accept the dark from you."
Gabrielle suddenly understood.
"You have to take my demons, my hate and rage, don't you, Xena."
"Yes." Xena answered simply.
"No! Xena I won't let you. I won't let you do it!" Gabrielle objected vehemently, looking to Artemis for help.
"It is not my decision to make or influence, my sister. This is Xena's path, her decision."
Gabrielle turned back to Xena, but the warrioress interrupted her before she could protest.
"Gabrielle, my mind is made up. This is the only way. You deserve better than to have to live with this. I won't let you live with it, as I have, if there's anything I can do about it."
Gabrielle studied the Warrior Princess closely. She saw the hard set of her jaw, her body tensed as if awaiting a blow, and knew she was fighting a hopeless battle. Xena wasn't about to give in, but Gabrielle tried once more to sway her mind.
"Xena, just think about this for a minute, ok? Have you considered what this could do to *you*? I mean, what if this awakens some of your own demons."
Gabrielle had touched on the one reservation Xena herself still held. But she felt, deep down to the very core of who she really was, that she could bear the burden for both of them.
"Gabrielle, I've dealt with those feelings and demons for a long time. I conquered them before and now I'm in control, not them. I can handle it." Xena stated confidently. "Please, let me do this for you."
Gabrielle's arguments died on her lips at hearing the proud woman's words. She trusted Xena, but more importantly she trusted in herself. She would stand by her friend and if called upon, would help Xena to control the rage as she had in the past. Gabrielle nodded slightly, "Ok, ok Xena."
The two faced the Goddess who turned to lead them up the narrow stairs leading to a raised dias. At the top she motioned them to sit facing each other as she reached for a goblet resting on a small table near the center of the platform. She held it aloft and called out, "I call upon my Sisters! I call upon the spirit of the Amazon! Heed my word! I am the Patron of the Amazon! I am Artemis! Come to me now!" At the command from the Goddess, Xena and Gabrielle could feel a subtle shift in the room, like they were being watched. Then, as if in a dream, they could see shadowy images approach from all directions. Spirits of the ancient Amazon warriors came then, wraiths called by the Goddess to witness this redemption of a soul.
The spirits moved to form a circle around the dias, their faces upturned expectantly toward Artemis. The Goddess turned and handed the chalis to Gabrielle.
"They are your sisters, Gabrielle, come to witness your redeeming and Xena's sacrifice. Drink of the waters of life and look deep into yourself. Seek out the demons, the monsters that would see you made over in their image."
Gabrielle drank of the cup offered to her and then returned it, suddenly feeling lightheaded. Her eyes slid closed, as she turned her mind in on itself, searching for her darker half. Artemis turned and held out the goblet to Xena, who drank as well, her eyes slowly closing.
"Draw on each other." the Goddess warned. "You are each other's strength." Artemis then used her power to transport Xena into Gabrielle's mind. Xena found herself on an empty plain, an inky blackness engulfing her. The warrioress became aware of the emotions surrounding her, and realized she was inside the dark side of Gabrielle's soul. She was taken aback by the intensity of the feelings that now assaulted her mind. The hate, the anger, the cold fury! They were so much stronger than she had expected! Xena felt her mind reeling, jolted by an electric charge that coursed through her.
Xena sensed the demons she had come to battle for control of Gabrielle's soul drawing closer, awakening her own buried feelings. They seemed to be drawn to the darkness Xena harbored within herself, seeking a kindred spirit. It was then that Xena became aware of another presence, one that radiated trust and love and knew Gabrielle had found her way to the warrioress, prepared to fight for control of her own soul.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called.
"I'm here, Xena." the bard replied. Xena could feel her closeness, the pure part of Gabrielle's soul emitting a light that shone forth in the darkness. Xena smiled at the sight of her companion, and Gabrielle smiled in return.
A shadow passed over the bard's face, "I can feel them near. They're coming for us."
From the blackness emerged the twisted and hulking figures, malice and contempt on their contorted faces. Their slight forms skeletal and hunched, they lurched toward the pair.
"You seek to rid yourself of us, little one?" they asked in unison, their voices a frightening wail, echoing in the darkness.
Gabrielle turned to face them, courage reflected in her stance, she could feel Xena's strength and determination and used them to steel herself against the impending onslaught.
"Yes." Gabrielle said defiantly.
"You cannot! We are you! You cannot cast us off!" the monsters hissed. Gabrielle stepped closer.
"No!" she shouted. "Not anymore! You are not me!"
"You say the words, but we know. We control you, we are your truth!" the words were wielded like weapons, their intent to destroy the light Gabrielle held close. The blow struck at Gabrielle's courage, doubt clouding her mind. Xena could see her stagger and moved to Gabrielle's defense.
"You will not take her!" Xena spat. "You want to control, to dominate? Come for me!"
"We already have her, warrior woman! She is ours!" the demons asserted.
"No! Not yet you don't!" Xena cried.
Gabrielle struggled against her dark half, but felt her strength fading under its assault. Xena could feel the bard slipping away from her, back toward the darkness and called out to her, "Gabrielle! Fight them! Don't give up!"
Gabrielle looked up into Xena's eyes and saw what she needed to survive.
"That's it, Gabrielle! Take it! Take hold of my love, my strength! Use them against the darkness!"
Gabrielle felt the power rush through her, exhilaration filling her. She reached out and took hold of the love freely offered to her and turned it on the creatures that faced her.
"I am in contol now! I have the strength! I have the power!" with that Gabrielle struck the blow that repulsed her private demons. The power of the love Gabrielle had accepted caused the demons to recoil, wounded, and they turned to the warrioress. Reaching out and caressing the darkness within Xena's soul, their greed for conquest overtaking them. They came for Xena, hungry in their need for a soul to inhabit.
Xena could see the light that shone from Gabrielle growing brighter as she thrust at the monsters that had ruled her soul and the warrioress knew her time to do what she must had come. Without reservation, Xena opened her mind to the rage and hate, welcoming them into herself, sacrificing her own sense of self to the rage and hate.
"Come for me! I'm who you want!" Xena called as she was rocked by the feelings of rage and fury that now ran amok throughout her soul, awakening the warlord she had thought to have left behind. Joining with the new and intense emotions, the dark side of Xena became even more powerful than ever before.
Back within the temple, Gabrielle slumped over as the darkness was drained from her psyche, exhaustion claiming her. But within Xena's mind, the battle raged anew. Xena could feel the fury and anger threatening to overwhelm her and she brought her own arsenal to bear. Bolstered by the lingering sensation of Gabrielle's love for her and the bard's own courage to face the demons, Xena clashed with the raw emotions, forcing them steadily back as she had done so many times over the last two years. The fight was a familiar one to the Warrior Princess, one she refused to lose. Xena struggled against the dark, willing it to the recesses of her mind that had become their home. They had become much stronger with the addition of Gabrielle's anger, but Xena had a new weapon, the power of Gabrielle's love. Xena wielded the weapon skillfully and was at last able to lock the demons away behind a wall of determination, but the walls were barely able to contain them.
The shields within herself tentatively in place, Xena awoke from her trance to see Gabrielle lying on her side. She scanned the temple seeking the Goddess, but soon realized they were alone, Artemis had gone as had the specters of the ancient Amazons. Xena rose shakily to her feet, and went to Gabrielle's side.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called softly, reaching out to gather Gabrielle into her arms. Sweat shone on the younger woman's face, her breathing slow and even. At the sound of Xena's voice, Gabrielle began to awaken, stirring ever so slightly in Xena's embrace.
A smile flashed across Xena's face as she saw Gabrielle's eyes flutter open.
"Gabrielle? It's ok. It's all over. You're ok." Xena soothed, relief evident in her voice.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly. "Xena, are you all right?" concern for her friend foremost in Gabrielle's mind as she slowly came awake.
"Yes, Gabrielle. I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" Gabrielle queried, looking for any sign that perhaps Xena was not being entirely truthful with her. She could see the effort Xena was expending to keep her mental walls up and longed to help her with her inner battle.
Gabrielle forced herself to sit up and look Xena in the eyes.
"Xena, I know what you have done for me. I don't know what to say to you."
"Gabrielle, you don't have to say anything. I would do anything for you, you know that."
"I'll be here for you, Xena." the bard asserted. "I want to help you."
"You already do that, everyday. Just knowing you are with me gives me the strength to go on." Xena said quietly, her arm still around Gabrielle's shoulders, unwilling to let go of her just yet.
Without warning, the doors to the temple burst open to admit Antonius and ten of his personal guards. His eyes roaming the temple, his gaze came to rest on the two women at the top of the dias. An evil smile touched his lips.
"Xena! I knew I would find you eventually. It's time we finished this, now!" Antonius called, revenge in his heart.
At the sight of the man who had caused Gabrielle such suffering and angst, the frail walls Xena had erected to contain her furor crumbled and the anger and rage came bursting forth. She dropped her arms to her sides and rose slowly to face the king. Gabrielle saw the change in Xena, but hestitated at the sight of the man who had driven her to the brink of destruction.
"Antonius." Xena's voice was hard and unfeeling as she drew her sword, intending to make him pay for what he had done in several slow and painful ways. The king's guard moved to protect him, drawing their own weapons.
The order was given by their commander, "Take her, protect the king!" The company rushed forward as one. Xena vaulted from the dias, meeting the onslaught with delight, the rage seeking a release in the bloodlust. Xena slashed through the first wave as if they barely existed, her blade cutting a deadly arc through the ranks, leaving only death in its wake.
"Yes!" cried the voices in her mind, "Kill, Dark One! Give us the blood of your enemies!"
Xena's skill was at its peak, she had never felt such power, such exaltation. She wove in and through the remaining soldiers, thrusting, parrying, killing quickly and easily. In moments, she stood alone, the moans of the dying rising to greet her ears. She stood panting, the lust for revenge glittering in her eyes. She turned on Antonius, who had stood riveted by the spectacle before him. He drew his own weapon, but knew he didn't have a chance. Xena approached him slowly, toying with him.
"You wanted me, Antonius? Well, here I am." Xena said, her voice dripping with contempt.
The king knew he was a dead man, but he chose to face his fate with courage and brought his sword up in front of his body. With a cry that froze him where he stood, Xena charged at him, her blade twirling and spinning. The clang of blade upon blade reverberated throughout the temple as Xena's weapon struck Antonius' with such force that the king had been unable to keep his grip on the pommel and watched as it sailed from his hand.
Gabrielle watched all of this from her vantage point atop the platform and realized that Xena was going to murder the now unarmed man.
"NO!" Gabrielle cried. "Xena stop!"
Xena stood with the point of her sword poised to strike Antonius down in one quick motion. At the sound of Gabrielle's voice she hesitated, the emotions in the bard's voice reaching out to the true Xena buried beneath the darkness.
"Don't do it, Xena! Don't kill him!" Gabrielle called desperately, knowing that if the warrioress was to slay the king in cold blood, the dark side of her soul would win her over and Gabrielle would lose that which she held most precious. Seeing that her words were having an affect, Gabrielle made her way off the altar and down to where Xena stood, the Warrior Princess' weapon still poised to strike.
"Please Xena, fight it! I know you can do it! Don't give in to the hate! Revenge is not the way, Xena. Let him find justice, but not at the tip of your sword!" Gabrielle cried as she crossed the temple floor.
"Gabrielle," Xena began, her voice overflowing with rage, "he has to pay for what he did to you! He must die."
"That's not you talking, Xena." Gabrielle countered, "I know you, and you don't kill unarmed men! You don't kill for revenge! Please Xena, put down the sword."
The demons loosed in Xena's soul cried out to her, "Don't listen to her Dark One! Kill him, now! Listen to us! Give us his blood!"
Xena was torn. She knew what Gabrielle said was true, but she could not silence the voices that cried for Antonius' blood.
Gabrielle could see Xena struggling and used the one weapon she had left to her, but it was one that had served her well.
"I love you, Xena." Gabrielle said softly. "Please, for me, don't do this."
Xena, hearing Gabrielle's plea, fought with renewed vigor to contain the demons, forcing them once more behind the mental barriers she had contructed to inhibit them. Gabrielle could feel the battle that raged within the Warrior Princess and silently prayed to Artemis to give Xena strength.
The warrioress could feel the mental cage slipping into place, locking the demons away, at least for now. She let her sword drop, the tip resting on the ground as if she no longer had the will to lift it.
Xena turned to face Gabrielle, and seeing the light that radiated from her face and the love reflected in her eyes, she knew that once again, the bard had been her salvation.