Xena: Warrior Princess  “Apocalypse”

By Slider

 

 

 

My Disclaimer:

Xena, created by Rob Tapert and John Shulian, and all of its characters are the sole property of Rennaisance Pictures.  This piece of fanfiction is not intended to infringe upon the rights of the studio or any of its benefactors in any way.  No Copyrights or trademarks were harmed during the production of this story.  I write about Xena and Gabby because I love them, and I want to share my imagination with the rest of the Xenaverse. 

 

Jarra, Ezra, and any other characters not previously mentioned on Xena are original characters created by me.

 

Copyright 2002 SliderBard

 

Author’s Note: This story takes place sometime after “Last of the Centaurs”

 

 

 

 

                A shadowy figure stole across the moonlit courtyard.  Dressed in a blood red hooded cloak the figure blended easily into the shadows.  Whoever he was, he was obviously in a hurry.  What could be of such import that he would have to sneak out in the middle of the night?  The answer was the scroll he carried tucked into his cloak. 

            The master will be pleased, he thought excitedly.  At last he can be set free!

            In his excitement he neglected to pay attention to his surroundings.  He had just rounded a corner when he collided with one of the castle guards.  With a resounding thud the figure fell to the ground.

            “Watch where you’re going!”  the guard growled impatiently.  His eyes narrowed in suspicion.  “What are you doing out here at this hour, anyway?”

            Quickly getting to his feet the figure replied, “I was just on my way out of the castle.  A matter of great importance has come to my attention, and I must be departing immediately.”

            The guard nodded his approval.

            “Could you escort me to the gate?”

            The guard nodded once more and led the figure outside the castle.

            “Safe journey,” the guard said in farewell.

            “Thank you, my friend,” said the figure as he set off down the road.  It was all he could do to stay at a walking pace until he was out of sight of the castle.  As soon as he was at a safe distance he took off in a quick sprint.

            I must get back to my brothers and tell them the good news!

            What he failed to notice was that when he had collided with the guard back in the castle courtyard, the all-important scroll he was carrying had fallen out of his cloak and skittered into the shadows...

 

 

  

 

Xena turned Argo onto a narrow trail that meandered through a grassy ravine before heading to the north.  She looked up.  The sun was not very high in the sky.  Still early and the day was already turning hot.

By midday it’ll be hotter than Tartarus out here, the warrior thought.  The slightest grin touched her lips.  You’ll be able to fry an egg on a rock, easy. 

Xena patted the horse’s neck and felt a sudden pang.  This wasn’t her Argo.  Though this mare carried the same name, she was actually the daughter of the faithful steed that had been Xena’s companion for so many years.  That Argo had passed on while she and Gabrielle were frozen in ice for twenty-five years.  But Xena had to give this Argo credit.  She was just as good a horse as her mother, maybe better.  Still, it would never be quite the same.

I miss you, girl.  I hope you’re happy, wherever you are.

Gabrielle scrambled past on the rocky trail, mowing down some of the soft knee-high grass in the process, easing ahead to take the lead.  She stopped when they reached the bottom of the ravine, eyeing the increasingly rough path ahead.  She then turned to face Xena, her short blond hair ruffled by a sudden soft breeze.

Pity it wasn’t a cool breeze, Xena thought sarcastically.

“Xena, are you sure this is the right way?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Xena answered evenly.

“I don’t understand why we couldn’t have just stayed on the main road-“

“Gabrielle,” Xena interrupted, trying to keep the impatience out of her voice, “I already told you.  This shortcut will save us several hours travel.  I’ve been this way a thousand times.  I think I know where I’m going.”

Gabrielle shrugged and turned back to the path ahead of them.  “Whatever you say, Xena,” she said, not sounding entirely convinced.

She started to walk off, but Xena quickly dismounted and grabbed her gently by the arm before she could get away.

“C’mon, Gabrielle.  Don’t you trust me?”

Gabrielle gave her the do-you-really-have-to-ask look.  “Of course I do.”

“Alright then,” Xena said with a satisfactory smile, reaching out and tussling Gabrielle’s hair with one hand. 

Gabrielle tried to duck out of reach, but didn’t succeed.

“Cut it out!” the bard exclaimed, and swatted playfully at her friend’s arm.

The warrior’s smile broadened, her eyes glittering mischievously as she threw a strong arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder and briefly pulled her close.

“Besides, I thought you were so hungry?  Going this way will get you to your food that much faster.”

Gabrielle grinned.  “I can’t argue with that now, can I?”

Xena took Argo by the reins and led the way as the two of them clambered up the other side of the ravine, Gabrielle jumping lightly from rock to rock on the boulder-strewn embankment.

 

 

 

 

A young man in tattered leathers strode slowly across the courtyard of Castle Lemnos.  He went by the name of Naxus, and as far as everyone was concerned, he was a nobody.  A nobody to everyone except his best and only friend, Marcus.  Nothing interesting or exciting ever happened to him, no matter how desperately he wished and hoped.  If only Naxus knew what he was getting into when he found the scroll lying nondescriptly behind some water barrels.

He picked it up, turning it over in his hands as he examined it.  It looked old, the parchment yellowed and slightly frayed around the edges.  And one of its seven seals had cracked and come off.

Wonder what you need seven seals for? Naxus thought.  In his experience one seal worked just fine.

What if this is some important ancient document?  Who knows what could be inside!

  Finally something exciting!  He would wait for Marcus to arrive before he opened it.  Whatever discoveries awaited within the scroll, Naxus wanted to share them with his best friend.

 

 

 

 

Two hours later, Xena rode up to Castle Lemnos’s gates, Gabrielle walking beside her.  The castle wasn’t nearly the size of a place like King Menalaeus’s palace in Sparta.  This little castle held a little over three hundred people max at it’s fullest, and that included the King, his servants, and the castle guard.

The warrior and the bard crossed the drawbridge.  Gabrielle dared to look over the side and down and was greeted by the sight of a deep and treacherous moat.  She instantly shrank back from the sight and focused her gaze straight ahead. 

Xena rarely missed anything, and this was no exception.  Her eyes twinkled in amusement as she looked at Gabrielle and said, “Nasty drop isn’t it?  Of course, if the fall didn’t kill ya, the moat monsters would.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes.  Sometimes Xena could have an incredibly warped sense of humor.

“Very funny, Xena.”

The fall into the moat and the monsters that allegedly inhabited its depths were forgotten when, upon entering the courtyard, the smell of wonderfully spiced cooked meats wafted by.  Gabrielle came to a halt, eyes closed, and breathed in deeply, taking in the delicious smell of good food.

Xena dismounted and lightly patted Gabrielle’s shoulder.  “Told you I’d get you to a good meal.”

“I should never have doubted you, Xena.” She inhaled the smell of spiced meats again, a smile touching her lips.  “Mmm.  That smells so good.  Where’s it coming from?  Because I most definitely want to eat there.”

Xena pointed to a small marketplace on the far side of the courtyard.  “I think its coming from over there.  The stall with the dark red awning.  See it?”

Gabrielle looked where Xena was indicating.  She could just make out what looked to be an old peddler scrambling to serve up steaming skewers of what could be the spiced meat to a rather large group of people crowded in front of the stall.

“Looks like a popular place.  Let’s go, before the crowd gets too big.”

“Good idea,” Xena agreed.  “Tell you what.  You go over and get in line for the grub while I take Argo to the stables and I’ll meet you there.  Okay?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

 

 

 

 

Hungers sated and thirsts slaked, the two friends started to make their way out of the market place. 

“The food that old man was cooking up in there was absolutely divine,” Gabrielle said, licking her lips at the memory of perfectly prepared meats and vegetables.

Xena grinned.  Gabrielle really did have a passion for food.

“Can’t argue with you, Gabrielle.  Ale wasn’t half bad, either.”

The bard’s face wrinkled in disgust.  “I still don’t know how you can drink that stuff.”

Xena’s mouth twisted sardonically.  “And all you ever drink is water or plain cider.  How boring.”

Before she could think of a reply, Xena spotted a fruit stand just ahead on their right.

“Want some fruit, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle raised and eyebrow in interest.  “Do they have any cherries?”

Xena put a hand up to shield her eyes from the sun so she could get a better look.  Not a cherry in sight.

Too bad, because Gabrielle absolutely adores cherries.

“No cherries, but I do see some pretty good looking apples.”

“Apples are always good,” Gabrielle replied.

The two women arrived at the fruit stand and Xena frowned when she saw that there weren’t any grapes, either.

Damn.  I was really hoping for a nice bunch of grapes.  Oh well, what are you gonna do?  Besides, there’s something to be said for a nice juicy apple.

The peddler gave no sign that he’d seen them standing there for the last few minutes.  Xena cleared her throat, and the grubby, middle-aged peddler turned around.  He blinked as his eyes took in the sight of both of them: Xena’s long, muscular arms and legs, leathers, weapons, piercing blue eyes, her figure enhanced rather than hidden by her attire; Gabrielle’s short blond hair, stormy eyes, short red skirt and matching halter top that left her well muscled midriff bare, sais sticking out of her knee-high boots.

“Ah-“ He swallowed, then licked his lips.  “Ah, can I help you?”

“Yeah.” Xena pointed to the apples.  “How much for these?”

“Uh, two for a dinar,” he replied nervously.

Xena’s eyes narrowed, her expression slightly menacing.  “Only two?  Seems kinda pricy don’t you think?”

Spooked by the look she was giving him and the tone of her voice, the peddler took a step back and stammered, “H-how about s-six for a dinar?”

“That’s better.”

Xena smiled, and the peddler let out a sigh of relief.

The old intimidation trick works every time, she thought satisfactorily.

The peddler retrieved a small sack from the back of the stall and placed six very juicy, delicious looking apples in it.  His eyes bulged when he saw Xena fish a small coin purse out from her formidable cleavage. 

Xena had to bite the corners of her mouth to keep from smiling, and suppressed a small chuckle.  She tossed him a dinar, he handed her the sack of apples, which she passed to Gabrielle.  She then snugged the purse’s strings and shoved it back down into her bodice, moving her shoulders to settle the bag.  She noted with amusement that the peddler’s eyes were bulging again.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” Xena said, flashing the peddler a charming smile.  She then turned to Gabrielle.  “C’mon.  Let’s go,” she said, giving the hem of her friend’s skirt a slight tug.

The two women continued on out of the market place.

 

 

 

 

Naxus waited anxiously by the stables for his friend Marcus to arrive.  He had been unable to resist the temptation of opening the scroll, and had popped open the remaining six seals.  Carefully, he unrolled the ancient scroll and found what was written inside to be very unusual. 

The text was written in a strange red ink (blood?), and told of the coming of what Naxus took to be a god, and how his armies would sweep over the earth preparing for his reign.  There was also a mysterious incantation written in what he thought might be Latin.  He didn’t know for sure.  Surely Marcus would be able to figure it out since he had studied many languages. 

It was the incantation that captured Naxus’s attention.  He wanted to know what it said.  He could only imagine the great mystery hidden in its unfamiliar language, waiting to be solved if only he could understand it.  He hoped fiercely that Marcus would be able to decipher it.

“Hey Naxus!  Over here!”

Naxus looked up to see a dark-skinned young man in leathers as tattered as his own approaching.  It was Marcus.

Marcus gave his friend a firm pat on the back.  “How ya doing, buddy?”

“Good,” Naxus replied absently.

Marcus noticed that his friend was unusually distracted and figured that it had something to do with the scroll he was holding.

  He gestured to the scroll.  “What’ve you got there, Naxus?”

Naxus looked up, his expression totally blank for a moment.  Then understanding struck.  “Oh!  You mean the scroll!” he blurted, tittering excitedly.  “That’s just the thing that I’ve been waiting to talk to you about!”

Marcus’s brow wrinkled in confusion.  “I thought we were meeting up here to go horseback riding?”

“Never mind that,” Naxus said dismissively.  “I’ve got something much better.”

Naxus held out the scroll and Marcus eyed it uncertainly.  “This dusty old scroll is supposed to be better than horseback riding?”

“It could be,” Naxus replied enticingly.  “This scroll is really weird.  It talks about a god I don’t know and this incantation-“ He carefully unrolled the scroll and showed it to Marcus, “-its written in a language that I’m not familiar with.  I was hoping you’d be able to read it.”

            Marcus took the scroll from his friend to get a better look.  Silently he studied the incantation.  After a long moment, he looked up from the scroll.

            “The incantation is definitely Latin,” Marcus stated.

            Naxus’s excitement increased.  “Well, what does it say?”

            “Its very strange.  Something about light and dark, opening a gate-“

            Naxus elbowed his friend impatiently. “C’mon Marcus.  Read it to me.  I want to know exactly what it says.”

Marcus sighed at his friend’s anxiousness and cleared his throat.  “Alright.  Here goes:

            “Beings of the dark

            From a time before there was light

            Open the gate

            Prepare for the coming of your master

            Bring him the liquid of life

            Let it flow from beast and man

            Welcome him into the world

            Take back the light

            And put in its place the dark.”

 

            Marcus frowned and looked at his friend with an irritated expression.  “Its strange and mysterious and all, but I don’t know what you’re so excited about.  Horseback riding would be so much better-“

            He stopped suddenly when he heard a boom, like distant thunder.  But there wasn’t a cloud in the sky for miles.  The hair on the back of his neck stood up; something was very wrong, and Marcus had the distinct feeling that it had something to do with the incantation he’d just read.

            And then he heard it, a faint rumbling in the distance.  The sound got closer, increasing in volume, and the ground began to tremble.  Suddenly a sound like a thunderclap ripped through the air and the rumble grew into a deafening roar, the ground shaking so violently that he and Naxus were thrown to the ground.

            Naxus panicked.  “What have you done???  This is all your fault!”

            “How can it be my fault?”  Marcus demanded.

            “You read the incantation aloud!”

            “Only because you wanted me to!!!”

            As suddenly as it had begun, the shaking stopped and everything was quiet.  But something had changed.

            A few feet in front of them a ragged gash had opened in the ground, ominously belching steam.

 

 

 

 

            It was almost noon when the hooded figure stopped to take a brief rest.  He had been travelling since before sunrise, alternately walking and running, trying to get to his destination as quickly as possible.

            He felt in his cloak for the scroll-

            -And it wasn’t there.

            He felt a terrible sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.  Desperately he searched the folds of his cloak, but the scroll was nowhere to be found.

            An icy fear gripped him then.  If I return to the temple without the scroll, my brothers will surely kill me!  And what they do to me will pale in comparison to what the Master will do to me once I have entered his domain...

            A thought came to him.  When he ran into that buffoon of a guard at the castle the scroll must’ve fallen out of his cloak.  In his haste to leave he hadn’t noticed that the scroll was missing.  He could only hope that it was still in the castle courtyard, and that no one had found it and taken it.  He had to get the scroll back as quickly as possible, or else the Master would have his head.

            He turned to sprint back down the road in the direction he’d just come.  He was so deep in thought that he did not notice the far-off boom or the rumbling that was steadily getting closer and louder until it was upon him.

            The ground shook with a force such as he had never known, accompanied by a deafening, almost supernatural roar.  Tossed to the ground, he felt afraid until he realized what was happening.

            The gate has manifested!  This is the promised sign!   “The earth shall tremble at his coming-“

            The violent shaking stopped and all was quiet.  He knew what had to be done.  This was a critical time.  He could not return to the castle now.  There was no time.  He had to assemble his brothers and take them to the gate to welcome the Master.  Now the scroll was unimportant. 

            Surely his brothers would spare him, since the gate had been successfully opened despite his losing the scroll...

 

 

 

 

            Xena took Gabrielle’s hand and helped her to her feet.

            The warrior carefully surveyed their surroundings.  Some of the stones that made up the battlement walls had come loose during the quake and fallen down into the courtyard.  However, the damage was minor and it didn’t look as if the falling stones had hurt anyone.

            “You okay, Gabrielle?”

            The bard nodded as she dusted herself off.  “What was that all about, anyway?”

            “The quake?  I don’t know.  Seems strange somehow...  I’ve never felt one quite like that before...” Xena’s eyes became distant as her voice trailed off.

            Something strange had happened.  Gabrielle felt it.  She placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder, concern creeping into her voice as she asked, “Is something wrong, Xena?”

            Xena remained silent for a long moment before answering, “It’s probably nothing.  I was just going over what I remember about this region.  There’s a lot of volcanic activity out here.  This castle is only about ten miles from a volcano.  That would explain the quake.”

            Gabrielle nodded in agreement.  Something still felt off, but she dismissed the feeling, attributing it to frazzled nerves.

            “I don’t know about you, but I’m in the mood for one of those nice apples right about now.”  Xena reached into the woven sack she was carrying.  From it she removed one of the apples they had bought in the market place, tossed it up in the air, and deftly caught it behind her back.

            Gabrielle made a face at the warrior.  “Show-off.”

            “What?” Xena demanded playfully.

            She sighed.  “Nothing.”

            “You want one, too?”

            “That’s okay.  Maybe later.”

            Xena shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”

            She proceeded to unsheathe one of the many daggers hidden on her person and cut off a slice of apple, which she quickly plopped into her mouth. 

            Gabrielle gave another sigh.  Xena was in one of those moods again.  Like the day they had to fight the giant and the warlord in the same day.  One of those weird, giddy moods that could drive her crazy.  She noticed that the warrior was eyeing her sidelong.  She sighed again. 

            “What, Gabrielle?  What’s the matter?” Xena asked, sounding irritated.

            “It’s nothing, Xena, really,” the bard replied earnestly.  “Nothing’s wrong.”

            Xena let it go at that, but Gabrielle had the distinct feeling that her friend didn’t believe her.  That’s when she noticed what looked like smoke coming from somewhere near the stables.

            “Xena, look,” she said, urgently squeezing her friend’s arm.  “Is that smoke?”

            Xena looked where Gabrielle indicated, squinting.  “That’s not smoke,” she said flatly.  “I would’ve smelled it.”

            “Then what is it?”

            “I think we should go find out.”

 

 

 

 

            “It’s a steam vent.”

            “What?”

            “A steam vent,” Xena said around a mouthful of apple.  “You know, like the ones oracles look into to get their visions.”

            They were standing on the edge of the vent, which at the moment was not giving off anymore than the occasional puff of steam.

            “A steam vent here, in a castle courtyard?”

            “It’s possible.  Lean in closer and take a whiff of air.”

            Gabrielle did so, and her nose wrinkled.  “Ugh.  What is that?  Smells like rotten eggs.”

            “What you smell is sulfur coming from the vent.  That usually means that it formed because of volcanic activity, which like I said is common in this area because there’s a volcano nearby.”

            “But-but it formed so fast!”

            This from a frightened young man in tattered leathers who was hanging onto the scroll in his hands for dear life.

            “It’s okay, um- what’s your name?”

            “N-Naxus.”

            Xena smiled reassuringly.  “It’s okay Naxus.  I’ve heard of this happening before.  When you live near volcanoes this sort of thing can happen.”

            “Wh-whatever you say.”

            Naxus didn’t look too reassured.

            Xena went to cut another slice of apple, but the dagger slipped and its razor-sharp tip sliced through her finger instead.

            “Agh!” she exclaimed, uttering a string of curses that would make even the hardest, meanest warlord cringe.

            Instantly Gabrielle was at her friend’s side.  She reached for Xena’s injured hand, but the warrior pulled away. 

“Xena, let me see,” she said firmly, once again reaching for the hand.  She examined the wound closely.  Though it was nothing life threatening, it was serious.  There was a fair amount of blood, and the cut was deep enough, though not down to the bone.  It would definitely require stitches.

Before she could give her prognosis, Xena asked, “Gonna have to sew that up, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” the bard replied.  “We need to get this taken care of right away.  We’ve got bandages and other supplies in Argo’s saddlebags.”

“Guess we should get to the stables over there, then.”

Gabrielle noticed drops of blood on the ground.  “Gods, Xena, you’re bleeding all over the place.  Come on.”

She threw and arm around her companion and guided her toward the stables, but not before some of the warrior’s blood dripped and fell into the vent.  There came a rumbling far quieter than before, the ground just barely shuddering beneath their feet.

At the sound of his startled cry, the two women turned in time to see an extremely pale and terrified Naxus drop his scroll and take off across the courtyard, in the opposite direction from the vent.

“What’s his problem?” Xena asked dryly.  “It was just a little aftershock.”

The vent began belching steam once more.  But Xena and Gabrielle failed to notice that, or the faint red glow coming from its depths.  On their way to the stables, Gabrielle bent down to pick up the scroll that Naxus had dropped.

“We’ll give this back to Naxus when we see him again,” she said, tucking the scroll under one arm and leading her friend onward.

 

 

 

 

“You do not have the scroll?”

“No, your majesty,” the figure said, still panting from his run to the temple.  “But I bring good news.”

“What?” the head priest demanded.  “What could possibly be good in light of your failure to bring us the scroll?”

The ominous form of the head priest, dressed in blood red robes, pentagram hanging around his neck, his face hidden by the large hood, loomed over that of the figure.  He found that he couldn’t speak.  He was overcome with fear.

I should’ve gone back for the scroll, but-

His thoughts were cut off when the head priest seized him by the neck and lifted him up off the floor, feet dangling.  With a slight squeeze, his airway was cut off.

“What, “ the head priest spat furiously, “could you tell me that could possibly make up for your failure to bring us the one thing that would set the Master free?”

“The gate has already been manifested, your majesty,” the figure managed to choke out. 

“Where?”

“Castle Lemnos, I believe.”

The head priest relaxed his grip and the figure fell to the floor gasping for breath.

“How did this happen?”

“The scroll must have fallen out of my cloak,” he wheezed, “as I was leaving the castle.  I suspect that it was found by one of the inhabitants and read aloud accidentally.”

“You did well to come here and tell me.  The brothers must be assembled and taken to welcome the Master.”

So I won’t be punished after all, the figure thought to himself.  But for some strange reason he did not feel relieved.  Rather, he became more frightened as the head priest took a ceremonial sword from its place on the temple wall and spoke with icy calm.

            “Unfortunately brother, you not only lost our sacred scroll, but you let it fall into the hands of the undeserving.  It is an abomination that a child of light has even touched it, let alone read its sacred text.  You must be punished...”

            Before the figure huddled on hands and knees could say a word, even give a pleading look, the head priest swung the sword.  With deadly precision it hit its intended mark, cleanly cutting off his head.

 

 

 

 

            Gabrielle managed to get Xena to the stables without further incident.  She got Xena’s finger stitched up, but not without enduring much complaining on the warrior’s part.  Xena once again reminded her that she had “hands like a sailor” and that she “couldn’t make a decent stitch to save her life”.  She was just peeved because she couldn’t do the job herself.  That, and because she had slipped and cut herself in the first place.  After that they had gone to see the overseer of the castle, a king named Amonysis.  He was an old acquaintance of Xena’s and he made sure that they got one of the most luxurious apartments in the entire castle for their overnight stay.

            Their escort opened heavy hand-carved doors and led the two women into their apartment.  Luxurious indeed.  A bed as large as the Aegean, covered in silk sheets of the deepest blue Gabrielle had ever seen, adorned with a dozen or more pillows of matching color, dominated the main room.   To the left an intricate stained-glass window that must have cost a small fortune.  It opened up to reveal a breathtaking view of the countryside beyond the castle.  Beneath that, a wide, very comfortable looking couch upholstered in soft, shimmering purple fabric.  And on the low table in front of it, a bowl overflowing with all different kinds of fresh fruits.  She noted happily that there were a fair amount of extremely tasty looking cherries.  And a large bunch of grapes.

            That’ll make Xena’s day, Gabrielle thought with a small smile.

            Beyond the main room lay a large bathing chamber.  She could smell the scented candles arrayed around the bath from where she stood.  They smelled faintly of jasmine.  Absolutely heavenly.

            I could use a nice warm bath after all the travelling we’ve been doing lately.

            As if reading her mind, their escort said, “I could have a bath prepared for you, if you like.”

            Gabrielle looked to Xena, who answered, “That would be wonderful, thank you.”

            “As you wish,” their escort replied with a small bow.  “Can I get you anything else?”

            “We’re fine, thanks,” Gabrielle said.

            Another small bow and the escort quietly left the apartment.

            “Nice place,” Xena muttered to herself.

            She walked past the couch, slowing only to scoop up the bunch of grapes, then turned sharply to the right, passing the bed and going to another set of doors on the far right hand wall.

            “Gabrielle,” she beckoned.  “Come and check out the view.”

            The warrior easily pushed open the doors, which opened onto the apartment’s balcony overlooking the courtyard.  When her friend didn’t answer she turned around to gaze back into the apartment.  What she saw was Gabrielle sprawled across the bed amongst the pillows, eyes closed, smiling blissfully as she munched on a perfectly ripened cherry.

            “Comfortable?” she asked.

            “Mmm,” Gabrielle replied dreamily.  “This is wonderful, Xena.”

            Xena smiled warmly.  “Don’t get too comfortable.  We are leaving tomorrow, you know.”

            Gabrielle frowned slightly.  “Don’t remind me.”

            We may be leaving tomorrow, Xena thought to herself, but I intend to enjoy my time here, and make sure Gabrielle enjoys hers.

            The last few months had been hard on both of them, especially that whole mess with the centaurs.  The image of a pit filled with dead centaurs flashed through her mind.  Such a terrible thing Belach had done, and now there was only one left.  There would be no more centaurs, no more of the honorable creatures that had cared for her son all those years ago.  So much death...  Xena wondered, not for the first time, if it was wrong of her to expose Gabrielle to this life.  Then again it was her choice.  She could’ve left at any time if it got too hard.  But no, she stuck by Xena even in the face of death.  Even in the life after death.  Her experiences had made her stronger and bonded the two of them together in a way that no one could ever understand.  For that, Xena was eternally grateful.  This was the life that Gabrielle wanted.  A life with Xena no matter what the consequence or the danger to herself.

            The warrior popped a grape from its stem and dropped it into her mouth, sighing happily as she savored it: sweet, crisp, and it crunched as she bit into it- absolutely delicious.

 

 

 

 

            “Brothers, the time has come for us to assemble.  The moment we have long awaited has finally arrived.  We must go and welcome our Master.”

            A cheer arose from the crowd of twenty or so priests and understudies who had gathered at the temple over the last hour.

            “All hail the Master!” the head priest yelled above the cheering, raising into the air his ceremonial sword.  It was still slick with the blood of the priest who had failed to bring the scroll.

            “We will journey to Castle Lemnos,” the head priest informed the assemblage after they had quieted.  “There lies the gate through which our Master will enter the world.”

            Another roar from the assembled priests.  The head priest chopped a hand, commanding silence before he went on.  “Finally the Master will have his vengeance upon the Heaven and earth that betrayed him.  All will feel his wrath!!!”

            The sound of their cheering rang throughout the temple as the head priest led them outside onto the main road.  He was pleased.  The Master had shown him that the gate was indeed in the castle courtyard.  They would reach the castle by sundown.  They would welcome the Master...

 

 

 

 

Xena helped Gabrielle put on the silk after-bath robe that had been brought to the bathing chamber for her.  It was a seafoam blue-green that nearly matched the color of Gabrielle’s eyes and was nicely offset by her blond hair.  Xena had been given a robe of her own as well.  Hers was a rich red that went well with her sun bronzed skin and was a startling contrast to her dark hair and pale blue eyes. 

The warrior scooped up a nearby towel and proceeded to scrub the excess moisture out of her companion’s short hair.

            “I could do that myself, Xena,” Gabrielle informed her.

            “I know,” Xena replied.  “But you deserve to be spoiled a little.  I owe you after the long, out-of-the-way trip here.”

Gabrielle couldn’t argue with that.  It had been a long trip, with some hardship along the way in the form of blazing hot days and freezing cold nights after sundown out in the countryside.  And if Xena hadn’t agreed to deliver that message to King Eumaeus, another day or so’s travel away, they wouldn’t have had to trek all the way out to this castle in the first place.

“Why did we come all this way anyway?  Couldn’t the message have been sent by courier?”

“Ordinarily, yes.  But the message isn’t exactly ordinary.  It concerns some important matters that are far from ordinary.  I was the only trustworthy person around that Eumaeus knew would deliver the message without leaking it to those who shouldn’t hear it.”

“What’s so important?”

Xena grinned.  “Sorry, Gabrielle.  You know I don’t like to keep things from you, but I’m sworn to secrecy.  This message gets delivered to King Eumaeus only.”

Gabrielle made a face at that, but let the matter drop.

“It was nice to have a warm bath for a change,” she said while Xena finished drying her hair.

Xena’s eyes became wicked.  “What?  Nice swim in a cold stream isn’t good enough for you?”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at her friend and exited the bathing chamber, Xena right on her heels.  She went to the bed and sat, tucking her legs beneath her and removing the scroll from the small nightstand next to her.  Carefully, she unrolled it and began to read it out of curiosity.  Meanwhile, Xena laid down on the couch, light from the setting sun filtering through the stained glass window and painting her in an array of pastel colors. 

The warrior stretched languidly and popped yet another grape into her mouth, eyes closing briefly in pleasure before she placed the now bare stem back into the bowl.  Feeling completely relaxed after her bath, she rested her head on the arm of the couch and let her eyes close.  She remained that way, dozing in the fading sunlight, until Gabrielle’s sudden exclamation jolted her awake.

“No.  It can’t be!”

“What?” Xena asked, slightly annoyed at being disturbed in one of her rare moments of relaxation.

“It’s this scroll.  It says that simply reading this incantation will manifest a gate that, when opened, will release someone called the “Dark One” and his armies into the world.  Xena, didn’t Naxus say-“

“That the vent was some kind of gate?  Yes, he did,” Xena finished.  “He was really frightened.  At the time I thought he was just scared by the quake and not thinking clearly, trying to make up some explanation...” The warrior trailed off, brows knit in concentration.

Gabrielle all at once became tense, as did Xena, an overwhelming sense of foreboding overcoming them both.

“Xena, you don’t think that vent out there is the gate mentioned in this scroll, do you?”

“I would be more suspicious, but didn’t Naxus say that his friend, Marcus, read the incantation, and that’s when the quake happened and the vent formed?”

            “Yes, he did.”  The hair rose on the back Gabrielle’s neck.  Xena’s expression was grim, and she knew what the warrior was going to say next.

“Then I think it’s safe to say that Naxus and his friend may have accidentally manifested that gate.  And whoever the ‘Dark One’ is, I have the distinct feeling that he’s not someone we want let loose in our world.”

Gabrielle studied the scroll once more, and found what could be good news.  “Xena, I don’t think we have to worry.”

Xena looked at her as though she were crazy.  There was clearly doubt in her eyes.

“I don’t think the gate is open,” she continued quickly.  “Look at what it says here-“

Xena stood in one lithe motion and came to sit beside her on the bed.

“It says that something called the Necronomicon is needed in order to open it.”

At the mention of the Necronomicon Xena’s expression became much more worried.

“What’s the Necronomicon?” she asked, seeing her friend’s anxiety.

Xena’s tone was urgent as she answered, “Gabrielle, anything having to do with that book is not good.”

She stood and went out onto the balcony, watching the blazing disk of the sun sink below the far-off mountains.  Gabrielle followed her.

Though Gabrielle didn’t understand just what the Necronomicon was, she did understand Xena’s increased distress at its mention.  And that worried her very much.  After a long silence, Xena finally spoke.

“The Necronomicon is a book that contains ancient burial rites, demon incantations, and other things of that sort.  The legends say that it’s bound in human flesh and inked in blood.”

At this, Gabrielle didn’t know whether to be shocked, horrified, or a little of both.

Xena turned her gaze to her companion then, her gaze hard and more urgent than before.  “Gabrielle, that book can only bring suffering and death.  What’s written on its pages is nothing short of pure evil.”

 

 

 

 

An hour later Xena was still on the balcony, pacing nervously.  The gate may not be open, but she wouldn’t rest until it was completely gone from this world.  It was too dangerous to just leave there, waiting to be opened.  She felt strongly that the answers she needed were in the Necronomicon.  Problem was the book wasn’t here at the castle.  No one knew where it was.  It had been lost for centuries.

That’s when the castle’s newest guests arrived.  Coming through the gates was a solemn procession of figures bearing torches and wearing blood red hooded cloaks, their faces hidden.  Their leader wore a gold amulet, an upside-down five-pointed star.  In his arms he carried-

No.  Surely it can’t be, Xena said to herself.

From this distance she couldn’t really tell, but it looked like the leader might be holding the Necronomicon.  If indeed he was, those individuals could only be there for one reason.  She didn’t like this new development one bit.  She knew of these priests, vaguely.  They were said to worship pure evil itself.  She had to get a closer look.  She had to know for sure.

In a flash Xena changed out of her robe and into her leathers and armor with a speed that came from long years of practice in battle.  At that moment Gabrielle, who had gone to the castle library to see if she could find any information on the gate, returned.

“Find anything?” Xena inquired.

“Not a thing,” the bard replied with an exasperated sigh.  Noticing Xena’s change of attire, she asked, “What’s going on?”

Clipping her chakram in place and sheathing her sword, Xena answered, “A group of priests, known to worship and practice evil, just walked into the castle.  I’m not sure, but I think they have the Necronomicon.  Bit of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”

Judging by the expression on Gabrielle’s face, she had just come to the same conclusion. 

Xena went to move past her and leave the apartment, but Gabrielle caught her arm before she could leave. 

“Where are you going?”

“To find out what those priests are up to.  Stay here, I won’t be long.”

 

 

 

 

By the time Xena reached the courtyard it was full dark.  The only people about were the castle guards, and of course, the priests.       

She couldn’t follow them out in the open.  Too obvious with the courtyard so empty.  The priests would be onto her within moments. It looked like they were headed in the direction of the stables.

Heading for the gate, most likely.

Unfortunately, the way they were going didn’t offer many places for her to hide.  She would have to find another way.  She looked around quickly.  There.  A back alley that looked like it paralleled the path they were taking.  Quietly she eased into the shadows and made for the alley.

 

                                     *              *             *

 

The alley had led Xena to exactly the place she wanted to go: the stables.  Behind the stables, actually.  And because she had been able to move fast, she got there ahead of the priests.

Silently, she edged along the side of the stable building until she could see the gate.  There she crouched down and waited, concealed by deep shadows.

The priests, torches now extinguished, arrived and gathered around the gate.  The one wearing the amulet (Xena took him to be the head priest) stepped forward.  Xena could now clearly see the book he carried.  The cover was drab brown like mummified flesh, the front of it like a human face that had been peeled off and stretched to fit the book.  A gruesome sight. It was unquestionably the Necronomicon.  No other book looked like that. 

The one Xena assumed was the leader began speaking in a low voice to the others.  She had to strain to hear what he was saying.

“-is indeed manifested.  We have seen it with our own eyes,” he said.

There was much excited murmuring among the others at that.

So, she thought with increasing dread, it really is a gate.  But to what?

She couldn’t make out what the leader said next, with the exception of two words: “Master” and “Hell”.  Those two words were all she needed to hear to make her stomach go into freefall.

Dear Gods, I hope he’s not saying what I think, she thought with a small measure of fear.

The leader spoke again.  Xena listened intently.

“The Master has informed me that the first welcoming has already occurred and that the second is at hand.  One pure of heart has already been chosen.  The Master’s minions will take care of all that remains.  We must simply insure that all goes to plan and happens over the next day.  Otherwise the gate will close and we will not be able to try again for one thousand years.  I do not think the Master would be pleased with us if that were to occur.”

Welcomings must be the steps that have to be taken to open the gate.  And I’ll bet anything the Necronomicon says exactly what they are.  I have to get that book...

The priests were leaving.  Xena decided to follow them until they went to their quarters in the castle, find out where they would be keeping the book, and perhaps overhear some more useful information about the gate.  As she understood it, these priests worshiped and performed their rituals at night.  They slept or otherwise stayed out of sight during the day to avoid the light if at all possible.  That’s when she would sneak in and get the book.

Then she and Gabrielle could figure out how to prevent this gate from being opened.  It was becoming very obvious that the opening of the gate was something they did not want, and time was short.  Xena didn’t know how, but the first welcoming had already happened.  That left at least one more before it was too late.  One more before some great evil was let into this world.

 

 

 

 

“What did you find out?” Gabrielle asked when Xena returned almost two hours later.

“That the first step to opening the gate has already been taken, and that there may be only one more that has to happen for the gate to open.  I also found out that the last welcoming or welcomings have to happen within the next day.”

“So the vent really is the gate from the scroll.”

“Yes.”  Xena took Gabrielle by the shoulders and looked her straight in the eye.  Her eyes were two cold blue fires burning with grim determination.  “Listen to me Gabrielle.  Whatever is supposed to come through that gate is pure evil.  I heard those priests talking.  It could mean the end of the world if that gate is opened.  Do you understand?”

Gabrielle nodded shakily, too stunned to do anything more.  The implications of the situation were overwhelming, to say the least.

“Now,” Xena continued, “for the next day, we have to make sure those final steps don’t happen.”

“What are they?”

Xena sighed.  “See, that’s the problem.  I don’t know.  But I do know that the Necronomicon contains the answers we need, and right now, the priests have it.”

A silence stretched between them.  Finally, Gabrielle broke it.

“You’re going to steal it from them, aren’t you?”

The warrior nodded.  “We have to have that book.  The fate of our world could very well depend on it.”

“How are you going to get it?”

“Sneak into the head priest’s apartment in the morning and take it when he’s not looking.”

Xena said it lightly, but the usual spark of mischief that might have accompanied that statement was gone, a sign of just how deadly serious the situation was.  She released her grip on Gabrielle and put on a confident face.  “Don’t worry.  We can stop them.  Best thing we can do now is get some rest.  We’ll be glad of it later.”

 

                                              *      *      *

 

The air in the hallway was hot and sticky.

It smelled of sulfur.

Torches were lit, a thin haze of smoke and mist floated in the air.

A shiver ran down Gabrielle’s spine.  The hair on the back of her neck rose, her anxiety increased.  Yet, except for the smell and the smoke, nothing appeared to be wrong.

She took a deep breath of the oppressive air and walked down the hallway.  She was alone.

Or so it seemed.

The hair still standing on the back of her neck told her otherwise.

The smoke grew thicker the further she walked.  The walls, decorative statues, and paintings were all burned in numerous places, as if this part of the castle had been on fire. 

Writing covered one wall, red writing, as if it had been done in blood.

Despite the heat in the hall, Gabrielle suddenly felt cold.  The crawly feeling from the back of her neck had worked its way down her spine.  She kept walking.

Around a shallow corner was a sight that made her freeze.  A red pitchfork-like instrument stood upside-down, stuck in a pile of bones.  Instinctively she knew that those bones were real.  She closed her eyes, feeling ill.  She didn’t want to think about how those people had died.

She wiped a hand on her forehead.  The hallway had grown hotter, the smoke thicker.

Ahead was another corner in the hall.  She was afraid of what lay beyond, but somehow managed to step around the pile of bones and push herself around the corner-

-And there she stopped, her gaze locked on an unbearably horrific sight. 

The woman stood in a circle of flame.  Her hair had burned away long since.  The flames rose around her like an inverted waterfall, the glimpses it gave of her revealing a charred, mutilated corpse.  She was unquestionably dead.

Gabrielle let out a choked cry as the terror of the display hit her.  Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over onto her cheeks.  She turned and ran back the way she had come, wanting to put as much distance between herself and the gruesome hall of horrors as possible.

Past the pile of bones, past the writing she ran, toward the end of the hall shrouded in totally blackness.  Suddenly she saw movement in the inky darkness.  Something was hiding there.  Something evil.  And it was waiting for her.

Gabrielle came to a dead stop.  She panicked.  There was nowhere for her to run but the dark.

Out of the blackness a face came into view.

A red, smiling face.

A face covered with maggots that crawled in and out of its long slanted eyes.

A face with rams horns in place of ears.

Gabrielle screamed.

In a blur, it leapt for her.

Somehow she had the presence of mind to draw one of her sais.  Just in time she brought it up in front of herself. 

The thing hit her with great force.  It let out a huge roar, but before it could tear her to shreds with its long, gleaming, razor sharp claws, it suddenly slumped atop her. 

It had been impaled on her sai.

The smoke disappeared, along with the bloody writing, the bones, and all the rest.  It was not some horrible monster that was impaled upon her sai, but a mangy dog.

“Thank you for your help, Gabrielle,” an evil voice boomed...

 

 

 

 

Gabrielle snapped awake, sitting bolt upright in the sumptuous bed in the apartment.  She was drenched in sweat, her heart pounding so hard she thought it would explode.

The commotion was more than enough to wake Xena.

“Gabrielle, what’s wrong?”

Her friend didn’t answer.  Gabrielle just sat there shaking, arms wrapped tightly around herself, eyes wide and staring blankly straight ahead.

“Gabrielle?”

Fighting back rising panic, Xena reached out to grab her by the shoulders.  The instant her hands touched Gabrielle, she started violently and screamed, arms and legs thrashing. 

Xena pulled away for an instant, startled by Gabrielle’s reaction, before wrapping her arms around her in an attempt to restrain her.  The warrior could sense her friend’s fear.  Something was very wrong.

“Gabrielle!  Snap out of it!” Xena cried, giving her a firm shake.  “It’s me!  Xena!  You’re safe!”

Something she said seemed to have reached her.  Slowly Gabrielle relaxed, the thrashing ceased, and her eyes focused on her friend’s face.

“Xena,” she exclaimed.  “Thank the Gods-“

The bard hugged her friend tightly, and Xena returned it.

“It was awful, Xena,” she murmured, her voice barely above a whisper.  She clung to her best friend even more tightly.

“Shh, it’s alright,” Xena said soothingly, gently rocking Gabrielle in her arms.  “I’m here.  Nothing can hurt you.”

They stayed like that for a long while.  The sun was just starting to peek over the tops of the distant mountains when Gabrielle, sufficiently calmed down, let go of Xena and lie back on the bed.

“What happened, Gabrielle?” Xena asked.

“I had the most horrible dream,” Gabrielle replied, her eyes becoming distant as the memories slowly came back to her.  Suppressing a shudder, she went on.

“I was in a hallway, here in the castle.  There was writing, in blood, on the walls, and-and a pile of human bones-“ The bard drew a shuddering breath- “And around a corner a woman, burned alive-“

Her voice broke, tears stinging her eyes at the horrible memory.

Xena didn’t know what to say to this.  What she did know was that this sort of thing was not normal for Gabrielle.  It only served to reinforce the idea that something evil was happening at Castle Lemnos.

Could this be one of Gabrielle’s visions?  She was “sensitive” to a small degree.  Even though she hadn’t had a vision in years and her “visions” were rarely ever dependable, Xena couldn’t rule it out.  If the evil here was strong enough for Gabrielle to pick up on...

Not good.

“Then there was this monster.  He came after me-“

“That’s enough, Gabrielle.  You don’t need to say anymore.  Just try and forget about it for now, okay?”

Gabrielle nodded.  “I think I need to get some fresh air.  Maybe this beautiful morning will cheer me up.”

She rose and walked out onto the balcony.  Looking out over the courtyard, Gabrielle saw the castle inhabitants going about their daily routines.  Castle guards changed to the next watch.  Merchants hurried to the communal oven to bake fresh bread for sale in the market.  Nothing looked amiss.  But she couldn’t shake the terrible sense of foreboding that had been growing steadily stronger since their discovery involving Naxus’s scroll and the Necronomicon.

Something’s not right here, she thought.

Movement in the courtyard below caught her attention.  A red-robed figure was hurrying past carrying a large cloth-covered bundle.  One of the priests.  What was in that bundle?  And where was he headed?  It seemed to Gabrielle that he was heading in the general direction of the stables.

Toward the gate.

She was about to call for Xena when the priest, not paying attention to his surroundings, ran into a passing castle inhabitant.  The impact knocked the bundle from the priest’s grasp, and the cloth fell away before it hit the ground.  Gabrielle froze, her blood running cold.  Lying there on the ground was a mangy dog with a gaping stab wound in its chest.  The same exact animal that she had seen in her dream.  What that horrible monster had turned into after she impaled it.

No.  It was just a dream.  It wasn’t real...

Gabrielle staggered back, feeling faint.

“Gabrielle, you alright?” Xena asked, noticing that her friend looked rather pale.

She didn’t answer.

“Gabrielle?” Xena asked again, sounding much more concerned.

That’s when Gabrielle saw her sais lying next to the bed.  One of them was covered in blood.

“No,” she gasped in horrific realization.

She stumbled and fell to her knees just inside the doorway.  In an instant Xena vaulted off the bed and was at her side.

“Gabrielle, what’s wrong?  You can tell me,” Xena demanded, taking her face in both hands, searching for some clue as to what was going on with her friend.

Gabrielle was hysterical.  All she could say was, “It was just a dream.  It couldn’t have been real...”

 

 

 

 

The priest quickly gathered up the dead animal and covered it before anyone saw it.  He couldn’t risk letting anyone see, lest they keep him from taking it to the gate.  Failure in this task would mean certain death at the hands of their leader, and an eternity of suffering at the hands of the Master.  Something he did not wish to experience, especially after seeing what had been done to the last priest who failed them.

He scurried along through the courtyard, tripping twice in his haste and almost dropping the animal he carried.

 Just when he thought he could carry the animal’s dead weight no further, the gate was before him.  Quickly he looked to make sure that no one was around.

“Master, I give you the second welcoming,” he said ceremoniously.  Proceeding to chant in Latin he dumped the dead animal into the steaming mouth of the gate...

 

                                             *         *         *

 

 

Xena moved silently through the shadows of the hallway, careful to stay hidden from any servants or other inhabitants that could jeopardize her mission.  Quickly, she slipped through a broad beam of sunlight before melting back into the darkness.  And just in time, too.  The instant that she was no longer visible, she heard footsteps coming toward her.  As the footsteps drew closer, she removed her chakram from its clip and held it at the ready.

Probably a servant, she thought.

Her brow knit as she contemplated that for a moment.  Wait a minute.  There shouldn’t be any servants around right now.  Who-

Then she saw him.   One of the priests.  One of the men she was trying to stop.  And he looked like he was out of breath.

Well, well.  What are you doing up so early? she wondered.  I thought you priests avoided the daytime?

Briefly, she thought about putting the pinch on him, then thought better of it.  It could alert the others to her presence, as close as she was to their quarters.  She couldn’t risk getting out of there without the Necronomicon.  Then it occurred to her.  A plan better than the one she had so carefully thought out before coming here.  She would have to use the pinch after all.

Putting the chakram back on its clip, Xena tried to ignore a sudden surge of concern for Gabrielle.  She regretted having to leave her alone in their apartment, especially after all that she had gone through last night and this morning.  Truthfully, Xena didn’t think it was wise to leave Gabrielle alone right now, but she had no choice.  She certainly couldn’t have taken Gabrielle with her in her present state.

Quietly, she waited.

Hopefully this new plan will get me back to you that much faster, Gabrielle.

The priest drew closer and closer, still showing no sign that he knew of the warrior’s presence.  So far, so good.

Either he’s really good or totally unaware.  I’m betting on the latter.

When the priest was close enough for her to reach out and touch, she sprang into action.  The plan was almost worth it just to see the expression on the priest’s face when she seemingly popped out of nowhere.

“Boo!” she whispered under her breath with a sneer before tackling the lone priest.  Legs straddling his hips, she pinned him to the ground and her hands lashed out in one lightning-quick movement, effectively shutting off the flow of blood to his brain.

“Alright priest,” she said in a harsh whisper.  “You got thirty seconds to live unless I release the pinch.  So tell me, just what are you and your friends doing here?”

His nose already gushing blood, he sneered defiantly.  “I am not afraid of death.  I have served the Master well.”

“I am not gonna ask you again,” Xena said, her voice turning into a feral growl.  She grabbed a handful of robe and pulled him up until his face was mere inches from hers.  “What are you, and your little priest friends, doing here, and what does it have to do with the gate?”

He laughed in her face.  “You are too late, Xena.  I have already given the Master his second welcoming.  One more and the hellmouth will open.  Then you, your blond girlfriend, and your entire pathetic world will be finished.”

“Who is your Master?” Xena demanded, all too aware that she was running out of time.  And she couldn’t let this one live, unless she wanted him to run back to his brothers and tell them that she was on to them.

Yeah, she told herself, that would really help you out.

“I th-think you know who,” the priest gurgled.  His sinister laughter faded, his eyes rolling back into his head.  His body spasmed weakly, then he lay still.

Time for part two of her revised plan.

 

 

 

 

Moments later Xena was back in the hallway after stashing the priest’s body in a nearby unlocked room and stealing his robe.

The robe’s large hood made it the perfect disguise.  Her face was completely hidden.  And, of course, she looked like all the other priests.  It would be much easier to slip in unnoticed.

I also noticed women among them, she thought.  That’s one thing I’m certain won’t give me away.

There was no need to wait around for a priest to follow, since yesterday’s little reconnoitering mission had shown her exactly where their quarters were.

Just need to know which apartment belongs to the head priest.

The least intrusive way would have been to go from balcony to balcony and peek into each apartment.  However, anyone seeing one of their number balcony hopping in broad daylight would be suspicious and would almost certainly tip them off.

As Xena walked down the hall toward the set of apartments she called up what she could remember of the layout of this wing of the castle.  As she recalled each set of apartments consisted of ten smaller rooms and one luxury suite like the one she and Gabrielle shared.  And of course the head priest would be in the most luxurious apartment.  Difficult thing was that each wing was laid out differently, a security precaution designed to confuse intruders.  Whereas the apartment she shared with Gabrielle was the fifth door in the set of rooms, the apartment she was looking for here could be the first door or the tenth.  They all looked the same.

If only I could’ve gotten close enough to see which apartment the head priest went into when I followed them here yesterday.

Silently she cursed the builder of the castle.  This was a lot harder than it needed to be. 

If only I could’ve come at night.  I could’ve just used the balcony, instead of having to disguise myself in this itchy robe and trying to figure out which door out of eleven is the right one!

She should’ve just asked King Amonysis.  This was his castle after all.  He would know.  But it was too late for that now.  Besides, she didn’t want to tip him off to what was going on here just yet.  It wasn’t necessary to cause a panic at the moment.  Either way, she couldn’t turn back now.

Come on, Xena, think!  she ordered herself.  You’ve stayed in the very same apartment that you’re looking for! Remember...

Just when she was about ready to choose a door at random, the memory came back to her.

Second door from the left.

Quietly she approached the appropriate door and knocked on it firmly.  A beat later she could just barely hear someone stirring inside.  She knocked again for good measure and to her satisfaction, heard footsteps inside coming toward the door.  The second the bleary-eyed head priest opened the door, Xena struck.

Her hands lashed out again, this time to deliver a crushing blow to the throat.  The head priest stumbled back wheezing and clutching his injured throat.  Xena rapidly hit the pressure points that, instead of cutting off the blood flow to the brain, caused total body paralysis.

He fell to the floor in a heap.  There he lay, unmoving, his eyes wide in astonishment and outrage, as Xena slipped past and retrieved the Necronomicon from its stand near the bed.

After tucking the book securely under her robe, Xena became perfectly still, listening for any sign that her entry and subsequent attack on their leader had alerted the other priests.  Nothing.  Total silence.

She exited the apartment, checking to make sure the coast was clear before quietly easing the door shut and moving swiftly and silently off down the hall.  Away from the priests and back to Gabrielle.

 

 

 

 

Gabrielle lay back on the bed, wondering when Xena would return.

If she returns at all.

Instantly the bard ordered herself to stop thinking that way.  Xena was more than able to take care of herself.  And judging by what the warrior told her, these priests were of no real threat in and of themselves.  The evil they worshipped was the real threat.  That’s what worried Gabrielle, because she could feel it growing stronger and stronger every minute.

In reading the scroll and seeing everything that had happened at the castle since their arrival, she and Xena were able to piece things together with a fair amount of certainty.  The gate was a gate to Hell.  The priests were there to ensure that it gets opened to let out the Master and possibly the rest of the evil lurking just on the other side of it.  Chances are the Master is Lucifer, the very archangel that Xena tricked into committing the seven deadly sins, ensuring him a one-way ticket to Hell and the position of being its ruler.

If it is Lucifer, and he gets out, he’s going to want revenge on Xena and the world that she (not to mention the other archangels) protect.

That’s when one of the priests burst through the door of the apartment.

 

 

 

 

Without thinking, Gabrielle leapt off of the bed, and in the blink of an eye stood ready to defend herself, sais in hand. 

The red cloaked priest kept coming toward her.

“Don’t come any closer!” Gabrielle shouted in as threatening a voice as she could muster.

Hands raised non-threateningly, the priest backed off.  Gabrielle watched warily as the priest reached up to pull back the cloak’s hood.  She was ready for nearly anything except what she actually saw.  Xena.

Gabrielle, greatly relieved, lowered her weapons and let out a breath that she didn’t even realize she’d been holding.  “Xena.  Thank the gods.  Please don’t scare me like that again.”

The warrior looked up at her friend, eyes softening as she said, “Sorry, Gabrielle.  Guess I should’ve ditched the cloak before I came bursting in here like that.”

Xena smiled briefly before her expression turned deadly serious.  Gabrielle noticed the shift and knew that something was up.

“Xena, what’s wrong?  You got the book, didn’t you?”

She didn’t answer right away, seeming distracted.  Gabrielle was about to ask again, fearing the worst, when her question seemed to suddenly sink in and Xena nodded.

“Yeah, Gabrielle, I got it,” Xena answered as she pulled the Necronomicon out from under the cloak and set it down on the bed, still sounding as though her thoughts were elsewhere.

“What’s going on, Xena?  You look worried.”

Xena threw off the cloak and took a deep breath before fixing her troubled gaze on the bard.  “Gabrielle I don’t know how, but two of the three welcomings have occurred.”

The words hung ominously in the air.

“Two?” Gabrielle asked, incredulous.  “How can that be?  We’ve seen no activity from the priests.  They haven’t gathered near the gate since the evening that you followed them.  How-?”  

“Like I said, Gabrielle, I don’t know.  Now there’s only one welcoming left before gods-only-know-what is let loose into this world.  We need to find out what it is and what to do about it before it’s too late.”  Xena pointed to the Necronomicon.  “I know that the answers we need are in there.  Now let’s find it.”

Gabrielle stared at the hideously contorted face on the cover of the book and knew she was right.  The realization of how little time they had left was chilling indeed.

That’s when the world melted.  Or at least it seemed to.  Outside the window, all the color seemed to drain out of the countryside.  The green of the trees, the golden tint of the fields, all of it seemed to run and drain into oblivion, like the beauty and life of them was being sucked away.

Gabrielle turned to find that Xena was no longer at her side.  Xena now stood staring out beyond the balcony into the castle courtyard.  She went and looked out over her friend’s shoulder, seeing what could only be described as blackness rising in a billowing plume up into the sky.  It was coming from somewhere near the stables.

“The gate,” both women said in unison, voicing their thoughts at the exact same moment. 

They looked at each other briefly, then back outside.  The black was filling the sky.  The light of midday slowly began to fade, the dark blotting out the sun.

Gabrielle hurried back to the window and looked out over the forest and fields.  At least, what was left of them.  What had once been lush and green, beautiful and alive, was now thin, sparse, and dry.  The trees had grown sick and stunted, the air dry and parched without a trace of the ocean mist that it had carried just moments before.  There was no longer the scent of earth or wood.

Gabrielle looked to the sky.  Already it had grown darker, the quality of light becoming like something out of a bad dream.  The once beautiful fields were now nothing but desolate emptiness, patches of brittle, sickly grass clinging to hard, rocky soil.  The black stain being funnled into the sky had already spread almost to the horizon in all directions. 

Xena saw it, too.  It was all she could do to tear herself away from the terrible scene and reach for the book.  Already, it had grown too dark to see properly. 

“Gabrielle, quick!  Light some candles!”

The bard did just that, bringing the newly lit candles over to illuminate the book, now lying open on the chest at the foot of the bed with Xena pouring over its pages.  Gabrielle knelt down next to her as she skimmed the text, desperately searching for the information they so badly needed.

Suddenly Gabrielle caught a glimpse of something familiar.  She put out her hands to stop Xena from flipping the pages.  “Wait.  Go back.  I think I saw something.”

Xena gave her a questioning glance, but complied with her friend’s suggestion.  One by one, she turned back the pages until Gabrielle exclaimed, “There!  Stop!”

On the page before them was a skillfully drawn picture of a crack in the ground.  The small chasm was gushing steam.  The gate.  Xena quickly skimmed the passages and found their beginning on the previous page.  Silently, warrior and bard read.

“The first welcoming shall be complete when mortal blood is shed into the gate,” Gabrielle muttered.

Xena’s eyes went wide, her breath catching.  She had set this all in motion.  She was certain of it.  That first day, the day those boys manifested the gate.  She had been slicing an apple and slipped, cutting her finger.  Gabrielle had said something about her bleeding everywhere… 

Gabrielle had stopped reading, noticing that Xena was staring off into space, glassy-eyed and slack-jawed. 

“What is it?” she asked.

“I started it,” Xena muttered, eyes still unfocused.

“I-I don’t understand, Xena-“

“When I cut my finger-“ She turned her gaze to the wounded appendage with its neat row of stitches.  “You said I was bleeding-“

“Well, yeah.  It was all over your hand, and there were drops on the ground… in front… of you…” The bard slowed and came to a stop as realization struck.  “By the gods, Xena.  Some drops must’ve fallen into the gate.”

Seeing her friend’s expression of guilt, she quickly added in a comforting voice, “Xena, you had no way to know.  And it was those kids that brought the gate into existence in the first place.”

“That may be true, but it doesn’t change anything.”

Gabrielle wanted to say more, but what could she say, really?  Not anything that would really make Xena feel any better, not anything that would change or help what was happening now.  She read on.  What she discovered next turned her blood to ice water.  The book said that “powers”, freed by the first welcoming, chose a person pure of heart and invaded their mind.  Their purpose: to manipulate them into carrying out an animal sacrifice for the second welcoming.  Under the influence of the powers the person would be fooled into actually carrying out the sacrifice.

Gabrielle had known somehow that her dream, or nightmare rather, had been something much more real.  What she saw in the courtyard the following morning and the blood on her sai had been a testament to that.  That was how it got her.  In her dreams.  She suspected that evil coming from the gate had played a part, but she never suspected this.

The shocked, distant look that Xena had worn just moments before was now Gabrielle’s.

“It used me,” she said shakily.  “It used me to make the sacrifice.  The second welcoming- I’m the one it chose…”

“Never mind that.  What’s done is done, and we’ve got bigger problems coming our way.”

The edge in Xena’s voice snapped Gabrielle out of her reverie. She’d only heard that tone on a few rare occasions.  What it meant- She didn’t even want to think it.

When Gabrielle looked her way, Xena continued.

“The second welcoming released hellspawn minions.  A kind of demon from what I can gather.  Their purpose is to carry out the third and final welcoming: three human sacrifices whose bodies must be placed into the gate.”

“How long before the minions show up?”

“Any time now.  We’ve got to get to the king and have his men round everyone up into the main hall.  Keep them there until it’s safe again.  If I remember correctly, the gate has to be opened by midnight tonight or the gate closes for another several thousand years.”

“What are we waiting for?”

 

 

 

 

King Amonysis agreed to help without hesitation.  He knew Xena, and he knew that she would never lie no matter how outrageous her claims sounded.  Besides, all one had to do was look out the window to see that she was telling the truth.

Thankfully, there weren’t really that many people to round up.  The castle was relatively small, so the king’s soldiers didn’t have a lot of ground to cover.  Of course, Xena made sure that they steered clear of the priest’s quarters.  She would take care of them soon enough.  She just hoped that they’d gotten everybody.  Any stragglers would be sitting ducks for a minion sacrifice.  Three sacrifices and Hell would be unleashed upon the earth.

 

 

 

 

Dani had been in the library’s storeroom when the king’s soldiers came to clear everyone out.  They overlooked him and he never knew that they had been there.

It seemed strangely quiet when he emerged from the storeroom.  Of course, libraries were quiet anyway, but this was different somehow.  Where had everyone gone off to?  Dani shrugged off the odd feeling, passing it off to an overactive imagination, and busied himself with a scroll.

A distant crash caught his attention and he looked out a nearby window.  Demons rained down from the roiling black sky, their descent punctuated by the flash and crack of lightning.  The hideous beasts stood out in horrific relief against the dark when lightning illuminated the sky for brief seconds. 

What had happened to the sun?  Dani had been in the storeroom almost the entire day, and when he wasn’t he was far too busy to look out the window.  Surely he couldn’t have been in there that long.  Could he?  What he saw before him now was pure evil falling from the heavens.  And he was terrified.

He watched, transfixed, as they crashed atop the battlements and smashed through stained glass.  That included the one that smashed through the window closest to him.   Young and terrified, Dani hid beneath a nearby table, dropping the scroll he had held, his mouth falling open in a panicked scream.

The howl of the demon drowned out his cry.  The thing vaulted at him with sudden speed.  Glistening claws and teeth, razor sharp, shredded his flesh.  The weight of the beast followed, smashing Dani into some shelving.  Scrolls fell around him in scraps.  His blood pooled on the cold stone floor.  Hissing, the horned beast slit his throat.

The library was swallowed in blackness.

 

 

 

 

Xena and Gabrielle had just locked the doors of the main hall when the rain of demons began.  They were as safe as they could possibly be in there.

Xena wondered if they’d gotten everyone.  Anyone left behind was easy prey for the demons.  She listened to them thud against the walls, crash through nearby windows, and offered up a silent prayer, hoping that their shelter would hold up to the assault.  They had only to wait out the day and all this would be over.

Unless those things manage to get three people somehow left behind, or break into the entry hall outside.

Beyond the large hall entry doors lay a large vaulted entry hall that opened out onto the courtyard.  If a demon somehow got into the entry hall the entry doors, albeit thick, strong, heavy entry doors, were all that stood between them and death.

Xena turned her back on the doors and squeezed through the mass of people in the hall.  Fifty castle guards, plus two-hundred-fifty castle inhabitants made for uncomfortably close quarters.  The hall barely held them all, but there was no other choice.  The sea of rank, sweating bodies was stifling.  Xena did her best to ignore it.  She found Gabrielle against the far wall, still clutching the Necronomicon.

“I’ve done all I can to ensure out safety.  All we can do now is wait,” the warrior said flatly.

“And hope,” Gabrielle uttered softly.

Dear, sweet Gabrielle.  Always looking for good in the darkest of times.  That’s what Xena loved so much about her.  Gabrielle was a shinning light.  Her light.  A light that everyone desperately needed right now.

Xena gestured to the book Gabrielle held in her hands.  “Maybe we should try to find a way to close that gate.”

The bard nodded.  “I’ll get right on it.”

She was just opening the book when a large crash rang out in the hall.  The outer doors had been compromised.  Their worst case scenario was playing out at that very moment.  Xena took off toward the entry doors.  Gabrielle closed the book and passed it to King Amonysis, who had been sitting silently at her side, stunned by the recent turn of events. 

“Guard this with your life,” was all she said before going to join her friend.

Together they hurriedly pressed through the throng, arriving at the entry doors in moments.  Xena didn’t need to press her ear to the door to hear the screams.  Gabrielle heard them, too.

“Xena, you can’t just-“

“I can, and I will,” Xena said resolutely.  “We can’t risk it.”

Gabrielle wasn’t having any of it.  “You can’t leave him to die!”  Her pale eyes were burning.  “What if he’s the third?”

“What if he’s not?” Xena demanded.  “What then?  We risk letting those things in here to have all the sacrifices they want!”

“Xena, please!”  Gabrielle pleaded.

Even as the warrior made up her mind to keep the doors closed, she started to give in.  In the past there would never have been any question.  Thanks in part to Gabrielle she was no longer that cold.

The warrior heaved a sigh.  “Alright.  Be ready.”

Gabrielle drew twin sai from her boots; metal sang as Xena drew her sword from its sheath.  The warrior princess waited a beat, then hauled the now unbolted door open with one mighty heave, quite a feat given the weight of it.

They were too late.

The man stumbled forward through the door, bloody ropes of intestine hanging out of his slashed belly.

“Help-me,” he croaked through a mouthful of blood.

The beast rose up behind him.  Red leather skin, all rams horns, pitch black eyes, pointed teeth and sharp claws.  Its gaping maw swallowed the dying man’s head an instant before clamping shut, bursting his head like a stomped grape and covering Xena and Gabrielle in a gruesome shower of blood, brains, and chips of bone.

Not wasting another second, Xena let loose her piercing warcry and leapt for the beast.  Temporarily blinded by bloodlust, Xena caught the creature off guard, plunging her sword hilt-deep into its eye before being flung back into the closed half of the double entry doors.

Only momentarily stunned by the impact, the warrior princess was back on her feet quickly, face to face with the hellspawn.  It roared in pain and outrage, wary of what seconds before it considered easy prey.  Her sword was still sticking out of its ruined, soulless eye.

Another clipped cry and she was airborne.  Gabrielle watched from the cracked open doorway as Xena executed a tight flip before slamming feet first into the demon’s chest, knocking it to the ground.  She sprung to her feet while it lay dazed.  A wrenching twist, a satisfying howl from the beast, and her sword was free.  It took a swipe at her, claws bared.  Xena danced away.  Unfortunately, she was a hair too slow.  Claws raked down her calf, slicing through soft flesh and muscle like a hot knife through butter.  She screamed, faltering and collapsing to the cold floor of the entry hall.

Gabrielle saw the whole thing as if in slow motion, each second stretched out to infinity.  She cried out to her friend and started through the space between the doors.  Through the haze of pain Xena saw this and, holding up a warning hand, cried, “Gab-rielle, no!”

“I won’t leave you!” Gabrielle cried back, heart wrenching in her chest, eyes clouded with emotion.

“Listen to me!  Get back in there and close those doors! Go! Now!”

“NO!”

DO IT!

Xena’s ultimatum hit home.  One life for hundreds.  And possibly, one life for the lives of everyone in the world.  Gabrielle ducked back inside the main hall, hauled the door shut, bolted it.  Her back to the door, she slid to the ground, hot tears stinging her eyes.  She’d just left her best friend to die.

 

 

 

 

Xena dragged herself to one side of the entry hall (away from the demon) and managed to get to her feet, propped against the wall.  The searing pain in her leg was so excruciating that she had almost blacked out.  She trembled with the effort it took to stay standing, stay conscious.  It was becoming difficult to hold her sword.

Blood loss is weakening me, she noted absently.

In a blur, the half-blind demon leapt for her.  Though weakened, Xena swung her sword straight and true.  The demon collapsed in a heap, its head cleanly severed.

More unnatural howling.  Two more hellspawn entered the hall, charging toward her.  Not one to go down without a fight she hobbled into their path.  When it came close enough, she attacked the nearer of the two demons.  But she was too weak.  It easily dodged the blade and knocked her aside.  Xena had the faintest sensation of hitting the floor before the world went black.

 

 

 

 

 

Gabrielle was doing all she could to keep the people in the main hall calm.  The roaring outside the doors wasn’t helping.  She gave up when the demons started slamming into the entry doors.  A rain of crumbling dust from overhead accompanied each booming thud.  Sais drawn, the bard got everyone as far away from the doors as she could, but the hall was too crowded to really get anyone safely away.  Now loud creaks and groans accompanied each impact.

Gabrielle braced herself.  It was unrealistic to think that she could fight off a swarm of demons alone, but she would most certainly try or give her life in the process.  She supposed that she should have been afraid right then, but like all the other times that she had faced death, she just felt strangely calm and accepting of her fate.

Bring it on.

With a great splintering crack the doors exploded into a million shards.  One large fragment impaled a man.  He lay on the floor in a spreading pool of his own blood.

The hellspawn came thundering into the main hall, hideous twin monsters roaring as they barreled toward her.  She drove a sai deep into the arm of one as it tried to pass.  It howled, enraged at the pain she inflicted, and swung a clawed hand at her head.  She ducked, then sidestepped, slipping inside its guard to deliver a crushing uppercut to its chin with the butt end of her remaining sai.  It roared and swung again.  A high, sweeping kick knocked the hand away.  Another savage uppercut and several quick punches to the abdomen; its head snapped back, but it did not stagger.  Tired of playing games, it waited for her next volley, easily deflecting a series of kicks before catching her fists in both hands.  It applied almost bone crushing pressure until she dropped her sai.  As it flung her away its claws slashed down her back.  She hit the floor, sliding and leaving a red smear on the stone.  To punctuate its victory, it removed the sai still stuck in its arm and launched it at Gabrielle.  It landed inches from her head with enough force to stick in the stone floor.

She braced for a killing blow, but none came.  Looking around, she saw the demon she had just fought with heading for the far wall.

The Necronomicon!

Gabrielle leapt to her feet.  Electric pain exploded across her back.  She felt a gush of blood with every movement, but she pressed on, grabbing her sais before running to confront the demon.

The pain in her back almost unbearable, Gabrielle let loose with a primal yell as she ran up to the hulking demon.  It caught her with a savage backhand; she never had a chance to defend herself.  Gabrielle felt the skin over her cheekbone split with the impact.  Her vision swam as she fell hard to the floor.  She was seeing stars, but could make out the demon now standing over her, holding the book.  It grinned sadistically as it reached out one long claw and drove it into her shoulder, slowly twisting it deeper and deeper.

Gabrielle screamed.  The claw was now sticking out of the back of her shoulder.  It lifted her then, the agony becoming so great that black was closing in at the edges of her vision.  All she could do was hang there, dangling from its long claw.

One last sharp-toothed smile and it shifted its claw to point toward the floor, letting gravity do the work this time.  She slid off the razor appendage, howling at the pain in her ruined shoulder.  She cried out again when she landed with all her weight on her torn back.

In the few instants of lucidity she knew as she faded in and out of consciousness, Gabrielle saw the demons walk out of the hall, one cradling the Necronomicon and dragging the impaled man , the other dragging the man whose head had been bitten off.  Their corpses left gruesome red ribbons in their wake.

As for why the demons didn’t kill them all?  Gabrielle knew why.  They had gotten what they came for.  The Necronomicon, but most importantly the sacrifices.  However, she suspected that they would be back once the sacrifice ritual was complete.  That is, if indeed there would be anything to come back for after the gate was opened. 

They had failed.  She and Xena both.  And the world was frorfeit.  What almost upset her more than that was the fact that Xena had died in vain.

Gabrielle gazed out into the entry hall.  Only a red smear remained where she had last seen the mighty warrior princess.  But something deep down inside told her that it wasn’t over yet.  Could Xena have survived?

 

 

 

 

Warm, flickering light.

Smooth coolness against her skin.

A feeling of floating, as if she lay upon a soft cloud.

Am I dead? she wondered briefly.  No.  I’ve been dead before.  It didn’t feel like this.

A shuffling sound nearby.  Someone was there with her.

Slowly Xena opened her eyes.  This was not the hallway she last remembered being in.  Instead she found herself in a large, luxurious bedchamber.  The king’s?  She looked around for the person watching her.  She couldn’t hear him, so much as feel him.  So familiar… But she saw no one.

Candles had been placed in every possible place.  In their sconces, on the windowsills, the nightstand, the dresser, a low table across from her, in every nook and cranny.

She sat up to find herself in a sumptuously large bed, even larger than the one in her apartment.  The smooth coolness was the silk sheets, and the dress she now wore in place of her fighting leathers.

Blood red, just like the sheets, the silk dress clung to her in all the right places, accentuating every curve perfectly.  The fabric of the full-length sleeves seemed to mold to her arms, highlighting their well-muscled form.

How did she get here?  Where were her leathers?  Her sword?  Her chakram?  She thought hard, trying to remember.  Everything was still fuzzy.  Then, like a bolt from the blue, it hit her and she remembered every awful detail.  Demons.  Ugly ones. They were trying to break into the main hall to get sacrifices.  That poor man’s head had just exploded…

His blood and brains were all over me.

Not anymore.  Someone had cleaned her up.  Who?  Why?

Her leg.

She threw off the silken top sheet that covered her legs.  The dress, slit revealingly almost all the way up to her hip, left her injured leg uncovered.  Her uninjured leg.  The wound was gone, the skin smooth and unmarred.

How can that be?  That thing sliced me clear down to the bone!  What-?

“Impressive, isn’t it?”

The voice was unmistakable, so close that his warm breath caressed her ear.

Xena whirled.  How did he get so close without her hearing? No one was there.  Was she losing her mind?

She blinked and suddenly he was there before her, adorned in a robe done in shades of bright to deep blood red.  Lucifer.  He looked much better than he did the last time they had met.

He was big under the thin cloth of his robe, hard and muscular.  Intense blue eyes stared back at her, his confident half-smile charming.

“Lucifer.  Hope Hell hasn’t been too hot for you,” Xena said, voice dripping sarcasm.  Her smile failed to warm her hard, chill eyes.

Lucifer’s pleasant expression faltered, the muscles in his jaw clenching.  Quickly he regained his composure, but not before Xena took notice of his barely controlled mood swing.

“Aren’t you going to thank me?”

“What, for this?”  She gestured to her now healed leg.  “Am I supposed to be amazed or something?”

Lucifer’s face darkened, his smile vanishing.  “You’re supposed to be grateful.  You could be dead.”

Xena shrugged.  “Been there before.  I don’t need anyone’s charity, Lucifer.  Especially not yours.”

Her acid tone was definitely having an effect.  Lucifer’s eyes bored into hers, burning with barely contained fury.  This was not the response that he wanted from her at all.  Good.

“You may not need my charity, but your friend Gabrielle might.”

That stopped her.  “What have you done to her?” Xena demanded, baring her teeth in a feral sneer.  “I swear, if you’ve harmed so much as a hair on her head-“

“I assure you, she hasn’t been harmed.  At least, not by my doing.”

“What do you mean ‘not by your doing’?”

“It was nothing I ordered.  My minions were simply doing their job.  She got in the way.”

Her heart sank.  Her best friend, dead?  Not possible.  Not after everything they had been through.

“You make me sick,” she spat.  “She was innocent, just like the people sacrificed to bring you here.”

“Nothing comes without sacrifice, Xena.  You of all people should know that.”

“Save it, Lucifer.  You’re destroying my world as we speak.  You’re still that monster that I cast in to the Hellmouth, no matter how you appear now.”

“Your world?” he questioned.  “Why do you care so much about it, anyway?  What has it ever done for you, hm?  It took your son away from you.  Has taken away nearly everyone that you ever loved.  Why do you care so much when all it’s ever done is kick you in the teeth?”

“There are a lot of good things, too, Lucifer.  Like love.  I doubt you would understand that.”

“Love?” he snorted derisively.  “What has love done for you?  Rip your heart out repeatedly, as far as I can see.  Yet you come back for more.  Marcus was the love of your life, and that love couldn’t save him.  He was torn away from you by this world you live in.  A world that has repeatedly betrayed you.  A world that betrayed me.  Why do you fight so hard for it?”

His words had gotten to her somehow.

After all that I’ve done for it, this world does owe me.  Everyone has been taken from me.  Everything…

She was shocked at her own thoughts.  She’d never felt this way.  Why now…

Something inside pulled beneath the surface.  Consuming.  Anger.  Hatred.  Her dark side.  It came to her with frightening ease.

Why do I fight so hard?  Why do I want to save it?

She couldn’t readily come up with an answer.

This wasn’t like her at all-

“Your love for Gabrielle is another point of interest,” Lucifer went on, pacing about the room.

Xena watched him warily as he moved.  He seemed almost to… glow, and she felt dizzy watching him.  She tried to relax, but a strange tension gripped her.

“She’s been nothing but a stone around your neck, dragging you down.”

Lucifer was suddenly beginning to make a lot of sense to her.

He started to move behind her, out of her vision.  She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and stood, turning to face Lucifer, who now stood directly in front of her.

Yes, she reasoned, a stone around my neck.  All those times when things could’ve been so simple if it weren’t for her incessant whinning.  ‘What about this?’, ‘what about that?’, ‘that’s not right’, ‘there has to be another way’, ‘I can’t let you’.  Sniveling brat!

Xena shook herself mentally, shocked by the venom of her thoughts.

What am I saying?  I love Gabrielle.  Don’t I?

“A stone around your neck,” Lucifer repeated in that voice that was making so much more sense than it should have.  “A whining, sniveling annoyance.  Think of what you could do without her getting in the way…”

The darkness inside sucked her in even more, quickly and so quietly that her conscious was unaware of it, leaving only hate and anger in it’s wake.

All these years she’s stood in my way.  Not anymore…

“I have a proposition for you, Xena,” Lucifer purred.

His hand brushed hers.  It sent a shock through her, a rush that was kin to dropping in free-fall.  She felt hot all of a sudden.  The cool silk of the dress felt so good against her bare skin.

And what would Lucifer’s bare hands feel like against her skin-?

Xena shook her head, trying to clear it.  What is wrong with me?

“I’m listening,” was her only reply.

 

 

 

 

When the slaughter began, Gabrielle, King Amonysis, and a handful of others were able to make it into a secret chamber just off the main hall unnoticed. 

The sounds of death outside went on for what seemed like forever.  A scream here, a wet crunch there-  Just when the small group huddled in the chamber thought they couldn’t bare it any longer, it stopped.  Everyone left outside had been slain by the demons, which had returned just minutes after the first attack.

Gabrielle wept.  For all the innocents that had just perished.  For Xena.  For the world.  For the hopelessness of their present situation.

The coldness of resolve spread through her, freezing her tears inside before they could escape.  She could die in here, afraid, or she could go outside and meet fate head-on.  Gabrielle knew somewhere deep inside of herself that Xena still lived.  She would go and find her or die trying.  It was better than dying locked in here, cowering in fear.  And what else could she do, really?  She couldn’t close the gate without the book.  The demons had the book, and not even all of them together could fight the demons.

Gabrielle tested her wounded shoulder, moving it slowly.  She winced, breath hissing between her teeth at the significant pain.  Significant, but not unbearable.  Still, the arm would be useless in a fight.  Her back had stopped bleeding, but the almost debilitating pain remained.  Her split cheek still oozed now and again.  Nothing too serious.

Who am I kidding? she said to herself, frustration taking hold.  I’m a mess.  Even in perfect health I’m no match for those things out there.

Again the icy-cold resolve welled up, banishing fear, frustration, doubt, and all the rest.

I have to find Xena.  That’s all that matters now…

She made for the exit.

 

 

 

 

“Let me make you what you were always meant to be.”

“And what is that?” Xena inquired, curiosity piqued.  She was very aware of how close Lucifer was to her.

“The Destroyer of Nations.”

The name should have disgusted her.  Instead it awakened a lust for power in her that she had thought long dead.  To see men, women and children tremble at her feet once more…

“It can be yours again, Xena, without that irritating blond to get in your way.”

The darkness inside her surged at the prospect.  The feeling was intoxicating.               

“Be my queen.  Rule by my side and command my armies.  The world shall be your plaything.”

“Yes-“

Lucifer leaned forward and kissed Xena.  Lightly at first, a mere touch of his lips on hers.

Amazing.  She drank him in, enraptured by his touch.

He pressed harder.

Xena responded to the kiss.  Returned it…

Deep down, her soul cried out in one final last-ditch effort.  She broke away. 

“No.  This isn’t right,” she said.  But she kept one hand on his hard, powerful shoulder, warm under her fingers.  No.  This was wrong.

“You know you want to, Xena.  Just let go…”

The darkness inside rose up and swallowed the last vestiges of her resistance.  Everything good inside her screamed, but she could not hear.  Part of her knew it was Lucifer that was doing this, but she was helpless against his power.

He leaned in and kissed her again.  She felt the fire in him.  Desire, for the pleasure she knew he would bring to her, flared, overcoming everything else.  Pure, uncomplicated lust.  One of the deadliest sins of them all.

Xena put both her arms around Lucifer, returned his fire with her own.

He moved his mouth from hers and put his lips on her neck, slid down.

Did she want this?

She did not.  No.

But she did want it.  The part of her that would have refused was helpless against the dark.

His hands moved on her.  Oh yes…

 

 

 

 

Lucifer pressed his lips against Xena’s neck and felt her shudder with pleasure.  He had her now.  She was his-in mind, if not totally in spirit, and certainly her body belonged to him.  He was a little disappointed in how easy it had been.  Ah, well.

At least no pesky Archangels will interrupt this time…

 

 

 

 

As she moved with him, the person that had once been Xena felt her very essence slip away, swallowed by the dark, until nothing of the person she once was remained.

 

 

 

 

Infinitely better than simply killing her, Lucifer had corrupted Xena.  He set free the darkness inside, adding a little bit of his own, letting it swallow her very soul. 

To turn someone from the light to the dark, why, it was the best victory of all.  And to turn such a strong symbol of good?  That was even better.  Yes, she was his, committing one of the ultimate sins,  “dancing” with the devil himself while the world slowly died.

But beyond that, beyond his burning desire for revenge, Lucifer had other reasons for keeping Xena alive, even though he dared not admit them.

Losing himself in her, he partook in his deepest desire…

 

 

 

 

Gabrielle reached for the lever that would open the door of the secret chamber.  Before she could touch it, another hand took her by the wrist, stopping her.

“Wait.”  This from the man holding her wrist.

“Let me go.  I have to find Xena.”

“Don’t bother,” said another in their group.  “She’s dead.  I saw the blood.”

Gabrielle felt anger flare.  Xena wasn’t dead.  She was about to tell that person as much when the man, still holding her wrist firmly, spoke.

“I think that Xena is very much alive.”

The bard pulled free of his grasp, wincing at a stab of pain in her bad shoulder.

“How do you know?” she questioned.  “Who are you?”

“My name is unimportant.  What is important is that I know things about Lucifer that you need to know.  The knowledge that I’ve acquired over these last few years can help save you, your friend, and perhaps a great many others.”

Gabrielle waited silently, listening.  She had no reason to pay attention to this man, or trust what he said.  Something about him made her take notice, made her feel he could be trusted.  Just a feeling, but one she couldn’t ignore.

Satisfied that he had her full attention, the man continued.

“Several years ago, my family was murdered while I was away.  I discovered soon after that Lucifer’s dark forces were responsible.  Since then, I’ve devoted my life to learning all that I can about him in the hopes that I can stop him and his minions and his evil magics from harming anyone else.

“I was in the area when the disturbances began.  I came to the castle as quickly as I could after the first quake, sensing that the gate was here.  I had hoped to prevent the opening of the gate, but the minions had already been released.”

“Xena and I were trying to do the same.  The priests were always just one step ahead of us, and by the time we figured out what was going on, it was too late.  Neither one of us could stop the minions.”

“I see that you tried,” the man observed, eyes focusing on her wounds.  “You’re lucky to have survived.”

Gabrielle nodded her agreement.  “I’m wondering if there was a purpose for that or not."

“I can’t answer that.  As to how I know that Xena is alive, well, I’m a mage of sorts and I can sense her.”

“A mage? As in magic?” Gabrielle’s disbelief was clear.

“Only a minor one, I’m afraid.  Repetition is a problem, and I tap out easily.  But I believe that I can assist you in a capacity.  As I said, I believe that Xena is alive, and I strongly suspect that she is with Lucifer.”

“Tell me where.”

“In the king’s chamber, but-“

Gabrielle tried to reach for the door again, and again the man stopped her.

“Please wait.  Listen to what I have to say before you go,” the man pleaded.

She sighed impatiently, but gave the man her full attention, all the while aware that time was of the essence.

“I must warn you,” the man said gravely, “that Xena may not be the person that you know when you find her.”

“What do you mean?”

“Lucifer likes to corrupt.  Likes to besmirch the soul.  Turn good people to the dark.  Since he has not killed Xena, you can bet that he has corrupted her.”

Gabrielle shook her head vehemently.  “No.  That’s not possible.  Xena would never-“

“It doesn’t matter how good you are.  His power brings out the dark inside you, feeds it until it can take over.  It’s almost impossible to resist if you’re not already aware of it.  By the time you figure out what’s happening, you can’t stop it.  It is very likely that Lucifer has done this to her.  If so, your friend could be a very real threat to you.  She may be so lost within herself that she doesn’t really know who she is anymore.”

Gabrielle took a breath, let it out.  Evil Xena.  Not a pretty sight, or easy to deal with.  Dangerous, like working with mercury.  Could she face that?

“Is there any way to snap her out of it?” she asked.

“There are no guarantees, but you could try hitting her with something personal, something that evokes strong emotions and memories.  It could give her enough of a jolt that she can come back to herself.  There are magics as well, but I am not powerful enough.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.  Thank you for your help.”

“You are welcome, lady.  Good luck.”

Gabrielle reached for the lever.  Her fingers curled around the cool stone-

-and she disappeared in a shimmer of light.

 

 

 

 

Laying there tangled in the silk sheets, body slowly cooling, breath and heart rate returning to normal, Xena couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so satisfied.  Lucifer was all fire, and the power of their encounter was still coursing through her. 

Gods, he had done everything right.  He had felt so good to her, pleasure nearly transformed into pain as wave after wave had broken over her with gratifying intensity, leaving her thoroughly spent.  It was rare that a partner ever got the best of her.

The consummation of their “pact” signaled the beginning of Xena’s reign over Lucifer’s armies and over the world.  It was also the end of all the good in her, indeed, the end of her own identity.  She no longer really knew who she was and didn’t care.  All the emptiness, the remorse, the regret, the desire to stop Lucifer, even the disgust over the act she’d just committed with him-gone.  She felt it all, but Lucifer kept it from her awareness and fed the dark in her instead.

Eyes closed, one arm casually cast above her head, Xena dozed lightly, breathing now regular and deep.  She stayed that way for a long while, how long she wasn’t sure, until the sensation of Lucifer’s hands moving over her brought her completely awake.

Slowly, sensuously, he caressed the curve of her hip.  She murmured a soft sound of pleasure, arching beneath his hand as he stroked her belly.  Her breath caught when he pressed his lips against the hollow of her throat.  One hand went to the side of his face, pressing demandingly until he brought his lips to hers.

She lay there, kissing Lucifer deeply, marveling at how quickly she responded to his touch.

The pressure of his lips on hers decreased, and slowly he pulled away.  Xena moved in to try and kiss him again, but he avoided her teasingly.  Her soft whimper at being denied amused him.

“Sshhh,” he said softly.  “There’s time for that later.  We have some important business to attend to first.”

Lucifer withdrew from the bed and stood, donning his robe in one smooth movement.  Xena wished he was taking it off instead, but as he said, there would be time for that later.

 

 

 

 

She tasted so good.  Felt incredible.  So much more than he had dared imagine.  What he had wanted so desperately back in Amphipolis that was denied to him by Michael and his lackey Raphael.  The amazing earthly pleasure that his former God would have denied him.  Something he really didn’t wish to deny himself at the moment.  Xena’s passion and intensity were very hard to say no to, but he could have her all he wanted after this one last detail was out of the way.  Then her soul would belong to him forever…

 

 

 

 

Lucifer helped Xena back into the exquisite red dress.  She wanted him to do the opposite, but none the less allowed him to secure the fasteners at her back.  After all, there was important business to attend to.

“So,” she asked idly, playing with a lock of her hair, “just what is this ‘business’?”

He came up behind her, his hands going to her shoulders.  His lips against her ear he said, “Your girlfriend, Gabrielle.”

Xena tensed at the mention of that name.  It evoked feelings of disgust.  Hatred. 

“Gabrielle is not my friend,” she spat with a ferocious sneer.  “You helped me to see that, Lucifer.  I don’t know how I could’ve been so blind all this time.”

“It’s not your fault,” Lucifer purred, turning her to face him.  “She tricked you.  Her deceptions, indecisiveness, and stupidity have cost you so much…  Now is your chance to make amends.  Kill her and be free to become what you were always destined to be.”

“Yes.  She’ll never stand in my way again.”  Her eyes danced, alight at the thought.  “I’ll see to it.”

“No,” Lucifer said, framing her face with both hands and looking her straight in the eye.  “We will see to it.”

She smiled at that as he lifted her chin and kissed her deeply, briefly holding on to he lower lip before letting go and moving to stand beside her.

A wave of his hand, a flash of light, and Gabrielle appeared before them.  She lay curled up on the floor, blindfolded and bound at the ankles and wrists.  Slashes across her back, a gash over one cheek, an impaled shoulder.  Bruised and bloodied as she was, it was nothing compared to what she would be when they were done with her.

 

 

 

 

Gabrielle felt the lever in her hand-then nothing.

The ground dropped out from beneath her.  Disorientation, then blackness.  Panic.  Suddenly she lay on her side on cold stone.  Everything was still dark.

She tried to reach for her sais, but her wrists were bound.  Ankles, too.

Where was she?  What happened?

She struggled against her restraints to no avail.

“Lie still, Gabrielle.”

The one voice she wanted to hear more than anything else in the world had just spoken.  “Xena!  Thank the gods!  I thought you were dead, but-“

“Shhh,” came the soothing voice of her friend.  “Don’t move.  I’m here now.”

The darkness lifted when Xena removed the blindfold.  How she had gotten there she didn’t know.  It didn’t matter now that she was with Xena.

“Xena, what’s going on?” Gabrielle asked, looking up at the warrior, who was standing over her.  “What’s with the dress?”

She suddenly went cold with dread, but she didn’t understand why.

“Xena?”

Out of the corner of her eye she saw him.  Lucifer.

“Xena, look out!”  she cried in warning.

Xena did nothing.  She was the picture of serenity.  A little too serene.  Then her face twisted in a cruel smile.

“Shut up!” she growled, delivering a savage kick to Gabrielle’s stomach.

 

 

 

 

In the past, the sight of Gabrielle in her present state would have made Xena want to cry.  How glad she was to be free of all that.  Gods, that kick had felt good…

 

 

 

 

The force of the blow knocked the wind out of her.  Gabrielle gasped, trying to breathe while trying not to be sick.  She couldn’t help rolling onto her back, which only added to the pain as her injured back scraped against the rough stone.

Tears stung her eyes.  How could Xena hurt her like that?  They loved each other, didn’t they?  Why-

“Look at you.  Pathetic,” Xena sneered.  “To think that just a few short hours ago those tears would have meant something to me.  Your days of manipulating me are over.  Lucifer has shown me the way back to my destiny, a destiny that doesn’t include you.”

Xena’s ice-blue eyes burned into hers.  “You’ve gotten in my way for the last time.”

Gabrielle knew then that the mage’s warnings had been well founded.  He had been telling her the truth.  Lucifer had done something to Xena, something terrible if it made her forget love, made her want to hurt her most beloved friend.  When she looked into Xena’s eyes, they were cold, empty, and savage.  She looked upon her friend with pure hatred.  There was no trace of the familiar loving warmth that Gabrielle was so accustomed to.  The sheer wrath in Xena’s gaze made her certain of one thing: Xena was lost.  She had totally forgotten herself.  There was no other explanation for her behavior.  It was up to Gabrielle to help her find herself again before it was too late.

Another wave of Lucifer’s hand and, hanging from the ceiling suspended on ropes, a crossbar materialized, along with two rings bolted to the floor a fair distance apart.  The crossbar was lowered until it hung next to her just a few feet off the floor.

Xena grabbed her roughly by the arm and yanked her into a sitting position.  Pain blossomed in her shoulder, lancing out and moving down her arm.  Gabrielle couldn’t help crying out.

“Aww, did that hurt?”  Xena’s voice dripped contempt.  “Good.”

The legendary homicidal twinkle was in Xena’s eyes. 

By the gods, hurting me is actually bringing her pleasure.  She’s really going to do it…

Xena tied her wrists to the crossbar and stepped back.  A gesture from Lucifer and she was jerked up off the floor.  It nearly took her shoulders out of their sockets.  The intensity of the pain in her damaged shoulder was beyond description.  Gabrielle bit down on her lower lip to keep from screaming, so hard that she tasted blood.  Xena’s amused laughter rang in her ears.

Lucifer was there, untying her ankles.  He spread her legs, tying them to the rings on either side of her, then hauling on the ropes until all her weight came on her wrists.  Cartilage creaked and popped under the strain.

Hot tears spilled freely.  Not at the pain, but at the sight of Xena, so twisted and hateful, doing this to her.

Gabrielle felt a push at the back of her mind, gentle at first, then more forceful.  Lucifer.  Trying to invade her, control her like some kind of puppet for this sick game he was playing with Xena.  He would have succeeded had she not been aware that he might try this.  Mentally, she shut the door on him.  His rage slammed into her like a tidal wave, leaving her head pounding painfully.  She knew his game and wasn’t having any of it.

Gabrielle gasped, “I know what you’re trying to do, Lucifer.  You’ll have no dominion over me.”

Her eyes bored into his, defiant and brave.  His true visage, that of the horrible horned, bat-winged, cloven-hoofed monster he really was, rippled over his handsome façade for an instant.  He was losing control.

“Trussed as you are, we-“ His gaze swept to Xena, then back to her. “-can do anything-and you cannot prevent it.”

Gabrielle answered nothing; she couldn’t breathe evenly.  Pain wracked her shoulders and back; she hardly felt the cuts and gashes that had hurt so earlier.

She did her best to push the pain aside and concentrate on what she was here to do.  She had found Xena, now she had to save her in time to save herself and the rest of the world.

Hit her with something personal to bring her back to herself.

“Xena,” she said.  “Remember your brother, Lyceus-“

“Silence!” Lucifer commanded.

Gabrielle ignored him and kept talking, but soon realized that no sound was coming out.  She yelled as loudly as she could.  Her words were hardly above a whisper.  It was like something out of her worst nightmare.

Damn Lucifer!  He’d done this to her.  But she would not give up so easily.  She was doing something right, if he wanted her to shut up so badly.

He slammed his fist into her belly.  “That will teach you to defy me.”

Gabrielle gasped for breath.  “Go-to hell.”

Again a blow that took her breath away, and another to her face.  Then it was Xena’s turn. 

Beautiful and unmistakably deadly in her blood red dress, she took up a studded whip that had magically winked into existence.  The warrior slashed it across her body, then her legs, each stroke accompanied by her half-lidded expression of ecstasy at the pain she was inflicting.  Xena moved behind her, laughing cruelly.

“Xena!” she cried.  She could hardly hear herself.  How could she ever hope to reach her friend?

Five rapid blows split the skin of her already slashed back, hot blood sheeted down, dripping from her legs.  Gabrielle clenched her jaw against the fiery pain.

The whipping had stopped, and the pain began to dull.  She relaxed somewhat, as much as the situation would allow.

Xena moved back into her field of vision, grinning.  “Don’t relax too much.  I’m far from being finished with you.”

A voice in her ear.  Lucifer.  “She will kill you.  Make no mistake about that.”

And then his hand was on her injured shoulder, holding it with an iron grip, his thumb gouging the open wound.  Gabrielle could not hold back the ragged scream that issued forth from her throat.

Then he did it again.

And again.

Through the haze of pure agony, Gabrielle managed to focus her thoughts enough to call out, “Xena!  Please!  Listen to me!”

Instead of letting the pain overwhelm her, she used it.  It drove her headlong in her last desperate attempt.  Her throat was raw.  She was screaming as loudly as she possibly could, letting the pain fuel it.  Xena could hear her.  Gabrielle pressed on.

“Xena, your son, Solon, was murdered by my daughter because I didn’t listen to you and kill her when I had the chance!  I’m sorry I had to say that, but you’ve got to wake up now or all is lost!  XENA!!!

 

 

 

 

Lucifer had conjured up some red-hot pokers for use on Gabrielle.  Xena picked one up while Lucifer played with her a bit.

Time to use one of these on the little brat.  Maybe-

                That’s when she heard Gabrielle screaming at her at top volume.

            “Xena, you son, Solon, was murdered by my daughter-“

            She froze.  The words hung in the air.  A roiling tempest of emotions and memories suddenly raged within.  She saw it all: holding the lifeless body of her child in her arms, wailing in anguish.  She had wanted to kill Gabrielle then, tried to kill her.  Then Illusia.  In their time there she and Gabrielle were finally able to let go of their mutual pain through forgiveness, and put in its place-love.

Love had gotten them through.

Warm, wonderful, and healing, her love for Gabrielle welled up inside her.  It flowed to the farthest reaches of her being, washing away all of the darkness that Lucifer had spread inside her.  Her soul soared, free at last from Lucifer’s oppression.  It was in that moment that Xena came back to herself.

Dear gods, what have I done???

Remembering every horrible detail of what had transpired, Xena wanted to weep.  How could she have forgotten so completely?  How could she have gotten so lost?  Strayed so far from good?  She felt Lucifer’s darkness tugging at her still, but she was able to resist, the love inside her a bright beacon keeping her centered.

Xena looked down at her hand.  She was still holding the hot poker. Time to use it.  Slowly, with much difficulty, she walked toward Gabrielle, giving no outward sign that anything had changed.  She almost broke down at the sight of her dearest friend, her light, bloody and torn.  Xena saw the blood dripping, saw the pain etched on her friend’s face, and knew that she was responsible for it.  It was only through some miracle that she was able to function.

How could I have done this?

The question rang in the back of her mind.  She was in actual physical pain over her actions.  And the emotional pain-there were no words.  How easy it would be to huddle in a corner and cry.  Cry until there was nothing left.

But Xena had a job to do.

 

 

 

 

Gabrielle sagged against her restraints, letting her head hang down, chin touching her chest.  She had given it her best shot, namely every last thing she had.  There was nothing more that she could do.  Either it had worked, or it hadn’t.  Her eyes were growing heavy.  She was tired.  So tired.  How much more of this would she have to endure?  How much more of this could she endure?

Footsteps moving toward her.  She looked up.  Xena was coming back for more, this time with a red-hot poker in hand.

It didn’t work, did it?  I’m going to die, aren’t I?

Those questions and more raced through Gabrielle’s mind.  It wasn’t the idea of dying that bothered her.  She had faced death many times in her travels.  The idea that her best friend, her soul-mate, the one person she loved more than anything in the world, would be the one who caused her death was a little harder to swallow.

How could this be?  After all we’ve been through together?  After all we’ve overcome?  A wave of despair swept over her.  I couldn’t save her…

Lucifer came to stand behind Xena, sinister perfection incarnate. 

“You know what you have to do, Xena,” he urged. 

“Yes,” Xena answered.  “I do.”

That’s when Xena winked at her.

Giving the poker a twirl, the warrior reversed her grip on it and rammed it into Lucifer’s midsection as hard as she could.

Silence as he stumbled back, stunned.

Gabrielle looked on with clear astonishment.  It had worked!  Xena was back!  Relief washed over her, but at the same time she knew that they weren’t out of the woods yet. 

Lucifer stood wide-eyed, mouth open in a silent a silent cry.  His shock over Xena’s actions was written all over his face as he looked down at the poker protruding from his middle. 

Without another moment’s delay, Xena grabbed another poker, using it to burn through the ropes that bound Gabrielle.

Lucifer let loose with a supernatural howl of pure rage that seemed to have come from the depths of Hell itself.  Gabrielle blinked; in that instant he had changed into his full-blown demonic form.  They had to get out of there.  Now.

 

 

 

 

Though it could only have taken a few seconds, it seemed forever before the hot poker burned through the last rope.  Finally free, Gabrielle fell, but Xena was there to catch her before she could hit the floor.

Lucifer roared.

Cradling her friend gently, she said, “We gotta get out of here.  Can you stand?”

“I think so,” came Gabrielle’s shaky reply.  She could stand.  Barely.

Xena’s heart seemed to falter in her chest.  Could she ever make up for this?  Again she felt the tears well up, and again she pushed them aside.  Later…

Gabrielle’s hand squeezed her arm urgently.  “Xena,” she croaked.  “The book.”

Just a few steps away, the Necronomicon rested on its cradle.  They would need it if they ever hoped to put this madness to an end, once and for all.

They looked at each other for an instant then made a mad dash for it, Gabrielle hobbling alongside Xena, leaning on her for support.  The warrior reached out-got it.  The book was now safely tucked under one arm.

Xena spun at the sound of Lucifer’s outraged cry.

XENA!  HOW DARE YOU DO THIS TO ME?

Xena met his infuriated gaze unwaveringly.  Her eyes blazed, her mouth set in a feral sneer. 

“How dare I?” she demanded with deadly calm.  “How dare you is more like it.  How dare you do this to me, make me almost kill someone I love?  How dare you do this to Gabrielle?  How dare you-“

HOW DARE YOU MAKE ME WHAT I AM???  YOU PUT ME HERE, XENA!  YOU!!!  I was just taking my rightful revenge!”

Nice try, Xena thought.  But you should know that I won’t fall for that.

“You put yourself here, Lucifer.  All I did was tempt you.  It was your choice to give in.”

She had to stall for a little bit longer.  She still couldn’t see a way out other than the door, and a very enraged Lucifer was blocking the way.

“You belong here.  The fact that you would use me like this for your sadistic little plan is proof enough of that.”

Lucifer shook with fury, his demonic features becoming even more twisted with his anger and hate.  He was on the edge, but Xena decided to push just a bit farther. She had to keep him talking.  Anything to buy a few more seconds.

“To tell you the truth, you would have ended up here anyway.  Michael had it in for you long before Amphipolis.  Face it, Lucifer.  You’re a bad seed, and you deserve exactly what you got.”

She pushed a little too far.  Lucifer snapped.  Spreading horrific wings, he flew straight toward them…

 

 

 

 

Hidden as he was in the secret chamber with the king and the others, the mage (his name was Liget, though he hadn’t told Gabrielle that) was free to open his mind to Gabrielle.  He used a spirit link spell to track her.  Within the confines of the castle it was easy for him to maintain a strong link with her.

Liget had seen every brutal moment of her torture.  He feared for Gabrielle’s life, but resisted the urge to tamper.  He wasn’t powerful enough to do anything truly useful, anyway.  He had to let her try anything and everything to get Xena back.  Everything hinged on that.  At the last moment Gabrielle’s efforts paid off and Xena was herself again.  She stabbed Lucifer, and in the confusion that followed, cut Gabrielle down and snatched up the book.

Liget prayed that they could find a way out on their own.  He had an absolutely last resort backup, but there were no guarantees that it would work.

Inevitably, Xena and Gabrielle were trapped, one incredibly pissed off Prince of Darkness blocking their path to the only exit.  And there was no way that they were going to get through him.  Liget had no choice.  Drawing on his core of power, he began the chant for his homing spell, naming himself, Gabrielle, and Xena as the targets, and Xena’s apartment as the location.  This would take every last bit of his power.  He would be tapped out for days at best, whether the spell actually worked or not.  He had one chance to get it right.

As an afterthought, Liget wove an additional protection spell into the tapestry of the larger homing spell.  It would buy Xena and Gabrielle precious time once they were safe.  That is, if they got to safety in the first place.

Liget watched events unfold in his mind’s eye as he chanted.  Xena taunting Lucifer.  Lucifer raging back at her, on the edge of control.  Xena trying to stall and pushing him too far.  Lucifer losing control and launching himself at her and Gabrielle.

As Lucifer flew at the two women, the world’s only hope, Liget uttered the last of the chant-

-And saw Xena and Gabrielle disappear, even as he felt himself winking out of his surroundings…

 

 

 

 

Liget, Xena and Gabrielle appeared an instant later in the two women’s quarters.  The spell had worked!  But Liget’s elation was sort-lived.  His success had come at a very high price.

Weakness overtaking him, he fell in a heap to the floor.  The spell had taken everything he had, eventually drawing on his very life essence after it had tapped all of his power.  He was dying.

He called out to the warrior, who was bent over Gabrielle.  The bard had also collapsed upon arrival.

“Xena…”

 

 

 

 

Xena fought off disorientation, finding herself back in their apartment.  How had they gotten here?  Lucifer was coming straight for them, then-POOF!

Panic.  Where was Gabrielle?  Her eyes searched the room quickly.  There.  And who was the other guy?  Not important just that second.  Gabrielle first.

Xena bent over her fallen friend.  Bleeding welts from the whip on her arms, legs, and abdomen.  Fresh bruises on her stomach where she had been kicked.

And I put them there, Xena thought numbly.  The knowledge made her feel ill.  Again she had to push her emotional turmoil aside and force herself to focus, to keep going.

Pulse-not quite as strong as Xena would have liked.  Breathing-ok.  She reached down and smoothed blond hair out of Gabrielle’s face.

“Hey, Gabrielle?  You gotta wake up for me.”

Xena shook her as gently as possible.

“Gabrielle?”

A small moan and Gabrielle was conscious again, though clearly exhausted.

The stranger called for Xena, but the warrior didn’t hear, as wrapped up in her concern for her friend as she was.  He called again, and this time Xena did hear.  She looked uncertainly from Gabrielle to the stranger, then back.

“Xena, it’s okay.  I know him.  See what he wants,” Gabrielle told her.

Xena was opening her mouth to protest when the bard stopped her.  “I’ll be fine.  Go.  He can help us.”

Reluctantly, Xena went and kneeled at the stranger’s side.  She reached out to examine him, but he pushed her hands away. 

“There’s nothing you can do for me, warrior princess.  The spell I cast to bring us here took everything I had, drained my life force.  I’m dying and I don’t have much time left, so please listen.”

A pause, to make sure that Xena was indeed listening, before he went on.  “I’ve put a spell of protection on you both.  It will hide you from Lucifer for several hours.  Use the time to recover and prepare.  All that you need can be found in the Necronomicon.”

Xena didn’t question him.  If Gabrielle trusted him, that was enough for her.

“How will I know when the spell has worn off?” she asked.

“Have you noticed that you can no longer feel the pull of Lucifer’s evil?”

She nodded.

“When you feel that pull again, your time is up.  Now go, and do what I cannot.  Close the gate and send Lucifer back to Hell.”

“You have my word,” Xena promised solemnly.

A small smile, a trembling breath, and he was gone.

 

                                          *         *         *

 

 

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Gabrielle asked, her voice just a rasping croak after all the screaming she’d done earlier.

“Yeah,” Xena confirmed.

She looked Gabrielle’s way and was glad to see her standing, even though it was with great difficulty, the exertion not something that Xena approved of at the moment.  The bard was staring down at the now lifeless body of the mage, her expression sad.

“He gave his life for us, to get us away from Lucifer.  I didn’t even know his name,” she said hoarsely.  “We owe it to him to finish this.”

We won’t be finishing anything.”

Gabrielle’s eyes went wide with shock.  “You’re not giving up, are you?”

Xena made a face.  “Of course not.  But you can’t fight.  You would be killed out there.  I’ll be finishing this by myself.”

Gabrielle became indignant.  “Xena I can’t let you do this alone.  I won’t let you do this alone.  Either I go with you, or-“

“Or what, Gabrielle?” Her tone was much sharper than she intended.  “You can hardly stand!”

“Even if I have to crawl, I’m not leaving your side.”

“I’m not gonna argue about this with you right now,” Xena declared flatly.  “I suggest you try not to talk anymore, unless you want to lose your voice completely.”

Gabrielle fell silent, but the stubbornness was still there.  Xena could feel her digging in and knew this would be an uphill battle.  Her friend was fiercely loyal, almost to her detriment.  The warrior knew that she wasn’t going to give, even when presented with the facts.  Unless…

That’s when she noticed just how pale Gabrielle was looking.  The bard swayed, and in an eyeblink Xena was there helping her friend take the few short steps over to the bed.

“What you need right now, Gabrielle, is rest.  You’re exhausted.”

Gabrielle offered up no argument at that.

Xena helped her to lie down and did what she could to get her comfortable, though there wasn’t really any position she could lay in that didn’t cause her pain.  Being on her side seemed to work best.  As long as she didn’t have to lie on her back.

Xena slid an extra pillow under her head.  “That good?”

Gabrielle nodded.  “Yeah.  Thanks.”  A rueful smile.  “I must look awful.”

The warrior found that she couldn’t meet her friend’s gaze. 

“I’ve seen much worse,” Xena replied softly.  Her voice broke on the last word.

You’re not gonna break down now, Xena ordered herself.  It didn’t help.  The tears came then, and she gave up trying to stop them.

“I’m so sorry, Gabrielle,” she said in a choked sob, uninhibited tears streaking her face.  “Can you ever forgive me?”

Slowly, Gabrielle sat up, hand outstretched, offering the comfort that her friend so desperately wanted and needed.  Xena saw the pain that even that movement caused her and started to cry harder.

“Xena, come here…”

The warrior, uncharacteristically vulnerable, went to her.  Gabrielle wrapped her arm around her grieving friend, pulling her close.  Xena’s head came to rest on her good shoulder and she stroked her hair soothingly.

“I forgive you, Xena.  It wasn’t you back there,” she assured, and she meant it.  She understood, difficult as it was, that it had not really been Xena doing those

terrible things, but Lucifer manipulating her.  Gabrielle wanted to cry herself, seeing Xena go through this.  Yes, being tortured had hurt her, both mentally and physically, but it was nothing compared to what Xena was feeling right now.  She just stayed silent, holding her friend as she let it all out, feeling every wracking sob, each tear that spilled onto her shoulder, and empathizing with the heartache Xena was experiencing.

            I hope you’re happy with what you’ve done to her Lucifer, she thought angrily.  I hope this was the revenge that you wanted, because there isn’t anything else you could have made her do that would have hurt her more.

            Eventually, she began to quiet, sobs easing until they stopped altogether.

 

 

 

 

            Sitting there, head resting on her best friend’s shoulder, Xena cried harder than she could ever remember.  The infinitely deep ache in her heart was more than she thought she could bare.  No one could ever know the depth of her suffering over what she had done.  Except maybe Gabrielle. 

Gabrielle had felt like this after her daughter Hope, really the evil spawn of Dahak, had murdered Xena’s son, Solon.  She had held herself responsible, as Xena had, because she could not fight her maternal instincts and kill Hope before it was too late.  She not only carried the grief of Solon’s murder and what it had done to Xena, but the grief of killing her own child.  Time and one trip to Illusia, a world created by Solon to help Xena and Gabrielle bridge the gap between them, had healed their mutual emotional wounds.

            Xena knew the same would be true for her now, even if it didn’t seem like it.  She had been out of control, under Lucifer’s evil influence.  No.  It hadn’t really been her hurting Gabrielle, but that knowledge could not take away the memories of her carrying out the dreadful act of torture.  It couldn’t take away the memory of the whip in her hand, the sound of her own laughter echoing as she delighted in Gabrielle’s screams.

            Just as their love for each other got them through their entire ordeal with Hope, it had saved her from Lucifer.  It would get her through this hard time as well.  Gabrielle’s comforting, loving presence was all that she needed.  That, and her forgiveness, which she got completely and without hesitation.  Xena needed that more than anything.  Her friend’s unconditional love, radiating so strongly then, was the most healing thing of all.  Slowly the ache faded, the tears no longer came, and she fell silent in Gabrielle’s healing embrace.

            Gathering herself back together, Xena drew away, wiping the last tears from her face.  She had to get Gabrielle taken care of, and then she had to find out how to close the gate once and for all.

            “I’m sorry,” she said again.  “More than you’ll ever know.  I love you, Gabrielle.”

            Gabrielle smiled back, warmth and understanding in her eyes. 

            “I know,” was her simple reply to both.

            Composure firmly back in place, Xena was again concerned for Gabrielle’s well being. 

            “Lie back down, Gabrielle, and I’ll do what I can for you.”

Gabrielle obeyed, but slowly and not without discomfort.

Satisfied that her friend would be alright for the moment, Xena focused on finding a change of clothes.  The dress only served as a reminder of recent events and she wanted to be rid of it.  Her grief out of the way for the most part, she was left feeling violated.  What Lucifer had done-he’d invaded her very soul, not to mention her body.  What she had done with him in the king’s bed-the thought of it made her nauseous.

There.  On the couch were her leathers.  Her boots were on the floor next to it, along with her saddlebags, sword and chakram, and Gabrielle’s sais.

“Hang on, Gabrielle.  I’ll be right back,” Xena said, going over to the couch in a hurry and gathering up her leathers and boots before disappearing into the bathing chamber.

She couldn’t change out of that godsforsaken dress fast enough.  The very feeling of it on her had begun to make her skin crawl.  It was with great relief that she undid the fasteners and slid it off.  Before she could toss it aside, she noticed the spatters of blood on it, Gabrielle’s blood, and cringed at the image that flashed through her mind.

Gabrielle, strung up and helpless.  Herself getting a carnal charge out of her every scream-

No.  She wasn’t going to go into that again.  There was no way to change it, no matter how badly she wished otherwise.  She had been forgiven.  It wasn’t her that had been doing those things, but some dark, perverted image that Lucifer had created to get his revenge.  That said, it didn’t make things much better.  Already the deep ache had settled back within her breast.  Not as painful as before, but still there nonetheless.  Only time would be able to take that away.

With practiced ease Xena quickly changed back into her leathers.  Their well-worn, familiar feel was a welcome change, to be sure.  This was who she was, Xena the fighter for the greater good, not Xena the cruel, evil temptress that she had become while wearing that dress.  Her destiny was to do good, and to do it with Gabrielle at her side.  It was not to become the Destroyer of Nations, as Lucifer would have had her believe.

She hated what she was going to have to do next.

 

 

                                               *         *         *

 

 

Xena emerged from the bathing chamber what seemed like seconds later, finishing tightening and adjusting one gauntlet before bending down to pick up her saddlebags.

She snapped her fingers and sighed when she realized that she’d forgotten to bring a couple of things out from the bathing chamber.  She set the saddlebags on the end of the bed and dashed out of the main room, coming back almost instantly with fresh water and clean towels that she and Gabrielle had never gotten around to using.

Xena knelt on the bed, arranging all the supplies she needed around her within easy reach, and set about the task of cleaning and dressing Gabrielle’s wounds.  She started with the worst, namely the bard’s slashed back, complete with four ragged claw marks running diagonally from one shoulder almost to her waist, and assorted whip slashes.  She avoided the shoulder for now because she wasn’t sure exactly how she wanted to handle that.

Xena scooped up one of the smaller towels, soaked it, squeezed out the extra moisture, and started cleaning away all of the blood around the cuts and gashes.  Alternately wiping and dabbing, she was as careful and gentle as she could be, but Gabrielle still tensed with almost every touch of the cloth, inhaling sharply whenever it touched a particularly sensitive spot.  Every outward sign of pain sent a little stab of anguish through the warrior.

“Sorry, Gabrielle,” she apologized. “You doing alright?”

“Yeah,” came her friend’s pained reply.

Finished with the cleaning for the moment, Xena produced a small vial from inside one of the saddlebags.  What it contained was poisonous in a large enough dosage, but applied topically in small amounts it was a harmless and very powerful disinfectant.

“This is going to sting,” she warned.

Xena dabbed the solution into the lacerations, Gabrielle lying still with her eyes screwed shut and her jaw clenched at the stinging needles caused by the disinfectant.

That done, she stoppered the vial, placed it on the bed, and rummaged in her saddlebags for one last item.  She pulled out a small clay container; inside was an ointment to seal the wound and help speed healing.  She spread it onto the wounds thinly, again being as careful as possible so as not to cause an unnecessary discomfort.  Still, the application elicited another round of pained sounds from Gabrielle.

Her friend was lucky that the claws hadn’t penetrated very deep.  A fraction more and the blood loss would have been much more significant.  It was unlikely that she would have survived her torture in that case.

That got Xena thinking.  She had been awfully lucky to survive up to this point, as well.  In all seriousness, those demons could have killed her without a whole lot more effort.  Now that she thought about it, it was like they were holding back, avoiding doing any fatal damage to her.  At the time she figured it was because they were there for sacrifices and couldn’t be bothered with her.  Upon reflection, that didn’t add up.  Now she knew there was more.  She was supposed to be left alive and taken to Lucifer, and she supposed the same might have been true for Gabrielle.

The pieces of the puzzle were falling into place, but something was still missing.  Why hadn’t Lucifer killed her?  He certainly had reason enough to want to.  He held her responsible for ruining his celestial career and casting him into Hell in her place.  He would have had his revenge.  But every time she had baited him he held back.  Enraged enough to kill, he had stopped himself more than once.  Why?

If Gabrielle had indeed been left alive on purpose instead of surviving on pure luck, it must have been because Lucifer wanted Xena to kill her.  In the grand scheme of revenge, it was the perfect ploy.

Get me to kill Gabrielle, then snap me out of the spell and leave me to live in anguish over my actions for the rest of my life.  The murder of my best friend on top of failing to save the world.  Heavy stuff.

It didn’t completely make sense.  When he was trying to coerce her into finishing Gabrielle off, his tone had somehow been too urgent, even desperate, like there was something deeper than vengeance that he could accomplish through the act.

Xena remembered something else.  As much as it sickened her to think of it, she went back over the “romantic interlude” they had shared.  The look of pure pleasure on Lucifer’s face-it wasn’t pleasure at having total triumph over her, at making her do something that would make her feel disgusted and violated later.  It was pure rapture.  Lucifer had been totally enraptured with her.

The final pieces fit together.  Xena had just discovered Lucifer’s one fatal flaw.

 

 

 

 

The better part of the next half-hour was spent finishing up with Gabrielle.  The worst part had been her shoulder.  Xena knew that kind of pain, having taken an arrow in the same location several times in her life.

What made it even worse for Gabrielle was that the shoulder had been badly sprained when she was hauled up by the wrists.  That, and quite a bit of stiffness had set in since the initial injury.  All of that added up to excruciating pain, no matter how careful or gentle Xena was in dealing with it.  Gabrielle was in tears long before she was finished bandaging it.

Now to do what she hated having to do.

After re-packing everything and checking to make sure that Gabrielle was still doing okay, Xena rose and took her saddlebags, placing them back in their spot next to the couch, but not before removing two small pouches.  She poured a cup of water from the pitcher on the nearby table, and opening the pouches, she sprinkled their some of their contents into the cup.

“What’s that for?” Gabrielle asked.

“It’ll help your body heal itself.  If you want to get your strength back, this will definitely help.”

Xena didn’t like having to deceive Gabrielle, but it was for the best.  She didn’t lie exactly, just didn’t tell the whole truth.  The part she was keeping to herself was that she had added an extra herb that would knock her out for hours.  The sleep would do her a world of good and would free Xena up to complete the most important task of all: saving the world.

She took the cup to Gabrielle.  “Drink all of it.”

Tired and thirsty, Gabrielle accepted the offering gratefully and took a sip.  Her expression turned sour.

“This tastes awful,” she stated.

“It’s good for you,” Xena said.  “Drink up.”

Gabrielle finished off the water quickly.  In no time she was asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

It was all falling apart. 

All of his carefully laid plans, coming unraveled.

The only variable had been actually getting into this world, and that had gone surprisingly smoothly, considering the screwup by one of his servants in getting the necessary scroll.  That man was dead now, but death offered him no escape, only eternal damnation.  Lucifer would have fun playing with that one…

Back to the matters presently at hand.

Xena had been his.  Her soul; he had tasted of it, and knew that the warrior princess had one incredibly powerful soul.  A soul that he wanted to possess and would have had if Xena could have just killed her best friend.  But that blond bitch Gabrielle knew the secret somehow, knew how to reach the Xena’s innermost, as yet uncorrupted, core of good.  And she had ruined everything.

Lucifer lusted after Xena with unparalleled intensity.  She was going to be his queen.  It would have been magnificent, to have his revenge (making Xena murder her best friend and owning her soul) without having to kill her.  That would have been so much more fulfilling than simple execution for her crimes against him.  To own her very essence-glorious.  To use the power of it to rule this world-exquisite!

So close to victory, his goal almost within his grasp, and at the last second all of it had been ripped away.  Lucifer felt like his existence was being ripped away for a second time, and he did not like it.  Once again, it looked like Xena would be the one to blame for his ruin.

To make things more complicated, Xena had gotten away with the book.  Not only did that leave him unable to use it against her, but she would be able to use it against him.  The Necronomicon contained the secret of how to close the gate, and Lucifer had no doubt that she would figure it out.  It was only a matter of time.  He had to find her, stop her somehow…

As to Xena and Gabrielle’s escape, their sudden disappearance caught him off guard, his hesitation costing him the chance to counter the spell.  He had been so sure of himself, so sure that nothing could go wrong, that his plan was flawless.  No matter.  That mage had paid for his meddling.  Though Lucifer could not act in time to stop the spell, he was able to sense its source, and to exert his own power on that source through the spell.  He added enough extra difficulty to its casting that it drained all of the mage’s power, after which it turned to his life force, draining it and killing him.  A simple task for one as powerful as Lucifer.

There was another problem.  As desperately as he needed to find Xena, he could not sense her.  She was gone from his awareness.  Gabrielle, too.  Not even the powers of his priestly servants could find them.  He’d even tried to locate them by homing in on the book, but that didn’t work either.  Whatever was protecting them was hiding the book as well.

Liget must have done this!  Damn him!  Dead and still an annoyance!

Lucifer might not be able to find them now, but he knew without question where Xena would eventually show up, and he and his servants would be ready for her…

 

 

 

 

Xena sat propped against the arm of the couch, Necronomicon resting in her lap, hurriedly searching for the one all-important final piece of information: how to close the gate.

According to the mage she still had about two hours before the protection spell wore off.  Why was she hurrying?  One, the sooner this was over, the better.  Two, there were no guarantees that the spell would actually last that long, especially if Lucifer was trying to counter it.  Three, Lucifer’s not being able to sense her could be an advantage in getting to the gate, so she didn’t want to waste it needlessly.  Not when such an advantage could make for critical leverage.  Four, Gabrielle would be alone and totally defenseless.  Better if Lucifer could not find her.  Lastly, though Xena didn’t want to admit it, she was afraid of what might happen when Lucifer’s darkness could touch her again.  She wanted to get this done before he had the slightest opportunity to get inside her head again.

Xena found the section about the gate quickly and started skimming the passages.  After what in her mind could have been an eternity, she found it.  Slowly and carefully she read, committing every word to memory as she went.

Uh-oh.  This was not pleasing.

Lucifer has to be thrown into the gate before I can close it?  Wonderful…

Xena sighed.  That meant she was going to have to fight him after all.  She had no doubt that Lucifer had grown stronger since their last meeting, and it had been hard enough to beat him then.  She didn’t let that discourage her, could not.  Would not.  She knew how to get to him, and would use that knowledge to force him into making that one mistake that he couldn’t afford to make.

The next sentence was the one that the warrior was so desperately seeking.  It said she needed a symbol of love and light.  Throw it into the gate after Lucifer and the gate is closed.  It sounded so easy, reading it there on the page.  But these things were rarely if ever as easy as they seemed.  In truth it would probably take everything she had along with a little luck to make it happen and make the world bright and alive once more.

A symbol of love and light?  That could mean anything.  Was it a cryptic reference to something specific, like an artifact?  Or did it literally mean “anything”?  Xena hoped it was the latter, otherwise it was over.  What would be a symbol of love and light?

Her mind was totally blank.

Could she or Gabrielle have something that would work?  Neither one of them had much, travelling as they did, just what was in their packs-

Xena’s mind came to a grinding halt.  That was it!

Tossing the book aside, she sprang to her feet and rushed over to where Gabrielle had left her pack by the bed.  Kneeling down and flinging open the closure, the warrior rummaged briefly before finding what she needed.  Her friend might not be pleased about her taking it, but then again it was for a good cause.  Gabrielle would understand.  After she got over the being drugged and left behind part.

Where to put it that it would be safe until she could use it?  Not her belt; too obvious.  Instead she drew her sword and stuffed the precious cargo into the empty scabbard.  Satisfied that it was secure and not easily seen, she stood.

This was it.  The moment of truth.  The fate of the world rested in her hands.

Xena looked down at the sleeping Gabrielle.  Gods, the last thing she wanted to do was leave her here.  She would much rather have her best friend with her.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t face this one together.  Gabrielle would never make it in her current condition.  Xena wouldn’t see her cut down just for the sake of standing by her.  Gabrielle would be mad at her for this, but it would blow over quickly because she would be smart enough to understand later that the warrior had no other choice.  Enduring her friend’s wrath would be a lot better than enduring a life without that dearest, most beloved friend.  This was how it had to be.

She reached down, stroking soft blond hair, kissing Gabrielle lightly on the forehead.

I love you, Gabrielle.  I wish more than anything that you were going with me.  I promise that when you wake up all of this will be nothing but a terrible nightmare.

One last look at the best thing she had ever had in her life, and Xena set out to save the world.

 

 

 

 

As if on cue, it started pouring rain the instant Xena set foot on the courtyard, accompanied by the bright flash of lightening and the boom of thunder.  The bad weather only added to the doom and gloom of the situation, an appropriately dismal punctuation for what was about to take place.  Striding purposefully in the direction of the stables, heading for the gate, it wasn’t long before she was thoroughly soaked, hair hanging limply, drops of moisture beading on her skin.

She stopped suddenly, wiping wet strands out of her face with her free hand.  Eyes narrowed, she searched all around.  That was odd.  There was no one there.  Not on the battlements, not anywhere.  Not one person or thing offering resistance.  That in and of itself set off alarms in her head. 

The warrior remained still for a time, searching, listening, waiting, fearing a trap of some sort.  She could find nothing amiss.  Suppressing a shiver at the freezing rain, she moved on, all the while on the alert for the least sign of trouble.

Lucifer was no fool.  If his minions and pet priests weren’t trying to stop her here, there was only one place that they could be.  Hopelessness tugged at her more strongly than ever, but she didn’t allow herself to entertain it for a second.  To do so would undermine all her effort and chance of success, something she could ill afford.  Especially if she was going to have to face Lucifer and his forces.  Self doubt and loss of focus would result in certain defeat.  Defeat spelled eternal suffering for all.

And for Xena, that was totally unacceptable.

Shifting into stealth mode she made for a large shadow cast one of the soldiers’ barracks, but stopped short of the concealing darkness.  Was there really a need?  If she were going to be attacked at this point it would have already started.  Using stealth to sneak up on them was a moot point.  Lucifer knew she was coming.  That was the only explanation Xena could come up with for why there was no one standing guard, watching for her.  The advantage a surprise attack would give her would be infinitesimal.  She had to fight Lucifer.  It wasn’t as simple as sneaking in, throwing the symbol into the gate, and getting the hell out of there.  In that situation stealth would definitely be called for.

So Xena moved away from the barracks and resumed her original course, slogging through the muddy courtyard, going straight for the stables.  She kept her eyes and ears open for the slightest sign of an ambush, but none came.

Determined, steely gaze set firmly in place, she gripped her sword more tightly and, taking a deep breath, rounded the last corner.

Ahead of her they stood waiting, torches and weapons held at the ready.  Twenty priests and at least ten of the hellspawn minions were arrayed around the gate, prepared to cut her down.  At their head stood Lucifer in all his hideous demonic glory.

If it had just been the priests Xena would not have been presented with much of a problem, but there was no way that she could defeat ten minions at once.  Two would have been pushing it.  Add Lucifer into the mix-this was definitely going to present her with a challenge.

Not letting her emotions show, lest they betray her, Xena swaggered toward them, the picture of cool confidence, coming to a halt about twenty yards away from the evil assemblage.

“Xena,” Lucifer rumbled in his monstrous basso voice.  “I knew you would come sooner or later.  Such a predictable little do-gooder.”

Xena chuckled at that.  “You’re just peeved ‘cause your powers are blocked and you couldn’t find me before now, let alone bend me to your will.  Waiting here for me-any idiot could have come up with that plan.”

Her words clearly stung him.  Lucifer’s confident smirk vanished, his jaw twitching.  Xena knew then what she had to do to beat him.  She just hoped that he would fall for it.

Making a high sweeping gesture with one arm she asked, her tone derisive, “What’s all this?”  The warrior stared at him icily.  “You afraid of one mortal woman, Lucifer?”

“You’re much more than the average mortal,” Lucifer replied frostily.  “I underestimated you once.  I won’t do it again.”

She arched an eyebrow.  “That may be, but thirty-to-one just isn’t fair.”

“I’m not known for being fair,” he shot back.

It was becoming very clear to Xena that his one weakness (other than his abundant pride, of course) was something she could capitalize on.  He could have given the order for his mob to attack by now.  He should have, because she didn’t stand a chance against all of them at once.  He had to know that.  But he didn’t give the order.  She knew why, and the reason for his reluctance would cost him.  She was going to see to it.

The more she taunted him, the more furious he became, and the more he lost his focus.  The more he lost his focus, the easier it became to fool him.  Time to hazard a guess and test her theory even further.

“This is between you and me, Lucifer.  Only a craven coward brings an army to fight one person.  Surely the Prince of Darkness isn’t a coward?”

Please let this work-

Without warning the head priest shouted, “How dare you speak to the Master in such a manner?!”  Pointing his spear directly at her, he shouted, “Get her!”

All the priests and minions ran past Lucifer in one great surging tide of bodies and weapons, advancing on the warrior princess with great speed, hungry for her blood.  To the outside observer this would have looked disastrous.  Xena knew better.  The warrior stood stock-still and held her ground, perfectly calm and unflinching as they came at her.  If her hunch was correct, she had nothing to fear.

STOP!!!” Lucifer roared as thunder boomed overhead.  A wave of his hand and the frontrunners, only a few short yards from their prey, were knocked off of their feet by an invisible force, sending them flying into the men behind them and bringing the entire advance to a sudden halt.

“You-“ Lucifer boomed, waving his hand at the priest that ordered the attack, “-do not give the orders!”

The unfortunate priest burst into flame, left to burn to death.  Xena silently thanked the now deceased mage for his protection spell that made her immune to Lucifer’s powers.

“She’s right,” Lucifer said.  “This is between us.”

His implied order was clear to the priests and minions both.  He and Xena were to fight it out one-on-one, and no one was to interfere.

“Let her through!” he barked, and the line of men and creatures parted, leaving a clear path to Lucifer.  And to the gate.

So it begins, Xena thought as she strode over the muddy ground and past the mob of Lucifer’s servants.

As soon as she was past the ranks closed the gap behind her.  As she approached, Lucifer drew his sword, the same one that he had used as an archangel in the service of his God.  Ironic that it would be used against her now in the service of evil.

She stopped squarely before him and brought her sword up in front of her, holding it at the ready, firmly gripping it with both hands.  Her eyes were cold slits as she glared at him.

“You started this Xena,” Lucifer said, his voice a low growl, “but I will finish it.  I will kill you.”

Xena smirked at that.  “You know, Lucifer, I don’t think you will.”

She sounded so confident, so smug, and it angered Lucifer beyond imagining.  How dare she act that way?  Didn’t she know it was over for her?

“Let’s see then, shall we?” he replied an instant before lunging at her.

Xena was ready for him, but wholly unprepared for the force of his sword blow.  Thunder rang out once more as steel met steel.  The warrior felt the impact all through her arms, all the way to her shoulders.  It forced her down onto one knee, blade over one shoulder, Lucifer pushing down with his own sword as hard as he could.  Her arms quivered under the strain as she pushed back with all her might, jaw clenched and teeth bared.  Still, her blade inched ever closer to the bare skin of her upper arm.  Lucifer shoved his sword down hard against hers and her blade sank down, biting deeply into the unprotected flesh of her arm, small rivulets of blood running from the wound and mixing with the water on her rain-soaked skin.

Xena howled in outrage, pain fueling a burst of strength that was enough to shove Lucifer away from her.  He backpedaled, and she was in her feet in an instant, ready for another go.

He wasted no time, coming back at her almost immediately.  Another bone jarring strike, which Xena managed to absorb this time without going down.  Around and around they danced in the downpour; thrust, parry, thrust, parry, block.  Lightening flashed and thunder boomed at every strike of steel on steel, their feet throwing up mud as they moved.  The priests shouted their encouragement at their master, the sound mixed with the roars of the hellspawn and the occasional jeer directed at the warrior princess.

Skillfully she knocked his blows aside, all the while looking for an opening.  Every time one came, however, it closed so quickly that her strikes were useless.  Xena was becoming frustrated very quickly.  This had to end before the protection spell wore off, and that wasn’t long from now.  She was already beginning to tire under the crushing force of Lucifer’s attacks, using one trick after another to no avail.  The muscles in her arms were burning from the exertion, her sword starting to feel like a lead weight in her hands.  She couldn’t keep this up for much longer, and it was obvious that she would not be able to overpower him.

Suddenly she realized that she didn’t have to.

Xena started giving up ground to him, slowly backing toward the gate as they fought.  Their swords met near the hilts and with perfectly applied pressure, Lucifer brought both weapons around, over, and down to the ground, pinning the tip of Xena’s sword in the mud with his own.  He lashed out with a vicious backhand and connected, snapping her head back and splitting her lip open.  Stars exploded in her vision, but she did not drop her sword.

“Is that the best you’ve got?” she taunted.

Roaring in fury, Lucifer wound up and swung his fist at her again.  His aim was right on, the blow connecting just beneath her chin, her teeth coming together with an audible clack.  He immediately followed up with a kick to her stomach that doubled her over, and a knee to the head.

Xena hit the ground hard, blacking out for an instant and losing her grip on her sword, chakram coming free of its clip, sliding in the mud and coming to a stop at the edge of the gate.

The world was spinning around her.  Xena shook her head to try and clear it.  It helped a little bit.  She tried to move and moaned at the pain in her stomach and head, the coppery taste of blood in her mouth.  The thought, Gods, he hits hard, flashed through her mind.

And then he was on top of her, pinning her down, clawed hands holding her arms above her head.  She struggled against him, but it did no good.  He was too strong for her.  She started to bleed where his claws dug into her wrists.

“You ruined everything!” he screamed in her face.

“No, Lucifer!  You did!” Xena shouted back, bloody spittle flying.

Her words hung there between them.  The priests and the minions fell silent.

“What?” Lucifer demanded, clearly confused by the statement.

“You’ve had plenty of opportunities to kill me.”

He started to protest, but she talked right over him.  “You should have done it when you had the chance.  You’ve taken far too great a risk by letting me get this close.”

All Lucifer could offer in reply was stunned silence. 

Momentum building, she pressed on.  “By making love to me, you gave away your dirty little secret.”

Lucifer paled, realizing the fatal mistake he had made.

“You can’t kill me because you want me too badly,” Xena stated flatly.  “You wanted me to kill Gabrielle so that you could have my soul, own me so that I would rule with you by day and warm your bed at night.  That’s what you’ve wanted all along, ever since Amphipolis.”

Lucifer roared, furious and outraged, even though he knew what she said to be the truth.  Holding her wrists with one large hand, he brought his sword to her throat.  The razor edge of the blade dug in, blood trickled.  He wanted to kill her.  Then all of this mess would be done with.  But he couldn’t do it, no matter how fiercely he ordered himself to.

After several tense moments of wondering whether or not he would actually go through with slitting her throat, Xena laughed when she saw that he could not.

“See?” she said.  “You can’t kill me.”

Utterly shocked at his own inability to do the one thing that would ensure his victory, Lucifer’s grip on her slackened.  It was the moment that Xena was waiting for.  She wrenched free of his grasp and, grabbing his shoulders for leverage, drove her foot up into the pit of his stomach, sending him up and over.  He sailed behind her and fell into the gate, screaming.

That’s when she heard them.  The battle cries were deafening.  From twenty yards away, priests and minions alike came charging at her.  If they got her before she could finish this-

Xena cleared her mind, focusing only on her task and blocking out the sound of the rampage coming toward her.  Rolling over quickly and getting to her knees, she reached into her scabbard for the symbol, one of Gabrielle’s scrolls.  Slippery mud had oozed into the scabbard and was all over her hands; she gripped the scroll, pulled, and her hand slid off of it.  She tried again and was met with the same result.

Xena became frantic, but forced herself to calm down.  A quick, deep breath.  They were nearly on top of her.  One last try was all she had.  Then it really would be over.  For her.

She wrapped her hand around the scroll, offered up a brief prayer, pulled-

-And the scroll came free with a small sucking noise.

Without further delay Xena hurled the scroll into the gate, praying that it would work, just as a minion was about to take her head off.

A burst of celestial brilliance radiated from the gate.  Xena threw an arm up in front of her face to shield her eyes, but the brilliant light still burned through her eyelids.

And then it was gone.

Xena looked around, trying to blink the black spots out of her vision.  The gate was gone, and so were the priests and the minions, reduced to little more than piles of ash.

She got to her feet slowly, a little dazed, bruised, bloody, and caked with mud, but otherwise okay.  Physically anyway.

Gathering up her sword and chakram, which were nearby, half-covered in mud, Xena slowly walked away from the scene of her epic battle.  The rain continued to pour down on her, but she didn’t care.  The nightmare was over.

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

They stayed at Castle Lemnos for a week afterward, partly because Gabrielle needed time to rest until she was well enough to travel again, and partly to help King Amonysis start the rebuilding process in his small kingdom.

Word was sent to neighboring King Eumaeus by carrier pigeon, detailing all that had happened.  Within two days Eumaeus arrived, bringing with him a guard detail to protect the castle and a number of his personal servants to help with the rebuilding.

Amonysis had suffered quite a blow.  All of his guards and servants, with the exception of the handful that survived with the king in the secret chamber, had perished in the minion attacks with the majority of the other castle inhabitants.  The lands around the castle had been decimated when armies of hellspawn minions swept over them, destroying homesteads and farms as they went, leaving the residents disemboweled, decapitated, or worse.  The future of the kingdom was uncertain, but Xena was confident that Amonysis, with King Eumaeus’ help, would be able to recover eventually.

As for Gabrielle, the prognosis looked good.  However, she still had much healing to do, and not just in the physical sense.  The good news was that as long as it continued to heal properly, Gabrielle would regain full use of her shoulder.  Scarring, both with the shoulder wound and her other injuries, would be minimal thanks to Xena’s quick, expert treatment and special medicines.  Xena expected most of the scars left behind would fade out completely over the next few months.  She knew that the emotional scars would take a lot longer.

The warrior found it very difficult to speak to Gabrielle over the last few days.  It was hard for her to face the hurt she felt every time she looked at her friend.  Intellectually, Xena knew that she had no reason to blame herself, but her heart hurt all the same, if not as much as before.  Gabrielle hadn’t pressed the issue, trying to let her friend come to terms with it in her own way, in her own time.

The two friends were now on the road east, heading out of Amonysis’ kingdom.  At least, what was left of it.  The sun shone down on them, and both thought that it had never felt so good as it did right then.

“Beautiful day, huh, Xena?” Gabrielle commented from her place atop Argo.  Xena was walking alongside, letting her friend rest up.

“Yeah,” Xena sighed.  “We’re lucky to be here to see it.  Especially you.”

“I owe you for that,” was the bard’s simple response.  “I’m still not happy about being drugged, though.”

Xena shrugged.  “I didn’t know what else to do.  You would have been killed if you came with me.”

“I know that.”  Her tone turned playful.  “I’m still mad at you.”

Xena rolled her eyes in mock exasperation.  “I know, I know.  And I owe you.  Gods forbid you let me forget that.”

They both laughed.

“How did you know?” Gabrielle asked suddenly.

“Know what?” the warrior asked, not quite catching on.

“How did you know that one of my scrolls would close the gate?”

Xena cast her eyes heavenward once more.  “I suppose I owe you for the scroll, too.”

“No.  It was a copy I was making of another one, and it went for a noble cause.  Seriously though, what made you think that one of my scrolls was the answer?”

Xena was silent for a long time.  Gabrielle thought she might not answer, when suddenly she spoke up.

“The book said that a symbol of love and light was needed.  At first, I couldn’t think of anything that fit the profile.  I went over what we carried in our packs, trying to think of something, and I thought about your scrolls.  They’re a labor of love on your part, to start with.  They’re a symbol of good and our love for our fellow human beings in that they talk about all the good stuff we do.  I figured that if one of you scrolls couldn’t do it, than nothing else would.  I had to give it a shot.”

“It was a good guess,” Gabrielle said.  “You saved us all.  Saved the whole world.”

“Yep.  Just another day in the life.”

They moved on down the road in companionable silence for a while, just enjoying the sounds of a world that was once again alive and not under immediate threat of destruction.

“It must have been horrible, what Lucifer did to you,” Gabrielle mused a short time later.

Xena sighed uneasily.  “You have no idea.  A very small part of me was reveling in it, yes, but the rest of me, the good part that makes up who I really am had to watch while I did what I did, screaming and powerless.”

“I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you.”

“I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you,” Xena said very softly.  “To see me like that, so twisted.  To have endured what you did…”

Xena wouldn’t look at her with more than a fleeting glance.  From where Gabrielle sat she could see that her friend was very uneasy.  There was more that Xena wanted to say, and Gabrielle suspected that she knew what it was.

The warrior heaved a sigh and brought herself and Argo to a stop.  Xena looked Gabrielle straight in the eyes, and the hurt Gabrielle saw cut her to her core.

“I’ve said it a lot over the last few days, and I don’t think I can ever say it enough.  I’m so sorry that I hurt you, did those awful things to you.  It’s the last thing in the world that I would ever want to do, and if I had been in my right mind it would never have happened.  I hope you believe that.”

“I do,” Gabrielle said with conviction.  “I hope that you believe that.  You don’t have to prove it to me.  I went into that situation fully aware of what could happen.”

“That doesn’t justify what I did,” Xena said quietly.

“That’s just it, Xena,” Gabrielle said somewhat forcefully.  She could see that it was time to push and give Xena a badly needed reality check.  “That wasn’t you.  It looked like you, but that was all.  The real you was buried and Lucifer was controlling you.  I know, without question, that you would never have done it if you could have helped it.  I forgive you wholeheartedly.”  Her expression softened.  “I love you, Xena.”

“Yeah,” Xena replied.

Gabrielle sensed that there was more, something that perhaps could be the underlying problem.

“What aren’t you telling me, Xena?”

“I’m afraid, Gabrielle.”

The bard was taken aback by the admission.  “You? Afraid?”  Her disbelief was clear.

“Afraid of what Lucifer brought out in me, yes.  Afraid that that darkness could somehow get free again.  That it might make me want to hurt you again, or hurt someone else.  It came to me so easily-“

“I don’t think so, Xena,” Gabrielle said, and she meant it.

Xena said nothing, just looked at her questioningly, vulnerability in her eyes.

“That darkness-  It isn’t who you are anymore, Xena.  It never really was.  I truly believe that.  Now that you know, it can never happen again.

Xena’s confidence started to return, her expression brightening into a small smile.  Leave it to Gabrielle to tell her exactly what she needed to hear.  Her friend was right. 

Xena placed a hand on her friend’s arm and gave it a light squeeze.

“What say we put this nasty business behind us?” Xena proposed.

Gabrielle smiled at that.  “Sounds good to me.”

Together they continued east, toward their next adventure…

 

 

 Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse