Disclaimer: See Part 1.

Copyright 1998, A.J. Firebaugh

Part 2

Xena looked at her reflection in the shield. Her face was worn, weathered.... old. I'll be dead without Gabrielle, she thought. She bit the inside of her lip. "He said that Dahok would go after the god of the Israelites in due time. I think that means this one god, this other god, is at least as strong as the gods of Olympus. Perhaps this one god can help us."

"But how will I know? I don't know anything about this stuff," Joxer said. The cave rumbled as another burst of flame rose from the pit.

"Ask about the god of David, the man who slew Goliath. But whatever you do, Joxer, don't offer a sacrifice. If this god demands blood, then we want no part of it."

"I understand, Xena. I think."

"Remember Joxer," Xena said. "Find Hercules and guard the hind's blood knife with your life." With that, Xena snapped the small talisman shield that Ares had left for her into place. She could feel the power of the war god pulsating on her arm. "Aye-yiiii!" she cried, and she jumped into the yawning cavern that had swallowed up her best friend.

Xena felt searing heat from the sides of the wall as she fell into the pit that had swallowed Gabrielle. The overwhelming evil pull of Dahok consumed her as her body felt the air whisk around her. Visions of her past moved before her eyes. Reckless killing in Chin. Murdering Roman soldiers sent by Caesar. Her sword covered with blood, opponent unknown. So many unknown! Her chakram embedded in Mezentius, killed in her fury at the death of her friend Marcus. Each image filled her with hate and rage, feelings aimed at herself for her eagerness to kill with her sword. She pulled the shield close to her to keep the enemy of images at bay, but the evil entered her mind. Vision upon vision of men she had killed, hundreds falling by her sword, her brother dying by her side even as she urged him to press on and fight, not flee. But then she remembered Gabrielle. Always Gabrielle. Gabrielle dying while Ephiny gave birth. Gabrielle pretending to be Xena in order to rescue a village for the greater good. Interspersed with the evil were visions of Gabrielle, and Xena wasn't sure if it was the shield or the images of Gabrielle that kept the evil of Dahok from searing into her soul as she fell further
into the deep darkening abyss.

As her body flew through the empty space, Xena felt a mild amount of terror, an almost unfamiliar feeling. She could only imagine what Gabrielle had gone through as she fell into these same depths. The shield seemed to offer Xena an exquisite protection, one she could not describe, and for a moment she was grateful to the war god Ares for giving it her. But he owed it to her. You still owe me, Ares, she thought as she fell.

Finally she could see the bottom as she rushed toward it. For a moment she wondered if the fall would kill her. Had it killed Gabrielle? If so, Xena breathed a prayer to the gods that her landing kill her too, that she end up beside the body of her friend. As she asked for death, just in case, the bottom flamed; it was hot, dark, and light all at the same time. Xena quickly thrust the shield before her and landed on it. It took the brunt force of the fall.

"Humph!" The breath was knocked out of her, and she lay there regaining her senses and
her wind. The evil cloudiness in her brain dissipated. The heat, while uncomfortable, was bearable. And there was no sign of Gabrielle. Or Hope.

Well, at least Gabrielle isn't lying at the bottom of the pit. She found some comfort in the knowledge. That meant her friend must have gotten up and walked away. She is alive, Xena thought. She felt a twinge of fear in her heart. Alive because of Hope and Dahok. For the briefest moment, Xena felt panic. Did Gabrielle want to be with her daughter? Was Ares right? Xena shook off the black thoughts. She knew Gabrielle, knew her almost as well as she knew the darkness of her own tormented soul. And Gabrielle would always choose the path of light and goodness. So for whatever reason, Hope and Dahok wanted Gabrielle alive. Maybe Gabrielle will be the ultimate sacrifice, Xena thought. I have to hurry. I can't allow this go on any longer.

Xena looked around her at the world of Dahok. An eerie brown glow gave her light in the dark area, enough to see that she was in a configuration of caves and caverns. The air smelled like a swampy cemetery; the dampness mixed with the heat made Xena's long dark hair cling to her sweating brow. But there was no turning back. It was find Gabrielle, or die. Or both. She felt the small shield hum on her arm where it rested against her gauntlet. Her chakram swung by her side as she broke into a run and raced down the only visible path, heading toward a dark light.

Suddenly hands reached out from the wall and grabbed her. "Ah!" Xena cried as her head snapped back. Her arms were caught in a powerful hold; hands dug into her forearm. She heard an evil laugh as the walls tried to trap her. She struggled and managed to get a grasp on her chakram. She raised it and cut the ghastly hand that held her on her left; she slung herself backwards and made a cut into the right hand. She turned to find a demon emerging from the wall, a red-eyed monstrosity with a horn and a laugh that shivered her soul.

"By the gods!" Xena cried. She drew her sword. The demon roared and flames shot from its nostrils. Xena reflected them with the shield. From behind her another creature sprang forth, a twin to the first. She twisted her sword around and caught the second demon in the gut; as it exploded a roar echoed throughout the cavern. The first demon cuffed her in the head; another demon emerged from the wall. Flames from the demon's nostrils touched her upper thigh and she felt her flesh sear. She brought the shield around instinctively to protect herself, and it hit the flaming demon. It sizzled with a howl and vanished. She felt blisters rising on her leg; suddenly several more demons emerged from the walls. She was outnumbered and losing to the heat.

These things are toying with me, a delaying tactic, she thought as she dodged an arm. She moved close and touched another demon with the shield. He sizzled and screamed. The god of war had lent Xena some power after all. As the demon howled behind her, Xena ran towards the dark light. As she did, she could not recall ever leaving an opponent that should be dead, or running from something she should be fighting. But the need to reach Gabrielle was greater than any desire to vanquish some demon. As she moved along the cavern, she felt other hot breathes upon her as the walls turned into demons behind her. She dared not stop and look back; she knew there would an army behind her. She could only continue to move forward and pray that Gabrielle was there. By the gods above, I hope that I can get through this! She thought. She harbored a doubt, and she hated it. I don't care if I live or die, but by Zeus I have to save Gabrielle.

A slip in Xena's step allowed a reaching hand to touch her shoulder; it burned into her arm. She instinctively reached around with the chakram and sliced the hand off. Her intense gaze deepened as she saw at least a hundred of the evil-eyed demons following her, slowly encroaching upon her. She moved forward, turning her back to them, wondering what she would do when she reached her destination, whatever that was -- or a dead end.

The hot spots on her body burned intensely, more so, she thought, than the flames warranted. The demons kept popping out of the walls as she moved past, so they were never far enough behind her to let her slow to catch her breath. A rock caught her boot and she slipped against the wall; this time the demon there seemed to be waiting for her. It's vicious fingers caught her neck, burning its imprint there. Xena sliced the hand off as she had the others, with her chakram. It worked better than a sword in the cramped area of the cave. But now the other demons were closing in. They moved slowly but surely toward her. She felt the pain in her neck. "Pain demon," a voice called to her. She thought it was Gabrielle,
but the voice had resonated from within more so than anywhere else. She sliced off hands and kept the demons at bay with the shield. Pain demon? They feed on pain! Her own pain, physical and mental, created these monsters!

"Hiyaai!" She cried, and vaulted over the few demons that were in the way of her leap to sanctuary. She closed off her mind to the physical pain immediately, and a sense of strength filled her as her adrenalin picked up. The cavern stretched empty before her, and while the demons she had created continued their pursuit, no more reached out from the walls to capture her. At least, she thought, I've put a stop to their numbers. In her heart she knew if she could ease her mourning they might simply disappear, but that pain continued unabated as she ran forward.

Finally she found a cool spot in the caverns. The noises behind her, the hot breathes, dimmed. She was alone. Alone and in darkness. No light now led her toward anything; the dark light ended here. Blackness crept in upon her. She had never seen such darkness. She couldn't tell where her hand was when she held it before her face. Blacker than any night, blacker than anything she had seen in her journeys to Tartarus. Were the demons still at her back? She turned. Nothing. She stepped backwards, expecting to move into the light, but there was nothing. She felt nothing beneath her feet, but she was not falling. She felt nothing to her sides. It was as if she stood upon dark air. It felt suffocating. "Now what?" She said. "I can't go forward, I can't go back. This is not good."

"Not good."

"What?" Xena drew her sword and whirled around, blind, but found nothing. She heard a laugh. Then something struck her face. Hard. She stumbled to her left, wishing she had something to stand on, or land on, anything but this nothingness she was in. She kicked out in the direction the hit had come from, but caught only the black air. A punch to her stomach told her the enemy had moved; a fist across her back indicated more than one. She swung her sword again, and again caught nothing. A hard object caught her leg, in the place where the "pain demons" had burned her, and she felt blood. A knife? She struggled in the darkness, and the darkness suddenly became solid, grabbing her arms and holding her still. Her movements slowed as the darkness became thick and heavy; her breathing grew labored. Her attackers apparently felt no such ill effects from the blackness; they moved in and Xena felt as if 40 men were kicking, cutting, and pummeling every inch of her body. But it was only when she began to feel the darkness seeping inside her brain that she let out an involuntary cry.

Images again. Whatever light remained in her mind dimmed and the specters took over. Shadows of her past assailed her, stronger this time, more powerful than when she fell down into the pit. Every man she had every harmed came into the darkness to exact his revenge. And each man brought with him an accusation, and a reason why he should still be alive. This one had a family. Another cared for his mother. Even the worst of the lot had small ounces of love. Whatever was happening to Xena on the outside became secondary to the inner torture as her accusers paraded past.Forgiveness for her actions would never be possible. Xena's despair grew with each passing face. The blows to her body stopped; now the blackness struck her mind with hits so strong not even Hercules could withstand their strength. Her inner torment, so long buried and bubbling beneath her strong stoic exterior, was the greatest weapon Dahok could find to use against the Warrior Princess. Xena, body bruised, battered, and broken in a few places, slipped into a dark, silent stupor, her mind shattering as the numbers of her victims continued to mount.

And one of her victims, to her way of thinking, was Gabrielle. When the image of her closest friend finally drew to the front of her thoughts, Xena began to gain some awareness. Not of her surroundings; she had none, nothing except that darkness that squeezed the breath from her. But she remembered her goal. Gabrielle. She thought of her friend, recalling her smile, her laugh, her wisdom, and her mind began to drift back to her body, only to find almost intolerable pain. The last time Xena had been beaten this badly was when she'd run the gauntlet of her own army, and even that was an easy task compared to what she'd just experienced. Her body was drenched with sweat and blood; some cuts ran deep, including a stab wound in her right side. The arm and the side guarded by the shield of Ares curiously remained undamaged, but her left wrist was broken.

She lay on nothing, surrounded by the darkness. The air was still heavy, but more
breathable now. She heard a whisper, like the wind, that she hadn't noticed before. She sat up, almost grateful that the lack of surroundings kept her from being overly dizzy. She put a hand to her forehead. She felt dried blood. She had suffered the inner beatings for a very long time. Thoughts of Gabrielle, though, had finally brought her back to herself.

Ever prepared, Xena reached deep into her scabbard with her undamaged hand and pulled out some rags and a small bag of herbs and dried rations. She wiped her forehead carefully, feeling to assess the damage. Her face was swollen; her mouth full of blood, which she spit out. She sprinkled some of the herbs on her burned neck and thigh, using her left hand despite the pain. She checked the stab wound in her side. It needed to be closed; even though she'd obviously been in some kind of unconscious state for what appeared to her to be at least 24 hours, it was still bleeding lightly. She picked some threads from the rags and searched her herb bag for a needle. She grimaced as she found the edges of the opening of the wound. Holding her breath, her eyes pricking with unwanted tears, she quickly jammed the needle into her flesh, pulling it hurriedly in and out to sew the wound in place. She tied the thread and lay back in her darkness, waiting to allow her strength to catch up before continuing her ministrations.

The whispering became louder, a little closer. Xena sat up. She still had to do something about her hand. She reached in her boot and pulled out a short knife. She quickly pulled the handle from it and placed it against her wrist, into her palm, and wrapped the remaining rags around it, grunting when she pulled them tight with her teeth. She would fight it all this time.

But the whispering only spoke. "Dark demon." It sounded like Gabrielle, and Xena felt tears of frustration trickle down her cheek, their path erratic as they dodged the traces of blood she had been unable to wipe away. She recovered quickly, though. She had gotten into this black hole; there was a way out. She just had to find it. She ate a few bites, packed up what remained of her healing kit, and sheathed her sword. She took a step forward into the dark, though she had no idea of the direction. She continued her pace, noting that the blackness was again trying to enter her mind.

A few vestiges of guilt and inner frustration slipped in; when they did she stopped until she regained her composure. She focused totally on finding Gabrielle. But she did not seem to be making any progress. Finally, feeling desperate, she cried out the name of the woman she loved. "Gabrielle!" The sound echoed.

The echo, Xena thought. That means there is something here somewhere, something for the sound to bounce against. "Gabrielle!" She called again. The sound cried back: Gabrielle; Gabrielle, Gabrielle. Xena winced at the sound of her own voice calling the name of her friend. She sounded lonely, despondent, hopeless.

Continue to Part 3

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