Xena had never felt quite this much darkness around her heart before. It sure had seemed like there was no other choice but to leave Gabrielle behind, but she realized now as she once again checked behind her as she walked Argo down the road to Amphipolis trying in vain to see that flash of blonde hair that always made the light go on in her world, how absolutely wretched her world was without Gabrielle by her side.
Still, Gabrielle was alive. Even with as dark a world as it was without her, it would be burnt and destroyed if Gabrielle was dead. As Argo plodded along once in a while giving backwards looks at her mistress, Xena just closed her eyes and tried to envision a lifetime of this darkness. Surely, it'd get easier . . . right?
"Xena!" a voice yelled and for only a split second, Xena's heart rose, imagining, hoping (praying) that it was Gabrielle. Reason quickly identified that voice as Joxer's. With an inner groan, she almost urged Argo to running but realized she couldn't outrun Joxer.
"What? Did you need something?"
"It's Gabrielle! She's been kidnapped!"
Xena couldn't receive this news . . . slowly but surely her heart turned to black ice as the information settled into her brain. "Kidnapped?"
"I went to visit her after I visited you, and you said she wouldn't get hurt without you, and then I talked to Lila and she said some masked figure bashed her door down and stole Gabrielle right out of the most peaceful village in Greece!"
Xena couldn't feel anything. Kidnapped! "And what about her bodyguard? What about Callisto?"
"Callisto thought she was safe, but really, Xena, you should have been there. Gabrielle hasn't fought recently, so she is weak. She stood no chance."
The black ice was slowly being replaced by bright flames of raging fire. "Where, Joxer?"
"Just a few miles east of Potidaea. I would have fought the masked figure, but I can't get in. The masked figure is using Ares' old cave. As you know, his son is forbidden from entering places like that. And Callisto was injured. Warrior priestesses aren't as formidable as warrior queens. I followed the figure to the biggest cave."
"Ares . . ." Xena spit out. "I thought he was MIA recently."
Joxer opened his mouth and closed it a few times. "Ares? No, just some goon using Ares' cave."
"Ha! I knew it was too good to be true that he'd leave me alone. He hasn't done one plot this entire year to get me back to his way. I was expecting an attempt. I just didn't know he'd use Gabrielle."
"Well, yeah, um, sure. Ares. It's a good strategy. Honestly I don't know why he hasn't done anything about Gabrielle earlier considering she's your reason for being good and all."
"He hadn't before because he knew . . ." Xena's eyes as light blue as they were seemed to flash like there was black fire burning in them. "He knew that if he targeted Gabrielle he'd be in for my full wrath, which he has just earned if he hurts her."
And with that Xena galloped off towards the cave. She almost wished she had a whip to urge Argo faster, not that she'd want to go to that extreme . . . A flash hit of when she had that strange experience of going to Illusia. In that vision, she had whipped Argo, and the very memory of how evil she had gone still made her heart ache. Now, to get to Gabrielle before Ares did anything permanent to her, she understood that version of herself from the vision.
Time was a funny thing. When Xena was around the campfire, listening to Gabrielle's quill scratching the parchment and she had just had a nice full meal, and no one was in danger, time went by so fast she could blink and miss it. But now, when Gabrielle's life was in danger, time went by so slowly. She counted every tree, watched for every road sign, felt every rock kicked up by Argo's hooves.
Time was mocking her. Somehow her greatest fears were being realized and she was responsible! At least with Hope, when Gabrielle had thrown herself in Xena's path to save her, Xena had been acting on the way she felt was right. She couldn't have prevented Gabrielle's sacrifice! But this time, she might as well have handed Gabrielle over to Ares.
"Go, Argo, go!" she urged.
Argo, as if sensing Xena's stress, whinnied and took on more speed, becoming a blinding flash across the landscape and soon enough the bumpy farmhouses grow on the horizon. She veered Argo left towards the further off caves, aiming for the gigantic mouth of the biggest. Without even pausing to take in any dangers, she rushed into the cave with her warcry, flipping hands over feet.
Nobody and nothing was in the darkness. But . . . there was somebody. A lone figure in yellow, shining in the dusk of the cave—unconscious or . . .?
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked. Her voice echoed in the cave, and even she could hear the fear in its tones. But Gabrielle couldn't . . . Ares wouldn't . . .
Oh, yes he would. He'd do it because he finally realized that Gabrielle was the key. Xena had worried ever since she had realized how much Gabrielle meant to her that someone, somewhere would figure out that without Gabrielle it'd be much harder for the Warrior Princess to stay on her track of righteousness. Sure, Xena would try. Of course she would! But with the weight of her darkness against her, the weight of an ever increasing evil world where the strong took what they wanted from the weak, and with Ares' constant appearances to remind her that she could change the world, Xena would fall like a king in an unwinnable game of chess.
"Gabrielle!" Xena said again rushing over to her friend. But Gabrielle wasn't responding. She had no breath . . . no movement beneath her wrists or neck. She was dead again. This time there was no hope. Xena knew that she'd never be allowed into the Amazon land of the dead again, and that was if Gabrielle would still go there. She had accepted her way of peace, which meant she had denied the Amazon part of her. That land wouldn't welcome her in. Who knew where Gabrielle would go now? Xena wouldn't be able to find her.
What she had tried to prevent had come to pass without her. Xena tried to sing her funeral dirge but it twisted into a scream.
It echoed around the cave as she clutched her friend.
Then she just sat there . . . thinking. Ares would get his way. Her path was doomed. Gabrielle had made her promise . . . How could she prevent that with Ares in her face all the time? Especially when he was the one who had done . . . . THIS! It was all him. His constant torment. He had ripped apart Xena's heart by pretending to be her father—had tormented her by taking her body and giving it to her archenemy. Had driven her mad with the Furies and had almost killed her mother. Betrayed her by joining up with Dahak.
But now . . . he did the worst thing possible, and he'd WIN?!
"No . . ." Xena muttered. She knew where Cronus had been buried. And his ribs could kill a god, even one of Ares' stature and power. "Ares, you made a mistake. I will never be yours, but you will be dead."
Meanwhile, Joxer felt a bit smug. Okay, sure, it wasn't too nice to see that horrible look Xena had gotten on her face when he had told her his lies, and he was glad he couldn't go into Ares' cave, but it looked like the plan was going nicely.
A masked woman suddenly jumped down next to him. "Give me your money!" she declared. "Or I will kill you like I killed Gabrielle . . . and Xena."
"Drop it, Callisto," Joxer replied. "For one, you never even attempted to kill Xena. That was this reality's Callisto. Two, she didn't even kill Xena. That was Talmic poison. And three you used Talmic poison on Gabrielle just now. You didn't kill her. Oh, by the way, she didn't see your face, did she?"
"No, I rushed into Lila's house, grabbed Gabrielle and ran out, all the while in mask. Once I reached the cave, I used that old crossbow and shot her with the dart. She went out like a light. She didn't see my face, and neither did Lila."
"Great! I certainly don't want Xena to ever realize we were behind this. Now, Xena will cry over Gabrielle's body. Gabrielle will wake up to see how much she means to Xena. They will agree that it's best and safer to stay together, and the duo will be reunited with no bloodshed—ours. Great plan, Callisto."
"It's the other me's doing. I don't even know how much I was supposed to use. I guessed on that part."
"You did what?" Joxer asked suddenly concerned. A heartbreaking scream flew from the cave. "Um, isn't she supposed to wake up by now? There should be no cry of utter despair coming out of that cave. How much Talmic poison did you use?"
"A lot. I wanted to make sure she was out. I coated that dart with like three inches of the stuff."
"Three inches . . ." Joxer's face drained of color. "Xena was out for a day and that was only an inch. What in the world did you do?"
"Nothing! Talmic poison isn't lethal! I guess we'll just have to tell Xena and come clean." Callisto sighed. "The best laid plans of gods and centaurs are often laid to waste."
Before they could continue though, Argo charged past them—Xena on her back, hair whipping out like a wave of black smoke. She paid no attention to either of them and in a few seconds the hoof beats faded to nothing.
"Uh, Joxer, shouldn't you go after her?"
"Did you see that expression on her face?" Joxer yelped. "She'll rip my spine out through my mouth if I confront her now. First, we have to get Gabrielle awake. Right now Xena believes her friend his dead, and we are responsible for that! First, let's fix this. Did I say it was a great plan Callisto? Because it was a horrible plan!"
"I'm beginning to think so too. What was the other me thinking?"
"She was a VILLAIN!"
Then Callisto ran into the cave to retrieve Gabrielle and the two headed back towards Lila's house who probably wouldn't be too happy to see them and find out the truth either.
Meanwhile, Xena was riding, riding, riding. She planned to kill a god this day.