*Note - Just for the record this tale was written during the second season and well before the third season aired. Long before anyone ever heard of Dahok and evil cults in the Xenaverse. So any similarities to this story and the fourth season are not my fault. With that said I hope you enjoy the journey.

F A I T H

by Onora

Chapter 1

Zared grasped the ornamental dagger with both hands, as he slowly raised it over his head. Closing his eyes he began to chant. A young blond haired girl lay on the altar before him, struggling hopelessly against the bounds holding her to the stone table. Zared's young sacrifice watched the chanting priest, in wide-eyed horror. Crying noises escaped from around the gag covering her mouth. Suddenly the cavern erupted as the group of Followers joined in the chant. There were only twenty robed figures gathered in a small semi-circle around the altar, but the echo of the cave made them sound like an army.

Gabrielle who had been watching the ritual from the foot of the altar, silently cursed herself for jumping at the unexpected noise. Quickly she stole a glance from beneath the hood shading her face, just to make sure no one had noticed. None of them seemed to take notice her uneasiness. She breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for the large hood of the 'borrowed' robe. All of the Followers were dressed in similar long, brown robes. With their heads bows as they repeated the priest's chant, Gabrielle doubted if they could have seen anything from beneath the robes draping hoods. Listening to the monotone chanting, Gabrielle felt a chill run down her spine. 'Come on Xena, what are you waiting for?' Questioning her friend silently. 'Get a grip on yourself.' she chastised herself. 'It won't be much longer now.'

So far everything had gone as planned. Shortly, before sunrise they had arrived at the cavern. As the sun crested the ridge the Followers, as they called themselves, left their cavern hideaway. The Warrior and the Bard had watched from the cover of the forest as the group began their morning ritual. While watching the strange exercise, Gabrielle had suggested that she should enter the cave first, find the girl and get as close to her as possible before Xena launched her attack. That way she could protect the girl while Xena took care of the cult members. At first she had though Xena was going to say no, she could see the reluctance in the Warrior's eyes. Sometimes Xena could be too protective. Though she was getting better. 'Besides, It's just her way of showing she cares.' Gabrielle smiled to herself at the thought. To her surprise and relief the large woman had agreed to the plan.

Wearing a robe Xena had 'borrowed' from one of the unsuspecting cult members, Gabrielle stealthily joined the Followers as they returned to the cavern. After entering the cavern she had little trouble locating the girl. Zared's chosen sacrifice was locked in a makeshift pole cage near the rear of the cavern. Assuring herself the girl was all right, Gabrielle began forming a plan to reach the child when the time was right. Working her way around the outside of the group to avoid attention she had blended in and waited. Nearly four candle marks had passed since then. It was cold and damp in the cavern and her legs ached from standing on the hard stone floor. What was worse she was getting hungry and feared at any minute her stomach would growl, drawing unwanted attention. Without warning the chanting stopped as suddenly as it had begun. An eerie silence filled the cavern. Gabrielle snapped back to the present. 'Stay focused, stupid.' Scowling herself mentally. Tilting her head slightly upward, she could see the priest still hovering over the girl.

Zared slowly opened his eyes. Lowering his head he met his victim's horror filled gaze and held it. Taking a deep breath he started to plunge the knife downward. As the knife started it's downward stroke, a strange whistling noise filled the air.

Gabrielle smiled as she watched the chakram knock the dagger from Zared's hands. A shrill battle cry filled the air. Xena's piercing yell echoed off the cavern walls, giving the illusion the attack came from all directions at once. Xena used the distraction to launch her attack. Vaulting into the middle of the chamber, she caught the chakram in midair, returning it to her side as her feet touched the ground. Striking out with a blinding series of punches and kicks, she dropped three of the closest Followers.

Stunned by the sudden attack, the remaining Followers were slow to react. Xena flattened two more, before she heard an enraged Zared yell. "KILL HER!" Zared snarled at the infidel who dared desecrate his temple. Jumping from the altar he ran to the far wall.

Finally realizing they were indeed under attack. Several of the cult members charged the woman warrior, while the rest moved to retrieve weapons from a rack near the rear of the chamber.

Unnoticed in the chaos Gabrielle moved to the altar and pulled a small knife from beneath her robe. As fear filled eyes locked on the approaching blade, the young girl tried to pull away. Seeing the terror in the child's eyes, Gabrielle threw back the hood, revealing a warm, reassuring smile. "It's all right." speaking softly to the child. "We're here to help." slipping the sharp blade against the ropes. Severing the rope at the child's hands, the bard moved to release her feet. Once the girl was free, the Bard helped her off the altar. Wrapping a protective arm around the child the petite blond lead the way to the entrance, being careful to stay close to the wall to avoid unwanted attention. As they approached the entrance, Gabrielle could feel a warm, gentle breeze beckoning from outside. It was a welcome feeling.

Reaching the entrance, Gabrielle stopped to look back at the Warrior. Taking in the scene before her a small smile crossed the Bard's face. More than half of the cult members laid unconscious or wounded, spread in a growing circle around the mighty warrior. Xena had drawn her sword and laughed as she sidestepped a man charging with a mace. As he passed she struck him across the back with the flat of her blade. The blow sent him head first into the stone wall, he crumpled to the ground without a word.

Watching the exchange Gabrielle shook her head slightly. "At least she's enjoying herself."

"Where do you think your going, Infidel?!"

Turning toward the voice, Gabrielle found one of the Followers blocking the entrance. At the moment the man held a sword leveled at her chest. The nasty snarl covering his ugly face made her stomach turn.

Pulling the girl behind her, the Bard tried to buy time as she searched for a way around the man. "Infidel?" She repeated trying to sound shocked. "Who me? Oh no, you must have me confused with someone else." As she spoke she gestured wildly with one hand, while holding the girl with the other. "I pray everyday, all the time." Laughing nervously. "Why in fact, I'm praying right now."

Growling the man stepped forward, raising the sword for a downward strike. Gabrielle instinctively stepped back, nearly falling over the child. Glancing back to check her footing, she heard a loud thud and a slight gasp from the man. Turning back she found the man looking down at his chest in disbelief. It appeared he was trying to figure out where the strange round object had come from which was now protruding from his chest. Reaching for the metal ring he dropped to his knees. Gasping he fell to the ground dead, a questioning looking still on his face.

Gabrielle looked to Xena, the warrior was dealing with two more attackers. "How does she do that?" wondered the Bard aloud. Saying a silent thank you to her friend the Bard turned her attention back to the girl. Half carrying, half dragging the child they slipped through the entrance, out into the welcome sunlight.

Xena disabled her latest attacker and took a moment to survey the scene. Most of the Followers were no longer a threat the few that were still standing had moved back to regroup. From the corner of her eye the warrior had seen her friend lead the girl out of the cavern. 'Good,' she thought. 'They're safe. Now all I have to do is find Zared and have a little 'talk' with him.'

Sensing someone approaching from behind, Xena turned to meet the attack. It was Zared, he held a long hollow reed to his mouth. As Xena turned to face him, he exhaled forcefully. The large warrior woman readied herself to catch the dart as it approached. Too late, the warrior realized her mistake. Instead of a speeding dart, a foul smelling yellow cloud engulfed her. Fine dust coated her face, blinding her. As the dust entered her lungs she found it difficult to breath. Staggering a step she fought to keep her balance. Somewhere from within the fog settling over her mind, she heard Zared's command. "Get her!"

Fighting the fog, which threatened to over take her, the Warrior tried to focus on a defense. Swinging the sword in a wide figure eight pattern, the Warrior began backing up. Moving cautiously she hoped to reach the cavern wall, then her back would be protected. Something struck the back of her leg nearly knocking her to the ground. Before she could recover a hard blow struck the gauntlet of her sword arm. Even her armor could not protect against the force of the blow. The sword slipped from numb fingers to crash against the stone floor. Feeling hands wrap around her arms the Warrior kicked out and was rewarded with a cry of pain. Many powerful arms encircled the Warrior, forcing her to the ground before she can strike again. Xena struggled and cursed but to no avail. Resting on her knees, the Warrior grunted as sandal covered feet pushed against unprotected calf muscles, painfully pressing her legs into the cold, stone floor. Several pairs of hands held her arms pinned painfully behind her back. Still blind from the dust the Warrior could hear footsteps approaching from the front.

Pain shot through her head as Zared grabbed a handful of raven hair and jerked hard, pulling her face upward. "Infidel!" he spat, slapping her hard across the face with the palm of his free hand. "Have you any idea what you have done!" Not waiting for a reply. "You have desecrated a sacred ritual to the Goddess. She will see to it you pay in blood for your interference here today!"

Xena laughed softly. "I'm not afraid of your Goddess." Sarcasm dripped from every word.

Zared leaned in close Xena could feel his hot breath on her face. Though his voice dropped to just above a whisper, the tone was deadly. "You will be." Moving back he slapped her again. This time she tasted blood. Releasing her, he stepped away.

She waited for him to make the usual threats and speeches, fanatics were all the same. Instead of a speech Xena received a hard blow to the stomach, knocking the wind from her already burning lungs. Suddenly she was being struck from all sides at once, till the blows finally drove her to the ground. For a moment, she had thoughts of a similar beating received at the hands of her own men. Only this time she knew she would not be allowed to walk away. 'So this is how it ends.' she thought as consciousness slipped away. There was no anger or remorse in the thought, it was simply a statement of fact. Then a satisfying thought come to her. 'At least, Gabrielle is safe.' Darkness wrapped itself around the warrior's mind and she surrendered to it.