Preface: Stuff belongs to the people at Renpics. Except Lucifer, who is a part of the collective cultural heritage.

Summary: One of the characters is dead and the other run to the rescue. Not a very original theme in neither the episodes, nor in the fics. This one has a dark twist though, or to use Xena's own words: "When I reach down and do more than I'm capable of, it's because of you..."

This fic is written in parallel with two of my other fics - Skeletons in the closet and The Voice In The Attic. They are basically about the same thing.

If you wouldn't mind I would be very happy if you took the time to write a short comment of the fic.

The Strength Within

The tears had dried. The wrath had cooled down. The despair had silenced. Left was emptiness. Emptiness and necessity. The necessity to be with Xena.

Gabrielle sat down on the bare, lifeless ground. Her clothes were torn, her body was pale and thin and her eyes were colourless after the weeks and months of woe that had followed the death of her soul. How she had grieved. How she had cried. She had fought also. And killed. She had sought. Eventually she had found. Following an impossible cold track through the darkest dungeons of Tartarus and beyond pass the strange, lifeless roots of the world she had found the way her soul had been taken. To this place.

To Hell.

Yes, Xena's soul was a mighty one indeed and a neat price for prince Lucifer to collect. The other gods with an interest in Xena - and they were surprisingly many - had done their best to claim her soul for themselves, but who can tell the twists and turns in the schemes of the gods? Here and now Gabrielle did not care. All she cared for was that she had found whom she was looking for. The long hunt was over, but yet she and her soul were further apart than ever before. There was no coming back from the place her soul had been taken. But she had to be with Xena, all the forces of Hell could not make that different. Gabrielle forced herself to calm down, to drain herself from thoughts, from emotions, making a last attempt to gather what strength she could from within. Sitting on the cold, bare ground she felt the emptiness crawling back into her as her feelings and memories evaporated. All that should be said had been said, all that should be done had been done. She sat alone before the gates of Hell and all that was left was emptiness and necessity.

And a price to pay.

In the emptiness she felt it. Faintly at first, barely detectable, like a single drop of rain from a could, dark sky. But she felt it again, more clearly this time, nagging in the edge of her essence, growing stronger, drawing closer. It was warm and cold at the same time. It was dark as the darkness before night, yet still bright as burning iron. It was strength and power beyond understanding. It was a part of her. A part she could never forget or deny. It was the voice speaking to her at night, the face she saw on the inside of her eyelids. It was the price she had to pay.

Gabrielle rose to her feet and turned around. Slowly she walked a few steps forward and halted. Before her the gates of Hell rose from the ground, seemingly stretching all the way to the clouded sky. Gabrielle draw a deep breath and closed her eyes, just for the time of a single heartbeat. Inside she felt the small, cold fingers touching, caressing, feeling her mind and spirit. She felt it moving inside her. Growing inside her.

Three rhythmic blows. With her bare fist she knocked at the gates of hell. The echoes inside sounded like the thundering of a broken, gloomy brass bell, seemingly echoing around forever before finally dying away. A small hatch in the gate opened and a grotesque demonic face glared at her.

"What d'ya want?" it demanded.

Gabrielle told the creature her errand, but it just snorted.

"Ya've no businesses here. Get away!"

The hatch fell closed. Gabrielle stood alone. She pressed her palms against the gates, feeling the cold, feeling the bitter ruthless solidity. For a moment she just stood there, doing naught. Then she said a word. A name. She said it with low voice, but steadily and clearly.

The gates of Hell flung open. Screaming demons run around as ants when she slowly entered Hell. Some of them - among them the one who had denied her entry - approached her with claws, fangs and cursed steel. They screamed in terror as their bodies smacked into stone walls, as their weapons turned against themselves, as their bones snapped. None of them even came close to the girl approaching.

Her path winded downwards. She walked it with calm, exact steps, not hastening, not looking left nor right. By the side of her path stood demons and tormented souls side by side, amazed gapingly, respectfully keeping out of her way. The name she had spoken was whispered from lips to lips, buzzing through Hell like a foul wind.

The girl who had been Gabrielle approached the deepest chamber of Hell, the throne room of prince Lucifer himself. Nine demon lords stood before her, the nobles of Hell. As she came closer they all went don on their knees, bending their heads. The girl who had been Gabrielle went past them and stood before the dark throne. Prince Lucifer was awaiting her, nervously rubbing his hands, walking to and fro. At the foot of his throne sat a haunted figure, dressed in rags, pale and with bruises on her body. Her head was bent so that her black, long hair covered her face. It sounded like she was trying not to cry. The girl who had been Gabrielle gave her a single look. Not more, despite of that something inside her, something that was still Gabrielle, moved in pity.

"Ah... princess!" Prince Lucifer exclaimed. "I... You are so very welcome... If I had known you was to be expected... If there is anything I can do for you..."
The girl who had been Gabrielle told him her errand. He nodded franticly. "Of course princess. Anything. She is yours."
With fumbling fingers he untied the rope binding the dark warrior to the throne, handing it over to the being standing before him. The girl who had been Gabrielle took it and turned around, leading her soul away from the throne of Hell.

Whimpering, stumbling, Xena followed the girl who had been Gabrielle on the long windling path leading to the land of the living. She tried to speak a few times, tried to express her gratitude, her pain, her love, but the girl who had been Gabrielle just walked on.

"Gabrielle..." Xena said. "Gabrielle, please. Stop and let me look at you." Despair was in her voice, but the girl who had been Gabrielle did not turn around.

"You must not look at what you bring back from the land of the dead" she said with harsh voice. It could have been a joke, but at this place and this time it was not.

They stood finally on the bare, lifeless ground and heard the gates of Hell hurriedly being closed and tightly locked after them. The girl who had been Gabrielle let her gaze rest at the horizon, avoiding Xena's eyes.

"Gabrielle..." Xena said, tears in her voice.

"There is a horse behind that hill" the girl who had been Gabrielle interrupted without looking at her. "Rested and with clothes and food and water in its saddle-bags. I want you to take it and get as far away from her as possible.

"Gabrielle..." Xena said again.

The girl who had been Gabrielle turned and looked Xena in the eyes. The last of what really was Gabrielle felt rather than saw her love's pain, her relief, her confusion, her love and - as their gazes met - her sudden understanding, her surprise, her fear, her hatred and, finally, her determination, harder than steel, when also Xena realised that noting was accomplished, nothing had more than begun. Xena rose to her feet.

"I will not leave you Gabrielle" she said with a voice with a steadiness in it that had not been there a moment before. "Never in life, never in death will I leave you. There must be a way, and I will find it. I love you."

With that she bent forward and placed a light kiss on the cheek of the girl before her. Then she turned, hurriedly moving towards the hill. The girl who no longer was Gabrielle watched her leave, and a moment later she heard hoof beats as Xena urged the horse to leave this gods-forsaken land.

The girl who no longer was Gabrielle waited until the echoes had died away and she was all alone in the world. She walked over to a small puddle of black, unmoving water. Then - because some things have to be made the proper way - she bent over the water and met the eyes of her own reflection, watching her own lips moving as she spoke with a voice that was not her own.

"Hello mother."