See Chapter 1 for disclaimers.
Gabrielle could feel the warmth getting stronger, moving towards her with some speed. Instinctively, she reached out to intercept whatever was coming at her, ecstatic to feel that it was her partner's consciousness. It was battered and torn, but still held the heart of her lover intact.
Oh Gods, Xena, where have you been?
Xena drew her in, forever grateful to have found her. Hold me... just hold me.
Xena took in her partner's comfort, the warmth seeping through her to soothe her cooling psyche. She was glad to find Gabrielle still intact, that her protection had worked after all. Unwittingly, having Gabrielle there stirred her preservation instincts, forcing her to act even when she felt the need to rest.
Time had no meaning at this point, each seeking comfort from the other and strengthening their bond. However, they were still being swamped by the erotically malevolent sensation, floating around them like some sort of primordial ooze.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Ar, what are we going to do? The attack's begun."
Ares watched the one-sided fight; a slaughter really. These people had no defence against armed men bent on destruction and death. While one side of him thoroughly enjoyed the mayhem, there was a small kernel that begged for the battle not to be so one sided. What? The God of War can't have a conscience!
They watched from their hiding place, not knowing what to do. Any action on their part would probably draw attention to themselves, and ultimately lead to their deaths. They were mortal now and vulnerable.
Ares's eyes sought out and found his target, watching the tall woman move from target to target, slaughtering with consummate ease. Armed with sword and Chakram, she cut and sliced through bodies for sport. Her laughter rang through the air, sending a chill down the god's body.
This was no battle and there was no honour in this victory. He had to admit that his admiration for the woman slipped a notch at this negligent display of cowardice and evil. He took great pride in her need for a fair fight and overcoming the odds on her own terms.
"C'mon, let's see if we can get closer to her. Maybe an opportunity will present itself."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena found a small group of people hiding behind an overturned wagon and moved in on her prey. Slowly, and with a great amount of enjoyment, she took them on one by one, intent on leaving the old man and young woman till last. She wanted to hear them beg for mercy before her metal sank into their flesh.
The man put up some resistance and she batted his pitchfork out of the way before lunging with her sword, feeling the slide of flesh along her blade. The blood flowed along the steel, covering her hand in crimson. The entity absorbed the hot liquid like a sea sponge, gathering strength from the kill.
Ghostly eyes turned to their next victim, approaching the middle-aged woman with deadly grace. The mother offered no resistance, a strangled cry escaping her bloody lips as a dagger cut her open. She looked down, moments from death, to see her organs spill to the ground, leaving a large cavity inside her.
A low chuckle escaped the warrior's lips as she studied her handiwork. She stood in the ever-widening pool of blood, breathing deeply as if it were a delicately perfumed rose. To the entity, the smell of death was just that.
The old man cowered on the ground, his arm over his head in protection. Xena stood there and watched him, amused by his feeble action. "Old man," her voice was low and dangerous. He looked up into pale blue eyes, as cold as the nearby snow-covered mountain tops. He saw death in those eyes and closed his own as her sword came down on his head, leaving a bloody gash in its wake.
Now in control, the evil hacked and hacked, opening the wound even more, splintering bone to expose the organ underneath. The young woman watched in horror, her stomach losing its contents at the horrific sight. Those glacial eyes were now nearly devoid of colour.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena felt the sadness down to her soul. This was all her fault. In trying to outsmart Ares, she had outsmarted herself. Now she was left with the heinous acts unfolding in the outside world, the visions of the carnage taking place in her name playing over and over in her head. She would forever suffer in Hades for this, she knew it.
"Xena!" Gabrielle used a stern voice to distract her partner. "We have to do something. Listen, I will work with you in this. Whatever you need to do, do it now."
Xena watched in slow motion as her body stalked the lone figure lying in the dirt.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Girl, come here." The voice was low and hypnotic, drawing the young woman to Xena like a lamb to the slaughter. She passed behind the blonde, her eyes skimming over the vibrant young body and thinking of other things besides destruction. A slow smile crossed those rose lips, spreading into a lascivious grin.
Xena led the young woman to a lone house, stepping inside and finding it empty. In the bedroom she approached the girl. "You want to live?" The quaking girl nodded. "Here's your chance. This had better be good."
A lone tear trickled down the pale cheek as shaking fingers reached for the ties on her dress.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Nnnooooo!!!!" All Xena could see was her precious Gabrielle being taken by a mad woman. No, no mad woman - her. It was her. This poor slip of a girl, who had looked so much like her own bard, was going to a fate worse than death and she had to stop it.
"Then now is the time Xena. This is your body - claim it back! I will give you whatever you need to do it."
The warrior bent her mind to taking back what was hers, inch by precious inch. She fought her way through the darkness towards her conscious state, Gabrielle a step behind, lending her own strength to the cause. No, this will NOT happen. I will not allow it.
She felt herself hesitate as the young woman dropped her dress, shivering from the coolness of the room and the heated stare of those cold blue eyes. Xena could feel a bead of sweat break out on her forehead as a battle of wills took place for control of her body, ownership shifting as strength rose and fell.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"What does she think she is doing?" Ares was puzzled as Xena dragged off the blonde into a nearby house.
"What do you think she is doing, Ar? Giving her cooking tips? Let's go, this may be our chance."
Aphrodite and Ares snuck around the battle, entering the house from behind. The goddess picked up a large rock as she entered, hoping to get a chance to throw it before she fell. She nearly ran into her brother, who seemed too preoccupied with seeing the naked woman to notice that Xena was unaware of their presence.
The internal battle waged on, one side then the other gaining precious ground on the battlefield that was her body. Xena could sense the outside world and the impending danger.
Before her courage failed her, Aphrodite used her rock, bringing it down on the warrior's head from behind, knocking her unconscious.
"Quick before she wakes up. Find something to tie her up with." While Ares saw to securing Xena, Aphrodite collected the frightened girl and re-dressed her, sitting her down before she collapsed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena grabbed her chance with both hands. As she slowly re-gained consciousness, her heart soared with the feeling of being free, to be in control of her actions once more. Aphrodite's rock had severed the entity's connection to her. All she had to do now was to convince her captors that she was back.
"Hey guys, am I ever glad to see you." They eyed her warily, looking for some trick to set her free. "It's me, Xena."
"We are taking you to the Temple, so don't fight it." Aphrodite studied her carefully.
"Good, I won't. C'mon, Aphrodite, it's really me. You want to talk to Gabrielle?"
You better talk to her. I don't think she trusts me.
And what makes you think I'll do any better? There was silence and a gentle tickling. You knew she was in love with me?
Yeah, I knew. I can't blame her though. She has very good taste.
The young blonde blushed under the compliment. You have absolutely nothing to worry about.
I heard that conversation. I'm glad you feel that way. By the way, you have nothing to worry about either. He doesn't stand a chance against you.
How are you feeling?
Better, now that I'm back in control. Let's see if we can stop this madness.
Xena's voice shifted to a familiar burr, bringing a smile to the young goddess's face. "Hey there, we are back in control. Really. Xena wants to continue the charade so she can stop the army, OK?
"What do you want us to do?"
"Take the girl out of here and meet us on the far side of the clearing."
After their companions had left, Xena prepared herself for warlord mode.
Are you up to this?
Probably not, but we have to do this. I only hope that the army doesn't turn on me. If they do, be prepared for a battle.
Do what you have to do, Xena. I trust you. What a feeling it was to have someone trust you implicitly. It bolstered her overtaxed emotions for the trial ahead. Whoever had said that loves makes you weak, had never truly been in love. It was the most amazing feeling in the world, lending power to her resolve to make things right.
She drew herself up, covering herself in an air of menace, swaggering out the door with a satisfied grin on her face. She found the horse wandering at the edge of the village and mounting it, trotted through the village square.
"Halt! Enough!" Xena's bass voice echoed around the open space, bouncing off empty huts. Arms stopped in mid-swing, eyes flicking to their leader in question. The few remaining survivors looked over in despair at the one who held their lives in her large hands.
"This slaughter is over. Go home!" She waited, her reflexes on hair trigger in case someone reacted badly. An arrow came flying in her direction and she barely shifted out of the way, the arrowhead grazing her cheek. She looked over to the culprit and unsheathed her sword. The stallion pranced over to the far side of the square and she looked down at the man, giving him her best intimidating stare.
He stood his ground and lifted his sword, discarding the bow. Gabrielle, I'm sorry about this...
Her long leg lifted over the pommel and she slid to the ground gracefully. "You questioning my decision?" Her voice dropped an octave, already marking him a dead man.
"Yes, I am. We all want this done." He looked around for support, finding feet shifting nervously in the dust. They were awaiting the outcome of the fight before committing themselves to him.
"Well, I can see that I'm gonna have to change your mind." A sexy half-smile graced her lips, causing her opponent to step back. She showed no fear in this battle, only a quiet confidence that put doubt in the mind of her enemy.
Ares watched from the nearby scrub. This was the Xena he knew, the woman who fought her battles as only she could - with her superior skills and cunning intellect. Her worth came up a notch again, the past Xena from a candlemark ago already forgotten. He still had hope for his plan, seeing that she had re-gained control over the entity, now all he needed was his godhood.
Xena slowly circled her adversary, swinging her sword in tight arcs in a show of her skill. He shifted with her, trying to watch her body for any sudden movement. She feinted a couple of times but he remained firm, twitching in response but not acting.
Her smile broadened, having finally found a fighter who would give her a good fight. This was when she was at her best - a life and death struggle that tested her skills to the limit. She rarely had the chance to exercise those kinds of skills these days and looked forward to the contest.
Xena executed a few testing parries, gauging the competence of the other fighter. He deflected her sword with ease. This was no hick fighter; he had been a soldier. She shifted her shoulders and set her mind to winning this battle.
The other men surrounded the two of them, enclosing them in a tight circle of sweating bodies. The fight now became even more dangerous.
Aphrodite's mind closed in on a plan. "You, girl, get your townspeople and head into the forest. Hide until they have left, you got me?" The woman put her hand on the goddess's arm and looked warmly into those eyes, silently thanking her. "You're welcome." She whispered.
"Ar, you go get those horses. I think we're gonna need a quick getaway." She grabbed her bow and nocked an arrow, standing guard over Xena in case things deteriorated in the fight. Fervently, she hoped that her courage wouldn't fail her this time.
Gabrielle stayed silent, letting her partner go about her business. What a different feeling she was getting from Xena. There was the excitement from the fight, but gone, for the moment, was the dark undercurrent that had been present for so long. They were free of it for now.
The two combatants circled one another in the small space, pushing and shoving from the spectators a serious distraction. Her opponent rushed her, trying to force her against the throng behind her, whom he hoped would shove her back and onto his sword. Her long legs unfolded and she pushed off, flipping herself over his head and releasing her battle cry in passing.
The wiry man was too busy watching her go over his head to see where his sword was going, ending up buried in one of his friends. Silence broke over the crowd, and they backed up to a suitable distance. She let out a low chuckle twirling her sword in her hand. "You changed your mind yet?" A low growl erupted from her attacker. "No?"
She began a serious counter-attack, swinging her weapon with grace and skill. He steadily backed up under her attack, deflecting each stroke with ever increasing lack of control. Pressing her advantage, she increased the strength and speed of her strokes, forcing him to back up to the limits of the ring.
Out of nowhere a dagger appeared in his other hand. Slashing at her mid-section, he inflicted a cut of his own. She backed up, giving him some space, and paced around looking at the sea of antagonistic faces. Angry blue eyes swivelled to their target. That's it!
Her demeanour changed in a heartbeat. She headed straight for the man with the blade, batting it away like it was a stick. Her hand shot out, circling around his throat and lifting him. Muscle and tendon stood out in vivid relief as she held him suspended, her eyes scanning the muted crowd as they stared in awe.
She brought his face up close to her own and breathed, "I said no more killing." She paused. "Perhaps one more." With that final word, she snapped his neck, tossing his broken body to the dirt. Sword in hand, she faced down each and every one of those who witnessed her action. "Anyone else?"
The crowd dissipated, milling around in disbelief. There was a cry and everyone went on alert. "The villagers are gone!" "Find them!" She cried above the din, "I said, no more killing. Let them be!" But their blood was up and her voice was lost in all the noise.
"Xena!" At the mention of her name she looked up, seeing Aphrodite in the shadows beckoning her over. As she approached, the goddess pointed to the horses. She changed direction, lengthening her strides and flipping in mid-air to land on the horse's back.
The small party moved quickly, leaving the chaos behind. Xena looked over her shoulder, seeing one of the soldiers pointing in her direction. She shifted her attention to the front, trying to get some distance between them and the army. It was now a race to the Temple.
Continued in Chapter 18
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