See Chapter 1 for disclaimers.
Gabrielle could feel a quiet depression settle over her partner. Xena, are you OK? For a moment she thought the older woman wouldn't answer.
What's wrong? There was a pause. Tell me.
I'm gonna lose you, aren't I?
Lose me? What are you talking about?
Xena tried to order her thoughts, but all she could think about was the blackness of her heart. She felt the warmth surround her, infusing her with a love so pure she felt like crying.
Tell me. That familiar burr whispered softly in her brain.
How can you love me after what I did?
That wasn't you, Xena. You know that.
But was it? I know I'm capable of dark things, Gabrielle. What if this thing inside me is just magnifying my own deep dark tendencies? I'm so afraid of losing you. Xena felt the warmth intensify, as if her lover had given her a squeeze.
Her partner was battling her conscience over what had happened. She knew in her heart that Xena was a good woman, and when in control of her darkness she was able to achieve great things. Could she still love her, knowing what resided in her?
I know this is hard for you right now, but believe me when I say that I will never leave you. I have seen you at your very worst and I still love you.
No! You listen to me. You stopped yourself before it happened. I know in my heart that you would never hurt me that way. You have a noble spirit, my love. Remember that. It's that spirit that controls your darkness, and I will always be here to remind you of that.
Xena remained silent, not sure whether to believe her or not. She truly wanted to believe it all, but her guilt put up a strong fight.
Stop all this self-recrimination, Xena. Just think of your love for me and let it heal those wounds. We still have a way to go and we need to prepare.
Xena sighed deeply. All this arguing was getting her nowhere. She was just going to have to accept it all on faith. She pushed aside her own doubts, and set her mind towards one goal - living through this ordeal to grow old with her little blonde by her side.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena looked around the countryside, slowly thinning out as the air became colder. She spotted a small decorated stone on the roadside. Once passed, she noticed an immediate change in the darkness. It slowly throbbed to life again, pulsing in waves against them.
"Aphrodite." A platinum blonde head turned her way. "I think you're gonna have to tie me up. Now."
"I just saw a small outcrop of rock on the roadside. I think it's a Temple marker, because it's starting to move in me again. Better not take any chances." She held out her hands, waiting for the goddess to secure them to the pommel. "I think it wants to go home." She looked to the deity in quiet understanding. "We're at the crossroads, Aphrodite, the next day could well go one way or the other. While we're in control, it has to go where we take it. Gabrielle and I will hold on as long as we can, but I feel it will try another grab for this body before we reach our objective."
"There's a little light left. Push on for another candlemark, then make camp. If I'm still in control by then, I'll let Gabrielle make a hot meal. I think we're gonna need it."
Aphrodite nodded and was about to move away when a tired voice called back.
"If something happens to us..."
Gabrielle, I have to do this. "If something happens, can you keep an eye on my family for us?"
The young immortal nodded.
"Thank you. I... I'm sorry you got dragged into this. I know it's been hard for you, but we're both very proud of you."
A full grin graced Aphrodite's ageless face, bringing out her dimples clearly. The smile extended to her eyes, glinting in the dying light. She was speechless.
"Yeah, well. As I said, just in case... Now, let's get going. With some luck, it'll be all over tomorrow."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
They pushed steadily on for a while longer, constantly checking behind them for the following army. Xena led the way so that Ares could keep her in his sights. The closer they got to the Temple, the lower Xena's head hung, the weight of her burden getting heavier and more cumbersome.
"Here." Xena called a halt after finding a suitable camping site.
Each went about their business. Ares secured Xena to a tree while Aphrodite quickly scouted around for any signs of food for the pot. By the time she came back empty-handed, Ares had managed to get a fire going and a pot of water boiling.
The goddess crouched in front of the seated warrior. "Xena?"
Weary blue eyes looked up. "Yeah?"
"Is Gabby there?"
That soft burr that she had come to love answered her. "I'm here, Aphrodite."
"You up to making dinner?"
"Sure. What do you want me to do?"
"Xena, is it safe to untie you?"
"Better not. Gabrielle will have to instruct you."
Ooh boy, this ought to be good... Her cooking was even worse than her hunting.
"Aphrodite, go to our pack and pull out the sack with the dried vegetables. Put them in the boiling water."
The goddess went through the steps for making a vegetable broth, Gabrielle pointing out the various herbs and spices she used and following her instructions to the letter.
She gave a portion to the tall warrior. "Hey! That is really good!"
She tasted her handiwork and a smile crossed her face. "That is just so... so... tubular!" Her first cooked meal. It was just soooo cool. "You know, sometimes this mortal stuff isn't so bad."
"When it works, yeah. Other times are just downright ugly." Like tomorrow. "I think to be on the safe side, it might be an idea to remove the Chakram from me." She looked to Ares. "Use a stick and lift it off. Don't touch it, just in case."
He lifted the weapon carefully and hung it on an overhanging branch. He looked over to the tall woman, seeing a look of quiet acceptance at what was to come. He didn't like seeing her this way, slowly dragging herself to her death without so much as a whimper. He wanted that fire that usually burned so brightly within her; that never-say-die attitude that drew him to her. He hunkered down in front of her and looked into those darkened eyes. "Why aren't you fighting this, Xena?"
"I'm doing what I can, Ares."
"Oh come on! I saw you lift a man off the ground with one arm just a few candlemarks ago. Now look at you. Sitting there totally defeated."
"Yeah? Well, come inside, it's a real laugh. It feels like you're supporting an entire building on your shoulders, Ares. It tends to weigh you down a bit. So, if I look a bit worn out, I'm sorry it's not up to your normal heroic standards."
"Ar. Leave her be. She has to keep focused and you're not helping."
"Aphrodite, you and Ares get some sleep. Gabrielle and I will take shifts to keep awake."
"You don't want us to keep guard?"
"If I break free, you're not going to stop me, so get some sleep." Aphrodite felt nervous about the thought of Xena breaking free and running amok. The dark-haired woman could see her apprehension. "Hey, it'll be fine. Tomorrow will be the end of it."
The goddess looked over and felt sad. Indeed, one way or another tomorrow will be the end, and the best outcome for the world was decidedly the worst outcome for these two women. This was a no-win situation. To save one meant giving up the other.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
You want to talk?
Gabrielle could feel the coolness emanating from her partner, the entity once again pressing against them, constricting the tiny cocoon they had constructed around themselves. The pressure had been building steadily during the day since breaking free from it in the village. She knew the closer they got to the Temple, the more it would grow, testing their boundaries and looking for a way in.
Xena's depression was steadily growing, being fed by the constant pressure of the entity. This time, it was looking to destroy her before taking her body, knowing that the other way left itself open to retaliation by her strong will. It would destroy all opposition before claiming the ultimate prize.
The night passed uneventfully, with neither woman getting much sleep. By morning, Xena had stopped talking altogether. Gabrielle knew that she had taken the brunt of the attack as the evil actively sought her out as the stronger of the two of them. She was struggling herself under the constant battering, and wondered how her partner stood up to it.
C'mon Xena, let's get going. Not far to go.
Xena's body responded, but not a word came from the woman herself. The Chakram rested at the warrior's side, weighing like a lead weight, dragging her to the ground. Gabrielle kept talking, not expecting to get an answer, but it kept her own mind occupied and focused on getting them there.
The utter anger and rage that swirled around them was steadily growing with every step. All those sensations she had experienced in the village were now present all the time. Her innocence was shredded with the ever-present wash, and with it brought doubt. Doubt about Xena, about herself, about their love and their strength. It had latched onto her fears and attacked them, using a battering ram to knock down the wall she had put around herself.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"Ar, Xena doesn't look so good."
"Time's running out."
"How much longer?" He pointed to the spire, just visible through the low cloud.
"Should only be a candlemark more, I think."
In the silence, they could hear a far-off noise of men moving fast.
"C'mon." Ares kicked his horse and sent them off into a canter. He picked up Xena's horse's reins and pulled her along, the woman not responding to him.
The sun had been visible for the ride but as they approached the Temple, dark clouds rolled in and covered the area in shadow.
Ares had to physically lift the tall woman off the horse and carry her to the front door.
"Sis, check around back and see if there's a way in." The goddess nodded and disappeared.
He placed Xena on the steps and studied the heavy door. He ran his hands around the edges looking for a latch but could find nothing. He heard a whirr and an arrow embedded itself in the door, not a hand's width away from skewering his fingers. He looked around and found a handful of men coming at him, the scouts from the army.
He unsheathed his sword and looked at the fallen warrior. He would get no help from her. He was on his own.
Two men rushed him at once, working in concert to get past his defences. As a god, he had no fear in battle, but mortality had its risks now. They tested his skill, giving him a chance to use his impressive array of moves, but still he was the God of War, and no human was going to take his life, especially today.
Another arrow flew by, nicking his arm. He looked down in shock, feeling pain for the first time, his muscles tensing in reaction. His opponents took the opportunity to go on the offensive, swinging their swords at him in rapid-fire succession, pushing his defences to the limit. Sweat broke out on his brow as he settled down into a comfortable rhythm, deflecting strike after strike aimed at his head.
Aphrodite searched around the back of the Temple. She had found a back entrance but it was barricaded and would need a lot of work to get through it. She made her way back to the front entrance and saw the fight going on. She fletched an arrow and shot at the bowyer shooting at Ares, hitting him in the leg.
She looked over to the steps and saw her brother in deep trouble. He had engaged two fighters and a third was sneaking up from behind. Without thought, she nocked another arrow and fired, hitting the soldier squarely in the back. As he fell, she bowed her head, a tear rolling silently down her cheek.
Ares glanced behind him, seeing the dead man. He pushed away his two opponents and looked for his sister, seeing her kneeling in the dirt. Gods, 'Ditie! Why did youhave to do that? He knew this would devastate her. Despite all their arguing and banter, he was very protective of her innocence in death. After all, she was the Goddess of Love.
Ares narrowed his focus, determination now spurring on his actions. He increased his speed and strength, driving his enemies back, giving him the chance to launch his own attack. He swirled his sword in a figure eight, spreading a metallic net in front of himself before thrusting his sword methodically at his victims, forcing them to defend.
One went down, falling over broken stonework and the God of War quickly despatched him, burying his sword in his gut. He felt the steel slide in as skin and flesh gave way under the smooth, pointed steel. A familiar stirring erupted within him and he drew his weapon out, watching dark blood drip off the end.
His dark eyes turned to his other adversary, a slow smile spreading across his bearded face. Confidence flowed through him as he slowly pushed his opponent back until he met the wall. With a quick feint, he extended his arm, sending his sword deep into his enemy's chest.
"'Ditie, over here! Aphrodite! Sis, get you butt over here!"
She slowly responded to his call, her emotions still in turmoil. What have I done? She felt the utter desolation of having taken a life. She had never really understood that carrying a weapon could come at a price. She looked up into deep brown eyes, seeing understanding and sympathy there.
"Thank you, sis." He reached up and palmed her cheek.
She managed a small smile in return, but only felt marginally better. Put it away for later, 'Ditie, now is not the time.
The call of the Chakram spurred the warrior's body into action. She stood, slowly walking to the entrance and activating a hidden switch to open the door. It slowly swung open, a smell of death released into the air after centuries of being locked away.
The two gods looked over from their conversation, seeing that the warrior had moved and was entering the Temple. At that moment, the courtyard filled with the remaining men who had followed them. "Inside, now!" Ares grabbed his sister and shoved her through the door, slamming it shut behind them as a volley of arrows embedded themselves in the thick wood. He found a large plank of wood and slid it in place, barricading the door. They were trapped.
Continued in Chapter 19
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