I've Seen the Devil's Eyes
Yes, I have borrowed a few characters from MCA/Universal, mainly Xena and Gabrielle (along with a few others), but since TPTB found it necessary to kill off our beloved Xena in their story, without our permission. I don't feel it necessary to ask THEIR permission, to use her alive in mine!
I would like to thank my Beta readers, who without their helps mine errors wood be sew painfully obvious. Thank you, Kathy, Barb, and Kam. Life would be a lot easier if we all had beta readers like you three. With your help, I stand corrected.
To Kansas, My Angel You held me, when I needed your strength and then you loved me enough to let me go, so I could learn to fly again. My wings are growing stronger and I can fly further than I ever thought possible. And it's all because you believed that I could. Your Saint
Sex - Yup, there is sex between our two ladies. Just enough to keep the savages happy, but not too much so my story didn't get an X - rating! Besides, waterfalls are more than just fun showers.
Violence - Ok so a few heads get cracked and the odd person dies, hey this is still Xena right. And yes there is blood, but hopefully not too graphic.
Time Line: Some time after; When Fates Collide. In my world, FIN never happened.
You can run but you can't hide,
Nightmares come from deep inside.
Come with regret there is the past.
No good turn will you outlast.
Search your mind and you will know.
Love with arrows, hate with bows.
For all is not what you have seen,
Prove if you are what you mean.
Trust my hands if not my heart,
Cause we both lose if we do part.
We can't push back the hands of time.
Innocence lost in what you find.
The golden rays of sun crawled slowly up her out stretched legs, warming her skin but not the distant chill she felt deep in her heart. She had no memory of what had happened to get her here. Nothing registered in her mind as she attempted to swallow away the dryness in her mouth. Her slow movements froze when she heard a low groan in the distance.
What was that?' It was a question she couldn't answer as she listened to the groan become a moan. She sighed with relief as she realized the sounds were her own.
Every muscle ached whether she moved it or not, but she needed answers. She pushed past her own pain attempting to pull her hands in toward her chest. Once in the fetal position she laid still, warming in the comfort of the sun, secure in her own cocoon. After what seemed like hours, she finally pushed herself into a sitting position.
Her head pounded as she moved her fingers for the first time, feeling the thick sticky substance coating her hands. As much as she didn't want to, she knew she had to open her aching eyes. Her eyelids opened but she still couldn't bring her surroundings into focus. She didn't need to. She felt a warm gooey liquid dripping from her upturned hands. In her mind she knew what it was before she even looked.
The contents of her stomach rose quickly in her throat as she desperately tried to recall what had happened.
Her breathing came in short halting breathes as she fought her rising panic. What she saw with her mind's eye shattered her to the core of her being. Her hands were covered in blood, dark, sticky blood.
The chilling realization hit her, causing her hands and body to tremble. Violent shivers threatened to shake loose the hold she had on her last string of sanity. Air she had been struggling to get into her lungs exploded in a painful cry of regret. In her mind, she knew she would never be forgiven for all she had done. Everything she had struggled to accomplish in her life crumbled before her. All of her hopes and dreams staining her mind and the ground blood red.
Morning dawned in the small coastal town of Brimstone, the sunlight reflected off the puffs of cottonwood floating in the light sea breeze. A young pig snorted and grunted through the dirt and dust of the town's only road as a dozen or so chickens clucked, scratching out their measly morning meal. A few villagers wandered between buildings and lean-tos, no one seemed to be in any hurry. Neither the birth of life, nor the pain of death could push this town out of its quiet slumber.
A young mother holding her child's hand tightly in her own made her way quickly down the road. The sound and motion of her long bustling skirt scattering the chickens, ruffling more than a few feathers. Traces of dust clouded behind her as she entered a doorway of a shop. She paused when a movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. Turning, she looked down the street, but saw nothing.
"Hmmm," she said to herself. Her eyebrows knitted in question as looked around the near empty street wondering what had attracted her attention. She noted there was no smoke coming from the blacksmith's fire and strangely enough, there was no sign of the blacksmith. She harbored no ill will toward the giant of a man, unlike some of the residents of town who had not been happy with his hospitality to Xena and Gabrielle. Her mind wandered aimlessly through a web of directions when suddenly she was brought back to reality.
"Oh," her hand came to her mouth when she finally saw what had caught her attention.
From behind his counter, Kummel the owner of the shop quickly scurried over to see what had startled his potential customer. The look of horror on her face did nothing to slow him as he stepping into the doorway. He paused for only a brief second before he pushed past her.
"Kummel?" She questioned in fear to the frightened shop-owner.
"Oh, for the love of what is holy Get Admetus," he ordered as he took the child from her grasp. She paused hesitantly as she looked deep into his dark eyes hoping to gain some courage from the olive skinned shop-owner.
"Go!" The shop-owner nudged her gently, breaking her fear filled stare.
"Hezla, come quickly," Kummel beckoned his wife. He handed her the child from his arms before he stepped into the street.
"Kummel, please be careful."
"I will," he whispered as he took several small steps.
Fear cautioned him, but compassion and curiosity drove him forward as the bloodied figure staggered slowly into the middle of the dusty street. Shock added to his horror as he realized just who it was. The closer he got, the more he could see the agony beneath the streaks of blood on her face. Her dark hair was tousled and matted. Her head was tilted at an awkward angle as she painfully made her way down the street. Her steps appeared heavy as she dragged her body onward.
"Kummel!" Admetus hollered the warning to the shop-owner as he came around the corner.
Seeing the look on Admetus' face, Kummel knew he had been informed of the woman staggering toward him, but he showed no sign of care or of concern. As the shop-owner turned back to look at the bloodied warrior, his eyes panned over the villagers hovering at safe distance. None of them offered him or her, any assistance. Though he had moved here from the land of the Pharaohs when he was a small child, he knew it was more than his accent and skin color that separated him from his fellow villagers.
"Kummel, think about what you're doing? Get away from her!"
Ignoring Admetus, he turned back to the wounded woman. It was easy for him to see how she was struggling just to stay on her feet. His convictions had gotten him close enough now to see the wound on her head, and the blood that smeared her features. Seeing the glazed look in her eyes told him his life was not in danger, but there was a chance hers was.
"We have to do something, Admetus." Kummel said without taking his eyes off of the Warrior Princess.
"No, we don't. She obviously brought this on herself. We do not have to get involved."
"Are you without compassion? What has she done wrong? She needs our help." Kummel pleaded, confused at everyone's lack of compassion.
"I don't want her in this town, we don't we don't know what kind of evil she has brought upon herself or what kind of danger she has brought into this town!"
Kummel struggled between what he knew and what he feared. Looking from one face to another, he saw the fear in the villagers but for once he wondered what it was they feared the most.
Admetus stepped in front of Kummel, blocking his approach to the wounded woman. The two men stood nose to nose, neither wanting to bend to the other's will. The shop-owner was not a strong man in strength, he knew the red headed town leader was far more powerful then he.
"We have to do something Admetus, and she needs our help." Kummel said refusing to give up.
"She is not our problem."
"She is not a problem, she is someone who needs our help." His voice was stronger than he had thought as he brought himself to his full height. Finding his courage again, Kummel pushed past the larger man. Whispers of disbelief rolled through the gathering of townspeople. If the shop-owner heard them, he gave no outward appearance of it as he quickly closed the distance between himself and Xena.
He looked past the weapons strapped to her body. He did not believe in violence, he did not believe in war, but he still respected the role of a warrior. From the sword on her back, to the chakram on her hip, Xena stood for everything he was against. But he looked past that. He saw a woman, a human being who was in desperate need of assistance. He reached Xena just as her knees buckled, her head dropping forward as she let out her first audible groan.
Gently he laid the warrior on the ground. She said nothing as he looked up to see his fellow villagers starting to crowd around him.
"She needs water -" Kummel barely got the words out as the heart of Brimstone cracked through, showing their true selves and their heartfelt compassion.
"Clean rags too and a blanket -" Vocal offering came from different directions as people scattered quickly to gather what was needed.
He reached down and touched his fingers to her neck, keeping his eyes on Admetus the entire time.
"She's alive," he simply stated as he took one of the moist rags offered and gently wiped it across Xena's forehead. Her eyes fluttered once before her features relaxed again. Dipping the rag into a bucket of fresh water next to him, Kummel squeezed the excess water out then laid the rag on her forehead.
"Gabrielle Tiber -" Xena struggled to open her eyes, but they closed without ever succeeding. He could see she was in obvious pain, muttering unclearly as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Rinsing the rags again, Kummel attempted to get a better look at the open wound on the side of Xena's head.
"This should have killed her."
"But it didn't." Admetus sneered.
Kummel looked from the injured warrior to the doorway from which she had come.
"Yes, where's her little companion?" Admetus's voice growled out the question to the few villagers still by his side.
Without warning, Xena's blue eyes snapped open and she starred intently up into Kummel's eyes.
"Gabri -" her voice pleaded what he had already seen in her troubled features.
Realizing what it was she was trying to say, Kummel looked up at Admetus and then over at the open door to Tiberius's house.
Admetus was already a step ahead of Kummel's thoughts. The red headed town leader had motioned to one of the men standing next to him.
"Bruggen, go take a look." Without a word, the villager quickly made his way to the blacksmith's home. He paused briefly in the doorway, then nodded to Admetus before he stepped through the threshold and disappearing into the blacksmith's home.
Looking down again at the woman in his arms, Kummel could not believe he was holding the legendary Warrior Princess. He was certain anyone else should have been dead with a wound like she had.
"It's ok now." His soft words were quickly cut short as Xena desperately tried to communicate her immediate desires.
"Tiberius Gabrielle?" She pushed Kummel's hands away and tried to pull herself up. Blinking strongly, she fought to focus on the only thing getting through her clouded mind. Gabrielle!
"Oh by the Gods!" The villager stumbled and tumbled from Tiberius' house. His pale face filled with horror.
Turning her attention to the man running up the road, Xena brought her hand up toward her temple as her head swayed. A small voice in her head was screaming out a warning, but she couldn't understand what the voice was saying.
"There's blood everywhere it is so horrible. Tiberius Tiberius is dead!" Xena's world of haze and fog could not tell her what it could not remember. Xena tried to stand but her knees buckled, dropping her once more onto the hard paced dirt.
"But that's not I was No," Kummel was the only one to hear her whispered words.
All eyes turned to the Warrior Princess. Whatever compassion they had briefly held for her quickly turned to anger. Even in her confused state, Xena could smell the trouble bubbling to the surface.
"You're a murderer." A deep voice spoke from the back of the crowd.
"Oh no, not our Tiberius." A female voice broke with pain and anguish.
"Why would anyone want to hurt him? Why did you kill him?" Murmurs of questions echo in the growing mob.
The voices in the crowd were raw with emotion, but Xena knew they wanted answers she did not have. With the constant ringing in her ears, she struggled just to keep her eyes open, never mind trying to make sense of it all.
Looking from the wounded warrior in his hands, to the red face of their town leader, Kummel came to a quick decision. It was up to him to defend her.
"You are jumping to conclusion. We don't know who or what killed Ti. We can't just blame her." Kummel tried to appeal to the villagers, but that was not what they wanted to hear.
"Did you kill him?"
"You will pay for what you've done."
"You murdered our Tiberius!"
Xena felt the first kick in the middle of her thigh, then more quickly followed. She tried to pull away but the movement to her head blinded her with pain as a wave of nausea rolled up. Kummel tried to protect her but there wasn't much he could do. In her condition, she was no real threat and the villagers were taking advantage of that.
"She didn't kill him!" The man that had come from the blacksmith's home shouted louder as he looked at Admetus. "Xena did not kill Tiberius."
The look of confusion on Kummel's face reflected that of his fellow villagers.
The growing rumble of the crowd quieted, as they pulled back from the Warrior Princess. Xena was thankful for the momentary reprieve as she looked for a way out of this sinking situation.
"If she didn't, then who did?" The question stilled everyone, including Xena. Her thoughts were so hazed she barely understood what had been said, but something deep inside her screamed no.
"Gabrielle!" Admetus stated his accusation loud and clear.
"What?" Kummel said in a whisper.
"No," Xena's blue eyes squinted against her pain as she looked at Gabrielle's accuser. There was no way in her mind that Gabrielle could have killed the gentle giant.
Xena grabbed onto Kummel's sleeve, desperately trying to pull herself to her feet. "Have you lost your mind Admetus? There's no way -"
The red headed leader took a large step backwards, pulling him away from her growing anger. Though he had refused to look at her, he knew she was not going to take his accusation sitting on the ground.
"It was Gabrielle, she killed our Tiberius." His voice rose with determination. He had the entire village's attention and there was nothing Xena could do to stop him.
"There's no way she killed him. She couldn't have." She hissed the words as she lunged towards him. She fell short of her target as she crumbled to her knees, her arms still reaching outward. Admetus looked down at her with an almost sneering smile.
"I guess you don't know her as well as you think you do, Xena."
"I know her better than anyone you pompous bastard."
"Are you sure? Willing to risk your lives on it?" He turned back to his fellow villagers and shouted out above the crowd. "I know she killed him, because this is what she killed him with!" His large fist pumped into the air clutching a single bloody Sai.
Xena's felt her world spiraled downward and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Looking at the Sai, she knew without question, the weapon was indeed Gabrielle's. With the last of her strength, she fought off the thought and the desperation climbing into her mind. She was certain Gabrielle couldn't have killed the gentle giant, but someone had.
Anger was quickly turning the shocked villagers into a surging mob. Someone had killed one of their own, and for the moment, Xena was the only one within the reach. They pushed and pulled to get at the all but defenseless warrior. Raw emotion blinded them and their innocence was lost as they vented their rage upon on her. Like vultures on the dead, they picked and kicked at her limp body. Kummel did what he could to protect her, but there was little he could do against the entire town.
"You must stop this. Leave her alone." Kummel's words were lost on them as they continued with their assault. "She's done no wrong here."
Another voice joined his from outside of the pack. Xena was too far-gone to recognize the strong voice of Sabbeen.
"Enough already stop it, you are going to kill her." The hits slowed and finally ceased. A hush fell over them as they stepped back, and looked down at the crumpled beaten body at their feet. The tension in the air broke away and the dust began to settle as the shame of what had been done crept into their collective conscience. Nothing was said as the crowd gradually dispersed, mortified by their own brutality.
Left alone with the battered and bruised body, Kummel struggled to scoop the Warrior Princess into his arms. He was disappointed at his fellow men for what they had done. For as he watched the steady rise and fall of Xena's chest, he remembered that it was not Xena's weapon they had found in Tiberius' body.
Cautiously Kummel rose to his feet, but the slight movement showed as a grimaced on Xena's face. Her eyelids fluttered she never fully regained consciousness.
"No, Gabrielle." His heart broke as he heard her whispered words.
The voices she heard pulled her on. She didn't know where she was, but she knew without a doubt where she was heading. This time she was not going to be the innocent young girl she was back then. No, this time she would fight back and defend what she believed in.
There once was a time when this thought would have sent her running, but things were different now. Her innocence had been taken, and she knew she could never go back.
"One can never go back. Never go home again. That's what Draco had said to Xena."
The warrior's name caused Gabrielle to pause in mid-stride. She looked around the dark forest and searched for a reason. Something that would tell her to go back and explain what had happened, but it wasn't there. Her only thought was to hunt down and kill what had threatened her existence, that one thing that had put such a painful split into their friendship.
The moss covered giant trees deadened the sounds around her. Though there had not been rain in a long time, the ground was still moist from the misty fog rolling in from the sea. Nothing seem to live in this forest, no animals, no sounds, just the steady dripping of moisture coming off the high branches as they fell to the forest floor. Gabrielle could not see more than a few strides in front of her, but she still seemed to know in what direction she was heading. Swiftly she guided herself around the large boulders, weaving between trees and bushes, farther and farther into the deepest bowels of the forest.
She may have had a direction, but if she had been of clear mind she would have known, there was no way for her to get back to her past.
The bucket of cold seawater woke her with a start, but as she flung her black hair out of her eyes, the sting of the salt water was forgotten as the excruciating pain exploded in her head. Slamming her eyes shut didn't lessen the pain at all, but it did give her the opportunity to try to recall how she had gotten here. Xena relaxed her mind and blocked out the pain. That was when she felt the ties binding her wrists together. Whoever had done the knots was not an expert, she knew, she could easily be out of the loose ropes in just moments. No, what really mattered now, was trying to sort thorough what she did know, with what she didnt.
Using the back of her right hand, she pushed her hair off her face. Wincing only slightly when she touched her bruises. She surveyed her surroundings. The walls around her could almost be seen through, they were so thin and weak, but they seemed a lot stronger than the two young men seated on either side of her. She was certain if she was to jump up and say boo, they would burst into tears right after they soiled their pants.
Without even looking, she knew someone was standing behind her, but she wanted to wait for as long as she could before she would give him any attention. In her mind, it could only be one person and she would be damned if she was going to give him any satisfaction in knowing he had caused her pain.
Finally, she rolled her eyes upwards, made her head pound harder as she glared at the man standing over her with an empty dripping bucket. Admetus, the town leader, made her bruised and battered skin crawl.
"Well well, and here I thought you might be dead." His voice dripped with antagonistic disregard.
"I've been and believe me, it's over rated," Xena muttered under her breath as she gently rubbed her closed eyes.
His glared faltered, as he was unsure if she was pulling his leg or not. "Funny but I'm not laughing."
"Don't care either way if you do or if you don't."
The lack of concern on her part only seemed to anger him more.
"You're not in any position to be making," he stumbled for a word, "comments."
If the situation hadn't been so detrimental to herself and to Gabrielle, and if Tiberius had not been murdered, she might have found his weak attempt amusing.
"I'm not in the mood for this." Xena sneered as she lowered one eyebrow. Admetus instantly felt the coolness of the room.
"Just tell me what happened. Or what you remember?"
She thought about his question through the pain in her head, not for his benefit but her own. What she could remember was only in bits and pieces, snippets of angry words and misguided perceptions.
"Okay, how about where Gabrielle went after she buried her Sai in Tiberius's chest?" Thinking about the accusation was more than she wanted to do at this moment.
"Believe what you want, but I know Gabrielle and she did not kill Tiberius." Xena said as she lifted her head to look straight at Admetus. The mere movement brought on a wave of nausea, forcing her to swallow hard more than a few times. It took everything she had not show what was going on inside her head or the effect her injuries were having on her body.
"You don't know anything."
Having the Warrior Princess tied up at his feet gave Admetus more courage then brains. He lifted his foot and poked at her with his toe.
"Maybe she did and maybe she didn't, but he is dead and someone cracked you a good one. Any idea who would have done that?"
He waited for an answer, but Xena refused to respond.
The reality of his comment slapped her hard in the face. It was the one truth she did know, and that made it even harder for her to swallow. Xena sat silent, her eyes closed as she tried to replay the events in her mind.
"And it was her Sai we found in Tiberius' chest."
Xena's eyes opened, silencing him immediately. Admetus' arrogance deflated quickly when the Warrior Princess' ice blue eyes traveled slowly up his body.
He was a spineless coward whose power came from other people's fear. He knew the moment he had set eyes on her that she would not cower at his feet. Then when he realized she was the Warrior Princess, all he wanted was for her and her companion to leave Brimstone. This was his town and he was very comfortable in being its leader.
"Who said it was her that put it there?" Admetus' fearful reaction put the warrior's thoughts in motion, but what she didn't know was whether it was the question itself or the thought it invoked.
"Who said it was her?" Xena demanded.
"It was her Sai, and that's all I need to know."
"Need to know or want to know? Just what is going on in this little town of yours?" Her tone made his knees tremble beneath his pant legs. Her blue eyes bore into him as she waited for a response he was unable to give.
"I will find out and I promise you, if you're behind it you will pay."
Never before had anyone challenged him on such level and to his own humility, all he wanted to do was run. Her ruthless warrior stare brought him back to the true coward he was. Without even breaking a rope or a sweat, Xena had defeated him, he knew it and she knew it.
Admetus turned away from her and headed for the door, glancing only briefly at the two young men left to guard his so-called prisoner, he ordered, "Don't let her leave."
The door banged behind him as the two so-called guards looked at each other.
"You boys don't really want to be here, do you?"
Glancing back at the warrior their decision was unanimous. They didn't want to be a part of watching Xena alone.
The two young men scrambled over each other in their haste to exit the hut. They collided with Kummel who was taken back in surprise as he opened the door. The shop-owner said nothing as he stepped aside and watched them leave. He turned his attention back to the warrior sitting on the dirt floor. She saw his humbled embarrassment at her condition.
Without saying a word, she offered up her bound wrist to him and he quickly untied the knots.
"I am very sorry for what my people have done to you. You are not responsible for what your friend did." Though his words were filled with sympathy and compassion, what was said was still an accusation she could not accept.
"Gabrielle didn't kill Ti."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Because I know her and she's not like that."
Kummel paused before replying quietly, "Do you expect us to look the other way just because she is your friend?"
"No but I know my friend and there's no way she killed Tiberius."
"Then tell me in your own words, just what happened this morning?"
"I don't know what happened." Looking at her when she spoke, he knew the statement was the truth.
"But her weapon was found in -"
"I'm telling you, there's no way Gabrielle could have killed Tiberius." Her words were not a plea, but a statement of what she knew to be true.
"What do you except us to do? Pretend this did not happen?"
"No, but I expect you to give me some time find out what did." She paused for a moment then added, "There's no way she did this."
"I am sure you believe that Xena, but Tiberius is dead and the people around here are upset we were very fond of him."
"So were we."
"I am sure you were, but they are not going to take his death lightly." Kummel rubbed his chin in thought.
Dropping her throbbing head into her hands, she tried to push back the pain clouding her memory.
Looking at the crown of the warrior's head, Kummel leaned forward to get a better look at her nasty wound.
"I can not believe you are alive after a hit like that. Any ideas about who opened the side of your head?" Though she heard the concern in his voice, the question still echoed an accusation.
Xena said nothing as her hand went to her bruised chin. Moving her jaw around she was surprised at the power Gabrielle packed in one of her Sais. Her fingers went across the dent in her chin where she thought the metal had actually struck her.
Her silence told him what he already suspected.
"If she could hit you like that, then maybe she could have -" His voice trailed off as he saw the pain in her face. Nothing he could say was going to change her mind, but he knew he had given her something to think about.
Kummel stood up and walked over to the table against the front wall. Taking a rag from inside of his robe, he dropped it into a bucket of water. Xena watched as his fingers reached over and touched the metal Sai on the table. No words could capture what they both were thinking as his hand went over the dried blood encrusted on the deadly weapon. Pulling his eyes away, Kummel picked up the bucket of water and returned to sit next to Xena.
"May I?" He motioned to her head, but she paused before nodding that he could. She said nothing as the shop-owner carefully cleaned away the blood on the side of her head.
"You realize if she did not kill Tiberius, then that leaves only you?"
Xena said nothing. She had already thought of that, but had found little comfort in any of the answers she had come away with. No matter how she looked at it, the bottom line was the same. Ti was dead and her last memories of Gabrielle were very disturbing. But she refused to believe her friend would have committed cold-blooded murder.
Either way something had happened, and she had no idea of what. All she could think about was the look in Gabrielle's eyes. The tortured soul inside her friend had finally revealed the true pain she was in, and now she gone and Xena had no idea where. The warrior closed her eyes against the pain and despair growing in her heart.
"She did this though did she not?" Kummel's accusation brought Xena back to present.
"No," Xena took the damp cloth from the shop-owner hand and applied it to the side of her head. She sighed deeply before looking him in the eyes.
"I'm not sure maybe. I don't know." He took back the rag from her hand, rinsed it out in the bucket again, before placing it gently on her wound.
Silence hung between them for a few, long, quiet minutes. Kummel concentrated at the task at hand, as the Warrior Princess attempted to put some of what she knew into some kind of order.
"What more can you tell me about this -" she said as she reached to pull the cloth away from her head, "what did you call it? A ghost demon?"
The question had an instant reaction. Kummel's face went red as he stumbled over his own questions.
"How did who said I there is no way -"
"Let's skip right to it. I know you have had some problems, Tiberius was telling us this morning. That much I do remember."
He said nothing, but Xena's instincts told her he knew much, much more. She could also see whatever it was, had the entire town frozen in fear.
"I do not think I should -"
"I'm going to find out, but I'll let you decide if it's going to be the easy way or the hard way." Her eyebrow arched as she waited for him to decide.
Kummel licked his lips several times before he made the decision to talk.
"It started a long time ago, we should have done something then, but we had no way of knowing it would escalate to where it has."
"But it did."
"Yes I have great regret now. I think we have handled all this quite badly. If we were to do it all over again, well it would be different."
"You can't change the past Kummel, no one can. All you can do is live with it the best way you can."
"I know that to be the truth, but it does not make it any easier."
"No it doesn't," She motioned for him to carry on.
He nodded as he rose from his chair before he continued, "It started small, just little things actually. Things missing, things moved but for the most part it had gone on without much of a to do, until Alexis disappeared."
"Who is Alexis?"
Kummel paused for a moment, as if to collect himself before he continued
"We did not know what to do, we are just a small town. We are not trackers nor are we hunters. Most of us do not even own a weapon, aside from some farm tools. We looked everywhere, but we feared the worst that she had gone into the forest."
"What's so bad about this forest?" Xena said impatiently as she glanced at the position of the afternoon sun.
"It is haunted by evil, but I was getting to that."
Xena motioned him to carry on. She wanted to get out there and find Gabrielle, not sit in here listening to tall tales about ghost demons.
"We had hired an local tracker to help find some of our missing belongings. His name was Gorgon and he agreed to track Alexis for us, but before he got here, she came wandering home, on her own. She was bruised up quite a bit, but she seemed ok. Alexis had offered no explanation at first, claiming she did not remember anything."
Kummel stopped talking and Xena looked up at him to question if there was more.
"After awhile she started telling stories to the other children. Stories about ghosts, and a red-eyed demon. It all seemed like a child's over active imagination."
Xena said nothing as she gingerly felt the bruises on her face and the split of her lip.
"We just passed it off as a child who had been caught in the act of disobedience. Kids can make up some really good stories."
"But something told you it wasn't just a story." Xena said as she looked down at her hands and flexed them. Nothing was broken but that didn't stop the pain and swelling in them.
"Some of us started talking, you know, about the things disappearing. We wanted Gorgon to get to the bottom of all of this talk. He was determined, it had something to do with our forest. He loaded up with supplies and headed into the trees."
Kummel stopped talking and Xena looked up at the frightened shop-owner in question.
"We never saw him again."
"But you think he is dead?"
The answer was simple, but it still left a question as to what was in the forest. The steady throbbing in her head slowed the warrior as she pulled herself up and made her way over to the table. She reached out and picked up Gabrielle's Sai.
The metal weapon was cold to touch, sending a chill through the warrior's body. The stains of blood told only part of the story, the nicks and scratches told of the battles the bard had fought.
The words on her mind, echoed silently in her heart, Where are you?'
Gabrielle was out there with only one Sai to protect herself from whatever was in the forest. Something told her this ghost story' was the answer.
"There's more," said Kummel as he brought the bucket of water over and placed it on the table.
"Somehow I thought there would be."
"As time grew on, things continued to disappear but we still had no idea who or what was taking them. And to make matters worse, no matter how much we told our children to stay away from the forest, the more intrigued they all became. Alexis' stories had all of them wanting to play in the forest."
Xena reached into the bucket with two hands and splashed some water on her face.
"I even had a problem with my own child. Many times I caught him at the edge of the trees. Then one day another child, a young boy this time, disappeared. It was our greatest fear coming true. But unlike Alexis, he did not come home after a few days. We sent people into the forest but they came back with nothing. He had been missing for about week, when we found his body placed at the edge of the tree line. He was dead. It was a warning, one the town took very seriously!"
He lifted his head and looked over at Xena, he was surprised to see a sad remorseful look on her face. She was leaning over the bucket, her forearm resting on its rim, as her eyes stared off into her own images in her mind.
"Are you ok?"
"Well, you can not imagine the fear we parents had. It tore our hearts out to lose a child like that -" Kummel's voice trailed off as the Warrior Princess stood and walked to the window across the room.
Xena's head was spinning as she tried to steady herself from the agony tearing at her heart. She knew all too well, what it was like to lose a child. In some ways, she had lost both her children. One had been stolen from her by time and the other by the evil demon child of Dahak.
Dahak! No other word or name could trigger more pain or suffering to either her or Gabrielle. Many times Xena had tried to see beyond Hope to see the real source of evil and what it had done to her friend, but that past was too painful.
Xena couldn't help but think of her own departed son and how it had clouded her mind and impaired her judgment. Her train of thought brought her back to Gabrielle. She had been waylaid long enough. She wanted to leave and she wanted to leave now.
"Thank you Kummel, I appreciate you truthfulness."
"It was the least ... Where are you going?" He said as Xena knelt down and strapped Gabrielle's Sai around her calf with a strip of leather. The weapon in place, she rose and stepped toward the bucket of water. With a couple of quick splashes, she wiped the rest of the blood from her face and arms.
"What are you planning on doing? Xena, I I do not think, I wish you would not go out there," he stammered as he watched her rinse out the cloth once more and dab it to her scalp.
At least the bleeding's stopped,' she thought as she winced at to her own touch.
"I do appreciate your concern but it's misguided I assure you. I've taken on things a lot tougher then some ghost demon' that likes to hide in the forest and kill children."
"But you are hurt, you need a healer."
"My injuries will heal after I've found my friend."
Throwing the damp cloth on to the table, Xena turned and headed for the door. Her whole body swayed with dizziness as she lurched forward stumbling slightly. Xena was forced to place a hand on the rickety wooden table to steady herself.
"I do not think you should be going anywhere. You are in no shape to be going out there, never mind into those woods."
"I'll decide what kind of shape I'm in. I want I need to find my friend before this ghost demon' does. But believe me if it gets in my way, I'll deal with it accordingly." Xena collected her prized possessions off the shelf next to the door.
"I somehow believe that you will." He said with an assuring smile.
Pausing only long enough to slide her sword back into its sheath and to clip her chakram to her waist, she was ready to battle whatever it was out there. She blinked a few times in hopes of clearing her head of some of its fogginess.
"Xena, the people here want justice for Tiberius I mean," the shop-owner said reluctantly as she placed her hand on the door handle.
"One thing at a time. Right now, I want my friend back. Then we'll deal with your justice."
She opened the door and was surprised to see no other guards outside. Obviously, Admetus did not think there would be a threat of her leaving. She paused for a moment and then turned back she look Kummel in the eye, "You know Ti would be alive if you had told us the truth to start with. "
"Yes, I have thought of that. But you yourself said, we can not change our past, we can only live with it the best we can."
Silently the Warrior Princess nodded in agreement.
"How you protect the innocent is how some people are judged." Kummel said quietly as he looked down at the dirt floor. "We did not do a very good job did we?"
"None of us have." Xena mumbled under her breath as her thoughts went back to a time when she had not protected the innocent and what it had cost them both. She often wondered where Gabrielle's life would have gone if she refused to let her tag along. If she had lived her life in the quiet remote town of Poteidaia
"I'm sorry, what did you say?" Xena asked when she realized Kummel has said something else.
"I said to remember this demon has killed an innocent child, it will not hesitate to kill you."
"Let it try," Xena turned and headed in the direction of the forest. Somewhere hidden amongst the trees was her friend and companion, and nothing on earth was going to stop her.
Gabrielle stumbled over a fallen log but caught herself before she fell to the ground. Hesitating for only a moment and then she pushed herself on. She couldn't remember when the last time she stopped, but she no longer cared. Scratches, cuts, and bruises covered her exposed skin, but she appeared not to notice any of them.
With one thought on her mind, Gabrielle was on a mission - to hunt and kill the demon of her nightmares. The red eyed evil that had haunted her dreams and shattered her innocence. There was no mercy in her mind and no compassion in her heart. They had both been left behind in the town called Brimstone. Once again, she was alone to face her demon. Alone she had to destroy what she had created.
Alone,' the solitary word brought a chilling reality to Gabrielle's psyche. The blonde bard stopped and looked beside her. Though she didn't know what she was looking for, her mind knew it was not there. Her green eyes scanned the forest around her, but the dark and dreary forest refused to give up any clues. The long, sweeping, cedar branches opened themselves, revealing nothing to her eye. She listened and she waited, but there was no sign of Hope. And with a disappointing sigh, she realized there was also no sign of Xena.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered the name without realizing it. It was as if an inner need was crying out to be saved, praying to be rescued before she destroyed the last of what was once so innocent. But she was no longer innocent, no longer defenseless no longer reliant on Xena's protection. Each time she had fought, she had lost a little bit more of herself, until she was left with only the tough outer shell of a warrior. The Battling Bard now had her own weapons, and she now had her own scars on her body and in her mind. With it came the nightmares that seemed so real even when she woke, the pain still tore at her as she struggled to control her breathing.
Long ago she held Xena when the warrior's dreams filled the night air with horrors Gabrielle could not see, but now she could. Only she had kept them to herself, not wanting Xena to know just how bad they had become. There had been no one there to hold her, no one to comfort her and assure her that it was going to be all right.
It hadn't been Xena's fault because she had refused to tell her. She hoped eventually the nightmares would cease, but instead they had only gotten worse. It scared her to admit the nightmares were too much, too real as they dragged her body and mind through more pain than she thought was possible. The enemies had been too numerous and too vengeful.
Enemies, the word by itself was harmless, but when you could put a face to your scariest nightmare, the image was enough to drive a person over the edge. Because once you have danced with the devil and seen the evil in his eyes, your soul will hold the scars for as long as you take breath.
Gabrielle stopped and took a moment to control where her mind was taking her. She knew her enemy was close, very close, but was she close enough? Her instincts told her she was. When she came to the next clearing, she lowered her body and slowly reached for her Sais tucked inside her boots. Her mind may have been struggling with reality, but her body now reacted as a warrior, an Amazon Queen with lethal abilities.
Slowing her breathing, her left hand touched the top of her leather boot, but that was all. In a moment of brief panic, she realized she only had one Sai.
Where was the other one?' Her mind screamed the question as her eyes darted down to the side of her boot. It was not there, but she still had the one on her right boot.
Pulling the weapon out, she slowly walked in a circle, stalking her invisible enemy. Making no sounds as she turned and twisted, constantly moving looking for any sign, any opening that might give her an edge. A look, a movement a weakness, as a warrior you observe everything, for any kind of advantage over your enemy. But who was the enemy was it something close, or something distant?
Xena had said to keep your friends close, but your enemy closer.'
"Xena," the name rolled so easily off her lips as she recalled the deep throaty sounds of her voice. "Xena?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes as she breathed in the faint smell of leather mixed with the smell of the moist moss laden forest. Her eyes flew open as she scanned the area around her for the woman she loved.
The woman she loved? Xena was the woman she loved, but the Warrior Princess was the woman she hated.
"No," desperately she shook her head as the thought invaded her mind. Gabrielle tried to keep her mind on what she knew to be true, but she could not stop the tears rolling down her face. For no matter where she went in her mind, she could not stop from thinking about what had happened.
"Xena help me," the strength of the Battling Bard crumbled, the tears cascaded down her face as she dropped to her knees.
No!" Her mind screamed, you can handle this on your own. Get up Gabrielle, and face the truth in front of you."
The sounds in her already clouded mind were battling an unwinnable war between her conscious and subconscious. The more Gabrielle struggled to pull the truth out, the more she realized the truth was more painful than the ignorance of insanity. Somewhere inside she felt a pull on her heart, a craving on her soul, but anger was seeping in. A fire of evil was starting deep inside and she could not stop it. Years of buried hatred and anger came alive inside of her. Suddenly the thin line between love and hate snapped!
"Huurggggrrrr," Gabrielle huffed and growled at the mixed emotions twisting in her stomach. The need to destroy was so strong, but so was her need for revenge.
Anger and frustration exploded as Gabrielle released a half-crazed scream of a wounded animal. Spinning on the ball of her foot, she flung her Sais with everything she had at her enemy.
"Arrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhh!" The muscles and veins in her neck protruded distinctively as her entire body shook with raw emotion. Tears streamed unchecked down her face as the rage boiling inside her.
The screaming stopped only when she had run out of air. Bent over at the waist, with her hands on her knees she panted heavily, drawing in as much air as she could. When she finally stood up, the world around her had changed dramatically.
Gabrielle staggered around the small clearing, exhausted and confused. Her anger had subsided leaving her empty and vulnerable. Lost in her mind, deep in the forest of Brimstone, she no longer had a direction to go in. Putting one foot down in front of the other, she left the clearing and she left behind her Sai, buried deep into the bark of an innocent birch tree.
High up in the canopy of the trees, the eyes of the forest had sadly witnessed the destruction of a pure soul.
It was late afternoon before Xena made it into the depth of the mysterious forest. To her it seemed like any other she and Gabrielle had been through in the past six years, if not, than maybe a little darker.
It was with a heavy heart that she thought of her friend and companion. Xena knew she was alone and confused in these woods. Thinking more and more of this morning's events, Xena was sure she had put some of the puzzle pieces together.
The comparisons would have been enough to tell her some of what she already knew, the comments about lost innocence, children being murdered and the story of a red-eyed demon running around in these woods. The similarities to their worst nightmare were there for her to see. It had to be the answer, but she would only know once she found Gabrielle.
Headache and heartache aside, the Warrior Princess pushed herself on. Searching the forest floor and the forest itself for any signs of Gabrielle, she had only come up with a few soft-soled footprints. They had pointed Xena in the general direction Gabrielle used when she had entered in the woods. Since then she had found nothing, not a single sign of Gabrielle and thankfully, no sign of whatever else was in here with them.
Or who ever it was in here with them?' The thoughts echoing in Xena's mind played, over and over again. It had killed at least twice and she was certain it would kill again if given the chance.
Obviously something this morning had triggered Gabrielle and much to Xena's horror, it was pulling her back into their past. Xena didn't know what it was but she wished she could be certain that all of this didn't have something to do with either Dahak, or his child. They were dead and gone, but the warrior in her knew they would live on in their minds and nightmares forever.
Dahak, the mere mention of his name still affected Gabrielle in a way Xena could not fathom. It is seldom in one's life that you could pinpoint an exact moment when your life changed, when one action or decision would turn everything in your world upside down. Xena and Gabrielle shared that one moment, and it would always and forever would be the battle of Britannia.
When Xena's hatred for Julius Caesar had left Gabrielle vulnerable to an evil entity named Dahak. Gabrielle's blood-innocence was sacrificed when she had been forced to kill, and then she had been chosen to carry the evil child of Dahak. Xena had found her emotionally destroyed, with a bloodied dagger in her hand. The events following included the birth of Gabrielle's daughter by Dahak, Hope. Xena had seen the child for what it was the child of evil and she wanted to destroy it before Hope became too powerful. But it was Gabrielle who killed the child, or so she had said to Xena. It became evident Gabrielle had not killed Hope, when the evil child murdered Xena's son, Solan. Gabrielle then killed her own daughter, the child of a demon, but still her own flesh and blood.
Their lies and betrayals culminated with the two friends battling each other ... literally pushing them both over the edge. What followed, had never been discussed between the two long time friends, but they knew it was only through Illusia, (a mystical magic music world), with the help and guidance of Xena's dead son Solan, that the two had mended their friendship.
There were many times and many days, Xena wished she could do it over again, but she couldn't. She had to deal with it the best she could, one day at a -.
A distant scream stopped Xena in her tracks as she strained to identify what it had been, but the forest remained silent, refusing to give up any information. Slowly she turned as she quietly slid her sword out from behind her back, ready for whatever was out there. Her senses were peaked as she spotted a flash of white high in the treetops. Without moving her head, Xena's blue eyes searched over the forest canopy but failed to pick out whatever had caught her eye. Turning slowly around and around she saw nothing other than the fog that seemed to roll on forever in the forest. The heavy smell of sea salt mixed with the dampness of the forest gave even the Warrior Princess an uneasy feeling as she slowly returned her sword into its sheath.
Moss covered the trees that lay silently rotting on the forest floor. The multitudes of thriving plants growing from these fertile giants seemed to be the only living things in sight. The advancing fog signaled to Xena the day was coming to an end and what little light still filtered through the forest ceiling of was almost gone. She didn't want to stop looking for Gabrielle, but the dark of night would rob her of any signs she had left behind. Slowly she searched her surrounding as she debated if or where she should stop for the night.
Xena closed her eyes and rubbed her aching temples hoping to relieve some of the pain.
"Phwap!" Xena's blue eyes flew open at the sharp sound of sinew snapping. She dropped to the ground just as something grazed her shoulder. Lying motionless, she searched the forest through squinted eyes, but she saw and heard nothing. If it had not been for the thin ribbon of blood rolling slowly down her arm, she would have wondered if it had even happened.
Her lips curled in a growl as she realized she had just been shot at and hit, but by what? There was nothing out there.
It was not the stinging of the minor wound, but the silence of the hunter that concerned her. Her instincts had never failed her like this before. For the first time, Xena pondered the actual existence of this so-called ghost demon'.
"I'm getting too old for this," she muttered angrily to herself. She had been caught with her guard down and it had cost her.
Without moving she looked into the shadows of the thick underbrush, slowing moving her eyes back and forth until she saw what didn't belong.
"Ghost my ass," Xena said as she reached into the undergrowth and pulled out an arrow.
It was only about a foot in length and there appeared to be no marks or colors showing any sign of tribe or ownership. It was a simple arrow made with feathers tied tightly with thin leather strips at one end and a pointed piece of shale at the other. Xena studied the crudely crafted arrow but neither the arrowhead nor the feathers gave any clue of their origin, which in itself told her a lot.
Xena remained prone on the forest floor, looking and listening with all her senses in hopes of finding out who had fired the arrow. Moments ticked on, but there was no sign of her attacker. The warrior's frown of puzzlement was slowly beginning to simmer. After cautiously scanning her surroundings, she pulled herself up to kneel on one knee.
Whatever or whoever had shot at her, was now long gone. Out of sheer frustration and anger Xena snapped the small arrow in half between her thumb and index finger, then threw the remains to the ground as she rose to her feet. Looking down at her shoulder, the wounded warrior shook her head in disgusted disappointment. She had been careless and she had been lucky, neither of which could she count on for a second time. Pulling out her sword, Xena started off, again in her search for Gabrielle. She would deal with this later.
In the dim light of the rising moon, Xena found herself following a small creek. She would not normally follow a stream or river of any size. The sounds of even trickling water had a tendency to hide the sounds around you. But since whatever was out there wasn't making sound anyhow, it didn't seem to matter so she decided to follow it anyhow. Crouching down next to the cool clear stream, Xena dipped her hands, bringing the collected offering to her mouth. After drinking her fill, she wiped the droplets off her mouth with the back of her hand and looked down at the wound on her shoulder.
Scooping several handfuls of water, she poured them over her injury. The lack of light made it difficult to see, but she could tell it was not deep. There was nothing she could do about it now, so she turned her thoughts back to finding her bard.
"Where are you Gabrielle?" Her eyes searched the forest but because of the dim light, there was not much for the Warrior Princess to see. Xena made no attempt at hiding either her worry or her concern. It had been a long exhausting day. She didn't want to stop or even rest, but she knew she needed to. Maybe a small catnap would clear some of the clouds in her mind.
She went back to one of the giant cedar trees she had just passed earlier. Its massive truck would give her several places to curl into. It would be better than nothing against the dampness of the forest and whatever else was out there. The warrior removed her weapons and then pulled her sword from its protective sheath. Turning the hard leather cover upside down, her whetstone fell into her waiting palm. She spat onto the stone and then went about her nightly chore of sharpening her blade. It wasn't that it needed it, but Xena needed the comfort of the familiar sound. Something to ease her mind just a bit, and then maybe, she might be able to fall asleep without her friend and companion by her side.
The rhythmic sound of stone on metal echoed against the stillness around her. The forest was quiet, but the Warrior Princess' mind was not. Her body worked away at sharpening her sword as her mind sorted through all the information she had gathered.
Gabrielle had left this morning after something had happened between her and Ti. She had no idea now just what that was, but it didn't change the fact Tiberius was dead with Gabrielle's Sai buried in his chest.
The fact' the words had come to her in an unconscious thought, causing her to pause in mid stroke. What had her mind picked up on that she had not been aware off? She returned to what she was doing and soon the sounds of her sharpening softly resonated in the night air. Xena appeared to keep her eyes on her sword, but she continued to scan her surroundings. She hadn't forgotten something out there had shot at her, something that had caught her flatfooted.
Deep in her experienced warrior skin she felt a chill walk over her soul as she glanced over at the thick scab now covering her injury. The wound on her shoulder and on her head told her loud and clearly, there was more at work here than just a village's wild imagination. Something had shot at her, something she had not seen or heard.
Xena refused to admit that maybe, just maybe she was slowing down.
She also had not forgotten that just this morning someone had tried to split her head open like a melon. In her mind, she was certain it was not Gabrielle.
Xena sighed loudly, but it did nothing but tell her how tired she really was.
Her body ached and her head was pounding as she laid her sword next to her. Sliding the whetstone back into her sheath, she leaned back against the tree trunk and within moments, she was asleep.
Without Gabrielle there at her side, Xena tossed and turned at every vile thought as images tore at her mind.
Wisps of low-lying fog drifted through her dreams of black and white, wrapping its cool, eerie arms around her. Her skin rose in goose bumps as a chill climbed inside of her.
It was a hard walk as she slowly made her way over the rolling hills, pausing only slightly before she headed into the deep lush green of the forest before her. The color was so rich she reached out to touch it, only to have to green turn to crimson.
Bloody battlefields littered with bodies screamed for mercy as a fiery fighter swirled their deadly blade. The sword cut and slashed without hesitation. Xena tried running away but the nightmare continued, pulling her deeper into the bowels of her own past demons. It was her own mind attacking her from within, and it was unforgiving. For her own conscience would not let her escape from her past.
The fighter followed her, with the sword in constant movement striking out at anything in its path. The warrior was hunting her down and Xena knew it. She reached for the only weapon she had, her long fingers tightly gripped the forged steel of the bloody Sai, and she turned to face her adversary. The two stood eye-to-eye, each waiting for the other to back down, but neither of them would. The rolling mist swirled around them, obscuring the fight's face and slowing her movements. They followed each other's movement like two dancers dancing to the same steps. Then the fighter lunged at Xena and she was startled to see the fighter's had no face. They stalked each other in a slow circle, but since the fighter had no eyes Xena felt herself at a huge disadvantage. Nothing foretold the fighter's movements, but the Warrior Princess realized they were moving step for step, as if they were as one.
An evil smile spread across Xena's face, her white teeth glowed in the dark of the night.
"Ha ha! Oh, I love a good fight in the moonlight, you don't scare me. I've fought you before and won. I know who you are!" Xena laughed out loud at the challenge.
"You think I wouldn't recognize myself. If I'm good, then you're evil but we are one in the same, for I am the equal of two parts. Come on, challenge me. You can't because you are me." She laughed out loud, but her smile faded fast when the fighter's face began to form.
"Oh, but I should scare you. You taught me everything I know. Am I like you? Yes, because you showed me an evil darkness I never knew I had. You taught me how to plan, how to destroy, how to out think my enemy." The fighter's head tilted and turned with each sinister comment. Xena watched in horror as the fighter's smile grew familiar.
They continued circling, watching each movement and judging each other, their weapons held in experienced hands as if they were waiting for even the slightest error that could cost them their life.
"What's the matter Xena? Can't handle who you are?"
She watched her move and then she saw the look, the evil eye of the Warrior Princess. She was fighting herself.
"See what you want Xena? I'm what you wanted I'm what you created?" The laugh, the smile it was her and she felt the anger growing inside of her.
"I've beaten you once, and I'll beat you again. Because I know you are me, and I know evil lives inside of me."
The fighter leaned back and laughed. Xena heard the change as the fighter brought her head down and looked Xena in the eye.
"You should be proud I'm just like you. I can kill without hesitation. I can murder you without thought. I can destroy without regret!" The words spilled out in anger as the fighter found an opening and jabbed at Xena. The Warrior Princess felt the tips of the blade poke her midriff.
She could not hide her shock as she watched herself. They were her icy blue eyes, her own white perfect teeth in the same love for battle' smile.
"Don't you know Xena, you can never win in a battle against yourself? I am you and you are me." Her twin continued circling, her sword twirling with each calculated step.
"I will not fight you." Xena said as she lower the Sai. The fighter saw another opening and took it, once again poking the tip of her blade, but this time into Xena's forearm. She pulled back but not before feeling the searing pain.
"If you don't fight me, one of us will be destroyed. I've no intentions of it being me! I've learned too much and come too far to be stopped now."
"You are not me, you could never be me." Xena said as she threw the Sai to the ground, refusing to fight. She turned away from her image, but she still heard her voice in her own ears.
"But I am you Xena. I have become you!" The Warrior Princess felt the tip of her own sword poke at her shoulder. Though it did not break the skin, its point was still clearly understood.
"I am you Xena," the voice grew stronger, its tone changing. "I am you. I'm your creation Xena I am just like you."
She could no longer ignore the voice even if she wanted to. Its anger rumbled in her chest as she realized it was not going to stop until she faced it. The Warrior Princess stopped, then turned to face herself. But as she did, the voice changed to a whisper. The anger was replaced with hatred, bitterness and it chilled her to the bone.
Xena's knees buckled as she sank to the ground, her eyes never left the face of the fighter. It was Gabrielle standing before her. The small blonde's face was twisted in unquestionable pain.
"I am you just like you, but with each battle I've lost more of myself. Xena help me." The pain filled plea was more than she could bear and she held out her hands to her friend.
Gabrielle's tears faded into a smile as she longingly looked at the warrior. "What more could I've given you? Because I have nothing left to give. And now you think that's all I need. One hug and all is forgotten. We had so much and you let it go now I am your creation!"
Her Amazon outfit was smeared with blood as she brought her left hand up to join her right hand grasping a sword. The bard stepped closer, her green eyes glowing red with hatred as she brought the sword up and laid the tip against Xena's throat.
"Look into my eyes Xena, and know I have to kill you. I have to kill you." Gabrielle's lips were not moving, but Xena heard each word clearly.
"I have to kill you."
"Gabrielle," she whispered hoarsely through her dried throat. Xena's plea shattered whatever had a hold on Gabrielle. She dropped the sword and backed quickly away. Xena wanted to beg with her with her to stay, but she found herself without words to say, and with no one to say it to. Gabrielle was gone, vanished!
Xena felt her world collapsing. Her love for Gabrielle was pulling her apart, her anguish spiraling downward because of the guilt she felt for her role in creating the Battling Bard. All of it tormenting her because there was nothing she could do. Xena knew she would always be in the direct line of fire, because of her past, haunted by what she had done -.
Somewhere deep in the recesses of her mind she heard the Phwap'
Xena bolted awake from her nightmare and sat up just as an arrow struck the bark of where she had been laying. Scanning the forest quickly, she saw nothing of where the arrow had come from. Once again, she had been shot at, and had only survived because of her instincts.
In growing anger and frustration she reached for the small arrow and yanked it from the tree. It had landed only inches from where her head had been.
The nightmare she had was still vivid in her mind, and the words she knew she would not soon forget had been seared into her memory.
It wasn't the first time she had thoughts of how much Gabrielle had become like her, but it was the first time she knew it was eating at her soul. She wondered to herself if she could live with what she had done, or would her past forever haunt her.
Wiping the thin sheen of sweat from her forehead, Xena leaned down to collect her weapons. The dawn of morning light was not far off, and there was no way she wanted to go back to sleep now. Clipping her chakram onto her waist, she was reaching for her sword when something caught her eye. Puzzled, she slid her sword into its sheath before picking up the odd shaped stones. There was not a lot of light in the forest yet, but her keen eyes studied what was in her hand.
They weren't stones after all, but three small metallic clumps that rolled easily in her palm. Tipping her hand back and forth she curiosity watched them roll around with each turn of her hand.
What were they and where had they come from?
Clutching them tightly, Xena looked down at the faint indentation left behind where she had slept. Her eyes followed up the tree trunk to where the arrow had struck. Her mind was sifting through the information she knew and the questions she did not. Taking a few steps, she leaned back against the tree and looked out into the forest to try and judge the path the arrow had taken. Knowing the force needed to imbed an arrow like that, Xena took four long strides away from the tree.
The canopy of green above her head was brightening with the arrival of the daybreak, giving her just enough light to search the forest floor. Back and forth, she zigzagged in and out amongst the trees, in hopes of finding any sign left behind by her adversary. It came as no surprise to her when she found nothing, not a single leaf or pine needle seemed to be disturbed. With nothing more to go on, the Warrior Princess turned and headed back in the direction of the tree.
Stopping in front of the large tree trunk, Xena opened her hand once more and took another look at the small round items in her hand. Thinking hard for a moment an idea crossed her mind as she closed her grip on them.
"Well son of a -" she commented out loud as she turned her fist over and examined her forearm. With a raise of her eyebrows, she had the answer to at least one of the questions. She ran her finger over the small welt in the middle of her arm. It was the exact place where in her dreams she had been poked' by her own sword.
Looking over her shoulder confirmed her suspicions, there was another welt. Without looking, she was certain there would also be one on her stomach.
It had not all been a dream, because dreams did not leave welts!
"Whatever shot the arrow, first hit me three times with these," she said out loud to herself as she opened her hand again juggling the clumps. It was a mystery but it would stay that way until she found Gabrielle.
Tucking the clumps into the waist of her outfit, Xena made her way back to the small stream she had been at last night. Kneeling down she scooped several handfuls of cold water into her mouth. With a sharp eye and a keen ear, she listened to the sounds of the early morning of the forest, but the light breeze brought only the smell of the ocean as she debated her next move. She didn't want to admit even herself, that she had no idea where to go next. It was as if the forest had swallowed her friend and had kept its secret hidden in the trees.
Her blue eyes rose to the ceiling of green above her. It wasn't often that she found herself in such a thick cover of overlapping branches and cedar boughs. Even the sun had a difficult time finding holes to shine through.
Xena's eyes paused for a moment at something out of place in the trees. Her eyebrows knitted together in puzzlement. She stood up and judged the distance before leaping to the lowest branch. Scaling the rest of the branches quickly, she found herself standing on one of the thick evergreen bough. Xena turned to face the tree and then leaned in to closely examine what had caught her attention from the ground.
Her long slender fingers touched the rough bark of the tree. The morning sun refracted through the hard amber, the sap was old and crystallized, but still slightly sticky to the touch. The branch had been cut, thirty feet in the air, with something very sharp!
Not only was this ghost accurate with a bow, but it also had a knife.
"And ghosts don't use knives!" Xena said out loud.
She was falling, tumbling, over and over into the darkness. She cried out in pain and in confusion, but she continued to fall. This was no dream, no nightmare, Gabrielle knew she was really falling, as she felt every stone and branch as it cut and bruised her flesh. Finally coming to a stop at the bottom of a ravine, she laid still and did a quick inventory.
Nothing was broken, but she did have a mouthful of dirt to go along with her bumps and bruises. Gabrielle rolled over and rose up on her hands and knees. Spitting and wiping, she attempted to remove the dirt from her mouth as she tried to recall where she was and what she was doing.
All she could remember was that she had been hunting but had come up with little to go on. Gabrielle knew evil had a way of hiding, concealing itself in the most unsuspecting places and people. She had to keep looking. Failure was not an option. In her mind, she would make these woods safe again. Safe for children, safe for the innocent she was innocent once, but evil had been hiding.
"The evil has to die, I'm going to kill it and then the innocent will be free." Gabrielle's words made only sense to herself. Her mind was set and it would not deviated from the pathway of revenge she was on, even if the trail she had been following had led to a dead end, or rather the abrupt edge she had tumbled down.
It was dark and wet in the ravine she had fallen into and she could see nothing. Her leather boots sunk in the mud as she stood up and wiped herself off the best she could. Gabrielle froze as her hand passed over her boot top. Her remaining Sai was gone!
Swaying between anger and fear, Gabrielle searched the ground for her Sai, but she found nothing. She knew she needed them, she had to have something, how could she hunt and kill without a weapon.
Feeling around on the bumpy, muddy soil, her hand fell on a short thick stick. Holding it up for inspection, she decided it was better than nothing. She held it firmly in her hand as she made her way back up the side of the ravine.
"A stick is no good. I need something better. I can make something, something like a a staff, yes a staff will work." Her insane chatter continued on endlessly as she picked her way back up the hill.
"But a staff is no good, I need to kill. I need a knife. Yeah a knife would be great, and then if I had knife I could no a knife is no good. I need something better I need to hunt like an Amazon, to become one with the forest. I need a sacrifice become one " Gabrielle pulled herself to the crest of the ravine. Now on solid ground she placed her hand on her hips. Surveying the lay of the land, the hunter in her returned as she searched the surrounding forest for her enemy. Her green eyes were wide as she danced on the edge of insanity, knowing nothing more than the one train of thought in her mind.
To track - to hunt - to kill.
Her instincts never wavered as she set out to manufacture herself a new weapon. Everything told her she needed something better something she could kill with.
In the growing glow of the morning light, Gabrielle kept her hands busied with all the knowledge she had gained from the last six years. She had been like a sponge, absorbing every little piece of information ever shown to her. The young girl from Poteidaia had many teachers and many lessons, but only one had taught her more than the Amazons. Their skills came only second to that of her best teacher, the Warrior Princess herself.
"The Warrior Princess Xena," she knew who Xena was, but she could not seem to make heads or tails of the emotions she was having. There is such a fine line between love and hatred. She shook her head violently, as if trying to ride herself from any thoughts that took her away from her mission.
Pride shone brightly in her green eyes when she was done. In her right hand she gripped her bow and her arrows as her fingers of her left hand dug into her already bleeding flesh. Gabrielle wiped her own blood across her cheekbones and down the bridge of her nose. She sank to her knees, and then placed her bow in front of her. Clawing at the damp rich soil with her bare hands, she sprinkled some on her weapon and then rubbed the rest into her skin. The ritual was done and she was ready.
Rising to her full height with her weapon in her hand, she cried out to the forest.
"I've become one with myself and with the forest. In return the forest offers to me, my weapon!" Gabrielle struck up at the air above her head with her arrow.
"My home." She stabbed up at the air again.
"And and my enemy!" With her new bow and arrows in her right hand, Gabrielle released a scream that chilled even the heart of the forest.
The Warrior Princess was still high in the trees examining the scar on the bark.
Why would someone climb this high, just to cut down a branch?' Pondering the question, she crouched down so she could get a better look. Eye to eye with the scarred bark, she casually glanced over her right, and then left shoulder. Quickly she turned her head back to right, astonished by what she had seen. Still in a crouching position, Xena's line of sight showed clearly where someone had cut away branches in the thick overhead growth. From the ground, she never would have been able to see the camouflaged trail through the tops of the trees.
A sly smile crossed her face, "Well I'll be." Turning and leaning against the bark of the tree, she looked left and right. She was sitting in the middle of a tree trail', an above ground hidden highway where one would never leave a footprint for anyone to follow.
"That explains why I've not been able to find any tracks." She silently wondered why she had not thought of it sooner.
Still shaking her head in amazement, her thoughts were interrupted by a scream coming from deep in the forest. She knew this time it was not an animal, but sound of someone in pain. It was without question Gabrielle's voice she had heard.
Quickly descending from her perch, Xena's feet hit the ground running. Jumping over logs and dodging trees, she made her way in the direction of the scream. Slowing her run to jog, Xena's blue eyes were open to any and all things living in the shadows of the forest. Xena pulled up and stopped to listen to the still and silent dense forest around her.
She cursed at herself under her breath for not hearing it sooner. Something had stilled the forest. The only sound she could hear was that of her own baited breath coming in short gasps.
Her instincts were tingling the small hairs on the back of her neck, but she could see nothing. Without telegraphing her movements, Xena studied the forest with a calculating mind and a keen eye. Still, she saw nothing.
Slowly and silently, she turned in circles, her right hand holding her sword at the ready. Something was out there and she knew it, she just couldn't see it. The only thing she knew was that she could not let her guard down by growing angry or frustrated. Emotions at this point could only prove to be an opening she was not going to give up.
Xena's patience won out when she spotted a flash of metal. Crossing the small clearing, she stepped closer to what she had seen. The Warrior Princess couldn't help but shudder as she examined Gabrielle's Sai embedded into the bark of the tree. Xena didn't want to think of what Gabrielle had thrown her weapon at, or even more disturbing, why she had left it behind.
The only comfort she could find was in knowing she was still on Gabrielle's trail.
Turning away from the tree, Xena caught a glimpse of a tree branch in the distance, gently waving with the wind. It had caught her attention because there was no wind!
Giving no outward appearance of what she had seen, Xena turned her back on whatever was watching. Dropping down into a crouching position, she acted as if she was examining the ground as she unhooked her chakram. Springing to her feet, Xena bolted in the direction of the moving branch as she released her chakram.
"Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi," her voice echoed through the forest as she landed gently high in the trees. Her deadly disc bounced and ricocheted towards her intended target as Xena followed closely behind it. Balancing light-footed from branch to branch, Xena saw nothing amongst the treetops. She stopped and waited for her chakram to return to her then clipped it to her waist. Crouching down, she once again she found herself on a treetop trail, the branches cut away to make an easy transition from tree to tree. Unfortunately, whatever was traveling up here was long gone.
Exhausted and dejected, the Warrior Princess returned to the ground and then headed back to the tree to retrieve Gabrielle's Sai. A sad emptiness filled her heart as her thoughts returned to her missing companion. Their bond had grown so close, being away from Gabrielle gave her such an empty feeling of loss. She could barely keep her mind on the problems at hand.
Xena didn't want to think about her life without Gabrielle in it. She had many regrets in her life, and the hardest ones she had to live with were the ones regarding the people she had loved and lost. Xena was determined she wouldn't regret what she had never said to Gabrielle.
Xena's thoughts had distracted her as she returned to the small clearing were she had spotted Gabrielle's Sai. Pulling herself away from her pondering, she reached for Gabrielle's weapon. Her hand stopped, suspended in middle air. The Sai was no longer there!
Her dark raven hair fanned out as her head spun right and then left. Was this the right tree? She looked back at the hole left behind by the shaft of the Sai. It was the right tree! An unfamiliar feeling went through her. Never before had Xena felt so so, she searched for the word as her hands went to her hips. She had to keep her emotions in check.
"Grrr," The snarl didn't help any, but in the same breath she felt it couldn't have hurt either. Shaking her hands out as she drew in a large breath, her eyes happened to glance downward. There in dirt just below where Gabrielle's Sai had been, were two very distinctive tracks. One set she knew as good as her own, the unmistakable soft-soled leather boots of her companion. The other tracks were of bare feet, perfectly inlayed atop of Gabrielle's.
Xena realized with a sinking feeling, she wasn't the only one being hunted.
Gabrielle's green eyes shifted quickly left and right. The enemy was all around her, she could see them everywhere, but if she looked too hard, her enemy disappeared. Who was her enemy? The child of evil was her enemy, the child of Dahak her child. Gabrielle's mind was spinning out of control, she no longer could decipher between reality and fantasy. She knew she was hunting, but then she would stop, uncertain if she was hunting or was she being hunted.
Her mind was balancing between the here and now, and the pains of yesterday. One moment her hands were steady, her arrow aimed and true as her heart pumped hatred and anger through her body. Then she would find herself shaking uncontrollably as tears flowed freely down her blood marked face. She wanted to hide inside the security of Xena's arms, to let go of all she held at bay. But then the memories would rip her from her comfort and she wanted nothing more then revenge for all that had been taken from her.
She watched from a distance, hidden from sight as her body twitched and jerked, pushing and poking her threatening to push her off the fence she was teetering on. Crouching against the dampness of the forest, Gabrielle looked down at her bloodied hands as they shook uncontrollably. She studied her hands, but she could not recall where all the blood had come from.
Was it her blood, or had she killed something? With sadness in her heart, she knew she had. She had killed many too many. Too many that had been innocent, like children. Children were innocent, but she had killed them. She had killed her her own child. But her child had killed Xena's child. Then her child had tried to kill Xena. How could she keep coming back? Why couldn't she just stay dead?
Through the rolling mist Gabrielle saw what was not longer there. It was an innocent it was a child. It was someone and they were coming at her. Coming for her. Hunting her.
A friend an enemy. Gabrielle's head tilted with each threat upon her mind. She strained her green eyes. She couldn't tell exactly who or what it was until she saw them clearly as they stepped quickly in and out of a stream of sunlight.
Their long hair almost floated in the sharp contrast to their slow cat like movements. Looking through the tangled masses of underbrush, Gabrielle watched her enemy coming closer and closer to where she was hiding. With wry amusement, she noted how easy it had been to find her.
Without taking her eyes off her prey, Gabrielle searched with her fingers for the arrows lying next to her. Finding one, she wrapped her hand around the shaft. Her heart stuttered as her intended target turned her head and stared into the bush with the eyes that had haunted her nightmare. The piercing eyes sent as shock wave through her body causing her to drop her arrow. Her heart palpitated with an interpretation of fear she had never felt before.
Gabrielle had seen the eyes of the Devil and she had blinked.
She shook her head and narrowed her eyes but it didn't matter. Her prey had disappeared right in front of her, gone, without a sound.
The warrior bard was about to step from her hiding spot when she spotted movement far off in the distance. It was back. Ducking back down she was concerned with her enemy's ability to move through the forest so quickly. Her eyes followed their all too familiar movements, as a sneering smile spread slowly across her face. Gabrielle locked her eyes, refusing to lose her prey again.
You shouldn't be allowed to walk so freely upon this earth. You will pay for all you've done.' The voices in Gabrielle's mind spoke clearly as she reached down for another arrow.
This was her enemy, her nemesis against happiness. The destroyer of her life and that of the people around her. Why couldn't she just stay dead? Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly before opening them again. This time her hope remained and it had not disappeared like last time. Gabrielle silently placed the arrow next to her finger and pulled back tautly on the bow.
Gabrielle watched with rising disdain as she brought her bow and arrow up to her cheek. This was it and it was all going to end, right here right now. Closing her left eye, the bard-turned-warrior took steady aim against what she knew to be evil. She waited patiently as her prey stepped ever so lightly across the forest floor.
"Fire!" The voice in her head screamed out the command, but for some reason she could not do it.
"Shoot her, kill her." Gabrielle could not release the arrow that would right all her wrongs. The voices in her head grew louder and stronger. She blinked rapidly several times, desperately trying to keep her target in focus.
She knew death would end it, finally putting to rest the evil trying to consume her. If she released her arrow, death would end any chance for hope to return to her life. Her aim stayed true as she fought down her sudden rising doubt. She wanted to see her face, to see the life bleed from her eyes as she died.
Her heart was pounding so loudly in her ears, it took everything she had to keep her target in her sights. Gabrielle watched with interest as her prey studied the ground, obviously following whatever trail she had left behind. The sharp point of her arrow followed each and every cautious step. She was not going to fail this time.
Suddenly without warning her target stopped. Something had alerted them. Turning slowly, they scanned their surrounding. Gabrielle watched it with great intrigue. Some how it sensed her presence, but it continued on getting got closer and closer to where she was hiding.
The desperation of the situation showed clearly on Xena face as she studied the ground around her. Three times she had lost Gabrielle's trail and three times she had found it again. The footprints had all but vanished, but that didn't surprise her. She had pretty much deducted their ghost' had once again taken to the safety of the treetops. Xena made her circle of examination larger in hopes of finding where Gabrielle had gone. She was certain once she found her friend, the owner of the bare feet would not be far behind.
Whatever was stalking her came a very distant second to her priority of finding Gabrielle. That was until she realized it was hunting them both. It had killed before and Xena didn't want it killing again.
Xena was getting ready to go back to where she had lost Gabrielle's trail, when she spotted a piece of overturned moss in the distance. It was just the kind of sign she was looking for. It gave her a direction and it gave her hope.
Following the tracks left behind, Xena made her way through the forest, keeping one eye on the ground the other on the forest canopy. So caught up with watching everything, she almost made a grave error as she broke through the thick underbrush. Grabbing out for a branch, she caught herself before she fell down the steep embankment. The heavy marks and upturned growth told her Gabrielle had not been so lucky. Without thinking of her own safety, Xena scrambled almost uncontrolled down the hill. Once at the bottom, she was relieved to see Gabrielle's distinctive trail leading back up the other side of the gully.
"At least she was ok," she muttered under her breath as she studied the churned up ground around her. It did not take a tracker to see Gabrielle had been searching for something, but the question was, for what?
The Warrior Princess followed Gabrielle's trail for the better part of an hour before she came across a disturbing scene. The peeled bark and shavings scattered around a fallen aspen tree told a tale Xena did not want to see. Kneeling down, Xena scooped up a handful of peeled bark, but quickly tossed them aside when she spotted the blood.
Rubbing the thick ooze between her fingers told Xena, she was not far away. The deep crimson had thickened but not dried. The two new pieces of information did nothing to settle her nerves. Gabrielle was wounded and she had stopped long enough to make herself a weapon. Xena was sure Gabrielle now knew she too was being hunted.
Xena's blue eyes followed the boot prints heading off in a northern direction. Once more she pulled her sword from her back and headed off to find her missing friend. It didn't take the warrior long to see the tracks for what they were, a clear sign to be followed. She couldn't help the small smile of pride that crossed her face. Gabrielle was setting a trap.
"That a girl," she said to herself as she looked to the trees to see if anyone else was following the trail. Gabrielle was using the knowledge she had learned with being at her side. For once Xena was happy for all she had taught her.
Without warning, Gabrielle's boot prints disappeared into the soil. Xena paused and looked around the forest for any sign as to where she had went. The Warrior Princess knew by the roughed up ground that Gabrielle had used a branch of leaves to wipe away her tracks. Xena was ready to call out when she saw something ahead that stopped her. There was a presence up ahead but she had no idea whose it was.
Crouching down quickly, Xena hoped she had not been spotted. Keeping herself still as she could, she scanned the entire forest with her eyes for any further signs. She watched and waited all her senses were peaked and ready, but the forest refused to give up any further information of its secret.
Silent as the breath of a sleeping angel, Xena started to make her way along beside the trail. She was certain there was someone else in front of her, but only by her keen instincts. The dense underbrush forced Xena out of hiding, and out onto the dirt pathway Gabrielle had just recently walked. Twenty paces forward Xena stopped and stared at the ground.
It was back! There in the freshly brushed dirt was a clear imprint of a bare foot. Four clear steps continued on the trail and then disappeared. Xena immediately looked to the green ceiling of the forest, but the light breeze hid any signs off the tree trail traveler.
Looking down the trail in front of her, Xena took several slow calculated steps. She sensed she was near but it was too late. The forest erupted as Gabrielle broke from the underbrush. Her green eyes open in a wild gaze as she charged towards her. Gabrielle's bowstring was pulled tautly as her arrow lay waiting to be launched.
"Gabrielle, NO!" Xena screamed out the warning but there was no change in her companion's face. Xena dropped her sword and raised her empty hand to the crazed woman coming at her.
"Gabrielle stop it's me," Xena pleaded.
"I know," Gabrielle's words came without emotion as she released her aimed arrow.
- To be continued -
I've Seen the Devil's Eyes
C. L. Hart; Sinful@telus.net
Time is the most important thing in a person's life. I cannot thank you enough for spending yours enjoying my tall tale.