Disclaimer: "XENA: Warrior Princess" and all characters are exclusive property of Pacific Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA and/or Universal Studios. The following story is strictly non-profit fan-fiction, and absolutely no copyright infringement is intended.

The following story contains adult language.

Comments to the author can be e-mailed to bloodyvisigoths@charter.net

"Love never dies."

 

 

 

"XENA: Warrior Princess"

"With Apologies to Bram Stoker"

by Ernie Whiting

I

The sun’s rays were almost blood red as it sat half-hidden behind the silent and ominous Carpathian Mountains, and the shadows that they cast were long, cold and unsettling. A soft, ghost-like breeze came from the northwest, scattering dry, whispering dead leaves and pine needles along the dirt road and toying with Gabrielle’s long, golden blonde hair, and gently caressing her bare, tanned skin with cold, restless fingers that made her shiver uncontrollably. Her sparkling green eyes, which were usually so lively and expressive, were troubled now as they swept over the silent, walled-in village as they searched in vain for signs of life.

Unconsciously, she gripped her fighting staff more firmly in one hand.

"This must be the quietest village I’ve ever seen," she said at last, almost as though she were afraid of further disturbing the already unsettled spirits of its former inhabitants. In contrast to the nearly oppressive silence, her soft voice sounded loud in her ears. "I don’t know about you, but this place gives me the creeps."

Sitting before her, Xena cautiously surveyed the village with cool, keen eyes. "I’d like to know why this place is so quiet," she said, her voice soft and wary. And then, in an effort to soothe her friend’s nerves, she added a little more encouragingly, "But look on the bright side, Gabrielle; with this much peace and quiet, we ought to be able to get a good night’s sleep–and maybe even a hot and undisturbed meal."

With her anxiety only slightly alleviated by the idea of food and rest, Gabrielle added, "I could use a hot and relaxing bath, too."

Xena turned her head to sniff the air near the young blonde, and pretended to smell something unpleasant. "No lie," she said with an exaggerated grimace.

Gabrielle’s expression was stung at first, but it quickly turned to Arctic resentment.

Xena noticed the look, and grinned a relaxed grin. "I’m just kidding you," she replied.

Gabrielle waited a moment longer, then surreptitiously sniffed at one underarm. From behind her back, she silently regarded her companion once more with a cold scowl.

Quietly pleased with having diverted her friend’s feelings away from apprehension and toward muted indignation, she returned her attention to the matters before them. The expression in her cool blue eyes showed nothing more than mild curiosity, and to any distant observer she would have appeared to be entirely unconcerned; in reality, all of her senses were on full alert as they slowly entered the village.

The only sign of battle was the battered double gate; one hung crookedly on a single hinge, and the other stood wide open with a gaping jagged hole where the two halves had once met. Nothing else seemed disturbed. Apart from the rutted tracks of wagons and the dray animals that pulled them, not even the ground seemed disturbed. Gardens, too, looked healthy and well-tended; not a weed in sight. Aside from the shattered remains of the gate, the place looked quite normal and pleasant. What happened here? she wondered.

She shifted her attention from the closed doors and shuttered windows at ground level to the rooftops, scanning for concealed archers who very possibly could be aiming long bows at them. She suddenly wished she had left Gabrielle outside, concealed in the woods, while she had snuck in alone to scout the area. If someone should suddenly attack, she could pretty well handle any threat by herself; also, Gabrielle would have been in a much better position to come in as a surprise force and back her up, if necessary, or to mount up and escape if things got too hot. Should anything ever happen to Gabrielle, Xena had sworn to herself long ago, she would never forgive herself; losing her was the only thing that the warrior truly feared. She was, paradoxically, the warrior princess’s greatest strength and her greatest weakness.

Looking around warily, Gabrielle suddenly said in a soft voice, "I feel like we’re being watched."

Xena nodded slightly, silently, just once. She felt it, too.

They proceeded slowly down the middle of the dirt road, watching and listening carefully. This village wasn’t as empty as she had thought. Xena supposed it was understandable that strangers would regard her from concealment; after all, it probably was not every day that they spied a black-haired woman, six feet tall and built like an Amazon, dressed in battle gear of black leather and tarnished bronze, and carrying a variety of extremely lethal weapons. But she still didn’t like being watched. Not wanting to appear threatening, she left her sword sheathed and slung behind her back as she held Argo’s reins loosely in one hand, but her other hand was resting on her trademark chakram, which hung on a small hook at her right hip.

Maybe they’re in mourning, she thought as she gazed from one door to the next. Each door and window was decorated with a white wreath. She had never heard of white being a color for mourning, but...well, she had never been in this land before, either.

She was about to quietly suggest that they turn and get out of here, but something wafted gently under her nose.

"Smell that?"

"If you’re going to tell me again that I need a bath," Gabrielle said peevishly as she gripped her staff even more threateningly, "I’m gonna–" She stopped abruptly when she recognized the aroma. "Stew!" And then her stomach rumbled like a small avalanche; she hadn’t eaten since last night.

Xena snapped her head to one side at the sound of the voice, and her fingers had curled around her chakram even before she had processed the words.

"What are you two doing out there?" the young woman hissed in a stage whisper. "Are you crazy?"

Xena slipped her feet from the stirrups and swung a leg over Argo’s head, and slid to the ground. Gabrielle joined her a moment later, hanging back with her staff to hold the golden palomino’s reins. She didn’t want to further intimidate the woman by approaching her with a fighting staff; Xena alone was quite intimidating enough.

The warrior slowly approached the house. She advanced with her hands away from her sides, clearly empty and demonstrating to the woman that she was no threat. "Is there something wrong?" she asked. Now she could see part of her face peering from behind the wreath-trimmed door; an eye, a cheek, one corner of her mouth. "What’s happened?"

The door opened a little more, and the woman inside revealed the rest of her face. She could not place the young blonde who was dressed in a short, rust-colored cloth skirt, a two-tone green bodice and brown leather boots, but her eyes widened in sudden recognition when they fell on the other woman; the long, rich black hair and piercing blue eyes, the statuesque physique, the short black leather battle garments and the tarnished bronze breastplates, the sword and the steel-ring chakram–and the reputation that accompanied them–were known from Troy to Britannia, and from Macedonia to Crete, and even as far east as the kingdom of Chin. Some who had heard of her exploits exalted her as the guardian of Amphipolis and its surrounding territory of Thrace, while others quietly and fearfully denounced her as a plague upon mankind. Rumors had spread that she had turned away from hatred and fiery destruction to do good, but many were still suspicious; a number of her countrymen still called her either the daughter of Hades, Lord of the Underworld, or the daughter of Ares, the God of War. And try as she might to shed her bloody reputation, her name still sent a shiver of unrelenting terror throughout most of the known world.

To most, she was known as Death incarnate.

"You’re Xena!" she said, her voice rising despite herself. "Surely, the gods themselves must have sent you!" Her eyes darted apprehensively from left to right. Quietly, she said, "Shh! Come inside!" She motioned briskly with one hand. "Hurry! Hurry!"

Xena cast a quick backward glance toward Gabrielle. Leaning casually on her staff, the young blonde silently stared back at her with bewildered eyes, a slight rising of one eyebrow, and a small shrug of one shoulder. She turned back and fixed on the woman once more with puzzled eyes.

"Go get your friend; but for the love of the Goddess, be quick about it!" she pleaded. "It’s almost sunset!"

************

With Argo securely and comfortably bedded down for the night in the barn behind the small house, Xena and Gabrielle had dined on rich lamb stew and day-old bread while sitting at a rough, hand-made wooden table. The rest of the house was simple, with few decorations; there were plain wooden walls, worn and plain rugs that covered the earthen floor, a small, candle-decorated shrine opposite the door, and in the far wall there was a stone fireplace. But in spite of the simplicity of the house, it was clean and well-cared for. Near the fireplace there rested a simple and empty cradle; a sentimental reminder, perhaps, of a child who had once graced the lives of Valeria, their hostess, and her husband.

"Has there been a death in the village?" Gabrielle asked. "Is that why it’s so quiet outside? Is that what all those white wreaths are about?"

Valeria shifted uncomfortably in her chair, clearly uneasy. She cast a quick glance at the two of them, and then focused on the table before her. "It’s a horde of brigands," she said at last, not meeting their eyes, "under the command of Prince Vlad. His second in command, Malhad’dar, rode through here with them during the last new moon, and took what they wanted of our livestock and our gardens after butchering two of our men. They also kidnaped several women and children as insurance against any kind of retaliation, and are holding them in Vlad’s castle." She noticed that Xena’s gaze had fallen on the nearby cradle, and she added, "That’s my daughter’s; she’s one of the hostages now. My husband is one of the two dead."

The look in Gabrielle’s eyes was one of sympathy and pain. With the memory of her own husband’s death still fresh in her mind–Perdicas, who had been killed the day after their wedding by the murdering psychopath Callisto–she knew what their hostess felt. And dear Gods, she added silently, with the additional loss of an infant daughter! She reached forward and squeezed Valeria’s hand comfortingly.

Xena noticed that Valeria’s response had not addressed the question about the wreaths. Would roving bandits have allowed them to hang signs of mourning on their doors? For now, she decided to let that question go unasked. "Tell me about this Prince Vlad," she said as her eyes returned to their hostess.

Valeria paused for a long moment, thinking. Wondering if she should tell her the truth. "There have been stories about him," she replied, "but they’re just that–stories. Now we’re plagued by this thieving bastard Malhad’dar and his cohorts; they return every few days to replenish their supplies at our expense, and if we don’t give them what they want Malhad’dar told us that Prince Vlad will kill the children."

"I think I might have heard of a Prince Vlad once, from another bard," Gabrielle said, "but I don’t know if he’s the same one."

"There’s only one that I’ve ever heard of," Xena said. "When barbarian hordes swept out from Persia and Sumeria, he raised an army and went out to meet them. He not only defeated them, he literally butchered them. He was never seen or heard from again, from what I understand; he may or may not have been killed in battle. Either way, the Prince Vlad I’m thinking of can’t possibly still be alive, because these legends are over a couple of hundred years old."

"Unless the gods have intervened somehow," Valeria said. "Maybe our war god Chernobog is up to one of his old tricks."

Xena thought that over for a brief moment, and quickly concluded that the gods of Transylvania must be as big a pain in the ass as those of Greece. Or maybe they were the same gods but known by different names. If they have intervened and this is the same man, she wondered, why would he take children hostage? He wouldn’t need them; it doesn’t make sense.

"That’s a beautiful shrine," Gabrielle said, rising from her chair to approach it for a closer look. With her hands behind her back, careful not to disturb the small white statue, the candles and bowl of charcoal and powdered incense, and the surrounding flowers and plants, she bent at her waist and regarded it with keen interest while Xena was momentarily lost in quiet thought. "Who’s it dedicated to?"

"That’s for the goddess Kupala," she replied. "Among other things, she’s the goddess of the springs, of healing, and our protector from evil spir–" She abruptly stopped herself. "I’ve been appealing to her since Prince Vlad’s men invaded, but... well, I had just about lost faith in her. Until..." She looked away from them, reluctant to go on and uncertain of their reaction. She desperately needed their help, but the price could be too high. She felt he had no right to ask them to risk their lives or... Vacillating between desperation and terror, she just didn’t know what to do.

Gabrielle’s eyes quickly turned to Xena with a silent question. She was not surprised to find the warrior gazing back at her with a slight, single, silent nod.

"Where is this castle you mentioned?"

"I’m not sure," she replied. "I’m not sure anyone knows; somewhere north of here, maybe. It’s been said that the prince is more of a legend than a reality; maybe his castle is, too." Valeria’s eyes suddenly widened in terror when she realized what the warrior was planning. "No!" she said. "You mustn’t!"

"Why not?"

She glanced toward the door, almost as though she was half-expecting someone to come bursting through it. Perhaps one of the bandits was standing outside right now, listening in on their conversation. Or perhaps there was something even worse than one of the marauders. She struggled for an answer that would be acceptable to whoever or whatever might be spying on them out there. But all she could think of was, "Please, you mustn’t take any action against him!"

Xena followed her glance, and saw nothing unusual. If she doesn’t want me taking any action against him, she thought, why did she bother to tell us her tale? She knew Valeria was withholding something, and she was determined to find out what it was. She rose from her chair, reached for her sword, and started for the door.

"Please, no!" she said, her voice almost in a panic as she began to rise from her chair. "You mustn’t!" Now her concern truly was for the life of the warrior.

Gabrielle returned from the shrine and gently took her hand. "It’s okay," she said reassuringly, but even she was puzzled by Valeria’s reaction. "Believe me; Xena can handle anything that’s out there."

She quickly pulled the door open. Crouching slightly, and holding her sword in a two-handed grip, ready to take on Ares–or in this case, Chernobog–himself, she stepped outside to confront whoever was out there.

In the darkness beyond, there was nothing. She stood just beyond the doorway with her sword ready, back-lit by flickering firelight that emanated from inside and listening intently with her eyes sharpened against the darkness. But she could hear nothing; not even the sounds of crickets. There was nothing out there but absolute blackness and utter, dead silence.

Someone is out there, she thought. Something has frightened the crickets into silence.

Valeria suddenly bolted from her chair. Gripping the table’s edge in a white-knuckled hold and with her feet rooted to where she stood, she did not dare to move toward the door. Her eyes were wide in terror. "For the love of the Goddess!" she screamed. "CLOSE THE DOOR!!"

Xena whipped her head around to impale her with a sharp scowl. An instant later, though, the sharpness in her eyes softened only slightly as she realized that this woman was absolutely terrified of some supernatural thing that could very well be lurking out there, perhaps even within arm’s reach. This woman isn’t afraid of any lurking bandits, she thought, she’s afraid of the night itself. She carefully scanned the night-shrouded woods once more; seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she slowly rose from her crouch and lowered the sword, and then stepped backward inside once more. Sheathing her sword behind her back, she stopped abruptly to once more regard the white wreath that had been nailed to the door.

She finally closed the door and lowered the wooden bar to lock it. Turning once again toward Valeria, she saw that the woman was already beginning to relax, now that the door had been secured. Trembling, their hostess took her seat once more, almost collapsing into it from nervous exhaustion.

Xena watched her suspiciously as she returned to the table. She swung a leg over the chair to sit, leaned forward, and folded her arms across the chair’s back. "What in Tartarus is going on here?" she demanded softly. "You’re obviously in fear, and you need our help. We’ll give it, but you’ve got to level with us; we need to know everything you can tell us."

Valeria’s eyes widened, and she quickly looked away. She didn’t want this woman thinking she was some kind of superstitious fool. "I...I don’t know what you mean." She started to get up and move away.

Xena wanted to grab her by her throat and give her a good shaking. In spite of her increasing impatience, this was a time for tact and diplomacy, not brute force. The woman was already frightened enough, and there was no sense in adding to that fright.

Instead, her hand lashed out and caught Valeria’s in a grip that was surprisingly gentle for someone whose reputation was that of a bloodthirsty warrior. "You know as well as I do that you can’t ward off bandits with mere wreaths of garlic hanging on the doors and windows," she said with a soft voice. "You talk about brigands, but you’re really afraid of something else." She leaned a little farther forward, trying to capture Valeria’s eyes with her own. Her voice was soft and comforting, but her eyes showed unrelenting determination in getting the truth out of her. Her gentle grip tightened just a bit, hinting at the potential for bone-crushing strength. "I need your help to get your village’s children back. What is it that you’re really afraid of?"

Valeria’s eyes stared at the table top. Reluctantly, she raised them to meet Xena’s earnest gaze. Let her think me mad, she thought as the tears rose in her eyes and as her own grip tightened desperately on Xena’s hand. "Vampir," she finally replied, her voice barely loud enough to qualify even as a terrified whisper. "Prince Vlad is a vampire."

II

"Vampire?" Gabrielle said as something clutched at her heart with a cold fist. She glanced nervously at Xena, then back to Valeria. "You mean, like the Bacchae?"

Xena shook her head slowly. "Not like the Bacchae," she replied softly.

Gabrielle watched her friend for a moment with a growing sense of unease as she took note of the look in her eyes and the tone of her voice.

"They’re worse," the warrior added. "Much worse. Bacchae can be saved, if one is lucky enough; but when you’re a vampire, there’s no hope. Vampires are undead creatures that exist only to kill indiscriminately and to create other vampires. Men, women...even children are targets. And the easier the target, the better."

"And Prince Vlad isn’t alone," Valeria said. "He’s the leader of this vampire cult that calls itself the Lords of Darkness. We’ve seen nothing of the prince himself; his lieutenant Malhad’dar has been the one making all the demands. And Malhad’dar is the one who killed the two men; he had them crucified and hung upside down, and then...then he–" She stopped for a moment, choking with emotion. Barely controlling herself, she continued with a quavering voice, "And then he slashed their throats, and...and his men drank..." She could not go on.

Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut and slowly turned her head away in horror and disgust. And when she turned to Xena, she could see the cold contempt and loathing in her friend’s eyes–and the barely restrained rage.

They had dealt with Bacchae before. They had even become Bacchae, temporarily, in order to defeat Bacchus himself. And the memory of their encounter with his demonic slaves made Gabrielle shudder with both revulsion and dread. Had it not been for Xena’s relentless determination and almost supernatural courage, she would have succumbed to their evil and become a permanent member of their clan. Just one of the thousands of times she’s saved my butt, Gabrielle thought. Suddenly, she wanted very much for them to be someplace else– preferably reclining on a quiet, private beach somewhere, basking in the warm radiance of the sun and sipping at tall frosty drinks, while the cool azure waters of the Aegean licked deliciously at their toes. Or even in an Athenian alley, for that matter, dealing with drunks and thieves; or even in Sparta, and battling against renegade warriors–or fighting against any soldiers of Troy, as long as they were mortal. Anywhere but here with supernatural creatures that roamed in the dead of night and fed on the blood of the living.

And if vampires are supposed to be even worse than the Bacchae... Gabrielle let the thought go unfinished. Suddenly, she could feel the weight of the situation pressing down on them, like a massive stone from one of the pyramids of El Gîza.

"The others may not be vampires after all," Valeria went on. "At least, not yet. We’ve seen them during the daylight hours, and since they carry weapons they may feel they need them– which means they are probably not undead. But who knows what promises Prince Vlad has made them?"

"How are we going to deal with him?" Gabrielle asked. "I mean, if we stop the leader, will that destroy the rest of the cult, like cutting the head off a snake? And where in Tartarus are we going to find Driad bones to drive into him?"

"A simple wooden stake will do it," Xena told her. "The problem is, we have to get close enough to him to use it. We have to get past his guards, find him during the day while he’s still in his grave, and drive it through his heart–and then we have to cut off his head, burn his body, and throw his ashes into the nearest river." She looked at Valeria. "There’s nothing we can do tonight; we’ll have to wait for sunrise. During the day he’ll be helpless, but the nights are his."

Drive a stake through him? Gabrielle thought with an almost audible gulp of apprehension. Cut off his head? Oh dear Gods... She had gone with her friend into battle many times–so many that she had lost count–but this was different. She didn’t like the idea of attacking anyone–not even a vrykolakas–while they were helpless. On the other hand, if they gave him a fighting chance, they would probably wind up dead...if not worse.

Gabrielle took a deep breath to steady her nerves, and let it out slowly. "I don’t know about you," she said at last, with a soft voice and a cold shiver of dread, "but I don’t think I’ll be getting a wink of sleep tonight."

************

Gabrielle’s soft snores drifted across the barn as Xena checked Argo’s reins once more. Already dressed for the day, she turned her head to observe her friend. "Come on, Gabrielle, wake up."

Several feet away, still snuggled in the warmth of her blanket and buried somewhere under layers of straw, Gabrielle snored again.

A little louder now: "Gabrielle? Wake up; the sun’s coming up."

The young blonde snored again.

Xena shook her head with a sigh of diminishing patience. Never, in all her years, had she ever met anyone who was so difficult to wake in the morning. Tracking her by her soft snores, she went over to her, dropped to one knee, and cleared away some straw–a hip here, a foot there, a shoulder back this way–before finding her. She shook her gently. "Wakey-wakey."

A loud, almost porcine snore caught in the back of her throat. She rolled onto her side to face her, moaned softly once more with a dreamy smile, and continued to sleep.

This time, Xena shook her vigorously. "Gabrielle!"

"Mmmhmmm..."

She watched her for a moment in exasperation...and then she slowly and fondly smiled at her. The young bard seemed so much younger and more innocent when she slept; sometimes, she looked to be no more than fifteen summers old. If it were up to Xena, she would gladly settle back and watch her sleep for another hour, and reflect on how this girl–who could be both so youthfully exuberant yet surprisingly insightful–had so profoundly affected the warrior’s life for the better. It really was a shame that she had to wake her.

And then an idea came to her.

She got down on her other knee, and quietly bent over the sleeping girl so that her lips were within a centimeter of her ear. Cupping one hand around it and smiling with mischief, she softly whispered something.

Gabrielle cracked open one bleary, red-rimmed eye, and gazed coldly at her friend. With a voice that was dry from hours of sleep, she croaked, "That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard."

Xena didn’t try to suppress her widening grin. "It woke you up, didn’t it?" she asked.

She sat up and sighed, and wiped the sleep from her languid eyes. A few stalks of straw were stuck in her hair; she slowly brushed them out with her hands. "Xena of Amphipolis," she declared with a slight groan of fatigue, "you are one sick woman."

Xena laughed softly as she rose to her feet with fluid grace. "Now that you’re awake," she said as she offered a hand to her partner, "let’s eat something before heading off."

Gabrielle reached up and accepted it; with their palms clasped, Xena pulled her quickly and easily to her feet. "No thanks," she replied. "You’ve pretty well ruined my appetite for the rest of the week."

The barn door suddenly flew open, spilling a wide, golden shaft of early morning sunlight on them. Both women abruptly turned their surprised and alert faces toward it, and found Valeria standing in the doorway. There was terror in her eyes and voice. "They’re coming!" she announced, her voice a hissing whisper. "Prince Vlad’s men have come back!"

************

Eight of them had ridden in on horseback. Dressed in black leather and steel helmets, and badly in need of both a shave and a bath, they were slowly making their way toward the center of the village. The first thing they had noticed was the lack of anyone at the front gate to meet them with their supplies.

"Where did everybody go?" one of them asked.

"If they know what’s good for them, they’d better get out here with our food," replied another as they came to a stop.

"We told them what could happen if they decided not to cooperate with us," their leader said. "We can either do a house-to-house search, or we can go back empty-handed and take a chance on trying to explain to Malhad’dar what happened. Personally, I think he’d rather have the supplies than kill the brats. Which would you rather do?"

"I think you ought to tell me where Malhad’dar is," a soft yet deadly female voice said from behind them, "so I can go talk to him personally and find out why such a big bad warlord has to hide behind women and children."

The eight of them turned as one toward the source of the voice, and found themselves staring at a tall, black-haired woman in black leather and tarnished bronze; standing next to her was a shorter blonde woman in soft suede and cloth of muted earth tones of green and reddish-brown. The blonde was clutching a fighting staff and watching them warily, but the black-haired woman merely stood with her arms folded casually beneath her breasts and her weight shifted to one foot. Her smile seemed inviting enough, but beneath its warm surface was the coldness of a predator. They stood between the raiders and the village’s exit, cutting off their only means of escape.

The leader of the group angrily whipped his head toward the source of the voice, and when his eyes fell on her the fury in them subtly took on an additional expression of lechery. Licking his lips, he asked, "And who the hell are you?"

"My name is Xena," the black-haired warrior replied. "I’m a problem-solver."

The eight men dismounted as one, and began to approach the two women. "Xena, huh? I’ve heard of you," the leader said with a slow, bristly and lascivious sneer of a grin. "I’ve always wanted to see how tough you really are; and I’d be willing to bet this is one problem you’re not going to solve." They drew their swords, and with a chorus of wild yells they attacked.

Without a word, she pushed Gabrielle out of harm’s way as she reached behind her back and drew her sword.

The first attacker moved in, charging forward with all the grace of a lumbering bear. Easily sidestepping the downward, sweeping arc of his blow, Xena lashed out low with her own sword and gave him a deep, crippling slice behind one knee. Her bloodstained sword then came back up in a lightning-quick and sweeping, back-handed arc, and its razor edge sliced neatly across his throat. Blood sprayed everywhere, staining his tunic and the ground around him.

That settles the question, Xena thought, as to whether or not the rest of these jerk-offs are vampires.

The rest of them came on almost immediately, filling the air with wild yells and the flashing of sunlight reflecting from their blades. Blocking his overhead blow with a sudden ringing of steel on steel, she simultaneously raised one booted foot and slammed it into the crotch of the second attacker, sending him to the ground. With a grunt of effort, she swept the sword from Number Three and sent it flying before she slammed her elbow into his face, crushing the bridge of his nose and sending bone fragments up into his brain. He dropped like a stone, and lay unmoving next to Number Two.

Numbers Four, Five and Six were quick to circle around, hoping to catch her from behind. Crouching slightly with her sword ready, she regarded them with cold and deadly eyes, wondering who was going to be the first to strike. Rather than waiting for them to make a move, she suddenly seized the initiative; with a shrieking and ululating war-cry, she threw herself high into the air in a forward flip that carried her out of their reach. Twisting in mid-air like a panther, she turned and landed behind them, and kicked Number Four in his backside before he could turn around, sending him face-forward into the dry dust. She leaped again as Numbers Five and Six spun to face her, and kicked them simultaneously under their chins, snapping their heads backward and breaking their necks before touching the ground again.

"Get the blonde!" she heard the leader yelling from somewhere nearby. "Get the blonde!"

Number Four was rising to his feet and turning to rush toward Gabrielle, along with Number Seven. She’s obviously no warrior, he thought, judging by the way she was standing there with that terrified look on her face. She was going to be easy pickings.

Gabrielle raised her staff, holding it horizontally in a firm, two-handed grip, and with both terror and determination in her eyes she rammed one end into Number Four’s stomach, catching him completely by surprise and driving the air out of him–and possibly rupturing a vital organ or two. The staff swept to the right with a loud whoosh!, catching him across the side of his head, and then to the left, sweeping his legs from under him. He fell flat on his back with a caved-in skull, and did not get up. Damn, he thought before the light faded from his eyes, that little girl can hit...hard!

Vampire, my ass, Gabrielle thought in pleasant surprise. But that mild elation was short lived, for Number Seven suddenly rushed her from behind just as his partner fell to the ground, and grabbed Gabrielle’s staff. They struggled for its control, grunting and cursing at each other, and then he suddenly stepped forward and backhanded her across the face with one fist. The blow snapped her head to one side and sent her blonde hair flying, and staggered her back a step as she lost her grip on the staff. Without quite going down, she regained her balance as the ringing in her ears faded, and she found him approaching her, grinning malignantly and twirling her staff in his hands. "Let me show you how you really use one of these," he growled.

He swung at her, and she skipped backward, pulling in her stomach; the blow barely grazed her bare midriff. He swung at her again, higher this time, and missed a second time as she ducked beneath the blow and dodged to the left. He swung again, and she ducked and dodged again, and he missed once more–but only because this time she tripped over the either dead or unconscious Number Four. She landed hard on her side, and rolled over to lay sprawled on her back–and found Number Seven standing over her with her staff raised high to kill her with an overhead blow.

He stood over her with malignant triumph in his eyes. With a loud grunt, he quickly raised the staff a little higher to add some extra momentum to the blow, and suddenly stiffened as his eyes went wide. He froze for a moment, and then slowly turned–and Gabrielle saw the chakram deeply buried between his shoulder blades. Number Seven sank to his knees, and with a very surprised look in his eyes he fell face-first into the dust.

Saved my butt again, she thought.

She scrambled to her feet and retrieved her staff, and went to help Xena.

The leader was standing in front of her with his sword raised high in both hands and drawn back, ready to strike. Xena was on one knee before him, with one arm extended away from her side–and with her sword gripped firmly in her other hand, plunged to the hilt through his chest. She had taken him out at the same time she had thrown her chakram to save Gabrielle. She rose and planted one foot against his chest, and shoved hard to pull her sword free; with a red stain that quickly spread across his chest, he fell backward to the ground, like a massive, freshly cut tree.

"Are you okay?"

Gabrielle took a moment to answer. "Yeah," she said at last as her breath slowed. "Yeah, I’m okay. You?"

"No problems," she replied. She knelt and wiped the blood from her sword on her victim’s tunic. "Any of these guys still left alive?" she asked as she rose and slipped her sword into its scabbard behind her back. She approached Number Seven to retrieve her chakram, and through the corner of her eye she spotted several villagers who were coming out of their homes, now that the threat had been neutralized.

"I don’t know," Gabrielle replied. "Maybe that one over there." Holding her staff in a one-handed grip, she pointed with it at Number Three.

Xena cleaned her chakram on Number Seven, then approached Number Three, who was curled up on his side, clutching at his groin and groaning in agony. She knelt on one knee and grabbed the front of his tunic in one fist, and hauled him into a sitting position. With the speed of a cobra, she released him and jabbed him on both sides of his neck with rigid first and second fingers of each hand, collapsing his carotid arteries and jugular veins. She grabbed his tunic front in one fist again before he hit the ground.

Number Three suddenly found himself in paralyzing agony.

"I’ve just cut off the flow of blood to your brain," she said, softly and menacingly. "You’ll be dead within a minute unless you tell me what I want to know."

With terror in his eyes, he nodded eagerly.

"Where do I find Malhad’dar and Prince Vlad?"

From somewhere in the depths of his soul came a new rush of savage terror. "Please! Anything but that!"

Xena sighed patiently. "Time’s a-wastin’."

He didn’t know much about any Prince Vlad; he was just some dead guy with a bad reputation, from what he’d heard from the others. But he was all too familiar with Malhad’dar, since he had been riding with him for some six months. And if he informed on the warlord... "He’ll kill me if I talk!"

Xena watched him with cold eyes. "You’ll die if you don’t."

Tears formed in the man’s eyes. It was far worse than being caught between a rock and a hard place; he was familiar with Xena’s dark reputation, yet at the same time he was absolutely terrified of his master. He didn’t know who he feared more.

Gabrielle watched uncomfortably as a trickle of blood began to leak from one of his nostrils; his sinuses were filling with blood, and it was getting harder for him to breath. He snuffled once, spraying blood on his upper lip and on Xena’s hand as she continued to hold him in a vise-like grip. Then the tiny blood vessels in his eyes began to hemorrhage, and traces of blood mixed with his tears.

"North of here!" he finally blurted. "Up the main road that leads to this village! Take the left fork when you reach the split; it will lead you around the side of a mountain and then up into the hills. The entire journey is just under a day’s ride."

Satisfied that he was telling the truth, Xena hit him again with lightning speed and rigid fingers, releasing his blood flow once more. He dropped to the ground, panting in exertion and terror–and in relief, now that his life had been spared.

And then she slammed a fist into his face, knocking him out cold. "Tie this man and gag him," she said, addressing the crowd. "If he’s lied to us, I want to be able to interrogate him again. And get rid of these bodies before more raiders come looking for them." To Gabrielle, she added, "Come on; we might still have enough daylight left to find Vlad’s castle."

************

Down on one knee in the middle of the road, she picked up a green, dry, grassy lump and crushed it almost into dust between her fingers. "These droppings must be a couple of weeks old," she said softly, "yet the tracks themselves look comparatively fresh. Notice the edges? They’re still well-defined. There’s obviously been a lot of traffic along this trail."

Still standing next to Argo and holding her reins, Gabrielle watched her friend with a slightly revolted expression in her eyes. "I hope you remember to wash those hands before you eat with them," she said.

Xena grinned and shook her head slightly, and then dusted her hands together as she rose from her crouch. She reached for the reins and Gabrielle handed them to her, careful not to touch her. "I’ve always admired the way you use humor to deal with an unpleasant situation," she said. Then, more softly and more seriously, she added, "You’re still upset about my interrogation technique, aren’t you?"

"The neck-pinch thing?" Watching her quietly for a moment, squinting slightly against the brilliance of the late afternoon sun as it shone in her eyes, she sighed softly. "Not really," she said at last. "Unfortunately--and thanks to some brainless idiots that are still running loose–sometimes there’s just no other alternative but force; that force is the only thing they understand. I mean, how does one reason with someone who refuses to be reasoned with?" She sighed in resignation. "At least your way, the decision to survive through cooperation or to pay for their stupidity and malice is ultimately theirs." She thought for a moment. "On the other hand, there’s a part of me that still insists there must be another way. I just have to keep searching for it until I find it."

"Let me know when you do," Xena softly told her as they continued on.

One corner of Gabrielle’s mouth curled upward in a tiny smile. "Will do," she said.

They came around one more bend in the road, and they stopped. Gabrielle’s heart raced for a moment in apprehension, and Xena’s eyes chilled in cold determination. Five hundred meters ahead of them, in the silence and the gathering darkness, lay the castle of Prince Vlad.

III

"Having second thoughts?" Xena asked as they approached the massive main entrance.

Gabrielle said nothing. Instead, she shrugged slightly with a troubled look in her eyes. The way the crumbling black walls of the ancient castle seemed to blend in with the black and craggy mountains that surrounded it, it was difficult to tell where natural architecture ended and where human architecture began; and the white mist that slowly drifted before the base of the castle, even in this late afternoon sun, further obscured the border between nature and the manmade to create an even more chilling and sinister atmosphere.

She shuddered uncontrollably.

Taking her friend’s reaction as her answer, Xena said, "I don’t blame you. But it’s too late to turn back now."

"I don’t know," Gabrielle countered softly as she continued to gaze apprehensively at the castle. "With the proper motivation, I can run pretty fast."

In spite of herself, Xena grinned a wry grin. She could certainly understand her friend’s reluctance, but at the same time she also knew without question that Gabrielle would never desert her. Over the past few summers, the black-haired warrior had grown to admire her more than the young bard knew for having stuck with her for so long–and for frequently risking her own life so she could record the warrior’s deeds for the ages. Gabrielle might have sounded like a reluctant partner at times, but in reality she was the bravest person Xena had ever known. Over the last few summers, she had metamorphosed from a young and innocent village girl to a strong and formidable young woman.

To assuage her apprehension, she asked, "C’mon, Gabrielle. Where’s your sense of adventure?"

"I think I might have left it in Corinth," she replied, "along with that bad cheese I ate."

Xena winced sharply at the memory of the cheese incident, and shuddered sympathetically.

"Come on," she said at last, "it’s not getting any earlier."

************

"Look at this art work," Gabrielle said in open admiration, her voice and their footsteps echoing from the cold, gray stone walls as they stepped into a vast and formerly majestic entrance hall. There were ancient white statues standing in the darkened corners, some praying and some dressed for battle; ancient and imposing weapons, shields, and coats-of-arms hung in shadows, and ancient family portraits hung with tapestries opposite the broken, empty windows. The trappings all denoted a former and magnificent wealth and beauty, but their unkempt condition–stained with mildew and crumbling with decay, and with layer upon layer of thick dust and ancient, shredded cobwebs–now signified almost three centuries of neglect.

"We ought to be looking for Vlad’s grave rather than admiring his art collection," Xena replied as she cautiously surveyed their surroundings. She kept wondering why they had not run into any resistance; so far, not a single cult member had been seen. Not only that, there didn’t seem to be any evidence of any human occupation; the place looked as though it had not been disturbed in nearly three hundred years. But that didn’t mean there weren’t any of his forces lurking nearby, ready and waiting for an opportunity to spring a surprise attack.

There was a long, dust-covered ebony table surrounded by a dozen thickly upholstered chairs that looked more like small thrones, and the walls were covered with paintings that reflected considerable talent; where there were no paintings, there were shelves that contained scrolls and leather-bound books–scores of them.

Gabrielle stopped for a moment, and touched one of the paintings. "This is incredible," she said softly. She glanced around at the collection of scrolls and leather-bound volumes, and then turned to Xena. "Do you suppose he’s read all these scrolls? I mean, someone who reads this much certainly doesn’t fit my idea of a savage warlord."

Xena narrowed her eyes slightly in the fading light as the depth and texture of the work momentarily captured even her attention. The scenery seemed to shift from day-lit to moon-lit as she shifted the angle of her gaze. The painter was obviously talented. "Yeah," she said in reluctant admiration. "A savage with good taste. These could be strictly for show."

"Maybe," Gabrielle said thoughtfully.

Xena moved on from one painting to the next, captivated by the art work and admiring each portrait in its turn. These really are incredible, she thought. I wonder who he stole them from.

She stopped suddenly, and her eyes went wide in shock. By the Gods! she thought. "Gabrielle!" she said, turning slightly yet never taking her eyes from the painting. "Come here and take a look at–" She stopped and looked around. "Gabrielle?"

Her friend was gone.

************

Gabrielle ran her fingers along one of the shelves. She reached for one of the many scrolls that stood on end and tried to take it down, but it would not come away from the shelf. Scowling slightly, she examined the scroll and noticed that tied around it, above the ribbon that held it shut, there was a thin piece of wire. What’s this? she thought in mild bewilderment. She tugged a little harder.

The entire set of shelves–from floor to ceiling, and some twelve feet wide–suddenly spun without a sound, sweeping her through the secret doorway.

She didn’t even have time to cry out for help.

************

"Gabrielle?" Xena strode quickly to where her friend had last been standing. Had she wandered off down a connecting hall, or stepped into another room to explore? Not without letting her know, she wouldn’t. The shelves and scrolls looked the same. Had someone silent and stealthy simply crept up from behind her and abducted her? Or did the shelves conceal a doorway to a secret passageway, she suddenly wondered, and had someone–or something–just now used it to snatch her friend?

"Gabrielle!" she called out again, her heart now racing with apprehension. If anything had happened to her... She searched the shelves frantically, with her ice-blue eyes wide in fear and quickly running her hands over the wood and parchment, feeling for the activating mechanism. But she could find nothing. "Gabrielle!"

************

She found herself inside another room. It was sparsely furnished and utterly silent, with only a small table next to the shelves which stood before her, and resting on it was a small oil lamp. There was a small, dust-covered flint next to the lamp, which was used for lighting it, and the rapidly fading rays of the sun shone through a red stained-glass window. The room looked as though it was bathed in blood.

She spun and pounded her fist against the wall behind the shelves. "Xena!" she called out, her heart pounding in terror. The last thing she wanted was to be separated from the warrior in the house of a vampire. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder at the dust-covered window, and watched in terror as the last rays of the setting sun faded behind the mountains. "Xena!"

************

"Gabrielle! Can you hear me? Gabrielle!"

Silence answered her.

************

With a soft, deep-chested lion’s growl, it watched from a high corner of the ceiling as the raven-haired woman with the sword slung across her back pounded against the wall with one fist. It could see her only from behind, so it crept slowly along the corner to a better vantage point. It paused for a moment to watch her from the shadows with glaring red eyes; and then, like a luminescent white mist drifting slowly across a bog, it descended and silently crept up on her from behind.

************

Standing and listening intently in the near darkness, she couldn’t tell if Xena could hear her or not. In sheer frustration, she cursed at the wall and kicked it once more–as though it would do any good. Rail and flail as she might, the mute wall and scroll shelves would not even acknowledge her presence.

Great, she thought with growing fear and frustration. Terrific. Now what am I going to do? There was worry in her eyes, but she refused to give in to it. She stood back and stopped for a moment to catch her breath, and forced herself to think more clearly. It was obvious that brute force was not going to get her out of here; so instead of beating at the wall with her staff and calling it a wide variety of imaginative and offensive names, she decided it would be less of an exertion if she quickly looked for the switch or whatever that would activate the shelves’ mechanism and set her free. "I will not panic," she told herself softly as she willed her racing heart and breathing to slow. "I will not panic." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Calm and relaxed," she whispered, "calm and relaxed..."

Straining her eyes against the encroaching darkness, she reached for the flint, struck it several times before it caught, and lit the lamp. Raising it, she took a better look around the room.

The shadows flickered and retreated to reveal more shelves that were positively jammed with seemingly innumerable scrolls and leather-bound volumes; they must have numbered in the hundreds, almost bursting the shelves apart. The room was a library of some kind. Under normal circumstances, Gabrielle would have been happy to take her time and examine the books and scrolls; to settle comfortably into one of the wide, over-stuffed chairs and put her feet up to rest the volumes in her lap as she perused them at her leisure. But her usually spirited sense of curiosity had been hammered to dust by a sudden and fierce sense of self-preservation.

************

Searching the massive set of shelves for the mechanism that might return Gabrielle to her, Xena felt a sudden and unsettling chill. It felt as though someone had carelessly left a cabin door open on a Siberian winter’s night, rapidly letting out all of the warmth that had accumulated from the fire in the fireplace to be replaced with a gust of such intense iciness that it reached into one’s very soul. She could even see her own breath now, as it escaped from her nose and lips as thick white puffs of vapor, while she listened intently for any of Gabrielle’s faint and distant cries for help.

She also felt someone standing behind her.

She spun quickly and drew her sword with a loud metallic ring, and found herself facing a tall, elderly man with flowing white hair and a white moustache. But for one so old, he also appeared to be quite robust and strongly built. He was dressed completely in black, with the only color on him coming from a sparkling silver chain and a gleaming green emerald that fastened the cloak at his throat.

"May I help you?" he asked with a mellifluous, baritone voice. He slowly motioned with one hand, and a pair of torches that hung on each wall suddenly burst into flames to illuminate the room.

"Yeah," Xena snarled dangerously with her sword at the ready. "You can tell me what you did with my friend!"

The vampire smiled. "Your friend," he said. "That must be the annoying young blonde, verbally abusing my library." He took a step forward, and the bitter and biting cold intensified. When he spoke, Xena noticed, he left no white puffs of vapor drifting in the air; he was most definitely one of the walking dead–an undead monster, with absolutely no warmth or soul within him.

She backed up a step, but her sword never wavered; it’s tip remained aligned with the vampire’s throat. "I know who you are, Prince Vlad," she said, realizing even as she spoke that such a statement would do her no good.

"Then you have me at a disadvantage," the vampire said most politely. It could afford to be polite. After all, this mortal would probably be a quick kill, and he’d have a belly full of rich, warm blood. He might even make a conversion out of this one.

"My name is Xena," she said, by way of self-introduction.

Prince Vlad looked pleasantly surprised. "The warrior princess of Amphipolis!" he declared with a charming smile. Suddenly, slaking his thirst for blood didn’t seem to be quite the priority it was a moment ago. Turning his side to her, he took a couple of slow and deliberate paces that brought him no closer to her; nor did he retreat. Perhaps, Xena thought, he was trying to distract her before lunging in for the kill. "And if you truly know who I am," he added thoughtfully, "then you must also know that your sword is quite useless against me."

"Perhaps," she replied. "I’m sure you’ll excuse me if I don’t put it away."

The vampire’s smile expanded into a wide grin that revealed a set of glistening, lupine fangs. "Most understandable," he said, chuckling pleasantly. He paused for a moment, his thirst completely forgotten now. "So!" He turned suddenly to face her once more, causing her to jump slightly. "What brings you, bearing such nonlethal weapons, to my home?"

He had her there; there was no sense in holding him at sword point. Had she brought a wooden stake, she would have tried to slam it into him by now. But they had not had the opportunity to make any back in the village, thanks to the delay caused by the fight with Malhad’dar’s men, and her plan to improvise one after finding the prince helpless in his grave had been sidetracked by Gabrielle’s sudden disappearance.

On the other hand, she figured as the cold seemed to withdraw just slightly, maybe she could get in a lucky shot and decapitate the creature.

"First, I want to know what you did with my friend," she said in a deadly growl. "And then I want to know why you’ve ordered Malhad’dar to kidnap children and hold them hostage. What have the people of that village ever done to you?"

"Kidnap children?" he asked. For the first time, the vampire’s smile vanished; now he looked truly perplexed. "Why would I wanna do that?"

"You’re the vampire; you tell me."

Prince Vlad shook his head. Turning around to pace back–and reminding himself to enunciate properly–he said, "I have no need–or even any casual use–for children."

"Not according to Malhad’dar."

"I have no idea of who this ‘Malhad’dar’ person is," Vlad said, "or why he is maligning my name."

Xena smiled skeptically. "Yeah, sure..."

He stopped abruptly and regarded her. "You think I am immune to slander? You should know as well as I what it takes to dispel an unpleasant reputation."

There was a subtle shift in the expression in her eyes. No mortal would ever have noticed it, but the vampire did. He’d found a chink in her armor.

"Yes, I’ve heard the stories about the villages you’ve plundered and razed. The peasants you’ve killed. The women and children you’ve butchered."

The look in Xena’s eyes matched her sword; it was cold, sharp and deadly. "I’ve never harmed women and children," she said. "That was Darphus’s idea. My army acted against my wishes when they did that, and they chose to follow him."

While not seeming to have actually moved, Vlad was somehow closer to her than he had been a few moments ago. "You and I know that," he said, with his eyes gazing directly into hers. "But do you think anyone will believe you?"

"Probably not," she replied, challenging his gaze with her own. "I may not be able to do anything about that, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying."

The vampire watched her quietly and carefully. Admirable, it thought. "Your enemies will continue to slander your name," he told her, and as he did he continued to slowly drift toward her. "But I can help you to outlive them and the effects their words can have on you, and to correct the record."

"You want to grant me eternal life?" Xena said softly with a slight smirk. "So I can be remembered as a butcher and a blood-sucking vrykolakas?" She shook her head slightly. "I don’t think so." In spite of the contempt she felt for the vampire and his offer, though, she was finding it increasingly difficult to avert her eyes.

Vlad winced slightly at the phrase, but his concentration never broke. Why did breathers always use that redundant phrase? Of course vampires drank blood! But calling him a "blood-sucking vrykolakas" was like calling mortals "food-eating humans." "There can be some definite advantages to being a vrykolakas," he told her. "You can become a witness to the ages. Imagine the future history you could see unfolding before your very eyes." This time, he actually did take a step toward her as his enthusiasm rose. "Imagine the absolute and gratifying justice of outliving all of your enemies for generations to come! While they lie rotting in the ground and feeding the worms, you can revise popular history with the truth, and live on in glory." He took yet another step toward her. "Next to myself, I can think of no better administrator of such justice."

"And what of my friends?" she asked. "How many of them would I leave behind?" That thought alone was enough to make her reject such an offer...but such considerations did little to dispel the feeling of sinking into a warm, dark, calm sea. She felt as though she were drowning, yet at the same time it was almost comforting. Gazing into the prince’s eyes, she felt as though she could fall into them...

Without realizing it, the tip of her sword began to slowly drop. "No," she said, but the definitiveness of her response did not match the softening tone of her voice. "Not as a..."

"All the hatred and distrust that others feel for you," Prince Vlad said in a near whisper, both soothingly and with quiet enthusiasm, as he continued to approach. "I can make all of that disappear."

She felt herself falling deeper under his spell. She shook her head to clear it, but it did her little good. She tried to step back, to raise her sword once more or reach for her chakram, but her arms felt so heavy, like lead weights... Even with her iron will, she found that she was susceptible to this creature’s influence. She hadn’t realized she had fallen into his web until it was too late.

"I would much rather have you as a willing ally than as a conscripted one," Vlad said.

"No," she said again as her sword’s tip gently met the stone floor, but it was no more than a weak, half-hearted whisper; almost a soft cry. She struggled to raise it, but it would not move. If only she had a few more moments, she might be able to free herself from this demon’s gaze; to wrench herself free of the trance, to scream in rage and slice the vampire’s head from its shoulders. Xena, who had outsmarted gods and goddesses, who had roamed from Britannia to Chin and had slain entire armies, and who had repeatedly defeated not only Callisto but also Ares– the very God of War himself–was now slipping deeper and deeper into the comforting warmth of the vampire’s spellbinding gaze. And struggle as she might to rise to the surface of this sea of darkness–to gasp a deep, desperate breath of air to clear her head–she just didn’t have enough time.

I never thought I would end like this, she thought as the vampire approached her and finally engulfed her in darkness.

Gabrielle...

************

"Where are you?" Gabrielle asked of the scroll that had sent her here. With the lamp in one hand, she pulled at the individual scrolls with the other, hoping that she would quickly find it. She was no longer worried about panicking, nor did she bother trying to calm herself; now she was plain damn mad. "Where are you, you little son of a Bacchae!" she roared as she pulled at another scroll.

The shelves abruptly and silently spun, sweeping her with them. With a yelp of surprise, she dropped the oil lamp and lunged for her staff. The light went out, plunging her into darkness, and there was a feeling of being swept away–and then she was standing outside in the dining hall once more. She quickly stepped out of the secret door’s reach, as though it might try to snatch at her and sweep her back into the secret room once more, and when she safely turned from it she saw Xena standing some ten paces away, partially illuminated by the flickering light of a pair of burning torches.

And she was not alone.

The vampire stood before her best friend with its hands on her shoulders. She slowly tilted her head back and to the side, exposing her throat, and even in this dim light Gabrielle could see the monster’s fangs when its lips parted.

"NO!!" Raising her staff and holding it like a lance, she charged headlong toward them with her heart pounding in terror and her eyes filled with fury.

With a loud, reptilian hiss of rage, the vampire wrenched its attention away from its prey and glared at her with blazing red eyes. With gleaming fangs, the thing demanded, "Who dares to interrupt me–"

And then he froze, his eyes wide in astonishment.

With a wild scream, Gabrielle rammed the end of her wooden staff into its midsection. The undead creature’s eyes bulged in surprise, and just as quickly it doubled over in sudden agony. Grunting with the force that she threw into the next blow, she swung the staff again with a loud whoosh!, and slammed it into his ribs. The monster roared again, and before it could counter another blow, Gabrielle swept the staff low and caught it behind the knees, sending the vampire to the stone floor.

Xena blinked once and then again as she slowly rose from the warm black depths of trance. As the black mist cleared from her eyes and mind, the first thing she saw was Gabrielle pounding furiously at Vlad and screaming in both terror and rage, slamming the end of her staff savagely against his shoulders and head, beating him to the floor. She stepped backward and bumped against the long table as Gabrielle continued her assault, shaking off the dizziness, and sat against it while trying to regain her wits.

"Hold it!" Vlad shouted, and Gabrielle hit him again and again, slamming the staff against the side of his head. "Hold it, dammitt, hold it!" he shouted again, holding out one hand to ward off another blow. "Enough already! Jeez!"

With perspiration shimmering on her tanned face and brow and trickling down her neck, and with clenched white teeth and a wild look in her eyes as she held the staff ready, Gabrielle paused for a moment, panting furiously and looking for any excuse to continue the beating. After all the times Xena had saved her life, she didn’t feel merely indebted to the warrior; the bond went far deeper than that.

The thought of this creature laying its hands on her made her raise her staff once more.

Supporting himself on one elbow, Prince Vlad held his other hand against his painful ribs. "Son of a bitch, that hurts!" Staring at her in mute stupefaction–By the Gods! he thought–he gingerly felt for any possible breaks. He took a deep breath and let it out quickly; he hadn’t taken a beating like that since before he had become...

He looked up at her again, and the astonished look in his eyes took on an additional expression of open admiration; he literally could not take his eyes off of the young blonde. "I haven’t been walloped like that in over two hundred years," he said at last, and saw that the raging and terrified expression in the young woman’s eyes also contained just a hint of puzzlement. Grinning at her, he added, "You’re very good with that."

And then he was gone. One moment he was there, prone and helpless before them on the cold stone floor, and suddenly he dissolved into a glowing white mist, which quickly slid away with a sudden breath of wind.

Both women jumped apprehensively. They spun quickly with their weapons held ready as they glanced around the room, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was simply gone.

He suddenly came from behind Gabrielle, and snatched her staff from her. "Let’s not have any more of it, shall we?" he said as he strode toward the head of the table. He dropped the staff onto the dust-covered surface with a loud clatter, and settled into one of the velvet-covered chairs. Resting one booted foot on the edge of the table, he tilted slowly back to lean against the wall behind him, assuming a watchful pose. He no longer saw them as intruders now. Xena’s strength and attitude reminded him a lot of himself, but the young blonde... By the Gods, he thought again, can it be...?

The two women warily backed away. Resting her hand on her chakram, Xena asked, "Why is it that a steel sword is useless against you, yet you can be taken out with a wooden staff?"

Prince Vlad had to tear his attention away from Gabrielle, and as he did he winced slightly and massaged his bruised ribs. "Maybe because wood was once a living thing but is no longer–rather like myself. Yet we both continue to exist," he replied. "A wooden stake through the heart can kill us, while a steel blade cannot; evidently, a wooden staff upside the head can crack our skulls." He winced again. "And our ribs," he added under his breath.

Gabrielle continued to watch him distrustfully. Her staff–their only effective weapon against this creature–was now far out of their reach and easily within his, and this thing was fully capable of ripping their throats out as easily as taking another breath...yet the monster was making no efforts to attack again.

But that didn’t mean it wouldn’t.

He motioned them toward a pair of chairs. "Please, sit," he said. When they made no move toward the offered chairs, he smiled reassuringly. "Please," he said, his full attention on Gabrielle. "You have nothing to fear from me; you have my word of honor on it."

Xena noticed the way he kept watching her, and didn’t like it. "What good is the word of a bloodthirsty vrykolakas?" she asked coldly.

Vlad gazed back at her, and his smile seemed to slip away just a bit. "I suppose it’s as good," he countered mildly, "as that of a bloodthirsty warrior princess."

They were silent for a moment, regarding each other carefully before Xena finally replied with a soft, "Touche."

In a show of good faith, Vlad somewhat painfully leaned forward and took the end of Gabrielle’s staff in one hand, and with a slight wince he extended the weapon toward her; fixing him with distrustful eyes, Gabrielle paused for only a moment before quickly snatching it back. Warily clutching the weapon once more, she and Xena slowly went to stand at the other end of the table as they kept a watchful eye on their host–but neither of them took the offered seats.

Vlad shrugged off their refusal of his hospitality with a barely noticeable motion. "Suit yourselves," he muttered softly. Fixing his eyes on them once more, he smiled pleasantly and said, "So, what brings two such lovely young ladies to my humble home?"

"Why are you kidnaping children and holding them hostage?" Gabrielle wanted to know. "What have the people of that village south of here done to you to deserve such treatment?"

He watched her for a moment, studying her. No, he thought at last, but by the Gods... "My dear..." He paused for a moment, slightly raising one questioning eyebrow.

"Gabrielle," she said, reluctantly and cautiously.

Vlad smiled charmingly. It wasn’t the same diabolical charm with which he had first regarded Xena; now he was sincerely congenial. "My dear Gabrielle," he said, enjoying the way her name rolled from his tongue; he literally could not speak it without smiling. "As I mentioned to your most formidable friend here, I have no need of child hostages to obtain what I desire. To expand on that, I would add that I simply take what I want. After all, who would stop me?" It was not said with the scorn and spiteful pride that Xena had heard so many times from so many other warlords; instead, it was simply a statement of fact, with no more boastfulness than a comment about the weather. Prince Vlad knew full well what his capabilities were, and he felt absolutely no need to impress others with them. "But there is nothing that I want from that village."

Gabrielle watched him for a long moment, noting with some disapproval that this last statement was tinged with a trace of derision. Finally, she asked gingerly, "Are you the same Prince Vlad as the general who defeated the Sumerian and Persian armies over two hundred years ago?"

Still reclining comfortably, and now with the pain in his ribs finally ebbing, the vampire smiled modestly and bowed his head slightly. "I am."

For a long moment, she was astounded; absolutely stunned with awe. Here she was, in the presence of a living piece of history–a slayer of armies who should have died nearly three hundred years ago, yet who still continued to live as long as it could feed on the blood of the living and rest in its grave during the day. For a moment, she felt as though she was about to be overcome by it all. "By the Gods," she breathed, barely audibly. One hand rose slowly to her forehead in astonishment, unconsciously brushing back blonde bangs which flopped back into place, while the implication sank to a new chilling depth within her soul. Without even realizing it, she slowly and heavily sank into one of the offered chairs.

And then her awe and trepidation were suddenly replaced with absolute fascination. Sweet Athena, this is gonna make a great story! She reached for her deerskin bag and grappled with it. "What happened to you?" she asked excitedly as she hurriedly searched inside for her quill and a fresh scroll. She spoke so quickly, her questions nearly ran together in one long stream. "Where do you come from? How old are you? How did you become a vrykolakas? What’s your connection with that village–"

He silenced her by raising a patient hand, and regarded her fondly for a long moment. "Are you two hungry?" he asked them at last. "You must be; I can hear dear Gabrielle’s stomach rumbling from here. And if I’m going to be interviewed, it’s going to make for a long night. So I’ll tell you what: I’ll go out and get us some dinner. The kitchen hasn’t been used for over two hundred years, but there’s plenty of wood for the fireplace, if you would be so kind as to build a fire." He smiled most amiably at them. "How does some nice roasted venison sound to you?"

For a moment, even Xena was somewhat taken aback. "Sounds great," she replied, almost as surprised as Gabrielle by this sudden turn of events. A minute ago, the young bard had been battling with him for Xena’s life and pounding at him in murderous rage with her staff; now he was inviting the two of them to dinner. Was this some kind of an illusion? Had they fallen under some spell? Was he deceiving them? Or had they misjudged him? Even Xena’s distrust seemed to be diminishing slightly. He no longer seemed to be as much of a threat to them; as a matter of fact, the warrior began to think that this vampire might actually be reasoned with. Slowly, she took the seat next to Gabrielle’s.

"I’ll be back shortly; the castle, in the meantime, is yours." He abruptly dissolved once more, like a vanishing ghost.

The two women jumped once more, and glanced nervously around to be certain that he wasn’t coming up on them from behind. Satisfied at last that they were truly alone, they stared at each other as they sat silently and motionlessly for a long, long moment. What had they gotten themselves into?

Looking once more at Vlad’s empty chair, Gabrielle finally broke the silence with a soft, "I hate it when he does that."

IV

"The biggest difference between a vampire and a Bacchae," Vlad said in answer to Gabrielle’s question, "is that the Bacchae are mindless sheep; they are slaves, loyal to Bacchus. What makes the vrykolakas so much more dangerous is our ability to think for ourselves."

The remains of dinner rested on the table before them. Vlad had brought in a small deer, slung over one shoulder, and the two women had feasted on venison. The meat had seemed a little dry, and Xena wondered if it was because Prince Vlad had consumed every last trace of the animal’s blood before it was cooked. His hair was now a dark iron-gray, and there were considerably fewer lines on his face. Nor was his complexion as pale as before; now he looked almost tanned. Upon noticing the changes in his features, both the warrior and the bard had vacillated between intrigue and disquiet; and then Xena wondered why it should bother her. After all, people gain strength from food; it was Nature’s way of keeping them alive. And blood was food to a vampire. But mortal humans don’t grow younger after feeding, she told herself, as did this supernatural being–a being whose reputation was that of a monster.

But then, a lot of people think I’m a monster, too, she reminded herself, so maybe I ought to cut him a little slack.

But that didn’t mean she would not continue to keep a wary eye on him.

Even if the steaks had seemed a little dry, they had gone down quite easily with the wine, in which Vlad had not partaken. "I hope you don’t mind," he had said as he poured, "but I never drink...wine. But please–enjoy." He had not let their bejeweled, golden goblets run empty.

"Many different people call us by many different names," Vlad went on. "The Britons call us vampire. To you Greeks we are vrykolakas; to the Romans we are vampiri, to the Germanic tribes of the far north we are nosferatu, the Siberians call us vurdelak, my own countrymen call us either vampir or stregoiu... all names refer to us as the undead. And as to how old I am," he added with a small smile in Gabrielle’s direction, "let’s just say...I’m far older than most people would believe."

"I take it you’ve come into contact with a lot of different cultures," Xena said.

"Oh, yes. My abundance of spare time has allowed me to travel far from my native land."

"But if you need your native soil to rest..." Xena began.

Vlad smiled, and said nothing. A moment later, Xena also smiled, understanding. Had she been in his place, she certainly would not have limited herself to just one crate of native soil to be carried wherever she went; she would have secreted hiding places all over the countryside, all within an easy night’s travel of each other. And with almost three hundred years in which to scatter extra resting places, Xena suddenly realized that he could travel throughout the entire world without restraint.

Gabrielle rested her forearms on the table and leaned on them with her own plate pushed aside. "How did you become a... I mean, I’ve heard stories about how the Bacchae convert their victims by biting them and..." She was reluctant to go on, unsure of her choice of words. The spinning in her head brought on by the wine didn’t help matters.

Vlad smiled. "I became what I am," he said, "by sheer determination, consummate stubbornness..." He regarded Xena. "...and the blackest, most absolute hatred that only you, my dear Xena, could possibly imagine." He returned his gaze to Gabrielle. "My family was taken from me, and I swore I would have justice."

Both women watched him intently in the ensuing silence, nearly spellbound by his words as the flames of the fireplace threw dancing orange light and flickering shadows across their faces. A loud pop! suddenly came from one of the crackling logs, startling Gabrielle and causing her to jump conspicuously while Xena continued to watch their host, searching for even the tiniest hint of boastfulness in his eyes. She found none.

"My dear ladies," he said at last, his voice soft in the near silence, "you are looking at the only man to ever fight his way out of the deepest, darkest pit of what my countrymen call Hell."

A chorus of wolves howled in the distance, and in response Vlad’s eyes flared with dark delight. Turning them to gaze toward one of the crumbling stone windows, he said in a near whisper, "Listen to them–the children of the night!" He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment as he savored the wolf songs. "What music they make."

I should write that down, Gabrielle thought, someone might be able to use it someday.

Xena watched their host for a silent moment, choosing her words carefully. "Prince Vlad, the people down in the village say you were once a general..."

"Quite true."

"Would you care to accompany us on a scouting mission? Gabrielle and I need to sneak in and assess Malhad’dar’s position and strength before we can actually mount any kind of a rescue mission."

"You can use my home as a base camp, if you wish," he replied, "but I personally do not care to get involved. Malhad’dar and his men, and that village, are of no concern to me."

Gabrielle was taken aback. "How can you say that?" she wanted to know, her voice earnest and perhaps a little reproachful. "There are women and children being held hostage, and–"

"And where were those villagers when I needed their help?" he demanded sharply. "When the Persians invaded two centuries ago, they came to me for help–and I led them to victory! Yes, we were outnumbered, I admit that, and the battle had been bloody, and many had died; the very ground here was soaked with the blood of invaders and patriots alike. But because of my leadership we defeated them!" He was quiet for a moment, forcing himself to be calm and debating with himself as to whether or not he should be completely honest with them. "Perhaps I could have dealt a little more humanely with some of the enemy officers," he went on. "Thinking back on it, I suppose I should have killed them before I had them gutted like fish and impaled."

Xena sat in stony silence while Gabrielle’s eyes registered shock as her blood suddenly ran cold in her veins. Dear Gods, she thought in horror. What kind of monster was this?

"But I wanted to send the few survivors home to their worthless king with a powerful message," he went on. "‘Do not invade these lands again.’ Later, some self-avowed critics said I could have been more diplomatic in my relations with our enemy, but they never offered any better ideas. Instead, they called me a bloodthirsty monster..." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It wasn’t that he ever needed to breathe; it was more out of habit. "And then a cowardly, undercover force of Persian spies kidnaped, raped and butchered my Katerina. When I heard about it...well, to say that I flew into a rage does not even begin to describe what I felt. When I asked for their help to destroy the enemy once and for all–to both wipe them from the face of the Earth and to obtain justice for Katerina–I was refused because they had a peace treaty with the Persians." He bared his teeth in a snarl, his fangs glistening in the firelight. "I was the one who made it possible for them to have that peace treaty; and when I needed their help, they turned their backs on me!" Feeling the rage rising once more–and after noticing the way Gabrielle had jumped at his outburst–he took another deep breath and forced himself again to be calm. "Whether they hired an assassin or merely chose one of their own to do the job, I do not know; all I do know is that I took a sword in the back, courtesy of one of those ‘precious villagers’ for whom you seem so concerned."

Gabrielle slowly shook her head, her eyes filled with shock and pain. "Such hatred," she whispered to herself, so softly that not even Xena, sitting next to her, could hear her. Such hatred brought on by so much pain... In some ways she could almost understand it, and that fact frightened her even more.

"No, I do not hate those people down there, for they are merely their descendants," Prince Vlad told her. "I simply do not care about them; I have been divorced from human contact for so long that they mean absolutely nothing to me. I don’t even find their fear entertaining anymore, even with all that garlic that they cower behind," he added a moment later. "At one time I had derived a bit of sardonic amusement from that, but over the last century or so I have been deprived even of that pleasure." He snorted mildly in contempt. "As if mere garlic can ward off a stregoiu... If I’d had...hell, if I’d eaten even a tenth of the garlic that those peasants now hide behind, I could have single-handedly warded off the entire Persian empire."

A tiny, reluctant smile tugged at one corner of Xena’s mouth, but Gabrielle ignored his attempt at humor. "But that was over two hundred years ago," she said with quiet earnestness. "The times have changed, Prince Vlad; people can and do change."

Vlad’s response consisted of an indifferent arching of one eyebrow and a slight, dismissive shrug of one shoulder. Clearly, he had no desire to continue discussing the subject. "It’s been so long since I’ve had any human companionship, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m more comfortable this way. I have my library, the nights, and my wolves. What more do I need?" He waved one hand slightly in the general direction of the village. "Certainly not those dolts." He paused for a moment and watched Gabrielle carefully. Suddenly, he was acutely aware that he was disappointing her.

He sighed. "I’ll tell you what: As a favor to the two of you..." He paused for a moment as he silently called out to the woods. He rose slowly and pushed his chair back, and then casually approached one of the windows. Before long, nearly a dozen huge gray wolves came leaping in through the stone casement.

Xena leapt to her feet and reached for her sword as it lay on the table. At the same time, Gabrielle lunged upright and grabbed for her staff. In response to their sudden movements, the wolves dropped into a startled crouch, pulling back their ears and snarling.

Vlad stood between them, holding out a staying hand before both parties. "Easy, easy," he said soothingly, "we’re all friends here. Relax."

Xena watched carefully, never lowering her sword, while Gabrielle–perhaps unwisely– lowered her staff slightly as the wolves slowly rose and relaxed their defensive postures.

Vlad sought out the alpha male and spoke with it directly. "They’re friends," he said. Then, to the two women, he said, "Come on over and say hi. Don’t worry; they won’t harm you." He knelt next to the wolf and softly whispered something in its ear.

The pack’s leader was the first to sit next to him like an obedient pet as the two women cautiously approached. Gabrielle was the first to tentatively reach out one hand so the wolf could smell her, and the wolf responded by enthusiastically licking it. A moment later, he wagged his tail merrily as he tried to elicit more caresses from her by excitedly nudging and poking her with his nose. Soon, both women were surrounded by gray fur, gleaming fangs, and lolling pink tongues.

Gabrielle grinned in surprise–and then yelped slightly in mild embarrassment as a cold wet nose inadvertently goosed her from behind. "They really are friendly, aren’t they?" she asked with a reddening face.

Xena grinned crookedly in spite of herself. She sheathed her sword and carefully reached forward to scratch the alpha wolf behind one ear.

"Okay, listen up," Vlad said, addressing the pack. "There’s a camp not far from here; I need you to find it and scout it out for my friends here, and to tell us all you can about it." He straightened and motioned with the sweep of an arm, his cloak hanging from it like a huge black wing. "Now off with you."

In a huge silent wave of gray, the wolves leaped through the windows and into the night.

And so the first stage of the battle had begun. She couldn’t decide if these wolves were being used as pawns or not; they were being sent out ahead to assess the enemy, not to sacrifice themselves to it for the good of stronger pieces. Also, based on her later observations, Xena simply did not believe that Vlad would callously send these wolves out on a suicide mission.

Not mere pawns, she told herself, they’re spies. Cunning, crafty, invisible and lethal spies.

Speaking of pawns, she thought as her eyes fell on the nearby chessboard. It would be a good way to kill some time while waiting for the wolves to return. "It’s been a while since I’ve engaged a real general in a bit of friendly competition," she said at last. She raised a questioning eyebrow and motioned toward the game with a slight movement of her head. "You play?"

"It’s been a long time," he said, with an almost too innocent smile, "so I’m afraid I’m not very good at it."

The exaggerated innocence of her own smile matched Vlad’s, and her reply was quick. "Neither am I," she said.

As he slowly rose from the table, his sudden, predatory grin didn’t quite hide his gleaming fangs. "I’ll blow the dust off the board."

************

"What a boring game," Gabrielle complained mildly. "It’ll never catch on." With her elbow on one knee and her palm under her chin, she sat forward on a dusty, red velvet sofa with Xena close on one side of her and a dozing wolf on the other. The forest predator was resting its chin on her thigh, and she gently stroked and scratched the side of its neck with her free hand. In response, the wolf sighed occasionally with a soft groan of pleasure. Across the low table, Prince Vlad sat opposite Xena in a velvet-upholstered chair that matched the sofa.

"Prince Vlad?" Gabrielle asked.

His eyes never left the board. So far, he and Xena were tied with one win each; the third game had resulted in a stalemate. They were currently engaged in number four.

"Hm?"

"Um...where’s your...ah..."

He smiled slightly. "Top of the stairs, first door on the left." He glanced at the wolf and motioned slightly with his head. "Go with her," he told it.

Gabrielle rose and headed for the stairs, and the wolf rose with her. "Be right back."

Thoroughly engrossed by the game, the two players replied, "Mm-hmm."

Gabrielle headed off up the stairs with the wolf leading the way. Torches that hung on the walls suddenly flared to life as she approached, illuminating her way and causing her to jump slightly. How does he do that? she wondered. Well, he is a vampire, she concluded. She slowed her ascent and turned her head to look at him, and silently observed for a moment as the two battle-hardened warriors continued to concentrate on the game. But he sure doesn’t act like one.

They were silent for several long moments as they gazed at the board. The fire crackled softly, and the forest outside was filled with night sounds. Six more moves, Vlad thought with quiet satisfaction, and I’ve got her.

Five more moves, Xena thought with an inward smile, and I’ve got him. She was silent for another long moment. Finally, with a soft voice she said, "By the way; that’s some interesting art work you have in the entrance hall." She pushed a pawn, which served to free a distant bishop. "The painter was very talented."

"Thank you." Vlad scowled slightly at the unexpected move, and then his eyes flicked quickly over the board, searching for an imminent attack or a possible trap. What was she up to?

Surprised by this new bit of information about their host, Xena smiled inwardly with the realization that Vlad himself had painted the pictures. She had misjudged him as a savage warlord. "I was especially intrigued by the one painting at the near end here...the likeness is incredible."

"The similarities are striking, aren’t they?"

"Virtually identical."

They were silent for another long moment. Vlad finally asked, "Do you think it’s possible that when people pass on they can come back in another life and another body?"

"You mean by reincarnation?" She shifted slightly. Unlacing her fingers from before her, she left one forearm resting on her knee while she raised her other hand. Deep in thought, she rested her chin on her thumb with one finger laying along the side of her face. "I spent a little time in the kingdom of Chin," she replied at last, "and I heard of a number of religions that accept it without question. Even Plato thought it might be possible." She continued to study the board, silent for a long moment. With her free hand, she advanced a knight, further ruining Vlad’s plans for victory. "I’ll tell you something, though. I’ve had a lot of people try to use the old pick-up line on me, where they tried to convince me that I was their long-lost lover or wife; it didn’t work." She raised her cool, blue eyes from the board and regarded him firmly. "And Gabrielle’s a smart woman; it won’t work on her, either. So don’t even try it."

Vlad smiled at what he thought might have been just a hint of jealousy in her tone as he threatened the knight with a rook.

Gabrielle returned a few moments later. Regarding the board, she asked, "Did I miss anything?"

Vlad smiled, and shook his head. And then he suddenly looked up as he sensed the return of his wolves. A moment later, they swarmed in to deliver through wordless communications the information they had acquired. "Forty men tucked away in a series of interconnected caves perhaps two miles south of here," he said, his eyes locked on those of the wolf pack’s leader. "They’ll take you there."

"You’re not coming with us?" Gabrielle asked.

Vlad regarded her without feeling. "They’re not my concern."

"How can you–" she began, but Xena cut her off.

"Come on, Gabrielle, you can’t make him help us." She took her arm in a soft yet firm grasp, and gently pulled her along.

Vlad took note of the expression in Gabrielle’s eyes–the hurt and the disappointment–but he refused to let it sway him. That village was none of his concern. And it was really none of their concern, either. "I don’t understand it," he said at last. "Why are you bothering with them? Why should you possibly risk your own lives for those strangers?"

"Because we said we’d help," Gabrielle replied. "Because it’s the right thing to do, and because we’re not a couple of callous–" She stopped abruptly, suddenly aware that she was treading on dangerously thin ice. Instead, she gazed reproachfully at Vlad for a moment longer, and then turned from him. "Come on, Xena," she said softly, convinced that she would never get through to him. The two of them headed out the door to leave a stunned and stung Vlad Dracula standing alone in the expansive, lifeless dining hall.

************

He had no idea of how long he had been sitting in front of the fire, gazing into it and lost in deep thought. The wolf that had taken such a liking to Gabrielle sat beside him, watching him intently. Vlad sighed. "They’re not my concern," he said to himself, softly. "If those two want to go rushing off to save a bunch of worthless strangers, that’s their business. But that village is not my problem." He turned his eyes toward the wolf. "And I don’t care how much she looks like Katerina, I know she isn’t her. So why should I get involved?"

The wolf gazed back at him with an expression that might have been mild reproof.

"What are you looking at?"

The wolf sighed, and blinked.

"They’re not my problem!" he emphatically told his lupine companion. "So stop looking at me like that."

The wolf continued to silently stare at him.

At last, Prince Vlad sighed heavily and rose from his chair with a growl of exasperation. "Oh, all right!"

V

Ten men were down, but that left thirty more to take up the slack–and it was quite possible that Xena and Gabrielle just might be outnumbered this time. There was little room to fight, and the hostages were held nearby with swords and daggers at their throats.

Surrounded by a contingent of Malhad’dar’s men, Xena held her sword at the ready while Gabrielle covered her back with her staff. With Malhad’dar sitting back comfortably and watching the entertainment before him, like a second-rate caesar in a minor-league Colosseum, the men moved in closer, preparing to strike.

He couldn’t believe that such a minor disability could afflict him so greatly. This cave, with its series of tunnels, had actually become a dwelling of sorts; and for some inexplicable reason, it was impossible for a vampire to enter any dwelling without first being invited in. After that, he could come and go as he pleased, but for that first-time entry he needed an invitation. How the hell does one receive an invitation to come in and kill all those who dwell inside?

"Hello?" he said from the cave’s entrance. "Excuse me...hello?"

No one bothered to answer.

He whistled shrilly. "Hey!"

This time, they all turned to regard the newcomer.

"Now that I finally have your attention," Vlad said politely. And then he recognized their style of clothing; they were all...

Persians! he thought in sudden, furious realization. The bastards had come back after all, in spite of his warnings, and had invaded his country again!

No mercy, he thought with an inward growl of pure, intense hatred. No mercy this time! With cold contempt, he asked, "Which one of you gutless little rat droppings is in charge here?"

Malhad’dar rose from his chair. "Who do you think you are to come here and talk to me and my men this way?" he demanded.

"My name is Vlad," he replied. "Viceroy of Targoviste, first general of the Knights Order of the Dracul, and Prince of Transylvania." He paused for a moment, and regarded Malhad’dar as though this second-rate leader were nothing more than a hairy, disgusting little dung beetle. "And who the fuck are you?"

Malhad’dar clenched one fist and reached for his sword. "I am the warlord Malhad’dar!" he roared back.

Vlad waited expectantly. "And...?"

Unable to think of anything else to add to his resume, he drew his sword as he blurted out, "And I’m the man who’s going to eat your heart!"

Vlad raised a mildly surprised and curious eyebrow. "Indeed?" he asked. "All the way from there?" He paused for a moment. "I mean, aren’t you even going to invite me in first?"

He stared at him with indescribable rage in his eyes. How dare this...this...maggot talk to the great Malhad’dar in such a manner? With no more than a nod, he could have him dragged outside and drawn and quartered. But after a moment’s reflection, his outrage began to transform itself into amusement. Whatever else this Prince Vlad might not have, what he did have was guts.

Slowly, Malhad’dar began to laugh. A moment later, the rest of his men joined in. "Sure," he said at last with a chuckle. He stepped away from his chair and spread his arms expansively in exaggerated welcome, with the firelight reflecting from the sword in his hand. "Come on in, Prince Vlad. Enter my humble abode...and meet your destiny at the point of my sword."

Vlad smiled. "I thought you’d never ask," he said softly, and as he stepped across the threshold, his smile quickly slipped away and was replaced with a look of cold, dark, and dangerous determination.

Two men stepped forward. Each of them seized an arm, lifted Vlad from the ground, and carried him backward outside once more. Two more men took hold of the massive wooden door and slammed it shut, and bolted it into place with a heavy beam. The rest of the men, along with Malhad’dar, laughed. "So much for that rescue attempt," one of them said.

One of the men from outside suddenly screamed in terror, and a moment later something slammed against the door like a battering ram, shaking the entire cave. The rest of the men fell silent to stare in frowning wonder at the door. A moment later, a pool of blood slowly oozed under it...and then a luminous white mist began to permeate through the cracks and seams of the wood. Malhad’dar regarded it darkly. "What the..."

Gabrielle shivered uncontrollably. "Xena," she said softly, her breath leaving trailing, irregular white puffs of vapor in the air, "why is it suddenly so cold in here?"

Xena slowly shook her head as she remembered that same overwhelming chill that had swept over her when Vlad had first come up from behind her. "These poor bastards," she said as Gabrielle looked at her. "These poor bastards don’t stand a chance."

The door wasn’t even visible now; it was a solid bank of glowing white fog. And stepping from it, as though the door wasn’t even there, Prince Vlad entered the cave once more. But he wasn’t a gray-haired, middle-aged man, as he had been a moment ago; now his hair was rich and black, his face tanned and unlined, and his eyes were as cold as death.

Determined to stop this intrusion but uncertain of how, Malhad’dar pointed at the approaching Prince Vlad with the tip of his sword. "Somebody kill that son of a bitch!" he roared.

With a wild yell, the first soldier rushed at him, waving his sword. Vlad brushed him aside with one hand, as though he were nothing more than an annoying little gnat, and the slight movement sent him flying backward to slam against the cavern wall. A second soldier rushed toward him, and Vlad seized him by the front of his tunic and thrust him away with no more effort than he would use to carelessly toss aside a rag doll. A third man started to approach, but Vlad held up a warning finger and then pointed it at him in a sharp jab. After seeing what had happened to the first two men, the third wisely decided to follow Vlad’s silent order to stay put.

The fourth man stepped in front of him, cutting him off from his path like a boulder in the middle of a narrow road. He was a full two meters tall, and weighed some 380 pounds; the massive broadsword in his hand must have weighed at least fifty.

Vlad sighed softly in mild exasperation, and with a slight shake of his head he rolled his eyes. His hand shot forward like a striking cobra and seized the behemoth by the throat, and began to squeeze. "I really do find all of these minor distractions to be most annoying," he said with diminishing patience as he lifted the man from the floor with barely a hint of effort. "And I resent having to waste my valuable time by having to deal with them." He crushed the man’s neck and carelessly tossed him aside.

Four men were down, and Prince Vlad hadn’t even broken his stride.

With a blood-chilling smile, he turned his gaze on Malhad’dar and crooked a finger at him, beckoning him to come forward.

That was when the men scattered like a flock of geese. Unlike Malhad’dar, they knew when to quit. The warlord, however, snatched up Valeria’s infant daughter and dashed off, heading deeper into the tunnels.

Xena took off after him.

Driven by blind panic, one of the Persians threw away his sword and tried to follow suit, hoping to escape with his life and nothing more. "Screw Malhad’dar!" he told Gabrielle, Prince Vlad, or anyone else who might have been within earshot. "I’ve had it with him and his Lords of Darkness! I’m getting out here, I’m going home, and I’m going to become a farmer like mom and dad wanted. I am freaking out of here!" He turned to dash off, but Vlad suddenly appeared in front of him, and seized him by the throat in a killing grip. He squeezed mercilessly.

"Prince Vlad, no!" Gabrielle screamed. "Don’t kill him!"

"Why not?" he asked coldly, sneering with contempt as his eyes bored into those of the terrified looter. "He’s pond scum; he’s a worthless thief and kidnapper, and only the gods themselves know what else he’s done to innocent victims." He slammed the back of the looter’s head against the cavern wall and held him suspended from the ground. "Do you really think I should reward him by sparing his life?"

"Please!" Gabrielle implored once more. "He’s no danger to anyone now; you don’t have to do this!"

With a vicious smile and a cold chuckle, Vlad softly said, "Oh, but I want to!" He squeezed a little tighter, completely cutting off his air. The looter’s face turned red and then blue, and his entire head felt as though it was about to burst apart with hot pressure. "Go meet your maker, you worthless piece of dung." Vlad grinned malignantly, revealing his glistening fangs as the bones in the man’s neck began to grind together.

The soft, quiet voice said, "Father?"

With gooseflesh suddenly crawling across his skin, he snapped his head toward the source of the voice as his eyes suddenly widened in mute shock.

The young bard was standing several yards away, dressed in that light blue velvet dress that he liked so much; the one with the sparkling silver lining around the wide, open neck and shoulders, around the cuffs of the long, tapering sleeves, and the hem that didn’t quite reach the floor. Her hair was loose, cascading about her shoulders like brilliant golden sunshine, and her jade-green eyes were filled with compassion. She took a slow, tentative step toward him.

For the first time in his life, he was struck speechless. Nearly overwhelmed with sudden emotion, he stared at the vision before him.

"Please, Father," she said, her voice pleading mildly as she took another step toward him, "let him go. There’s been enough killing for one day."

Vlad stared at her a moment longer, his mind racing. By the Gods! he thought. It is her! Suddenly, he was aware of the tears that had welled in his eyes; and just as suddenly, his murderous resolve began to melt.

Turning his eyes to stare indecisively at the helpless enemy before him, he still wanted to give in to his raging desire for the revenge of her rape and murder; but when he turned them back on the young blonde once more, he also wanted to acquiesce to her plea for this man’s life. By his standards, he had a moral duty to terminate this threat to innocent life–yet he also wanted so desperately to please his daughter. Suddenly, he didn’t know what to do.

Without realizing it, his grip on the young Persian’s throat began to loosen. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head slightly to clear it, trying to sort out his thoughts.

"Please," she said once more, her voice soft yet imploring as she slowly drew even closer.

He turned to face his prey once more, his damp and red-rimmed eyes uncertain, and suddenly he remembered the day she had asked him for a pony. He hadn’t been able to refuse her then, either. When his wife had died in childbirth, Katerina had become his entire world, his universe; fearing that he would spoil her greatly, he could never refuse her as a child. Could he possibly refuse her now?

And then his eyes blazed to fiery life once more, redder and brighter and hotter than the flames of Hell itself, as he remembered the day he had found her nude, battered and violated corpse. He wanted vengeance. Vengeance! And by the Gods, after nearly three hundred years of searching and waiting, his vengeance was finally at hand! With his screams of rage and agony echoing through his mind as he had held her lifeless body in his arms, his lips peeled back with a sudden, lion-like snarl that revealed long, glistening fangs, and the unbreakable grip he had on the Persian’s throat slowly tightened once more, cutting off his air. The looter struggled against him, trying uselessly to peel the vampire’s cold fingers from his throat.

Vlad’s face drew closer to the looter’s, his breath smelling of fresh blood. "If you ever..." He paused for a moment, still struggling furiously to contain the rage that was demanding release. His arm trembled not with the strain of holding the looter from the floor, but with the effort of restraining himself; he wanted so badly, so desperately to kill him–to eviscerate him and then tear him limb from limb, and to rid the world of one more malicious piece of criminal excrement.

Trembling under the unimaginable strain of controlling himself, he spoke with a soft, ominous voice that belied his hellish fury and rumbled deep in his chest, like the growl of a jungle predator. "If you ever...come anywhere near my little girl again...I will feed you to my wolves. Handful...by bloody handful." He held him a moment longer, still using only one hand, and then he suddenly released his grip. It was a subtle movement, yet one so sudden that it caught both looter and daughter off guard. Gabrielle jumped visibly while the looter fell in a heap to the floor. "Now get out of my sight."

With his helmet askew, the looter sat frozen to the spot in absolute terror.

"NOW!!"

He didn’t need to be told a third time. He scrambled to his feet and spun around, and as the brim of his helmet fell over his eyes he slammed face-first into the tunnel wall. Bouncing hard from it, almost ricocheting like a stone fired from a sling, he slammed against the other wall with his back. He hurriedly straightened his helmet, got his bearings right, and raced down the stone corridor as though he were escaping from the specter of Death itself.

Which, quite arguably, he was.

With a soft sigh of relief, Gabrielle slowly and gently laid one soft, tanned hand on Vlad’s arm. "Thank you," she said softly.

The vampire turned so abruptly that he startled the young bard, and he swept her into a warm embrace. Inhaling deeply, he could smell the familiar smell of her skin and hair, and he savored the feel of her warm, firm body in his arms. He then gently captured her face in his hands, and with a soft cry he kissed both corners of her mouth, her forehead, and both cheeks, and then held her once more in a protective embrace. It didn’t matter to him that she was dressed once more in the two-tone green bodice and rust-colored skirt; he knew that his daughter had returned, and that was all that mattered to him.

"Find Xena," he told her softly. "Find her and get those villagers out of here. There are still things I must do, and you must not be a part of them."

"Prince Vlad–"

"Please, Katerina. I’ll be along shortly." He vanished from sight, leaving a surprised and perplexed Gabrielle standing alone in the cave.

************

He was the only one left, and he didn’t know what to do. This squalling brat under his arm didn’t help matters any. He thought about killing the infant, but if he did that he wouldn’t have a hostage. On the other hand, if the kid was dead, Xena wouldn’t be able to follow him by its cries. He could hear her footfalls, faint as they were, but they were growing louder and she drew nearer.

"Malhad’dar..." Vlad’s voice sounded like a soft whisper as it echoed down the stone corridor.

He raised his sword.

"Malhad’dar!" the voice roared, sounding as though it was only an inch from his ear.

A nervous sweat ran down his face and neck, and his eyes were wide in terror. He spun with the infant in one arm and his sword in his other hand. But still, he was alone.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are..." The voice sang, and then chuckled coldly, sending a shudder of terror up the man’s spine.

"Who are you?" Malhad’dar asked, his voice suddenly thin and terrified. "What are you?"

Vlad suddenly appeared from nowhere and seized him by the throat, holding the warlord pinned against the wall and his feet clear of the floor. Taking the child from his arm, he smiled with cold malice. "I am darkness," he replied, his voice low and soft, and utterly menacing. "I am the absolute blackness of all your private, childhood terrors." His face drew even closer, and as it did his eyes blazed once more, like two glowing red coals bursting into flames. His lips peeled back, and Malhad’dar watched in pure horror as Vlad’s teeth elongated into sharp, gleaming white fangs. "I am...your...worst...nightmare."

This time, Katerina wasn’t here to stop him.

************

Xena came around a bend in the tunnel, tracking Malhad’dar by his hideous screams–and then they were suddenly cut off by a hollow, wet tearing sound, as though someone were ripping open a watermelon. She stopped and listened. There were no other sounds. She took off again, went around another bend in the tunnel, and stopped when she found herself inside yet another chamber–and her eyes widened in shock and revulsion. By the Gods, she thought with an inward groan.

Gabrielle came up from behind her a moment later. "Everyone’s safe and outside," she reported, "but we still haven’t found–" She stopped when she saw the direction of Xena’s gaze. She followed it with her own eyes, and the expression in them suddenly leapt far beyond horror as a hand flew to her mouth, either to stifle a scream or to stop the flood that threatened to rage up from her stomach. She squeezed her eyes shut as she quickly turned away to bury her face against Xena’s shoulder, trying in vain to blot out the sight of Malhad’dar’s corpse hanging pinned to the wall by a spear like a grisly hunter’s trophy. There was a wide pool of blood under his feet; his rib cage had been peeled away and discarded as though it were a banana skin, and his heart was gone.

Then there was the wailing of an infant, and a rich and soothing baritone voice. "Yes, yes, I know," it said sympathetically as Prince Vlad came around a corner with Valeria’s infant daughter cradled protectively in his arms. "I know," he said again. "All kinds of crazy people running around and waving swords... yeah, they’re gonna hurt themselves, aren’t they? Yes, I know... I know..." He looked up from the infant’s face and found Xena and Gabrielle watching him. He smiled charmingly as he calmly approached them. "Here," he said to Gabrielle as he handed her the child. "I think you’d better take her. I haven’t held an infant in a long time, and..."

With horror-stricken eyes, Gabrielle hesitated for a moment before accepting the child.

Vlad noticed the look in their eyes, and his smile slipped a tiny bit as one eyebrow arched just slightly in puzzlement. "Are you two alright?"

Still uncertain and wary, Xena tapped one corner of her mouth with an index finger. "You’ve got..."

Vlad paused for a moment, and then touched two fingers to a corner of his own mouth. They came away glistening, sticky and red. With an expression that was identical to Gabrielle’s whenever she tried to hide her surprise, his jade-green eyes widened slightly in mild shock. But he recovered quickly. Oh dear, he thought, what have become of my manners? Without thinking, he quickly sucked the blood from his fingertips, one at a time, and then smiled in mild embarrassment. "Excuse me; I’ll...go clean up." He turned and disappeared.

It was silent for a long moment. "By the Gods," Gabrielle said at last, in a shocked and horrified breath of a whisper. She found her voice, and tried again. "By the Gods, Xena... Is he a man, or a monster?"

Had she looked up at her friend, she would have seen the same question reflected in the warrior’s eyes.

************

Emerging from the mouth of the cave, he took a deep breath as he gazed up at the midnight sky, and smiled and sighed in satisfaction. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this good, so utterly pleased with himself. Not for having acted through selfishness or personal desire, but for having done something truly good for someone else merely for its own sake. Helping the helpless and defending the defenseless were their own reward. He used to believe that, long ago; but with the death of his daughter, he had left that path to soothe his agony with revenge.

But now, with the idea of rescuing that small infant still fresh in his mind... I could make a habit of this, he told himself with a smile.

He looked around for a moment, and then spotted the rain barrel. He approached it and dipped his hands, and began to clean the blood from his lips and chin. He used his sleeve and the bottom of his cloak to blot his mouth dry. And then he leaned forward slightly to rest his hands on both sides of the barrel’s edge. Gazing into it, he could see the bright, rippling full moon reflected in its black, oily surface along with a multitude of stars. He slowly passed a hand over it, but neither it nor his face were reflected. In spite of this newly found desire to return to humanity, there was that eternal reminder that he was not human...and never would be.

The smile slipped away, and was replaced with discouragement. His sigh was as heavy as his heart.

And then his eyes turned cold. He quietly snarled his curses at whatever gods that might have been listening, those gods who had given him this dubious gift of immortality, and then at himself for having accepted it so willingly...and then he suddenly picked up the fifty-gallon rain barrel with not even a hint of effort. With a roaring oath of both rage and anguish, he threw it to shatter explosively against the mountainside; the iron binding rings burst apart against the stone and the wood splintered, and silvery water sprayed everywhere, staining the rock wall almost as darkly as the cavern’s mouth.

He stalked angrily toward the forest’s edge, and quickly dissolved into the night.

Epilogue

Gabrielle was still pondering the significance of the portrait in the main entrance. When Xena had finally had the time to take her to see it, the young bard’s eyes had widened in shock. "Dear Gods," she had whispered, the words barely audible, as she gazed at the portrait of the young blonde-haired, green-eyed woman in the light blue velvet dress with the silver trim. And then a moment later she had caught her friend completely off guard with a loud, wide-eyed, and totally un-bard-like, "Holy shit!!" And the more she thought about it, with a combination of both dread and fascination, the more she could not help wondering about the slim, faint possibility that she might really be Vlad’s reincarnated daughter. No, she finally told herself, she couldn’t be. No way. But there was still that annoying little hint of possibility that kept scratching persistently at the back of her mind. While the idea did not exactly have her nervously pacing the floor and wringing her hands in distress, it was keeping her from drifting off to sleep.

Which was just as well, because right now she was more interested in standing guard over the sleeping forms of Valeria and her daughter.

"Everything okay here?" Xena asked softly from the doorway, startling her just slightly. Across the expansive master bedchamber of Vlad’s castle, the windows stood open to admit a gentle breeze and the soft, reassuring sounds of the night. In contrast to the death-like cold that had permeated the castle earlier, now it was pleasantly mild.

"Sure, everything’s fine," Gabrielle replied, her own voice just as soft as she regarded the sleeping figures that shared a bed that was literally fit for a queen. Sitting comfortably in a wide chair next to it, her staff within easy reach, she raised her eyes to regard Xena. "Have you seen him?"

She shook her head slightly.

She sighed. "This is so weird," she said as Xena slowly approached her. "I mean, I don’t know what to make of him. On the one hand he’s handsome, charming and amazingly intelligent, and extraordinarily devoted to the memory of his wife and daughter." She paused for a moment as Xena knelt beside her. "Yet when it comes to dealing with his enemies... Ares and Dahak are absolutely nothing compared to him." She regarded Xena with troubled eyes, and when she spoke again her voice was a soft whisper of muted horror. "I’ve never seen such ruthlessness before. Part of me is frightened to death by him...while another part of me feels safe and warm at the thought of him being close by. I don’t know whether to fear or admire him." She was quiet for a moment as Xena rested her arm on the chair’s arm. She took Gabrielle’s hand and squeezed it comfortingly. "I know this is going to sound weird, but in some ways I kind of hope he isn’t gone."

Xena smiled reassuringly. "It’s his castle; I’m sure he’s around somewhere." She watched her for a long, silent moment. At last, she said, "You look exhausted. Why don’t you try to get some sleep?"

"Naw, I’m okay. You look bushed, though."

She shook her head slightly. "I’m too restless to sleep. Maybe I’ll check out the kitchen before turning in."

Gabrielle smiled. "Now there’s an idea." She squirmed and settled a little more deeply into the warm, velvety chair with a soft, moaning sigh. "If I weren’t so comfortable here..." She looked at her friend with hopeful eyes.

Xena grinned. "Okay, I’ll bring you something." With a sly look, she added, "How does some nice Corinthian cheese sound?"

Gabrielle winced. "You’re heartless."

Laughing softly, she squeezed her hand once more, then rose gracefully and left the room.

She sighed again with a contented smile, and regarded the sleeping figures once more, not thinking about anything in particular. She didn’t notice when the curtains gently billowed inward, though, nor did she feel the soft breeze–or see the luminous white mist that quietly slid in over the window’s ledge and along the floor. But she did feel someone’s presence once it coalesced into human form, and when she quickly raised her eyes and found herself confronted by a black silhouette, she gasped softly and began to rise. Before she could utter a sound, though, an ashen hand with sharp nails reached out to pass before her eyes. "You’re very tired," the vampire told her, his voice rumbling like distant, muted thunder. "Go to sleep."

With a soft sigh, she sank back into the chair and closed her eyes. Her breathing was slow and regular.

Prince Vlad stepped around her and settled on the edge of the bed. With a pallid face, glaring red eyes and gleaming fangs, he leaned over the sleeping Valeria and her infant daughter, and regarded them solemnly. "Listen well and remember," he told them. "Regardless of what others may tell you, you and your entire family–to the last generation–are now under my protection."

He rose slowly from the bed, then turned to approach Gabrielle. Silently kneeling next to her and clasping her palm against his, he observed her for a moment with merry, jade-green eyes and a proud father’s smile. "And as for you, my young Amazon queen," he said, and his smile expanded into a grin at the idea that his little girl really was an Amazon. "What can I say?" He touched her cheek. "I don’t know if you’re my Katerina or not; the two of you are so similar, yet so different. You look the same, you sound the same, you even act the same. But I do know this: Because of you, I actually feel alive again." He paused for a moment, looking for the right words. "You have given me back my soul–" He stopped again, for a short moment, as he struggled to control the emotion that was welling up in his voice before he continued. "–and for that I will be forever in your debt."

Watching silently and unobserved from the shadow of the doorway, her arms folded and her face concealed in darkness, Xena thought, That makes two of us.

He gently stroked her forehead and then her cheek with the backs of his fingers. "If you ever need anything from me–no matter how trivial your desire may seem–you call to me, and I will be there for you. That’s a promise." He clasped his palm against hers and kissed the back of her hand. He gazed fondly at her for a moment longer, then leaned forward and gently kissed her cheek.

She awoke with a slight start as Xena approached her. She looked up at her and regarded her with quiet concern. "Are you okay?" she asked softly.

"Sure," Xena replied. She settled next to Gabrielle in the wide chair, and pretended it was fatigue that she was wiping from her eyes. "I decided I was more tired than hungry." She sighed as she closed her eyes and stretched her legs, and folded her arms. "You know," she said, "there are a lot of people who call me ‘the warrior princess’; and I think you need a title of your own."

With her own eyes closed, Gabrielle smiled a wry and sleepy smile. "Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. How does ‘Gabrielle the Redeemer’ sound?"

Soft, skeptical laughter bubbled up from her. "Yeah, right..."

With a smile of her own, Xena regarded the young blonde for a moment. She slid an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, and kissed the top of her head. "I think it fits," she whispered. Gently resting her head against Gabrielle’s, she closed her own eyes once more, and a short time later she, too, was asleep.

The End

No Corinthian cheese was digested during the production of this story.

This story is fondly dedicated to Reneé O’Connor


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