A thin haze of smoke drifted across the field. The earth was soaked in blood. Bodies lay strewn across the damp grass, impaled on standing pikes, or sprawled across wreckage. Smoldering ashes of other bodies lay in small piles, blowing away in the stagnant breeze. The slaughterhouse stench of war covered everything.
In the pale light of the setting moon, two small groups of survivors stared across the carnage at one another.
On one side, surrounded by a cluster of no more than two dozen followers, was a woman, tall, lean and fierce, dressed in dark leather, a blood soaked sword still grasped in her weary hand.
Her companions were no less exhausted, many of them sporting wounds crudely bandaged.
She looked out across the field, all that remained of her mighty army, nearly four thousand men, reduced to a mere twenty.
"Xena," one of the men said wearily. "We cannot win this fight!"
Xena looked up at the failing night and then scanned the carnage across the field. In the distance, she could see the remains of her opponents' forces.
Nearly a hundred figures stood watching them with feral intensity.
They began stalking across the field, various edged weapons in their claw like hands. Their eyes shone an inhuman red.
Bacchi, the blood drinkers that haunted the nightmares of any sane living being.
"I know," Xena said. "Get out of here. Go to Medoa and raise the reserves!" She held one hand up signaling for the rest of her men to disperse. Then she began walking through the carnage towards the enemy.
The leader of the Bacchi saw this and held his arms out, halting the remainder of his forces. Then he stalked forward to meet her.
Xena stared at her opposition. His eyes glowed a beastly crimson. He was a tall man with long flowing dark hair and short moustache and beard. His features were angular and would have been quite attractive if it were not for the deathly pale tone of his flesh or the bloody glow of his eyes. His mouth curled into an animalistic snarl and she saw the fangs.
"You have fought well, Xena," he said in a growl. His voice was rich and smoothly accented. "It seems a pity to destroy you."
Xena matched the Bacchi's stare with the same icy intensity.
"My men are retreating as we speak," she said huskily. "You can kill me, if you like, but the rest of my men will be safe. They'll be able to recruit more troops and return here to finish you in a matter of a few weeks." She looked up at the paling sky.
"I don't think even you could track them all down and be in your holes by daybreak."
The Bacchi General looked up at the sky, and for the first time, Xena actually perceived anxiety from the creature. It looked back at her and gave her a smile that was more hunger than appreciation.
"Very good," he growled. "You know us well."
"I make it a point to know my enemies," Xena countered.
"As do I," the creature growled. "My master knew that you would fight to the last man, and that you would carry the battle long into our night. I expected no less of Ares personal protege"
He looked back at his followers. They leered at her hungrily, thirsting for more blood to drink.
He waived his hand in a dismissive gesture, and they departed, vanishing silently into the haze.
Then the Bacchi turned back to Xena.
"You have been a worthy opponent," He said. "To kill you now, here, would almost be an insult to my honor. If only we had met upon the field?"
"I don't have a problem with a fight," Xena said, her sword arm twitching with a combination of anxious energy and weariness.
"I would hardly consider this fair," The Bacchi replied "And I do not butcher the defenseless."
Xena smiled coldly, almost daring him to attack.
The Bacchi's fangs receded and his eyes dulled down to a startling pale green hue. Now, without the fangs and eyes, he looked almost human, and much more attractive. He smiled a smile that would freeze the air and stepped two paces back from her. Then he raised his sword in salute and turned to go.
"Do I get the pleasure of a name," Xena said with a cold smile. "So I know what to put on your grave stone?"
The Bacchi turned back and smiled again. There was something strongly seductive in the chill of that smile.
"Nickoli Vampyra," he said. "Till we meet again, Warrior Princess." Then he vanished into the smoke with a swirl of dark fabric. His sinister laugh seemed to float on the air all about her.
Xena sat up in her sleeping roll, her breath coming in gasps. She was covered in a fine layer of perspiration. Her eyes scanned the woods around their camp, seeing no threat, yet her instincts told her that they were not alone.
She glanced over at Gabrielle, lying in a deep slumber.
Slowly, her heart quieted, and her breathing slowed back to something more normal. She shivered against the night breeze as it drifted over her damp flesh.
Everything was silence and shadow. She put another couple of branches on their little fire and let the heat drive away the chill. Her mind tried to understand the dream. Her battle against Nickoli Vampyra had been almost fifteen years prior, when she was just beginning to make a name for herself. That this memory should suddenly surface after all that time made no sense.
Her instincts still screamed that she was being observed. Slowly, she drew out her sword and stepped out into the shadows of the trees, alert for any attack.
As she moved deeper into the shadows, her mind began creating potential targets in the gnarled silhouettes of the trees.
They seemed to reach out over her, like angry old men with thick branches and long sharp fingers. The rising fear within her was something she was not acustomed to.
"Something's feeding this," her mind rationalized.
A deeper shadow darted between two trees on the periphery of her vision. Her eyes locked on the place and she moved forward quickly, the adrenaline blocking the unnatural terror that was welling up within her.
She found herself in a small circular clearing amidst a cluster of massive oaks. The trunks stretched up like pillars, while the branches seemed to be hands, reaching up towards the heavens.
Faces within the shapes of the trees glared at her with bulging eyes.
Another hint of motion and she spun, weapon out.
"Who's there?" she challenged.
She turned slowly scanning the shadows, here eyes wide The feeling of terror was growing uncontrollably within her.
Then, as if they simply materialized from the air, she saw shadowy shapes standing motionless between several trees.
Inhuman eyes glowed green in the darkness, locking on her with feral intensity.
There were six of them surrounding her, standing still as statues. As the moon emerged from the clouds, the pale light illuminated the colorless flesh on their faces. They stood, staring hungrily at her, their fangs barely hidden behind their lips.
"You remember us?" A voice whispered It seemed to rise up from the earth all around her.
As if they were each of the same mind, they all began stepping forward towards her. Their movements were slow, deliberate and only added to the unnatural terror now threatening to overwhelm her.
They stopped several paces from her, their limbs still concealed within the folds of their long cloaks, their eyes blazing, skin shining pale in the moonlight.
Suddenly, the one in front of her bared his fangs, hissing, and they all attacked.
Xena leapt, flipping over and landing off to the side of the melee.
"Gabrielle!" She shouted as the first of the attackers turned to lunge at her.
Gabrielle awoke groggily at the sound of her name. She gave a soft groan. She hated waking up in the morning.
Suddenly a pair of cold hands grasped her in a viselike grip. Her instincts screamed to full wakefulness and she struggled against her attacker. Sinister breath hissed in her ear. She jabbed her elbow back and connected with something. There was a grunt and the hands on her shoulders loosened slightly. She spun out of those icy fingers and scooped up her staff. Turning to face her opponent, she froze in horror.
The man would have been young at one time, and quite attractive, if it were not for the demonic red glow of his eyes or the fangs protruding from his upper gums. He snarled and lunged at her again.
Gabrielle sidestepped the attack, her staff whistling down on the outstretched back of the attacker. She felt the bone shattering impact in her fingers.
The creature slammed into the ground and then bounced back up to its feet.
Crouching low, it stared at her hungrily.
A single word screamed in Gabrielle's mind. "Bacchi."
"Well done, my pretty one," the Bacchi snarled. In a move too fast for Gabrielle to see, the thing lunged again, ripping the staff from her fingers. She barely had time to see her weapon tumble away when a second blow sent her skidding across the clearing. The wind blasted from her lungs in a choked scream.
Before she could do anything like catch her breath or scramble back to her feet, the thing was upon her. Its body pressed on top of hers, icy hands pinning her wrists to the ground. They lay like grotesque lovers next to the fire.
"Now you are mine," the Bacchi grinned. His mouth opened and the fangs began to descend.
Another shape slammed into her attacker from the side. She rolled over and looked into the nearby foliage. The bushes waved and there was the crashing of smaller branches mixed with the thrashing and snarling of two beasts locked in combat. Then there was silence.
From behind her, Gabrielle could hear the sounds of Xena also locked in mortal combat. Her best friend was also shouting her name.
Gabrielle was about to shout back when her staff fell to the ground at her side.
She looked up into the green eyes of a man in a dark cloak with long dark hair and pale skin.
"Um, hi," Gabrielle said helplessly.
The man bent closer to her and grasped her by the neck and shoulder. His fingers were cold and unyielding, like soft stone. She could not even struggle as the man looked at her neck. He turned her head roughly to the right and then to the left.
"Did he bite you?" he asked urgently in a smooth crisp, accented baritone.
Gabrielle was too stunned to answer. The look of the man, the feel of his cold skin against hers, and his inhuman strength said that he was also a Bacchi.
"Did he bite you?" he asked again in a ferocious growl.
"No!" Gabrielle stammered.
The man let her go and moved towards the sound of Xena's battle. He stopped and his eyes turned back to Gabrielle, still kneeling on the ground.
The eyes went from a clear green to an inhuman glowing crimson, and the fangs extended as he smiled at her.
"Run," he said in a deep growl. "Get far away from here, if you value your soul!"
The growing terror in Gabrielle suddenly blossomed into full blown, unnatural panic. With a scream, she bolted into the trees, trying to put as much distance between her and the carnage as she could before she collapsed.
Xena heard Gabrielle's scream, filled with unbridled terror. The sound renewed her fury and she slashed and hacked at her opponents, screaming in rage.
The six creatures lashed out at her with lightning speed. She was bleeding from several cuts, but none of the beasts had managed to latch onto her and begin to feed. In the back of her mind, she knew that it would only be a matter of time before she would be tired out enough for them to come at her en mass and finish her off.
She spun on instinct and managed to slice the head off a nearby creature as it came in for the kill. The head sailed off into the shadows and the body collapsed in a fountain of black blood. The remaining Bacchi seemed suddenly to realize their danger and began to attack more carefully, treating the warrior princess and her sword with renewed respect.
"Not completely immortal are you?" she hissed defiantly. "Come on! Who's next?"
They had all clustered together, prepared to rush in as one. Xena saw this and instantly knew that she would not survive. She readied herself for the inevitable as the five remaining Bacchi charged, their eyes filled with red fire, their fangs bared and leering.
Gabrielle smashed through the dense underbrush as she fled the scene. After a few minutes of blindly running away from the battle, something like calm realization came over her and she stopped. Her chest heaved as she caught her breath. She looked back the way she had come, and gasped in shock. In her flight of blind terror, she had forgotten something.
"Xena," she said, and she turned and ran back towards the battle. The spell of fear now completely broken by the fear and concern she had for her best friend.
A second shadow hit the group of attacking Bacchi from one side and sent them all tumbling.
The instigator of the group tackle finished his roll and came up with two objects in his hands. He spun with deadly speed and impaled two of the Bacchi through the back. The objects entered the skin, puncturing the heart from behind and the two points emerged bathed in red. The two Bacchi staggered a couple of paces and fell to their knees.
Xena's strange benefactor dropped low and spun, his clawed fingers slicing the two heads off in one swift, lethal move. The bodies fell limp to either side, blood pumping from the massive wounds.
Quickly the figure reached into its cloak and procured two more items. Xena saw that they were simple wooden stakes. He tossed one to her.
"Use this! Stab them through the heart!" he shouted in an inhuman roar and then he leapt into the grasp of the next Bacchi.
The two bodies fell with a thud as the stranger rolled to one side revealing the third Bacchi, lying motionless, the wooden stake protruding from its chest.
One of the remaining creatures fastened on the stranger from behind, its fangs extending as it prepared to bite. At the same moment, Xena saw the eyes of the stranger kindled like fire. With a hiss like a kettle boiling over, it twisted violently and more quickly than any human could and threw his attacker against a nearby tree. The force of the blow snapped the spine of the Bacchi, and it fell to the ground in a heap.
Xena spun quickly back to her opponent, a young male, nearly Gabrielle's age, with short blonde hair and lithe build. It charged at her, ducking under the sweep of her sword.
She followed the movement around, staying centered on her target. Her sword whistled in again, and the Bacchi stepped to the side. Xena stabbed up with the wooden stake, felt it enter the Bacchi's flesh.
The creature froze in shock, its glowing eyes wide in surprise. Then it looked down at the weapon in its chest.
An expression both sad and pitiful crossed its features just as Xena's sword separated the head from the body. It fell over with a splat as the liquid contents of the corpse drained into the earth.
Xena looked up to see her mysterious savior stepping over to the body of the last Bacchi, lying helplessly in the earth, it's back broken. It struggled to rise, willing the damage to regenerate more quickly.
The stranger, eyes ablaze with fire, knelt down at the fallen creatures side. Then in a move violently sudden, the stranger scooped up the wounded Bacchi and sank its teeth into the stricken creature's throat.
Xena watched in horrified amazement as the one Bacchi fed off the other. A growl escaped the attacker's throat, and the red glow of the victims eyes began to dim.
The glowing eyes of the conqueror locked on Xena as he fed. Only a soft sucking noise was heard.
The color of the flesh on the dying Bacchi began to fade, as if a shadow were coming to the surface of the flesh. It turned nearly black in the moonlight and began to crumble like ash.
Finally, the victor withdrew, and the remains of the vanquished fell away to dust.
Xena's eyes were wide as she watched this other creature stand, staring at her with those penetrating ember eyes.
As she watched, the color in those eyes faded and was replaced with a more human hue, now a clear and pale green. The fangs receded and the face that stared at her was one from her nightmare of earlier.
The stranger cocked his head slightly to one side, as if appraising her and a smile crept across its face, framed by the thin whiskers of his goatee.
"Hello, Xena," he said in a smooth accented voice. "It's been a long time."
Xena almost couldn't believe what she was seeing.
"Nickoli Vampyra," she gasped. Then she raised her weapon again, preparing for another battle.
Nickoli looked at her sword and then his smile broadened. He stepped forward a few paces, his hands out in a gesture of surrender.
"I am not here to resume our little confrontation of fifteen years ago," he said easily. "Otherwise, I would have just attacked you when I was finished with that pour unfortunate." He gestured to the remains of his last victim. "Or let my former colleagues do the deed for me."
He removed a handkerchief from his sleeve and wiped the corners of his mouth, checking to be certain none of his enemy's blood still lingered on is face. Then he replaced the handkerchief and clasped his hand behind his back.
Beneath his cloak, Xena now saw that Nickoli was richly dressed, with dark pants and shiny black boots. His tunic was a pale color, though it did not gleam as if it was actually white, and he wore a dark leather vest.
His long dark hair hung in waves over his shoulders, framing his handsome features, and the tone of his skin was much more healthy. He almost appeared to be a normal man.
Beneath his arms hung several more of the wooden stakes that he had used against the Bacchi now lying dead at their feet. About his neck hung a silver amulet in the shape of the crescent moon. It gleamed like a mirror in the pale light.
Xena kept her sword even with Nickoli's chest.
"Why did you just help me?" she asked. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at him. "Since when do Bacchi kill other Bacchi?"
"Still as ravishing as ever," Nickoli said, ignoring her question. "The years have been kind." He gave a curt bow.
He seemed about to continue when a noise off to the side drew their attention.
Xena spun in anticipation of an attack only to see Gabrielle emerge, bruised and scratched in a myriad of places, but otherwise unharmed.
"Xena," she gasped. "Are you alright? I got here as fast as I could," she stopped when she saw Nickoli staring at her with a mixture of wonder and amusement.
"You!" Gabrielle gasped.
Nickoli only bowed to her and smiled. "I would have expected you to be half way to Corinth by now," he said, smiling. "My aura can be quite," he paused and smiled coldly. "Intimidating at best."
Instantly, the two of them felt that unnatural terror grow in their minds. Then just as quickly, it was gone.
Nickoli smiled, this time in appreciation.
"Also still as strong willed as ever," he commented. Then he fixed his gaze again on Gabrielle. "Both of you, it would seem?"
Gabrielle fingered her staff uneasily as she stared at the man before her.
"You haven't answered my question," Xena said in a growl.
"It was two questions, actually," Nickoli corrected her. "I shall answer your second question first, and that may also answer the first."
He looked about them at the mutilated corpses littering the dark earth.
"These are not Bacchi, though once they were." He explained. "And neither am I. These are some of the remnants of my army from fifteen years ago." He knelt down before one decapitated body.
"This one was Adaris," he said regretfully. "A good fighter as subordinates go, but not the brightest lamp in the home." He smiled and rose. "These seven unfortunates, and the others, have spent the last fifteen years forming alliances and killing one another, as well as regular humans. They, as am I, are free from any constraints that Bacchus once had upon us."
He began to pace slowly stepping over the bodies and checking them each carefully to make certain they were now completely dead.
"Perhaps it was the centuries of enslavement that finally broke some of them, but when we realized that we could no longer hear our master's summons, many of us went quite mad. We scattered throughout the land. I have spent the last decade or so, seeking them out."
"Trying to rebuild your army?" Xena asked knowingly.
Nickoli stopped and faced them, matching Xena's icy stare.
"Trying to eliminate most of them, actually," he replied. "While many of my former followers tend to be more civilized, some of them have truly become monsters in their own right. They are consumed with blood lust and kill anything they can sink their teeth into."
He stepped over to another body, the third one he had brought down, and stared at it critically for a moment. Then he drew out a long knife, and with one sweep, he severed the head from the corpse.
Gabrielle jumped at the sight of the mutilation. She took a step back in horror, one hand reflexively covered her mouth, and she felt her stomach tighten in revulsion.
Nickoli wiped the blade clean with the corner of the corpses coat and slid the weapon back into place.
"Unpleasant, I know," Nickoli said in sympathy. "But also necessary. In the morning, the sunlight will burn them to ash, and they will be forever gone."
"So," Xena said. "You've taken it upon yourself to destroy any others like you. Why?"
"Because they are not like me, Xena" Nickoli replied. "The ones I pursue, no longer have any respect for life. They kill for the sake of killing, or for the sport, only to gorge themselves on the blood of their victims. They are animals. Add to this, the fact that they have begun poaching humans on my lands, and you can now begin to understand why I have done what I have done."
"Oh yes," Xena gave him a mocking smile. "One thing I remember about you was your abundant respect for life. Since when did you have a change of heart?"
"If I had not had it, then you would be dead now!" Nickoli short back angrily. "I would have slaughtered you on that battlefield, simply because I could!"
He stepped up close enough for the point of her sword to touch his chest.
"My respect for life and my respect for you are the reasons why you stand before me now!" he hissed. "And my master was not pleased that I had been as chivalrous as I had." His stern expression grew cold. "I was locked in a pit for a decade, living off the blood of rodents and worms just to survive, all because I showed you mercy!" He spat.
Xena's eyes stayed locked on Nickoli's, and for a moment, his green eyes began to glow a dull red.
"Um, excuse me, Xena?" Gabrielle said quietly from the side. "Whatever happened between you two in the past, he did save my life tonight?"
Nickoli's eyes faded back to their normal green, a smile touched his lips and a single eyebrow rose in expectation.
"Yeah," Xena said quietly. "And he saved mine as well."
Nickoli took a step back, and clasped his hands behind his back again.
"Life for a life?" he asked. "Favor for a favor?"
"Xena," Gabrielle offered. "If he wanted to, he could have killed us both."
Xena looked deeply into Nickoli's eyes and finally lowered her weapon.
"You still haven't answered the part about helping us?" she asked.
Nickoli smiled. "Because, Xena. I need your help in return, and you cannot assist me if you are dead, can you?"
"My help?" Xena looked down at Gabrielle. "With what?"
"It's quite simple, really." Nickoli answered. "I need you to help me die."
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