Proposals and Propositions
Gabrielle stared at Nickoli in surprise. She and Xena exchanged identical looks and then looked back at the man.
"Let me get this straight," Gabrielle finally said. "You want Xena to kill you?"
Nickoli smiled genuinely. "Precisely."
"I can do that," Xena hissed, and she stabbed Nickoli through the chest in one lightning move.
Nickoli gave a grunt in surprise and looked down at the sword protruding from his chest. He looked back up at Xena, his eyes completely devoid of any pain.
Xena stared back, hoping to watch the unnatural light begin to fade in those eyes. Instead, Nickoli only smiled coldly.
One hand wrapped around Xena's fingers and he pushed her inexorably back until the point of the weapon was removed from his chest.
"Would you care to try decapitation next?" he asked pleasantly. "Or may we move past these petty displays?"
Xena looked down at the rip in Nickoli's clothing, the only visible damage.
"You cannot kill me, Xena," Nickoli continued. "At least, not yet."
Xena took a step back, then her sword flashed around again as she attempted to decapitate the Bacchi.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried out in protest.
There was a sharp metallic clang as Xena's sword crashed against Nickoli's palm. The blade refused to bite through the flesh.
"Really, Xena," Nickoli said in the same tone. "You are beginning to bore me."
Gabrielle noted an iciness beneath the voice. Nickoli was attempting to keep his calm, but his patience was quickly fading.
"Xena," she cried. "Stop this!"
"Sure," Xena replied, but the savage grin and wild look in her eyes said otherwise. Nickoli stepped back calmly, his eyes beginning to glow with the blood red of anger.
Xena charged in and swung, sending the tip of the blade across Nickoli's belly. The move would have disemboweled a normal man, but in this case, it was as if the action began and then reversed itself. The body opened and the guts within began to spill out, then they simply went back into their proper place and the wound closed.
That was enough for Nickoli. With a bellow of rage he darted in, simply swatting her sword away and taking Xena by the throat in a move so brutally fast, that Gabrielle thought Xena's neck had been broken.
The two flew through the air until Xena felt the crushing impact of a tree trunk in her spine. The wind blasted from her lungs and her eyes bulged in surprise.
The two of them hovered high above the ground. Xena glanced down between her toes and saw Gabrielle standing at the base of the tree, her eyes wide in horror.
"If you've quite finished!" Nickoli roared. "I do not have time for your childishness! If you have learned nothing of discipline in the last fifteen years, then you are useless to me!"
He released her throat and let her fall.
Xena caught the tree trunk with one foot and tried to change the fall into a controlled landing. It didn't work.
She saw the ground rush up to meet her and knew the impact would snap her neck. She was dead.
She jerked to a stop, mere inches from the ground.
Looking back up, she saw Nickoli, holding her by one ankle, his eyes ablaze.
"I don't require both of you," he growled. "You are both alive as a courtesy!"
He flung Xena away. She landed with a thud, next to her fallen weapon. Nickoli moved and stood before Gabrielle. Then he turned back to face her. He spread his hands out in a gesture of consideration and waited.
"Have I made my point?" he asked.
"Yeah," Xena replied. "You've made your point."
"Very well," Nickoli said, his eyes reverting once again to their brilliant, seductive, inhuman green. "Would you be so kind as to follow me?"
Gabrielle went over and helped Xena to her feet.
"What was that all about," she whispered softly. Xena opened her mouth to reply.
"She wished to see how powerful I had actually become," Nickoli answered from the other side of the clearing.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and shrugged. The two of them hurried to catch up with their unnatural ally.
"Why couldn't Xena hurt you?" Gabrielle asked the Bacchi as they walked.
Nickoli was inspecting the damage to his garments.
"Several reasons," Nickoli replied absently. "Primarily, because her weapons have not been properly prepared."
"My sword worked well enough on the one's back there?" Xena retorted.
"Those were mere fledglings." Nickoli said. "Once Adaris was no more, they were vulnerable."
"I don't understand?" Gabrielle asked.
"It's rather long and complicated," Nickoli said. He looked up at the sky and saw the first paling of morning. "I do not have time to explain it all to you now."
He stopped along side a small clearing within the trees and sighed.
"This looks good," he said. Then he turned and let out a long shrill whistle.
After a few minutes, the sound of quick, light padding feet rustled through the dead leaves, approaching them.
"Uh, Xena?" Gabrielle stuttered. Xena turned and looked in the direction the young bard was indicating.
Loping through the trees was a massive dog shape. It slowed to a trot as it entered the clearing and circled around the two women to stand at Nickoli's side.
It was an enormous beast, with thick brown hair and soft, gentle golden brown eyes. It sat in front of Nickoli, tongue lolling out as it panted.
"Hello, my friend," Nickoli said gently, his hand caressing the furry side of the muzzle.
"This is Tinga. For many years now, my friend and companion." He stroked the long fur at the shoulder
Tinga was easily over two hundred pounds of proud wolfish beauty. She sat statuesque, her eyes fixed on Xena and Gabrielle with uncomfortable intensity.
Gabrielle stared at her with wonder, a smile forming on her lips in spite of her awe, or perhaps, because of it.
Nickoli leaned down to the wolf's ear and whispered.
Tinga's eyes lost some of their intensity, and her tongue lolled back out as she panted contentedly under Nickoli's attention.
Gabrielle took a few steps forward, tentatively reaching out her hand.
Tinga's tongue withdrew, and her ears twitched back slightly. Gabrielle froze with her hand still out, palm down.
Tinga stared at her for a moment, then rose and stepped closer, giving Gabrielle's hand a tentative sniff. Then she lowered her head and Gabrielle felt the soft fur under her fingers. She stroked the top of the head and neck, her smile growing.
Nickoli also smiled. "I think she likes you," he said.
Gabrielle knelt down, level with Tinga's face.
"She will listen to you, in my absence," Nickoli continued. "And she will guard the two of you today, while you rest. While she also guards me."
"Guards you?" Xena asked.
"Yes," Nickoli replied. He went off to one side of the clearing and surveyed the ground.
"When I wake, I'll tell you anything you wish to know."
With that, he stretched out on the soft leaves and gave a sigh.
"Nickoli?" Gabrielle offered, her eyes drifting towards the sky. "What about the," she stopped in amazement when she saw Nickoli's body seem to melt into the earth and vanish.
Tinga looked on and then trotted over and lay down next to the earth where Nickoli had just submerged himself. She looked at Gabrielle and her head settled down onto the ground with a quiet whimper.
Gabrielle stepped up slowly and let herself settle on the ground next to the massive animal.
Tinga looked at her and then gave a sigh.
Gabrielle stroked the soft fur with wonder. She looked up at Xena and smiled.
"She's beautiful." She said.
Xena smiled in spite of her reservations, and took a few steps forward.
Tinga was on her feet instantly, her teeth bared and she snapped at Xena, snarling ravenously.
Gabrielle fell back in surprise and jumped to her feet.
Xena froze, her eyes wide. She lifted both hands slowly and stepped back.
Tinga's eyes were locked on the warrior princess with a ferocious hunger that had not been there moments before. She calmed again as Xena backed away. Then Tinga looked up at Gabrielle with a curious light in her golden brown eyes. It was as if she were afraid that she had offended Gabrielle.
Gabrielle held her hand out again and Tinga let out another whimper. Then she settled back down on top of Nickoli's resting place.
"Well," Xena said coldly. "I guess I know where I stand."
"Yeah," Gabrielle smiled. "As far from her as possible." She rose and followed Xena to the opposite side of the clearing.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, as she unrolled her blanket. "If things get too dangerous I want you to get out of this mess."
"What?" Gabrielle fixed Xena with a stern look. "Xena, why are you always trying to protect me? It's not like I can't take care of myself now."
"I don't doubt that," Xena said, smiling. "I've just noticed that you have this tendency to, well, get into trouble." She looked back up at Gabrielle questioningly.
Gabrielle matched her stare for only a few seconds before she grinned. "Yeah," she admitted. "You're right. But that's only when you aren't around. If you send me away, I might end up in worse shape than now."
Xena rolled her eyes and stretched out on the blanket, looking up at the early morning sky.
"All right," She finally said. "We'll see how things go for a while, but if it gets too hairy-"
"I'll run as fast as I can, and I won't stop until I reach Corinth," Gabrielle finished. "Agreed?"
"Agreed," Xena replied. Then she looked over at Tinga, lying near Nickoli's makeshift grave. Tinga's golden eyes were closed and her breathing soft and slow.
Xena watched the animal for a few minutes, and then rolled onto her side, facing the beast.
At that small, quiet movement, Tinga's eyes snapped open and locked on hers.
Xena held that gaze, fighting to overcome the wolf's sense of dominance.
Tinga simply held her icy gaze, unflinching, unblinking, and with equal intensity.
"You and I are going to have to come to an understanding," Xena growled. "I'm the head bitch in this little party."
Tinga only growled softly in response.
It was a rare thing for Xena to be unable to stare down something. She had frightened trained attack dogs with her presence, but Tinga was something else entirely. The Warrior Princess could sense an almost human intelligence in those golden eyes.
After a small eternity where neither of them blinked, Xena closed her eyes and drifted into an uneasy sleep. She couldn't remember the last time she hadn't been able to assert her dominance over something, and the sensation of that left her feeling vulnerable. Her eyes opened a slit, only to see the massive wolf, once more with eyes closed, snoring quietly.
"I'm the head bitch," Xena repeated and she looked down at Gabrielle, who lay peacefully in her blankets.
She hadn't planned on sleeping the entire day away, but when she opened her eyes after what seemed to have been only a few minutes, the first thing she noticed was Tinga, lying curled up next to Gabrielle, sheltering her from the cooling evening. If animal's faces could reveal emotions, Tinga had a contented, motherly expression on her face as she dozed.
A smoky smell emanated from behind her and she felt the heat of a fire on her back. Rolling over, she saw Nickoli squatting next to a little blaze, his green eyes fixed on her with Tinga's same canine intensity. Gabrielle's small cooking kettle hung over the fire and a smell of herbs permeated the air as the contents steamed.
Instantly, Xena was out of her blanket and on her feet, sword in hand. Her eyes were wide.
Nickoli only grinned icily and extended a wooden cup.
"I brewed you some tea," he said pleasantly. "I thought it would help you wake up, but you seem not to need it."
"I'll settle with water, thank you," Xena replied warily.
"Ah, well," Nickoli gestured to the empty water skins. "I used that to make the tea. If you want water, though, there is a small stream just through there." He pointed down a gentle slope into a thicket of trees.
Xena smiled coldly. "If you think I'm going to leave you alone with Gabrielle, you can forget it."
"Then it's the tea," Nickoli said, nonplussed. He refilled the small cup and held it back out to her.
Xena sheathed her weapon and stepped forward to receive the cup. She stopped when she heard Tinga growl.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk," Nickoli chided the animal gently. "That's enough out of you, young lady."
Tinga looked at her master and then settled her head back down next to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle sighed softly in her sleep and nestled closer to Tinga's soft side.
Nickoli smiled in an uncharacteristically warm manner.
"Tinga is still a mother at heart," he sighed. "And I think she considers your friend to be one of her children." He looked back over at Xena.
Xena took the cup from his cold fingers. It was strong and fragrant, and Xena felt the underlying weariness wash from her mind and body as she sipped it.
"This is good," she admitted after a few more cautious sips.
"What did you think?" Nickoli asked. "That I would try and poison you?"
Xena merely shrugged. "Where did you get it?"
Nickoli pursed his lips and nodded. "A group of brigands, not far from here. They waylaid a small caravan earlier today. This was among the things they stole."
"And where are these "brigands" now?" Xena continued.
"Dead," Nickoli replied simply.
Xena stopped in mid sip, fixing Nickoli with an angry stare.
Nickoli nodded. "Dead. This particular group has been robbing small merchants for some time. Occasionally they'll let the merchant live. Mostly, they kill them and simply take their possessions to the market to sell, keeping the profit for themselves. Today was their last day in business."
"They're dead?" Xena asked again.
Nickoli nodded. "All five of them."
Xena was horrified. "Why?"
Nickoli's ferocious green eyes fixed on Xena again with an intensity that momentarily took her breath away.
"In spite of what you see before you," Nickoli explained. "I am still a blood drinker. In order for me to live, someone must die every night I arise. Better the guilty fall than the innocent. I could go a day or so without feeding, but the end result is quite terrifying. Instead, I choose commit evil on those who have themselves committed evil." He chuckled quietly. "Besides, I think the irony of it is simply delicious. Killers being dealt justice by another killer. That killer to receive future justice at the hands of a reformed killer. Amusing, don't you think?"
Xena's face was set in an expression of disapproval.
"I suppose not," Nickoli finished. He gazed up at the cloudy sky. "Looks like we might be in for some rain?"
"Why do you want to die, Nickoli?" Xena asked suddenly.
"Why do you want to live?" Nickoli countered.
Xena was momentarily taken aback by the question. Nickoli watched as her eyes drifted to the sleeping form of Gabrielle.
"Ah," Nickoli nodded, watching her intently. "And why else?"
Xena blinked, suddenly fearful that she might have given something away.
"I have a lot to atone for," Xena admitted.
Nickoli nodded. "Anything else?"
Xena was about to answer when her eyes narrowed in suspicion. It was as if his presence was gently coaxing the desired information from her.
"Why do you want to know, anyway?" she asked suddenly.
Nickoli merely smiled and studied the flames.
"I long ago lost that part of me that was human," he said. "I miss it."
"You were still human fifteen years ago," Xena said. "More or less. Bacchi aren't immortal." She suddenly looked up at Nickoli. "Are they?"
Nickoli merely stared into the flames, watching them dance and crackle.
"I was born, two hundred years before you graced this world." He said quietly. "It is true that many Bacchi – most Bacchi – do not long survive. However, there are an exceptional few that do endure."
Xena opened her mouth, but no words came out.
Nickoli studied her face for a moment and smiled.
"I see so many questions bursting to get out," he commented. "I shall try and answer them without you having to speak, since you seem unable to do so."
He sat still for a moment, as if collecting his own thoughts and searching for the best place to begin. Then he sighed.
"Last night, you asked me why I destroyed my own kind," he began. "If, in that question you were referring to Bacchi, then you are mistaken. I am no longer a Bacchi. I am something else entirely. So were the others you encountered."
"You're blood drinkers," Xena said.
"Quite so," Nickoli agreed. "But we are not Bacchi."
Nickoli held his hands up, as if trying to express the thoughts as much in gesture as in words.
"All Bacchi begin as human beings, just as we did. That is the only similarity between us. A Bacchi is created when a human being is bitten by another Bacchi. The change is then made permanent through the ritual of Drinking the Blood of Bacchus. Correct?"
"Yes," Xena nodded.
"And any who drink the Blood of Bacchus are forever enslaved by his power, would you agree?" Nickoli continued.
"I don't know," Xena admitted. "Gabrielle and I never got that far."
Nickoli's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Never got that far?"
"Gabrielle was bitten about two years ago," Xena said. "She almost drank the blood, but I was able to stop her. She bit me instead, and then I killed Bacchus."
"Weakened him considerably, I'll grant you," Nickoli corrected her. "But you did not destroy him. You may have freed those enslaved by him, but Bacchus himself still endures."
He rested his chin on his fist and stared thoughtfully at Xena. The look sent a shiver up the Warrior's spine.
"Incredible," he said. Then he sat back up and continued. "Tell me, what did it feel like when the power of the Bacchi was flowing through your veins?"
Xena shuddered at the memory.
Nickoli nodded in understanding.
"You were more animal than human, weren't you?" he asked.
Xena only nodded.
"The fact that you regained enough control over your faculties to attack Bacchus is a marvel." Nickoli nodded in appreciation. "You are certainly stronger of mind and body than I ever gave you credit for."
Nickoli held up his hand, forestalling Xena from commenting.
"For most Bacchi, newly born, they are mostly animal." Nickoli explained. "That is to say, they function more on instinct than reason. When Gabrielle finally succumbed to the infection, she did not recognize you, did she?"
Xena shook her head.
"Yet, she was the one that converted you?" Nickoli asked.
"Yes," Xena replied.
"As Bacchi, the transformed become overwhelmed with the beastly aspects of their nature. Your friend there could be a Hestian Virgin," Nickoli smiled. "But even Virgins have desires, albeit suppressed desires. The transformation from human to Bacchi releases those feelings and desires, making the person become more reliant on instinct, like an animal, instead of intellect. Control and reason are temporarily lost. Only a small portion of humanity remains. Gabrielle converted you because at some base level, she recognized you, and wanted you to go with her on this journey. She was like a child, reaching out to a mother figure in fear and trauma. Your connection kept her from forming a similar link with Bacchus.
Once a Bacchi is in the presence of Bacchus and partakes of his blood, they become more like themselves, though aware of their need. The blood of Bacchus provides a temporary cure for the blood lust that all Bacchi suffer. In this way, the Bacchi enslave themselves to Bacchus, through the addiction to his blood. If they do not get it, they fall into a frenzy, and that is when most of them are destroyed. They have lost the capacity for reason, and so have lost the capacity for self preservation. They become rabid animals that humanity puts down whenever they are found. Any imbecile can outwit a ravenous beast."
"So what makes you so much different?" Xena asked.
"Think about it, Xena," Nickoli said. "I have been with you now, going into a second day, and I have not begun to lose control over my faculties, have I? I have not shared in the blood of Bacchus and I sit before you completely coherent."
The realization of that simple fact settled on Xena with leaden certainty.
"That is the difference between us," Nickoli said. "The Bacchi are completely dependent on Bacchus's blood. I, and others like me, are completely free of the need of it."
Xena's eyes widened slightly. "How?"
Nickoli's eyes glinted with suppressed hunger. "Because we have learned the truth about what we really are. The Bacchi are merely the first step in our evolution as blood drinkers. I and the others like me have taken the next logical step."
"What is so different?" Xena asked.
"Bacchus can only control living beings." Nickoli said. "Unlike the rest of the Bacchi in the world, I am not alive."
Xena frowned in confusion. "You seem pretty alive to me," she said.
"Ah," Nickoli raised a finger. "And therein lies the rub. We are not dead, but we are also not alive by any conventional sense. Once passed beyond a certain point, Bacchus has no hold over us, and Death seems to have forgotten us. We cannot be called alive; neither can we be called truly dead. Think of it as more," he thought for a moment. "Undead. Yes, that's an adequate word for it. We are each undead."
Nickoli smiled. "Now that would be a tale to tell, would it not? In summary, I can tell you that a Bacchi on the threshold of death fed on a dying man and so saved his own existence. You'll note that I said 'existence' , not life. He then passed that power onto me. Thus, here I sit before you, alive and animate without warmth or pulse or life. A tantalizing little conundrum, don't you think? I am a walking paradox."
"That explains why I couldn't kill you," Xena said.
"Partly, yes," Nickoli nodded. "But not wholly. You were able to dispatch Adaris's followers, once he was destroyed."
"So, how do I kill you, then," Xena asked. Nickoli saw the glint in her eye and a smile crept across his handsome features.
"Soon, Xena," he said with a nod. "Once you help me in my little task, I will grant you that knowledge."
He glanced up at the clouds again and smiled wanly. Then he looked at Tinga, still sleeping next to Gabrielle.
"We must be going," he said. "We have a great distance to cover, and not much time."
He looked over at Tinga again. Without spoken word or gesture, the wolf raised her head and got to her feet. She looked down at Gabrielle and then trotted over to stand by Nickoli's side.
Xena sighed and stepped over to Gabrielle. "Come on Gabrielle, time to go."
Gabrielle rolled over groggily. When her eyes fell on Nickoli, standing next to the massive shape of Tinga, she also sprang to her feet in fright.
Nickoli sighed dramatically. "I shouldn't have bothered about the tea."
"Tea?" Gabrielle stammered. "What?"
"Never mind," Xena said.
The shadows lengthened in purple shades as the moon peeked from behind the billowing clouds. Branches intertwined above them forming a natural, endless tunnel as they walked. Their boots rustled on the dead leaves and branches littering the ground. The wind whispered and whistled between the trunks. In the distance, they heard the roll of thunder. Faint flashes of lightning could be seen through the gaps in the leaves above. The air smelled of rain.
"So," Gabrielle asked as she and Xena followed their pale guide. "Where are we going?"
Nickoli didn't turn. His eyes were fixed on the path ahead.
"To the Temple of Nos." he said.
"Nos?" Xena repeated. "What god is that?"
Nickoli stopped and turned to look at them, a bemused expression on his face. His eyes burned through them.
"No God, my friends." He said. "It means 'Night'."
"We're going to the Temple of Night?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes," Nickoli replied. "I must rest in hallowed earth tonight."
"The ground last night seemed to work for you," Xena growled.
Nickoli stopped and faced Xena.
"You really must get over this little insecurity about me," he said in a tone of agreeability that sent a chill up her spine. "How many times must I reiterate that your death would serve me no purpose, and killing your friend would not bend you towards helping me either? I mean the two of you no harm."
Xena smiled icily. "I don't trust anyone who doesn't have a pulse."
Nickoli's smile faded for just a moment and then his expression softened once again into something understanding. He simply nodded and resumed walking. He stopped short when he saw Gabrielle standing with Tinga at her side.
The young woman's hand was absently stroking the fur on the massive head as she watched the two former adversaries.
Nickoli looked down at Tinga and then back up at Gabrielle. His eyes bored into hers like green fire, and Gabrielle suddenly blushed turning her gaze aside.
"May I speak with you?" Nickoli asked as he strode past. "Privately?"
Tinga loped off next to her master.
Xena stepped over to Gabrielle. "What was that all about?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle replied, her cheeks still flushed. "Whenever he looks at me, it's like, I don't know. It's as if I suddenly don't have anything on, and I," She shrugged.
"It makes you uncomfortable," Xena nodded understandingly.
"No," Gabrielle said. "That doesn't make me nervous. I don't mind it at all. I actually like it, and that's what scares me."
"Xena," Gabrielle explained. "I haven't felt anything like that since I was with Perdicus. He was so passionate, and it woke up a passion in me. I loved him so much and, after our wedding night, well, you know."
"I think I get the picture," Xena nodded. "I'll have a little chat with him."
She began stalking towards Nickoli, but Tinga spun and bared her teeth, growling savagely.
Nickoli stopped and turned back, a questioning gaze in his brilliant green eyes.
"Chat about what?" he asked innocently.
Xena took a few more steps forward, but Tinga snapped at her, keeping the warrior at bay.
"A couple of things," Xena said. "First about what you're trying to do to my friend, and second about your bitch, here."
Instantly, both Xena and Gabrielle felt that indefinable attraction.
"Well," Nickoli said. "Firstly, I am not trying to 'do anything' to the young lady. Secondly, my bitch, as you call her, does not trust you because you will not trust me. Once you get over that little issue, then she might also relax. And finally, when I asked if I might speak privately, I was not referring to you." His eyes locked on Gabrielle's. "I was referring to you."
Xena looked at Gabrielle, seemingly entranced under Nickoli's gaze.
"Now just a minute," Xena growled. Her hand strayed towards her chakram. The hair on Tinga's back was bristling, her ears flat against her head, and her eyes blazing ferociously.
Nickoli realized that the situation was boiling over quickly.
"Tinga!" he commanded.
The wolf stopped, still growling, but her eyes never left Xena.
"Tinga, no!" Nickoli ordered.
Tinga slowly backed away, still snarling.
"Xena!" Nickoli then looked up at her. "Do not kill her!"
Nickoli stepped to the wolf's side.
"Xena," Nickoli almost pleaded. "I am asking you to restrain yourself! For her sake as well as yours!"
That cryptic statement seemed to snap Xena's focus on the wolf. She looked up at Nickoli. "What do you mean?"
Nickoli said nothing. He simply stared at Xena. It was a battle of wills for a moment, and then Nickoli blinked. He let out a sigh.
"May I please have a private word with your friend?" he asked.
Gabrielle stepped forward and put her hand on Xena's arm.
"It's okay," she said. She looked in Xena's eyes, and Xena nodded. Then she looked at Nickoli.
"Lay a finger on her, and I any deal we might have is over, understand?"
"Completely," Nickoli smiled. He placed his hands behind his back. "If my hands stray from this place, you may consider the deal nullified." He nodded to Gabrielle. "If I may?"
Gabrielle stepped up as Nickoli turned and resumed walking.
Tinga looked at Xena intently for a few more seconds, and then she loped off into the woods.
Gabrielle walked next to Nickoli for a few minutes, waiting for him to begin. She looked up at him expectantly and studied the line of his jaw, the details of his cheek bones and the intense, unwavering gaze of his eyes as he walked. He was a handsome man, or had been when he was alive. His thick dark hair flowed like waves down past his shoulders, and she felt herself gravitating to him, even without his piercing gaze. She forced herself to resume breathing, not even realizing that she had stopped.
"What did you want to ask me?" she finally asked when she could stand the silence no longer.
"Wrong question," Nickoli replied in a soft baritone. "The correct question is: What do you wish to ask me?" His eyes turned to her and she immediately felt that irresistible pull. She tore her gaze away from the statuesque way he walked, with his hands clasped comfortably at the small of his back, like a nobleman strolling the halls of his castle, not a wandering rogue in the wilderness.
Nickoli smiled and fixed his eyes back on the path ahead.
"You have an inquisitive air about you, Gabrielle," he said.
Gabrielle tried to ignore the shiver that shot up her spine when he said her name in that smooth voice.
"Call it curiosity, naiveté, desire, or simply a thirst for knowledge," Nickoli shrugged. "It all comes to the same thing. You wish to know and by knowing, to understand."
"Understand what?" Gabrielle asked, wrestling with the desire to look in his direction again.
"Everything," Nickoli nodded. "What makes the sun rise in the morning and set at night, why the sky is blue, what the stars are, how birds fly? How some thing like me can be both alive and dead?" he raised an eyebrow and looked sidelong at her.
"Okay," Gabrielle nodded. "Then explain it. How can you be both alive and dead?"
"I don't know," Nickoli responded easily. He smiled.
Gabrielle looked up at him with an angry expression. It faded to something closer to longing as soon as she looked at him.
"Okay," she stammered, once again ripping her gaze from him. "Then tell me why, when I look at you, I feel," her hands rolled in front of her as she searched for the right word.
"Desire?" Nickoli offered. "Lust? Perhaps a bit randy?" His smile became more mischievous.
"Yes," Gabrielle finally admitted. "Except for that first time I saw you."
"Death itself has a certain allure," Nickoli said. "Anything that is unknown will tempt. If it is known, then a lack of fear of it will also make it tempting, because you realize in fact, not faith, that there is the potential for something more. It would follow that something representing that would also be alluring in its own way, even desirable." He smiled as he looked at her again
Gabrielle said nothing. She simply stared into those inhumanly green eyes and forced herself to breathe, trying to calm the rising rate of her heart.
"That first time you saw me," Nickoli continued with a sly smile. "I wanted you terrified. So you were terrified. Now?" he shrugged. "I don't want anything from you in particular, except that Xena honor our arrangement."
"Xena has changed a lot," Gabrielle said evenly. "She won't simply take a life in cold blood. Not anymore."
"Perhaps," Nickoli agreed. "And perhaps not. We shall see?"
"I've died before," Gabrielle said suddenly. "More than once. I don't have any desire to do it again."
"Then," Nickoli pursed his lips. "In your case, I think the questions might be a bit more basic. Am I here, now because I was so enamored of life that I did not wish it to end? Or was I so terrified of dying, that I sought this life in desperation?"
They locked eyes suddenly, and Gabrielle felt the beating of her heart hammering against the inside of her chest. She was suddenly lost in his gaze. Those fierce green eyes held hers and bored into her soul. She felt a wave of heat and desire wash over her so suddenly that she actually sighed. Then a sudden realization hit her, shaking her from that gaze.
He wanted her! His own gaze was filled with lust and desire. The slight twitch of his lip, the way his chest heaved suddenly. And she wanted him in a way so purely carnal that she had never felt the like of it before. Then his composure reasserted itself and he smiled so seductively that she had to struggle to keep herself in check.
"Stop that!" she hissed at him, struggling to keep her voice down. She looked back at Xena, who watched them both intently, ready for the slightest hint of treachery.
Xena's eyebrow went up slightly in question, but Gabrielle held out her hand, staying her.
"It's alright," she said. "He just said something that hit close to home."
Nickoli also looked at the warrior and shrugged.
"I have a tendency to be rather blunt," he confessed. "It's a character flaw that I have worked centuries to remedy."
"I'll bet," Xena muttered.
The trio resumed walking.
"I understand, Gabrielle," Again she suppressed a shudder of anticipation. "That you desire only a few things in your life. You wish wisdom, loyalty, and love, just as you wish to impart those things to others, thereby empowering them to also do good."
He smiled and looked at her. She kept her gaze fixed on the path ahead, not daring to meet his gaze again. Her will to keep her desires in check was fading quickly, but she felt she could still glean something valuable from him.
"So?" She asked, trying to sound offended.
"Oh I meant no offense," Nickoli said. "They are admirable qualities to be sure. But you realize that you cannot hope to achieve all that you desire in one lifetime. Besides, on a baser level, you're simply curious."
"Curious about what?" Gabrielle asked, though she felt a flutter of anticipation in her heart.
"About what it could be like," Nickoli said knowingly. "To be like me. You cannot be seduced by that which you do not desire. You must want it for it to affect you."
Gabrielle stopped short, her heart pounding with the realization that he was absolutely correct in his assessment.
Nickoli kept walking. He turned his head to the side, glancing back in her direction. "I can assume that our little conversation is at an end?"
Gabrielle said nothing. She turned and walked quickly back to Xena.
Xena saw the flush in Gabrielle's cheeks and the slight rasp of her breath. She noted the tell tale signs of someone who has been tempted with pleasure and fought to refuse it.
"Gabrielle?" she asked. "What did he do?"
"Nothing," Gabrielle answered. She composed herself as best she could. "Nothing."
She looked ahead at the silhouette of Nickoli strolling casually down the path ahead.
"He won't hurt either of us, Xena," she said finally. "That much I do know. At least, not until he gets what he wants."
"You don't think he wants to die?" Xena asked.
"That's just it," Gabrielle said. "I think he does want to die. I don't know. There's something else going on, but I can't figure out what it is?"
Gabrielle fell silent as she mulled the thoughts over in her mind. Several hours later the three of them crested a small rise in the path and came out of the forest into a shallow, well tilled valley. In the distance they could see the unmistakable lights of a tiny farming village and beyond that the ominous bastions of an ancient temple.
"I know this place," Xena said.
"As you should." Nickoli replied. "This is the field where we first met." He surveyed the land critically and sighed. "The scenery has changed somewhat. Wheat and corn instead of human and Bacchi bodies. Definitely an improvement."
"I wonder if they know." Xena asked.
"They do," Nickoli replied. "The village is called Solatu, or sunlight in your tongue." He began strolling down the gentle hill towards the waiting lights.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a confused glance and then followed after Nickoli.
The trio bypassed the village completely and made straight for the temple. The moon had set behind the nearby foot hills when they approached the main gate.
The walls were tall, and made from blocks of smooth gray stone, fitted so tightly that not even a squirrel could find a hold to climb up to the parapet above. The gate was oak, bound with thick iron bands and covered in a thin coat of rust that looked like dried blood. Above the gate, at the top of the arch was a simple crest. A graven shield with the image of a human skull in its center.
"Wait a moment," Xena realized. "This is one of Bacchus's old temples."
"Yes," Nickoli replied. "Yet another delicious bit of irony that I could not refuse. Besides, the accommodations were exactly what I required for my purpose."
He banged his pale hand on the gate. There was the sound of huge bolts being drawn and the gate swung open with a squealing creak that sent shots of cold up both Xena's and Gabrielle's spine.
"Gods, I hate that noise," Gabrielle squirmed.
"Please," Nickoli gestured to them. "Do come in."
Beyond the shadows of the arched gateway, they followed a disused path that led through a long neglected garden. Weeds and wild undergrowth sprouted from pots and ivy clawed its way up the short skeletal remains of old fruit trees only to fall back down like damp tendrils in the path. The shadows crept throughout the place. Occasionally they would hear the rustle of some small animal scurrying for concealment among the thicker overgrowth. The rest of the time, an unholy silence hovered about them like a cold frost.
The temple itself bore more resemblance to a mausoleum than a place of worship. Dark and foreboding with thick iron doors, covered in old growths of ivy and other malignant plants. The remains of the vegetation clung to several places along the outer walls of the keep, obscuring the narrow windows dotting the sides. The whole place had a stuffy, musty smell of old death.
"Xena?" Gabrielle edged closer to her friend.
"I know," Xena replied. "Just stay by me."
"No problem," Gabrielle said, hugging herself and fighting off a chill that was not in the air.
They passed through the massive creaking iron doors into the temple. In the main hall, torches burned in sconces along the walls, or protruding from the pillars that supported the massive stone roof.
All about the room, shadowy figures moved with quick and quiet steps.
At the opposite end of the hall, seated on a black stone throne was a woman of startling beauty. She wore a diaphanous black gown that barely fulfilled the prerequisites for modesty. Her pale skin seemed to glow with a sickly yellow hue in the torchlight. Her hair was thick and curly, falling in a mass of ringlets past her shoulders.
Her fingers stroked the arm of the chair thoughtfully as she watched the newcomers approach.
Nickoli stopped twenty paces from the throne and clasped his hands in front of him expectantly.
The woman rose with feline grace and glided across the floor wrapping her arms around Nickoli's neck. She kissed him softly on the lips.
"Welcome back," she greeted. "Father."
She fixed her pale blue eyes on Xena and Gabrielle. "And who are these?" she asked in a silky voice. She released her embrace of Nickoli and stood before Xena, cocking her head as if inspecting her. Her fangs extended and her eyes began to glow red.
"A snack for us?" she asked.
"No," Nickoli said quickly. "They are not to be touched." He stepped next to the woman and looked at Xena and Gabrielle.
"My friends," he said. "Allow me to introduce you to Imani," he smiled. "My daughter."
Then he looked at Imani, "My dear," he said. "I present Xena, the Warrior Princess of Amphipolis and her companion, Gabrielle, an Amazon Queen."
Imani looked Gabrielle up and down appraisingly as if she were considering buying a horse.
"Amazon Queen?" she scoffed. "She is little more than a child?"
"Hey," Gabrielle said, suddenly hostile.
Xena put her arm across Gabrielle's path, restraining her.
"Obviously, you didn't teach your child manners." Xena hissed.
"Ladies, ladies," Nickoli stepped between them. "This bickering will solve nothing. Please." He looked at the two of them intently.
Imani gave a soft sigh and the crimson blaze of her eyes faded. "As you wish," she said. "For now." She moved back to the throne, but instead of seating herself, she stood next to it. Nickoli followed and took the seat.
"Come forward, my friends," he beckoned to Xena. "Nothing will harm you here."
"Yeah," Xena said under her breath. "For now."
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