As Xena and Gabrielle followed their hosts down the long wide hall, they noticed other shadows moving in the dim light. Some with slow, unconcerned deliberation, while others darted furtively between the massive stone columns as if they feared to be seen.
Occasionally, the torches would reflect the deep red glow of eyes, peering hungrily at them from the dark.
Gabrielle instinctively moved closer to Xena.
"There sure are a lot of them," Gabrielle whispered nervously. "Maybe I should have taken your advice and left."
"A little late for that, now," Xena muttered. "Just stay close."
"Oh, no problem," Gabrielle's hand found Xena's arm and clung to it tightly.
Nickoli seated himself with flourish as Imani stepped next to the throne, her pale arm resting on the back.
Gabrielle struggled to stay focused as Nickoli looked down at them.
Several shadows seemed to melt into the light, their eyes fixed, unblinking on the two mortal women.
"Understand me now," Nickoli said in a commanding tone. "These are my guests and shall not be harmed in any way. I will take the life of any that so much as touch them. Am I understood?"
A murmur of acquiescence drifted through the stuffy temple like disembodied spirits.
"Very well," Nickoli nodded.
As Xena and Gabrielle stopped before Nickoli, six other figures emerged from the shadows. Three men and two women. Each had the same feline grace and presence as Nickoli and Imani. Each of them stared at the two women with clear intense eyes.
"Permit me to introduce you to the conclave of House Vampyra." He gestured to the three men standing at his right.
The first man was massive in girth as well as height, clad in old tarnished armor. His hair was dark, strung in and out with a mix of gray. His eyes were a deep piercing blue. His face was shadowed by the thin layer of dark whiskers that covered it from the tops of his cheeks to the base of his neck, giving him an almost wolfish appearance. He raised his right hand to his chest in salute and gave a curt bow. Xena noted the powerful muscle beneath the armor.
"I present Lord Damalicus of Macedonia," Nickoli said.
"Honored," Damalicus said in a deep rumbling voice. Xena nodded in return.
Next to Damalicus was a smaller man, obviously of eastern descent. His fine robes shimmered in the torchlight, and the green jewel in the center of his turban seemed alive with some internal fire.
"Lord Arijanii," Nickoli continued.
Xena's eyes widened in surprise.
"Arijanii, the alchemist?" she asked in wonder.
Arijanii bowed his head and smiled behind his long thick beard. "The same." His voice was soft, high pitched and smooth, with a heavy accent.
"I heard you were dead," Xena replied.
Arijanii's hands vanished in the opposite sleeves of his robes and he smiled. "That is a matter of opinion." He replied easily. He bowed his head again and Nickoli indicated the last man.
"Lastly, Lord Talcus," Nickoli finished. "He is a man, little known in the waking world, yet I have found him to be a man of great insight and wisdom."
Talcus was a man of medium build with thick gray hair and deep eyes the color of storm clouds. He wore a simple tunic and breaches, and carried several scrolls in one hand. He smiled showing fanged teeth and nodded.
Xena felt Gabrielle's fingers tighten on her arm.
"And here," Nickoli gestured to the two women on his left. "Is Vasha."
Vasha was a tall, beautiful woman with raven black hair and deep dark eyes. She wore a dark colored dress that may have been green in color, though the light of the torches seemed to alter the color slightly. She raised a hand and curtsied slightly with a subtle smile on her lips as she looked at Xena. Anyone would almost say that she was attracted to the tall woman. Xena nodded in reply, but kept her gaze detached.
"And I believe the two of you already know Tinga," Nickoli said with a smug smile.
Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other and then back at the final woman, standing before them in simple tan skins. Her hair was a deep brown and her eyes were soft and golden in color. Her skin was dark and tan.
Gabrielle stared at her in surprise and took several tentative steps towards her. Tinga was only slightly taller than Gabrielle, with a sturdy, athletic build. The clothing and accoutrements showed that she was unlike the others in the gathering. Her very manner, posture and carriage said one thing: Amazon.
"Tinga?" Gabrielle asked.
The woman smiled showing pointed teeth and gave a subtle nod of her head. Then she raised her right fist over her heart.
"Gabrielle," she said in a voice, low and husky.
Xena stared in wonder and took a step towards Tinga. Instantly, Tinga's eyes flashed intensely. In that fierce gaze, Xena no longer doubted who she was facing.
"I think we have a few things to discuss," Xena said quietly.
Tinga smiled fiercely. "About whom the head bitch is?" She replied. Then she looked at Gabrielle. "I see in your eyes that you are Amazon," she continued. "Which is why I have chosen to befriend you." She looked back at Xena. "You, on the other hand, have Amazon blood on your hands." She sniffed and looked at Xena with contempt. "It may be old blood, but it is blood none the less. Hence, I do not trust you."
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. The memory of her betrayal, all those years ago, still hung on her conscience. She glanced down at the floor.
"Tinga," Gabrielle said, looking back and forth between the two of them. "Xena is my best friend. I trust her with my life."
"That is your choice," Tinga replied. "I will not, for the present."
Xena looked back up into Tinga's eyes, and they both vied for dominance, but only for a few seconds. Then they both realized, at nearly the same moment, that they were both interested in the same thing, the safety of Gabrielle. One saw it as a matter of honor, the other as a matter of friendship.
Tinga smiled again. "Perhaps we should wait and see."
Xena watched her eyes for a moment and she also forced a smile. "Perhaps."
"Ladies," Nickoli said from his seat. "As much as this entertains us, it is nearly dawn. We must retire for the day." He looked off to the side, and a single figure emerged, stepping before the throne. One thing that was immediately apparent to the two women was the fact that this man was mortal, just like them.
"Have the guards set their normal watches," Nickoli instructed. "And make certain that they know of my guests. They are not to be disturbed for any reason, and they have my permission to move about the temple as they wish. Am I understood?"
"Of course, my lord," the man bowed his head. He quickly bowed and withdrew.
"You have regular mortal people here as well?" Xena asked.
Nickoli seemed mildly amused by the question, as were the other members of his company. All throughout the chamber, she heard the echoes of soft chuckles.
"Why wouldn't we?" Nickoli asked. "These people live in this land as well as we. We protect them and guard them from attack. We train them to protect themselves and give them peace of mind at night when they sleep. Why should we not enjoy the symbiosis of this relationship? Mutual benefit is the foundation of all alliances, surely you understand that?"
Xena nodded. "I understand that alliances are only beneficial until one side believes it no longer needs the other."
"Indeed," Nickoli agreed, smiling. "But that circumstance has yet to trouble us." He rose and gave a nod of his head. "We shall leave you now, to rest. We must be below ground before first light. I bid you a good day."
With that, the shadowy company withdrew, down to the last wraithlike shape, all with the silence of the grave. In the growing light of the chamber, Xena and Gabrielle realized suddenly that they were almost alone in the temple.
Tinga still stood opposite Gabrielle, leaning casually against a nearby pillar.
"You don't need to be below ground?" Xena asked.
Tinga simply smiled at the sarcastic tone in Xena's voice and shook her head.
"I may be different," she said. "But I am not like them. My function is to protect them, as they protected me." She stepped next to them, her eyes never moving from Xena. "As Nickoli said, you have the run of the temple complex," she said. "However, I must ask that you stay out of the lower chambers."
"And if we don't?" Xena asked.
Tinga's eyes lit up with sudden hunger, and she let a smile touch the corners of her mouth. "Then I shall be forced to rip your throat out."
"I think that's enough!" Gabrielle said with sudden vehemence. "If you two are going to fight it out, then get it over with." She turned to Tinga. "Xena is my friend, and as an Amazon Queen, I say, this ends right now!"
Tinga looked mildly surprised to hear Gabrielle sound so harsh. It took a moment for her to realize that the young woman was not exaggerating her status or her intent. She looked back and forth between Gabrielle and Xena. When she saw the fierce, protective light in Gabrielle's eyes, she understood.
"You trust her that much?" she asked.
"You know Amazon law," Gabrielle said evenly. "If I stand with her and she does something, then I am responsible for her actions. I share her fate."
Tinga studied Gabrielle for a long moment and then she nodded.
Gabrielle nodded in return and turned to walk towards the front door. She stopped and looked back at the two of them. Then she puffed out her chest proudly and stared at the two of them with as much courage as she could muster.
"And just so you know!" She added with a sudden cockiness that amused them both. "I'm the head bitch in this little party, got it?"
She stared at the two adversaries for a long moment, then nodded her head and turned and walked quickly out the door. As she disappeared, Tinga heard her speaking quietly to herself. "Yeah, I'm the head bitch."
Both Xena and Tinga stared at the empty space where Gabrielle ad been, both with bemused expressions on their faces.
Both women then looked sidelong at one another.
Xena's eyebrow rose inquisitively, and she folded her arms.
Tinga simply matched her stare, her own eyebrow rising in amusement. Then the smile began to pull irresistibly at her lips and she broke into a grin. Xena soon followed suit, unable to keep the humor of the situation from rising to the surface.
"Well," Tinga commented. "She told us."
Xena smiled. "I'll say."
Tinga actually laughed out loud and walked off into the shadows.
Standing just beyond the corner of the entrance, Gabrielle leaned her head against the wall and smiled, sighing with relief. Then she stole away quietly towards the courtyard.
Xena found her there a short while later, sitting in an overgrown garden. The wild tangles of grasses and trees that had appeared so sinister the night before, seemed alive with color in the early morning sun, and the fragrance of many flowers mingled in the air.
Gabrielle was seated in front of a murky pool that was once a fountain, staring at the statue in the center, lost in her own thoughts.
"So," she said, startling the young bard out of her reverie. "When did you get to be so tough?"
Gabrielle smiled and looked back at the still water as Xena sat down beside her.
"I just think it was getting a little ridiculous," she said. "Both of you looking for an excuse to beat the stuffing out of each other and for what, me?" She sighed.
Xena looked at Gabrielle for a moment, and then a rueful smile played across her features. "I guess it did sound a little ridiculous." She finally admitted. Then she looked Gabrielle in the eye. "But I don't trust Nickoli, and I sure don't trust Tinga. There's something more going on here than just Nickoli's favor. Even if he does want to die, there has to be more to it than just that. Not knowing everything is what's making me nervous."
"Well," Gabrielle suggested. "He didn't force us to some here."
"No," Xena agreed. "No, he didn't. But he knew that my sense of honor would make me want to come, if only to pay back a debt. Besides, if I rid the world of something like him, it would be a benefit. I think he's counting on me believing that."
"Well," Gabrielle said. "Whatever Nickoli has planned, we'll deal with it." Xena smiled at the sound of that statement, so calmly said and filled with confidence. "As far as Tinga goes," Gabrielle continued. "Whatever she is now, she is still Amazon at heart. That much I do know. Even if she was ordered to kill us, I don't think she'd do it in cold blood. It doesn't seem to be her way and it definitely isn't the Amazon way. Besides, we could learn a lot more from her if the two of you aren't constantly at each other's throats."
Xena thought about that for a moment and had to concede that Gabrielle was correct.
They were interrupted by the sound of a quiet footfall upon the grass behind them. The two of them turned to see a small, thin man in a simple gray robe, standing a respectful distance, his hands lost in the opposing sleeves.
"Ah," he said theatrically. "Lord Nickoli left instructions for you to be made comfortable. To that effect, I have made certain that your quarters are prepared. They are the best we can provide."
The man's nature was so self absorbed and bombastic, that Xena and Gabrielle had to suppress the sudden urge to laugh at the buffoon.
"And you are?" Xena asked.
"Oh, forgive me," the man said, bowing low. "I am Neris, head of house for the Great Lord Nickoli." He said the name as if he were relishing a fine wine.
The laughter was threatening to burst from Gabrielle as she watched the performance.
"Well, Neris," Xena said, rising to her feet and towering over the man. "I don't need the finest quarters. Just a bath and a bed will do."
Neris looked her up and down appraisingly, barely hiding his disapproval in her wardrobe.
"Ah, well, yes. Of course." He then gave Gabrielle a quick appraising look and turned, head held high. "If you would follow me." He said without looking back.
Gabrielle covered her mouth, stifling the laughter. After two nights of little sleep and constant travel, she was beginning to feel a little slap happy.
Xena looked back at her. "You alright?" she asked, smiling.
"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded. Then she did her best to imitate Neris's performance. "Shall we go and see what the Great Lord Nickoli has prepared for us?" Then the laughter burst from her.
Xena smiled, shaking her head. "Come on." She said. "You need sleep."
When Gabrielle awoke, it was late afternoon, and the light outside was filled with orange fire. Some of the night insects were just beginning to make their music out in the ruined garden, and the long thin draperies at the window fluttered soundlessly in the early evening breeze.
For a brief moment she didn't remember how she had gotten to this room. She sat up, throwing the covers off and looked around. It had obviously at one time been quarters for a priest. They were small and comfortable, despite a lack of décor and amenities. A simple writing desk and stool, two small seats, and a simple bed.
Her bag lay next to the desk with some of her scrolls poking out the top. She frowned in confusion. She usually packed her finished scrolls in the bottom of her bag, in order to keep them safe while she traveled. A nagging suspicion began to tug at her gut and she went quickly over to the bag, setting it back on the bed and inventorying the contents.
Almost all of her belongings were present and accounted for. One scroll was missing – stolen! Her heart burned with anger at the violation. She checked each of the scrolls, realizing that they had been opened and, presumably, read through.
"Tinga," she thought out loud and she grabbed her staff from its resting place next to the door. She went out and headed down the long narrow hall into the main chamber.
"Tinga!" she shouted as she entered the grand chamber. Her voice echoed between the pillars. "Tinga! Where are you!"
The only response was the scuttling of small animals into hiding and her voice bouncing between the massive columns.
Her eyes fell on the deeper shadows opposite the throne at the front of the chamber and she moved in that direction. All the while, calling for the errant Amazon.
She moved all the way across the chamber and past a series of columns. Ahead, in the deeper shadows, she could make out a stairway, descending into darkness.
She paused, considering the dark opening before her. Looking around, she could see no sign of any watch on the entrance, even though this was undoubtedly the place Tinga had warned Xena about.
Gripping her staff tightly, she swallowed her heart back into the proper place and stepped down into the inky blackness.
The air became cooler and dank as she continued her descent into nothing. She could feel the damp stone walls on either side of her. The ends of her staff clacked and echoed on the wall or step before her. She used the weapon like a blind persons' cane, tapping the floor ahead across her path. In the dark, she heard the sounds of small scurrying feet as she approached, and the occasional hollow clack of something else being gently disturbed. The air held a faint bitter sweet odor that clawed at the back of her nostrils. She stopped when she realized what it could be.
"Oh, boy," she sighed quietly. She fought to calm her racing heart and continued stepping gingerly further into the abyss. A soft glow began so gradually that she didn't at first realize she could see. Then the deeper open shadows on either side of the stairs drew her attention. Boosted by the fact that she could see, she continued down. Then she saw the faint outlines under the ancient cloth at either side of her and she froze.
The skeletal remains of others lay in niches on the wall. Row by row, line by line, in an ever descending spiral down. She saw one of the pale skulls shift slightly as a dark, rodent shape scuttled past, and heard the hollow clack echo back up the passage.
Her breathing increased as cold horror formed in her belly and her eyes darted from side to side. She stood in the center of the stairs, forcing her feet to continue downwards, her mind creating imagined horrors that would reach from the openings near her, grasping with cold bony claws and dragging her into the darkness with her. The pale tops of skulls lying near the edge of the niches shone in the deeper gloom.
The illumination from below increased in brilliance as she continued, faster now. Her every instinct screamed at her to turn around, go back up, but she ignored it, following the promise of light like a moth towards a candle.
Finally, the spiral ended at a thick arch that opened into a much larger cavern. She could see torches blazing in sconces, hung into the damp stone. Nothing moved in the vastness beyond.
Tentatively, she stepped into the place and gazed about in wonder and fear. She stepped into the chamber and gazed about, dazzled by the brilliance of the torches after so long in the blackness before. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she began to see row upon row of sarcophagus, some ancient and ornate, or coffins made of wood in various stages of decay, lying neatly on thick pale slabs of stone.
"You should not be here," a voice seemed to whisper in her mind. She took a step back towards the door, spun and would have fled blindly up the steps.
A single figure stood directly in front of her, clad in ruined garments, soiled in mud and who knew what else. Its skin was pale, drawn, covered in tiny blue veins that seemed to twitch just beneath the surface. Pale yellow eyes stared, bloodshot down at her from a ghoulish face. The scalp was completely bald, and the ears were large and pointed.
In a flash, her staff clattered against the far wall and fell into the darkness.
A second clawed hand grasped her arm, and the oversized mouth opened showing row upon row of needle teeth in a macabre grin.
Gabrielle let out a full throated scream that rent the air of the closed chamber and echoed like a ghostly wail all the way back up into the main hall of the temple, now so far away.
Xena bolted for the temple entrance at a run, sword in hand. She pushed past the guards at the entrance and made straight for the stairs. Suddenly a massive dog shape leapt down from concealment, snapping and ravaging like a thing possessed.
Xena stopped short, staring into the gaping maw of Tinga's wolfish mouth.
"Get out of my way," Xena hissed, swinging the sword.
"Xena!" Gabrielle's voice drifted back up to her ears.
With a cry, Xena charged the wolf, but Tinga simply jumped up and back, to the opposite side of the entrance and stared at her, now suddenly not so intent on her duty. Her eyes glanced down at the opening before her, and then at Xena before she leapt into the opening and vanished.
Without considering the potential risk, Xena ran after and bounded down the steps into the darkness.
She was feeling her way along the wall, when a hand grasped her wrist.
Xena swung the sword reflexively and it sparked against the wall, revealing Tinga, now in human form, in that brief flash.
"You're starting to be a real pain in the tail," Tinga said angrily. "Just follow me, and watch where you swing that thing, okay?"
Hand in hand, Tinga led Xena quickly down into the depths.
Gabrielle wrenched her arm free of the monster and stepped back against the cold wall, trying to get some distance between her and this thing.
As she looked around, several other ghoulish shapes emerged from the deeper shadows, all leering hungrily at her. Each one was deformed in some way or other, either in appearance, or movement. All of them clothed in rags and pieces cobbled together from whatever could be had in the place.
Many of them simply wore moldering burial shawls over their bodies. Their clawed hands and feet scraped against the stone.
"Look," Gabrielle said, holding her hands up. "Obviously I took a wrong turn somewhere. It's okay. I'll just go back the way I came and make sure I don't come this way again, right?" She forced a smile. "Besides, there's so many of you and only one of me. Not enough for all of you, right, I mean, you'd probably end up fighting over whatever was left, and I really don't want that on my conscience."
There were at least a dozen of them now, all moving inexorably towards her. Saliva dripped from their fangs and they all leered at her with blood shot, hungry eyes.
"Come on, now," Gabrielle was close to begging. "Can't we work something out, here?"
"You should not be here," the voice echoed again, though none of their mouths seemed to articulate the words.
"I sort of figured that out already," Gabrielle said in a quavering voice. In desperation she grabbed a torch from the wall and waved it in front of her. "I'll just leave, okay?"
"You cannot leave." That voice echoed again.
Suddenly a large wall of fur interposed itself between Gabrielle and the approaching monsters.
Tinga bared her teeth and snapped at the nearest creature. It recoiled, staying a respectful distance from the wolf.
"Gabrielle," Xena called from the entrance. "Come on!"
Torch in hand, Gabrielle scooted along the wall towards her friend while Tinga kept the other creatures at bay with her snarling and snapping. They backed to the entrance.
"Go on," Xena nodded, never taking her eyes off the creatures, now leering hungrily at her. "I'm right behind you."
They fled up the tunnel, with the sounds of Tinga's paws following. About mid way back to the surface, there came a subtle squishing and stretching noise behind them and the sound of Tinga's footfalls changed from one of four feet to one of two.
They emerged from the opening and Gabrielle continued to run until she was beyond the doors of the temple and out in the light of the setting sun. She dropped the torch and stood there, shaking in terror.
Xena was at her side instantly; her arms wrapped around the young bards shoulders.
"What in Tartarus were those things?" Gabrielle asked shakily. She tried to speak more, but the words wouldn't form.
"Easy," Xena said soothingly in her ear. "You're okay. It's all over."
"What were you doing down there?" Tinga demanded, standing at the top of the dais before the main doors. "I told both of you not to go down there!"
"And where were you?" Xena countered.
"You two were supposed to be asleep in your rooms!" Tinga shot back. "I saw you running for the temple and figured you were up to no good! So I got there ahead of you! I didn't even know she was down there till I heard her voice!"
Xena stared at Tinga hard. There was fury in that gaze. Her soul mate, her best friend had nearly been killed. Tinga actually stopped short of her next comment and took a step back.
"Leave us alone," Xena hissed, still cradling Gabrielle in her arms. She led the quaking Gabrielle back towards their rooms.
It was late into the night before Gabrielle had composed herself enough to handle venturing back into the temple.
She and Xena both entered in the middle of a full blown debate. The argument seemed to center around several issues concerning Marshall Titus and his approach. They all fell silent when they saw Xena and Gabrielle standing at the entry arch.
"Ah," Nickoli said with feigned pleasantry. "Ladies, I was wondering if you were going to join us tonight."
"Had to take care of something first," Xena replied. "I think you know something about it?"
"Ah," Nickoli nodded, and he picked up Gabrielle's staff which was lying at his feet. He stepped down and moved towards them. Gabrielle stiffened as he approached, but did her best, in her rattled condition, to maintain some sense of composure.
"I believe you dropped this," he said, presenting the weapon to her. "You have my abject apologies for your experience. Unfortunately, the Nosforata do not always hear my orders. They seldom come out of the sanctum, except on the darkest of moonless nights. It was an oversight that I shall not repeat. You have my word."
Gabrielle took her weapon and tried to stare hard at Nickoli, but that underlying desire began rising within her as soon as he moved towards them, and she had to look away after only a few seconds. Nickoli smiled.
"You are just in time," he said. "We were just discussing how best to deal with Titus when he arrives. It seems that he wishes to reassert his dominance over us in the name of Bacchus."
"It is a proposition that we cannot accept," Arijanii said from his place near the throne. "To allow ourselves to be subjugated by Bacchus again, now that we understand so much of what we truly are, would be to step back into ignorance."
"Nickoli seems to understand how you can be destroyed." Xena said.
"Yes," Talcus said evenly. He stepped up in a swirl of robes and nodded kindly to Gabrielle. Then he turned to Xena. "You are the most experienced of us, with the exception of Nickoli, and perhaps, Lord Damalicus, in the ways of combat. May we speak privately, please?" He motioned for Arijanii to join him. "There are certain things you should be made aware of, including the purpose for which we summoned you."
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Will you be alright?" she asked.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, still fighting to overcome the shock of earlier and then she nodded.
"Just don't be gone for too long."
Talcus smiled sympathetically at Gabrielle and then gestured to a corner of the room.
"Please?" he asked as he moved past Xena.
Xena followed Talcus and Arijanii to the privacy of the corner.
"Gabrielle," Nickoli asked suddenly. "Would you join us, please?"
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