Confessions and Conflict
Xena, Arijanii, and Talcus retreated to the far corner of the temple. Neither of the men spoke as they walked, as if they feared the shadows would overhear what they said.
Finally, Talcus turned and face the warrior princess. His expression was one of absolute calm and detachment.
"First," Talcus began. "You must understand that, though you were summoned at the behest of Lord Nickoli, there were several in the Conclave who objected to his proposal. Imani, Tinga Vasha, and Damalicus all felt that, by undertaking this challenge, we might all be destroyed. They were perfectly content to allow Lord Nickoli to continue in his place as head of the Conclave, once Titus has been eliminated."
Arijanii nodded. "The rest of us understood that the steps we are about to propose to you, and the information we are to impart are necessary, even if they are undesirable."
"I don't understand," Xena replied.
"I shall explain," Talcus said calmly, and he gave Arijanii a nod. The smaller man scuttled deeper into the shadows.
"When Marshall Titus discovered what he was, it formed an unbreakable link between him and all like us. Should the progenitor be destroyed, it was suggested that it could bring down the rest of us. Everything that we have gained in the past decade would be lost." Talcus shrugged. "It is a hazard of our existence that we are not about to accept."
Talcus paced a few steps away, gathering his thoughts. "At the onset of our Conclave, certain rules of conduct had to be established, for the good of us all, or we would descend into a level of brutality and anarchy that would have been unprecedented. Unfortunately, one of our first laws was that we should not kill our own kind, except in self defense. It is a philosophy that sets us above mortal man. What we have become is too precious."
"I'll bet," Xena muttered.
"I understand that our very existence disturbs you," Talcus said in a sympathetic tone. "We are a paradox. Our very existence goes against the natural order of the world. This is why we have undertaken the plan to eliminate Titus; however he and his personal guard are too strong for us assail him directly. Any one of us who would attempt such an act would forfeit their lives before they even had a chance. Since Titus will undoubtedly be accompanied by a bodyguard, and since you are not one of us?"
"We're expendable,?" Xena said coldly.
Talcus merely shrugged.
"Intrigues of this nature are woven into the very fabric of any nation." He responded coolly.
A smile of understanding formed on Xena's lips and she nodded.
Arijanii reappeared carrying a large bag in his arms.
"I have the implements you require," he said. He set the bag down and began rummaging through it.
He produced several long wooden spikes, which he handed to Xena for inspection. "As you are, no doubt, aware, these should be stabbed through the heart of your enemy. If you miss, you will only slow him down, you understand?"
Xena nodded, remembering the encounter with Nickoli in the forest.
"In one as powerful as Titus, it may not be as effective, so do not engage him unless you absolutely must. You're primary task is to assist in eliminating his bodyguard." he dove into the bag again and produced two small vials, one filled with a dark amber liquid, the second with clear water. "Sacred anointing oil from the temple of Aphrodite, and water, similarly blessed." He gestured to Xena. "Your weapons, if I may?"
Reluctantly, Xena handed him her sword. Arijanii poured the oil over the blade and then returned it to her along with the larger vial of water.
"Through experimentation, I have discovered that the blessings of any good aligned deity will imbue the weapon to work with remarkable efficacy against one of our kind."
"Experimentation?" Xena asked, dreading the answer. Arijanii merely shrugged his shoulders and smiled behind his thick beard. Then he looked at Talcus questioningly.
"Give them to her," Talcus nodded. "She must have everything."
Arijanii opened up the bag again and produced several scrolls of black parchment.
"This is something that the Lord Nickoli has no knowledge of." Arijani said grimly. "These are all the ways that we may be destroyed. Weapons, herbs, and others that we have discovered. They also contain all the ways that we know of, for our kind to be created."
"There must be balance," Talcus added. "For mortals to gain this knowledge would take decades, and by then we could have covered the entire world with our kind."
"With the knowledge here, the balance between light and darkness can be maintained." Talcus finished. "I would ask that you take these to the library in Athens. They should be copied and sent to all the centers of learning in the known world." He glanced quickly over at the others near Nickoli's throne, and then up into the darkness of the roof above, in case someone or something would overhear them.
"Above all," Talcus whispered. "It is imperative that either you or your friend survive this, if only to deliver what is here to the rest of humanity. The others would slay us in an instant if they knew we were doing this. You understand?"
Xena stared into the man's eyes for a long moment, trying to determine if he was lying, or not. His expression was so earnest, so desperate, that she realized to her surprise, that Talcus was being truthful. She nodded grimly.
"I understand." She said, and she actually placed her hand on the man's shoulder.
"Thank you, Xena," Talcus bowed his head.
Nickoli looked down at Gabrielle. He smiled, and Gabrielle fought that intangible pull with all her might.
"I understand that you were led to seek us out when you discovered that someone had gone through your possessions." He confessed.
"Yes," Gabrielle replied, and she shot a glance in Tinga's direction, only to see a genuinely surprised look on the Amazon woman's face.
"Tinga is not to blame," Nickoli continued. "I'm afraid it was me. I asked Neris to bring your scrolls to me while I waited below ground today." He shrugged. "I was curious to see just how much Xena had changed since our first encounter, so long ago." He handed the missing scroll back to her. "I kept this one for a bit longer, because something in it fascinated me."
Gabrielle was astonished. She took the scroll from his hand and opened it.
"This is the one from our time at the Temple of Isclipius," she said after a moment. "Why did you want this one?"
"Because this one, above all the others, showed how far Xena has truly come," Nickoli confessed. "The one called Hippocrates described to you in particular detail how Xena reacted when you supposedly died. That above all else has shown me what I needed to know."
"All you had to do was ask me," Gabrielle scowled. "I would have given them to you."
"I understand that now, you see," Nickoli said. "I did not have such faith before, even though you are more honest than most. Accept my apology, please, and my sympathies."
"Sympathies?" Gabrielle asked.
"Over the loss of your husband," Nickoli said. "As I said, I read through all of them."
Gabrielle felt a sudden pang of sadness at the mention of Perdicus.
"Yeah, well, it was some time ago," she said, trying to appear strong, though the loss tore her heart out. "I'm past that now."
"No," Nickoli said with amazing gentleness. "No you're not. No one could be, not in a year, not in ten lifetimes."
Gabrielle fell silent under his gaze, and for the first time, Nickoli himself seemed unsure of what to say next.
"The other thing I found remarkable," Nickoli finally said. "Was your deeply seated respect for life, in all aspects. You would not take a life, not even the one called Callisto, even after she killed your Perdicus. Your convictions are quite admirable."
Gabrielle was at a loss for words, her mouth hung open in surprise.
Nickoli was about to say something else when a guard ran in form outside.
"My Lord," He announced. "Marshall Titus and his men are approaching."
"How many accompany the Marshall?" Nickoli asked, sitting up straighter.
"Only six," The guard replied.
"His personal guards," Nickoli waived the man away. "Very well. Thank you; withdraw all of the mortal servants from the temple. Return to your homes, and do not return here for three days, do you understand?"
"But, My Lord, you said that-"
"Do you understand?" Nickoli said more loudly. "All the guards, the inner retinue, housekeepers, acolytes, everyone!"
"Yes, My Lord," The guard replied smartly. He gave a quick salute and wheeled on his feet, making for the door.
"Xena!" Nickoli called. "Would you rejoin us, please?"
Xena strode forward and stood next to Gabrielle.
"You should conceal yourselves for the time being," Nickoli suggested to Gabrielle. "I fear that Titus and his bodyguard may present a bitter challenge!"
"What?" Gabrielle asked. "But I-"
Nickoli looked at Xena. "The first part of our bargain," he said urgently. "His personal bodyguard must be kept at bay! Slow them down or kill them if you can! But you can not touch Titus himself. Leave the Marshal for us!"
"All right," Xena nodded.
"Xena!" Gabrielle protested.
"Get out of sight," Xena said quickly. "You can't help me on this one!"
She took up a position next to Nickoli's throne and looked at Gabrielle intently. Then her eyes drifted down and Gabrielle saw the bag resting behind the throne.
Nickoli's eyes gazed at the other members of the conclave and then he sat back down in his seat. "The rest of you, as we previously discussed." He motioned to the others and they vanished into the shadows.
"Wait for my signal, Xena," Nickoli said. "Then do not stop until we have eliminated his entire bodyguard."
Xena nodded, drawing her sword while Gabrielle reluctantly faded into the shadows.
Nickoli sat still as stone, his green eyes fixed on the entrance to the temple. They heard the footfalls of the approaching creatures, and everyone stiffened in anticipation.
A figure moved next to Gabrielle. Tinga leaned closer to her.
"Gabrielle," Tinga said quickly. "You were right. I was wrong. I'm sorry."
Gabrielle smiled to hear that.
"We can talk about all that later," she replied quickly, but she looked in Tinga's eyes and nodded.
Tinga pressed several sharpened wooden stakes into Gabrielle's hands
"If they find you, use the stakes to impale their heart, and then go for the decapitation stroke. A simple thrust won't finish these boys off." Tinga offered. "I'll keep close to you, and help to slow them down where I can."
"Don't have much choice, do I?" Gabrielle said nervously.
Tinga smiled. "No." Then she seemed to bend double as her body changed into its wolfish counterpart and she edged closer to the light in the hall.
Marshall Titus came into the temple, surrounded by his bodyguard. They strode into the main hall and marched towards Nickoli, still sitting motionless With Xena standing at his side.
"Well, General," Titus said in a deep, thickly accented voice. "You seem to have done quite well for yourself."
"Greetings, My Lord," Nickoli said in a subdued voice. "To what do I own this unexpected honor?"
"I am here to return you to the fold, Nickoli," Titus said. "Our master waits."
"Your master, perhaps," Nickoli countered. "He, long ago, ceased to be mine."
Nickoli rose and strode forward purposefully. "Do not let him drag you back into the chains of servitude, Titus. You know as well as I do that this is all a lie. He is a lie."
"He is our god," Titus said. "Our creator and we owe him our allegiance."
"We owe no one," Nickoli said. "We are free now. Join me and we can live our lives as we choose, by our rules."
"And those rules involve the destruction of your own kind?" Titus growled. "This obvious trap?" He looked past him at Xena, stepping slowly from the dais and moving towards them. "Many things have changed, Nickoli, and you do not begin to fathom it all. I am here to either bring you back to Lord Bacchus or to exact justice for the murder of our own people. Your little hired assassin will not avail you."
Titus turned his pale eyes to Xena.
Xena stared back at Titus. He was a large man, and powerfully built, dressed in the ragged remains of splendid armor that, despite its neglect, was still magnificent to behold in its decay. His long mane of hair was pure white, like his skin, and his eyes were pale red in color. In life, he must have been an albino.
Setting her face in resignation, she stepped a few paces closer, her eyes scanning the bodyguard with total detachment. Each of them was like Titus, powerfully built and well armored. Each guard carried a short stabbing sword and shield, and each one wore an iron collar about his neck and a thick iron breastplate covering their chest. Her military mind concluded that the killing stroke would now have to slice just above the jawbone, essentially removing the top three fourths of her opponent's skull instead of a clean slice through the soft tissue at the neck. The heart stab would have to be from the side, under the left arm, the shield arm, another difficult target. Inwardly she cursed.
"You will make an excellent addition to our new army," Titus smiled at her. He nodded as if she had spoken her assessment aloud. "If my Lord allows you to exist."
Xena's eyes flicked towards Nickoli. He gave a subtle nod.
"We'll see," Xena replied, and she leapt in to attack the first three guards.
The swords clashed in a storm of sudden noise as Xena moved in to try for a kill on the first of Titus's men.
Nickoli also rushed in to attack, realizing that Xena would be hard pressed to accomplish her side of the bargain on her own. He flew through the air and slammed into two of the guards attacking Xena, sending them all flying back towards the door. A sword appeared in his hand and he quickly topped two of the guards with a lightning fast slice.
"Now!" Nickoli shouted at the top of his lungs.
The dozen Nosforata, hanging from the ceiling above, descended upon Titus's men like pale wraiths, fastening their needle teeth into the flesh of the bodyguard. Hissing and spitting like animals. Many of them were destroyed before they could latch on, but the distraction was enough.
In a swift move, Xena ducked under the shield of her nearest opponent and drove the wooden stake up into the soft flesh just below the guards left armpit. She felt it penetrate the tissue right to where the heart should have been. The guard's eyes went wide in shock and he began to stumble forward as Xena came up behind and slashed down through the base of the skull out between the two jaws. The headless body collapsed in a fountain of blood as Xena spun to face the next opponent.
Titus watched in amazement as the Nosforata, ghoulish and starved, quickly dispatched three of his guards, while Xena and the traitor, Nickoli finished off his last remaining one.
Nickoli slammed the stake through the breast plate of his opponent and spun him directly in the charging Warrior Princess's path.
"Xena!" he shouted.
She brought her sword around and topped the next guard, then spun low and came up, releasing the chakram. It ricocheted against the stone wall and nearly sliced the top of Titus's skull from his body. Then she and Nickoli were sent sailing back into the temple.
Titus stood alone in the center of the carnage, his boots squelching on the gory remains scattered about the stone floor. He was laughing.
"Well done!" he praised. "Very well done!"
Then Titus raised his arms and a loud chittering and squeaking could be heard from outside, rising in volume as it approached. A cloud of bats burst through the entrance of the temple and swarmed the Nosforata, heading like a cloud of angry locusts for Nickoli and Xena.
"You didn't tell me he could do that!" Xena said angrily.
"I didn't know he could do that!" Nickoli retorted.
"Gabrielle!" Xena called. "Get out of here! Now!"
Gabrielle came into view near the front of the temple, her eyes wide in horror.
Xena threw the bag of black scrolls to her. "Get that stuff out of
"The Black Scrolls! Where did you get those?" Nickoli bellowed in rage. He saw the ends of the scrolls in the bag when Gabrielle caught them. "No!"
Gabrielle looked up at Nickoli, his eyes ablaze, and mouth frothing with rage and betrayal.
"Run!" Xena shouted, breaking Gabrielle out of her stupor. She turned and darted for the side entrance.
Nickoli leapt after her, stopping several paces away, his eyes bouncing between the onslaught of Titus and the escaping bard. He let out another bellow.
"Imani!" He shouted. "Do it!"
The entire conclave of House Vampyra rushed in to grasp Titus.
Tinga saw Talcus get within arms length of the ancient blood drinker before Titus swept off his head with a vicious slash of his clawed hands. She howled and charged in, leaving Gabrielle to make her escape. Titus saw the large wolf coming and thrust his sword out to meet the attack, only to feel the fangs of the remaining conclave sink into his pale flesh.
The cloud of bats, once focused on their attack, became disorganized as the hold of Titus was broken, and they fled chittering into the shadows, or out the nearest opening, fading like darker clouds in the night sky.
Nickoli looked again from the cluster of beings feeding on Titus and the open doorway that Gabrielle had just fled through. With an inhuman roar, he flew through the open door in pursuit of Gabrielle.
Xena cried out in rage and followed as fast as her feet would carry her, leaving the rest of the conclave to finish their grisly feast.
Gabrielle ran as fast as her feet would carry her. She burst from the main gates of the temple and ran towards the twinkling lights of the town nearby. From behind her, she could sense as well as hear the bellowing roar of Nickoli as he pursued.
She had just reached the worn path when a weight slammed down upon her from behind and sent her skidding to the earth. The bags in her hand went bouncing off into the darkness. Cold hands clutched at her shoulders and she felt herself lifted from the earth and turned to face Nickoli's fiery gaze. His fangs protruded from his mouth and he opened his jaws in a hiss.
Gabrielle kicked up into the creatures belly with all her strength and felt the grip loosen slightly.
She wiggled free and turned to resume her dash for safety when Nickoli's arm encircled her, pulling her back. Then his other hand came up against her face, stifling her. She felt something warm and wet against her mouth and nose. It flowed into her mouth as she fought for breath. It was sweet and salty at the same time. In panic she tried to spit the fluid back out but there was no place for it to go, then her throat convulsed and she felt it drop into her belly.
Suddenly, the sensation wasn't unpleasant, wasn't grotesque. She felt a wave of pleasure blast through her every nerve with such force that she went weak in the knees. It was the scent of every flower in the spring, all at once. The blindness of sunlight and dark in concert. Every beautiful sound she had ever heard thundered in her ears in perfect, entrancing harmony. She was drinking mead, or sweet wine, and the pleasure was fire drenched by honey. It was the release of her wedding night with Perdicus increased a hundred fold. She wanted as much as she could take, and then more. Instead of struggling to get free, she held the hand fast against her mouth and drank, intoxicated by the orgasmic sensations ricocheting through her body and soul.
Somewhere in the distance she heard a familiar voice echoing in the distance as she felt her self falling into a bottomless, passionate dream.
"Gabrielle!" Xena cried in horror.
She lay motionless on the grass, her neck covered in a crimson stain. Nickoli stood up over her, holding Arijanii's bag in one clawed hand. His chest heaved in rage.
"Treachery!" he shouted at Xena.
Gabrielle stirred slowly on the ground. Her head was moving weakly from side to side.
"You betrayed my trust!" Nickoli bellowed. "So now I betray yours!"
Then he vanished, sailing back towards the temple in a rage.
Xena ran to Gabrielle's side and scooped her up in her arms.
"Gabrielle?" She pleaded.
Gabrielle's eyes opened, but they were not her eyes. They were deep red and bloodshot, as if something in her body was attempting to burst from her. A red stain, like a tear flowed down her cheek.
"Hey, Gabrielle?" Xena coaxed.
"I want more," Gabrielle whispered huskily. Xena saw the sharp protuberances above her eye teeth indicating premature fangs.
"Oh no," Xena rocked Gabrielle back and forth, fighting back her own tears. A long mournful scream burst from her, splitting the night all the way up to the stars.
Nickoli stood at the entrance to the temple, staring out at Xena, seeing her as clearly as if she were right before him, reading every line of pain etched into her face. A satisfied smile appeared on his lips when her wail split the silence of the night and he turned and strode calmly back into the temple.
"Only a matter of time now," he said confidently.
He stepped through the mucky remains of the battle and moved towards his seat. Titus was a thinning pile of blackened ash, scattering across the dry spots of stone on the floor, the rest of his entourage was destroyed, and his children looked ravishing in the light of their newly fed forms. They seemed to glow.
Imani smiled and nodded. "It is done, my love," she said. Blood covered the lower portion of her delicate face and stained the front of her dark dress.
"Not quite," Nickoli replied. "But soon." He looked at all of them and smiled. He saw the remains of Talcus lying in the corner, his pale robes soaked in his own blood and the blood of many others. Then he turned and looked at his "family" from one to the other.
Beautiful Imani, mysterious Vasha, the powerful Damalicus, and the wise Arijanii. A fifth figure seemed to melt into view, still covered in the moldering burial shawl. Its inhuman bloodshot eyes fixed unblinking on Nickoli. In its misshapen arms it carried the lifeless body of Tinga.
"Ah, Ghoul," Nickoli nodded. "You have survived also. Excellent."
The Nosforata laid the limp body of Tinga before the throne and gave a simple nod of its head.
"Now," Nickoli said with grim resignation. "You all know what must follow. Take your followers and go, quickly. If you stay, there is a chance that you will be destroyed when she returns. What must follow is for me and me alone."
One by one they all withdrew, not just from the chamber, but from the temple itself, scattering into the darkness.
Imani was the last to leave. She paused at the entrance and turned back to face Nickoli. A tear of blood rolled down her cheek.
"Thank you," she said longingly to him. "Father." And then she was gone.
Nickoli knelt next to the body of Tinga, and moved a few stray hairs from her face, studying it for a long moment, as if trying to understand the meaning of being truly lifeless. He smiled tenderly and placed a gentle kiss on her pale forehead. Then he seated himself on the throne and waited.
Gabrielle's eyes were deepening to a brilliant crimson color, and her flesh began to pale and cool. She smiled wistfully in the drunken blood stupor.
"It was so wonderful," she said huskily.
"Lay quiet, now," Xena said staring down at her face and feeling the panic freeze like a heavy block in the pit of her belly.
Gabrielle smiled as she looked up at Xena with a sudden intense clarity. "You should try it, Xena. By the gods, I want more. I need more." Her hand reached weakly up and caressed Xena's cheek. "I want to go to him."
Xena's despair solidified into icy rage as she looked back up the gentle incline to the main gate of the temple.
"So do I," she said menacingly. She lifted Gabrielle in her arms and marched off towards the temple.
Half way up the hill, Gabrielle's eyes snapped open wide and alert.
"Put me down," she said suddenly.
Xena looked down at her, staring back at her with unearthly eyes.
"It's alright," Gabrielle continued. "I think I can walk."
Xena gently let Gabrielle's feet back down on the ground while still keeping her other arm under the bards shoulder.
Gabrielle slumped against Xena, struggling to master her own legs.
"Easy now," Xena soothed.
"Just a little dizzy," Gabrielle countered. She breathed in deeply and looked about her. Her eyes went wide in wonder. "I can see." She breathed. The night world shone in her gaze with crystal clarity, as if she were staring out into the noon day sun with freshly opened eyes. She caught the scuttling of small creatures, scampering to and fro along the outer wall. In the distance, she spied a lone stag standing at the crest of a gentle rise. It stared in their direction for a few moments and then vanished from sight.
"Just get to the temple with me, okay?" Xena asked. She helped the giddy Gabrielle continue towards the gates. Suddenly Gabrielle doubled over as if in pain and dropped to one knee.
"Wow," she gasped. Looking back up at Xena, her eyes were deeper now, almost seductive. "It feels like lightning flying through my body. It's so good! So alive!"
Xena placed a finger against Gabrielle's throat, feeling for a pulse. It was there, deep and slow, far too slow for a normal person, and it was slowing even further.
"Xena?" Gabrielle looked back up at her in sudden fear. "What did he do to me?"
Xena helped Gabrielle through the gates and let her slide down to the ground against the cool stone wall.
"I don't know, Gabrielle," Xena answered nervously. "I think he's turned you into one of them."
Gabrielle looked back up at Xena with pleading eyes.
"I don't want to be like him, Xena," she pleaded. "I don't want to live like he does. I can't take a life, even if it means I die. Don't let me become a monster like him!"
"You won't," Xena said. "You stay here. I'm going to have a word with our friend." Her voice dropped to a menacing growl.
The inner doors slammed open with an echoing crash as Xena burst into the torch lit chamber. She saw Nickoli seated on the throne, staring at her intently.
"Time for me to fulfill my end of our little bargain, Nickoli," Xena hissed as she stalked towards him.
"It was all supposed to be so simple, wasn't it?" Nickoli sighed dramatically. Then he rose to his feet and reached behind the throne, drawing out a long, narrow sword. He tapped the silver blade against the bag of scrolls hanging on the back of the throne and shook his head.
"Unfortunately," he sighed. "I must rescind that part of my request because of these. You cannot be allowed to give this information to the world, so I have given you a choice instead? Destroy me, and make Gabrielle a target for any hunter in the world or walk away and live, knowing that Gabrielle will remain safe as my pupil and companion."
"Safe?" Xena countered. "Safe until she has a whole village tracking her like an animal?"
"Mankind will learn to combat my kind eventually, yes" Nickoli replied. "But the information contained in those scrolls will give them an overwhelming advantage before my kind has established themselves. That, I will not permit."
"I'll make a bargain with you, Nickoli," Xena said. "Undo what you've done to Gabrielle and I'll walk away."
"I very much doubt it," Nickoli countered. "Gabrielle's scrolls were most enlightening. I was able to learn much of what you have tried to hide from me these past days. Always fighting for the greater good. Never taking life if you didn't need to. Yes, my dear, beautiful Xena, you have changed."
Nickoli swung his sword in slow deliberate arcs, as if he were loosening up his wrist. "The Black Scrolls of Arijanii represent the greater good for mankind," He said with an icy smile. "So I do not believe, for one moment, that you will simply walk away. Your precious Gabrielle would be a terrible price to pay if you gave that knowledge to man, but in your heart, I know you will still do it. You have become weak, Xena. You have become soft in your compassion for the less fortunate. You have become the one thing that dooms any warlord in a trial by combat." His eyes burned through her soul as they changed to their glowing crimson. He smiled with a hiss, baring his fangs. "You have become predictable!"
Nickoli stopped ten feet from Xena, standing at attention, his sword behind him. He raised it in salute and stood poised, motionless, waiting for her to attack. His eyes watched Xena with feral intensity, deep and compelling.
"Gabrielle is mine, forever," Nickoli said simply, and he smiled that cold calculating smile again. "Accept it."
With a cry of rage, Xena swept in for an attack. Nickoli stepped and blocked the sword strokes easily. The blades clanged three times in rapid succession before they parted, Nickoli standing, once again, straight and poised, his weapon out behind him, waiting.
Xena crouched low, her weapon out in front of her, gauging Nickoli carefully. His posture and position, everything about his stance said that he was vulnerable. She waded in again. Nickoli stepped nimbly back, his own weapon coming out and deflecting her blows easily, then she was pressed back by a series of quick thrusts and sweeps until she gained a safe distance through retreat. Again Nickoli stood tall, poised and weapon behind him. He began walking around Xena, his eyes never leaving hers.
"You cannot defeat me, Xena," Nickoli said simply. "I will spare your life, in payment for the services you have already provided if you leave now. I shall not make that offer a second time."
"Listen to him, Xena," came a familiar voice behind her.
Xena turned and saw Gabrielle standing at the entrance. She walked forward, her eyes also a brilliant crimson, aglow with lust and hunger.
Her every movement was smooth and catlike, almost seductive in the way she seemed to flow towards the two of them.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked desperately, her eyes bouncing back and forth between Nickoli, standing poised and waiting and the thing that had been her best friend, slinking towards her.
"It isn't so bad, when you think about it," Gabrielle said coyly. She stepped next to Xena, her pale fingers tracing the arc of Xena's shoulder. "I'll be able to live forever, and experience all the things I want to in this life." She ran her finger up the length of Xena's blade, smiling at Xena with unadulterated lust. "You could come with me?" she finished. "You said we were destined to be together forever, why not make it a reality?"
"Not like this," Xena said. "I don't want it to be like this, Gabrielle."
"Well?" Gabrielle shrugged as she moved next to Nickoli and let her arms encircle his neck, leaning against him like a hungry lover. "It looks like it's this, or nothing?" Her eyes fixed on Xena with a desire that sent a shudder of horror up Xena's spine.
"You'll love the way it feels," Gabrielle cooed. "It's like every lover you've ever had, all wrapped up into one intense moment."
She sighed. "I've only had the one lover in my life. And the experience of it was made so much more intense by him. Imagine how you would feel. You've had more than a few lovers in your time."
"Stop that," Xena said, her rage beginning to boil.
"Imagine every night with Marcus repeated a hundred times in one instant," Gabrielle cooed. "Or Borias, or both at the same time, all at once?" She smiled.
Xena stepped forward, her weapon out, but Gabrielle interposed herself between Nickoli and her friend.
"Xena," she said. "You have to join me. I don't want this alone. I want to share it with you." She reached out and touched Xena's cheek. Her skin was cool and moist. Xena shuddered with realization. Her eyes filled with tears and she reached out to touch Gabrielle's cheek in return.
"I'm sorry," Xena said in a quavering voice. Then her gaze went from one of warmth and longing to bestial ice and she struck Gabrielle as hard as she could, knocking her clear of the fray. With a cry of fury, she attacked Nickoli.
Nickoli stepped and danced as his own weapon deflected and countered Xena's endless attacks. He seemed to move without effort, as if he could sense Xena's strikes before she attempted them. His posture never changed, always straight and proud. With nothing more than an apparent flick of the wrist, his blade sliced up against Xena's left arm.
Xena recoiled only for a moment, and then struck again. Nickoli continued to dance about, dodging this way and that, his weapon glinting red in the torch light. His face was unreadable, his eyes never leaving Xena. Another quick flick of the wrist and his blade sliced a small gash on Xena's right cheek. Then another and Xena's left leg was bleeding.
Xena stepped back, staring in shock at Nickoli as he stood again, statuesque and inhuman in the light, his eyes intent on her, yet calm and passive, almost dead.
Nickoli shook his head almost imperceptibly and before Xena could do anything, a weight fell on her from behind.
Gabrielle hissed and spat like a rabid feline, all the while trying to lock her lips on one of Xena's bleeding wounds.
Xena reacted out of blind instinct to the attack and flipped Gabrielle over her shoulder, slamming her to the stone with bone crushing force. Any normal person would have felt his or her spine shatter at the impact, but Gabrielle simply bounced back to her feet again and charged in, eyes blazing, mouth wide. Xena deflected her charge and sent her best friend skidding across the flag stones into the shadows. She turned and barely deflected a blow by Nickoli who had waited patiently for the opportunity to strike.
Xena stepped back and saw Gabrielle rising to her feet again; her eyes alight with hunger and madness. Then Xena went berserk and charged Nickoli without any care for her own fate. She swung her weapon, ducking and dodging countless return strikes, her weapon clanging in the vast chamber. Nickoli backed away, suddenly confused and concerned. His confidence of a moment before wavered under this suicidal onslaught. He saw his opponents sword come crashing down, saw his blade deflect it, his return stroke opened another gash on Xena's shoulder. There was a dull flash of something else in her left hand. Xena juked to one side, spinning and coming up in a savage thrust.
Gabrielle was charging again, her eyes wide. The entire world seemed to slow to a horrifying crawl.
The sound was a sickening crunch followed by a squelching noise as Xena stabbed upwards with the wooden stake. It entered just below the ribs and stabbed up through the heart.
Nickoli stood up stiff as white pain flashed hot behind his eyes. His breath burst out in a loud gasp and his face turned skyward.
Gabrielle careened off to the side, clutching her own chest as she shared in the pain of her creator and she collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Nickoli's sword dropped from his numb fingers with a clatter, and he looked back down into the glacial gaze of Xena. She had a savage grin on her face, filled with dark triumph.
Nickoli's gaze continued down to Xena's outstretched left arm all the way to the hand, soaked in his blood. He looked back up into her eyes just in time to see the ferocity rekindled and she jammed the stake even further and released it.
Another gasp and his knees gave out. He sank down, arms useless at his sides.
Gabrielle also convulsed with Xena's second thrust.
Nickoli looked over at the fallen bard. Weakly, Gabrielle's face turned up, and her green eyes stared in wonder and horror at him. The deep red light of blood lust was gone. She breathed in ragged gasps and her mouth opened in shock.
"You understand, now?" Nickoli asked her.
Gabrielle only nodded weakly and her head sank back onto the flags.
Nickoli blinked and sighed. He looked back up at Xena and a calm smile appeared on his lips. "Well played, my dear. Well played."
Nickoli toppled forward and lay still. His blood seeped from the fatal wound, spreading in a dark pool along the stones.
Xena stared down at Nickoli for a long moment before her eyes were drawn back to Gabrielle. When she saw the bards arm move, she dropped her sword and ran to her side.
Gently, she turned Gabrielle over and held her close.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked
Gabrielle's eyes opened slowly. They were no longer the deep red of a blood drinker. They were the old clear green.
"You have to finish it," Gabrielle whispered. "You have to finish it."
Xena looked over at Nickoli's body, tears streaming down her cheeks. She lay Gabrielle gently down. Taking up her sword, she stood over the dead blood drinker's corpse.
Xena looked back at Gabrielle who only nodded weakly. The sword sliced down severing Nickoli's head from his body. The head rolled off into the darkness. At the same moment, Gabrielle convulsed once, twice, and the blood she had been forced to drink burst from her mouth, covered her face in a mass of sticky red. She rolled over and vomited the rest of the poison out onto the floor while she sobbed in pain.
Xena ran back to Gabrielle's side again and supported her as the last of the blood voided from her system. She rocked Gabrielle gently, like a baby awakening from a nightmare, whispering comforting noises in her ear.
"He never bit me," Gabrielle finally managed to splutter. She gagged a couple more times and sighed. "He forced me to drink his blood, but he never bit me."
Xena paused in surprise. "He must have known that this would happen," she thought out loud. She stared at the headless corpse in mild confusion and then she looked back down at Gabrielle, her hands and face were a mask of bloody gore.
"Let's get you out of here and get you cleaned up," she said softly.
She rose, practically carrying Gabrielle in her arms.
"The scrolls," Gabrielle coughed.
Xena looked back at the bag, hanging from the back of the chair. She helped Gabrielle along and hobbled over to the throne, taking the bag of black scrolls and slinging them over her shoulder. They moved out into the ruined garden and Xena let Gabrielle settle down with her back against the cool stone side of the fountain.
Xena found a cloth in the bag and dipped it in the water, wiping the gore from Gabrielle's fingers and face. As the cool cloth moved across her cheek, her eyes opened and studied Xena's face. She saw Xena's injuries, the tear streaks on her face.
"That's it," Xena said gently. "Just relax."
"You look terrible," Gabrielle whispered wearily, but her lips turned up in a soft smile.
Xena smiled back. "You don't look so good yourself."
Gabrielle's smile grew and she began to laugh weakly. Xena found the laugh, though pained, contagious and she began to laugh as well.
She looked up towards the east and saw the first pale light of morning beginning to drift across the sky.
"It'll be morning soon," Xena said. "We should make the most of today and get as far from here as we can."
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena continued wiping the blood from Gabrielle's face.
"We're going to Athens, to drop those scrolls off," she said. "Then we're going to relax for a while."
"Then let's get going," Gabrielle sighed.
Xena smiled. It was obvious that Gabrielle wasn't going anywhere for a few hours at least.
"We have some time," Xena said. "We'll wait till it's fully light. Rest for a while, okay?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and at once fell into a deep slumber.
Xena lay down next to her and opened the bag containing the black scrolls. She pulled one out and began to read it. Then she, too, closed her eyes and slept.
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