The fire was burning and crackling merrily as the two women set up their camp for the night. The moon shone silver and wavy in the gentle current of the nearby river.
Gabrielle neatly cleaned the three small fish that she and Xena had caught for their supper, her mind wandering back across the past adventures. In nearly two weeks, she hadn't even bothered to pick up her scrolls and quill. It was as if her muse was pausing in contemplation.
"Are we going to eat any time tonight?" Xena asked lightly.
Gabrielle started from her reverie and felt the sharp pain of her knife as it sliced into her finger. She dropped the fish on the ground and waved her hand, wincing.
Xena looked down at the ruined meal and sighed. "Guess not."
"Very funny," Gabrielle shot back, more than a little annoyed. She looked down to inspect her self inflicted wound and paused, seeing the blood oozing from between the two pieces of skin. She seemed transfixed by it.
Ordinarily, a small wound like this would not have drawn that much attention. Stick your finger in your mouth and suck on it for a moment, then rinse it off.
This idea, however was suddenly repellant to Gabrielle after her recent experience. She grasped the first piece of cloth she could find and wiped at the small cut with manic intensity.
Xena watched for a moment before placing a hand over hers.
"It's okay," Xena said quietly. "It's over. It's been over for a month now?"
Gabrielle looked at the cloth covering her finger and shivered.
"It doesn't feel like it," she replied in a subdued voice. "Xena. Why did he do that to me?"
A voice drifted from the trees, smooth and feminine.
"It was the only way to get what he desired."
Instantly, Xena had her sword in hand, and Gabrielle grabbed two of the freshly sharpened stakes, both of them scanning the trees around them.
Xena's eyes narrowed as an unnatural chill passed over the two of them.
"Imani," Xena hissed.
From the edge of the trees, near the river, the figure of Imani, pale in her diaphanous gown, glided from the pale light of the moon, into the warm glow of their tiny camp fire.
"Very good," she said with a nod. "I do not remember saying more than a few words to you, and yet you recognize me by my voice." She stepped fully into view and cast a disdainful glance at Gabrielle.
"Put those away, child," she said with a voice that only bordered on civility. "You and I both know that you will never use them, even to kill one of my kind."
"My feelings may have changed slightly," Gabrielle said in a menacing voice.
Imani's eyebrows rose in amusement. "Perhaps, child. But not that much." She turned to look at Xena, her hands clasping in front of her in a demure manner.
"I am here to speak with you," she said. "I invoke the Right of Truce."
"Cocky one aren't you," Xena snarled. The Right of Truce was a rule, designed to allow two warring parties to meet without fear of retribution or treachery. It was a sacred law, and one that even the most duplicitous warlord would think twice about breaking.
Imani settled on a fallen log, reaching her fingers toward the fire. She looked up at Xena expectantly.
"If you are going to strike me down, then do so," she suggested. "Otherwise, put away your weapons so we may speak."
Gabrielle circled the fire and stood next to Xena. She lowered the wooden stakes, though she did not set them aside.
Xena, after a few moments of consideration, slid her sword into its sheath and crossed her arms across her chest.
Imani sat back, lounging casually on the seat while she studied them.
"Several things, my sweet," she said in an icy voice so like Nickoli in type, though different in cadence.
"Firstly, to tell you that any security you have enjoyed from us has now expired." She sat up straight again and looked at them hard. "The truce between you and the Conclave ended with the death of Lord Nickoli. This is the last interaction that we will share. If any of our people meet you again, one side will not survive."
"I can live with that," Xena quipped, smirking. "Can you?"
Imani fixed her with an icy stare.
"The other thing I wish to do, is thank you." She continued. A smile began to tug at her lips, as if she wrestled with some internal joke.
"Thank me?" Xena asked. She and Gabrielle exchanged a confused look.
"Yes," Imani seemed to enjoy herself as she realized that she had piqued the two women's curiosity.
"You see, Xena," Imani began. "Lord Nickoli watched you these last few years, ever since the child began to travel with you."
"The name is Gabrielle," Gabrielle interjected.
Imani ignored her. "You have been behind the scenes regarding many events, always in the shadows, never recognized, though always responsible. You seem to take pride in that?"
"Are you getting any closer to a point?" Xena asked. There was a knot forming in her belly that she did not like.
Imani shrugged. "I thought you would be proud to know that you have saved our entire race. You actually assisted in the final stages of birthing it."
"What are you talking about?" Gabrielle asked, getting more defensive.
"Nickoli knew that his blood, the blood of a progenitor would link the rest of us to him for eternity. Just as the blood of Titus linked him and us for eternity. " She smiled. "To that end, he entrusted you to help us dispose of Titus's body guard so we might feed, as one body, on the blood of the first one. His blood mingled with the blood of five others. A cluster in the blood line, always surviving, should one of us die. That left only Nickoli as the weak link, but our laws prevented us from murdering one of our own, especially our own creator."
Xena felt her heart beginning to thump in her chest, and Gabrielle looked up at Xena in astonishment.
"To that end, we employed you to assist in distracting Marshall Titus so that we might feed, in one group, upon him, spreading his strength between us. This allowed Nickoli to get you close to him and distract him, even if it was in a small degree."
She chuckled evilly. "Sacrificing Adaris and his fledglings was a simple stroke of genius. Since only Adaris knew that Nickoli had given the order to attack you, once he fell, his children fought on as he had instructed, presenting Nickoli with the perfect opportunity to be your savior." She fixed her pale eyes on Gabrielle.
"That attack in the woods was staged," Xena moaned.
"Yes," Imani said with that same icy smile. "As were Nickoli's instructions to Tinga. To protect you," she looked at Gabrielle. "A sister Amazon, and to suspect you," Her gaze turned to Xena. "An Amazon killer and bloodthirsty warlord. The fact that Tinga already knew of your prior exploits only helped Nickoli persuade her. Only when she began to suspect she had been deceived did she intervene directly, to her unfortunate demise."
Gabrielle's eyes had gone dark, and Xena was beginning to seethe with rage.
"The final stroke was the destruction of Nickoli himself," Imani rose to her feet and moved to the edge of the camp, sensing that her final revelation would end in an attack upon her person.
"In that small detail, Nickoli did not deceive you." She said smugly. "Nickoli truly did want to die. He needed to die to complete his plan. However, after perusing your writings, child," she looked again and Gabrielle. "He was convinced that Xena would not kill him without being," she paused and stared back at Xena. "Properly motivated. He forced Gabrielle to drink his blood, without draining hers, in effect creating a temporary vassal to serve him and be influenced by him. Though you believed she was being transformed, he knew the effects would last only until the rising of the sun," she crossed her arms and her smile grew. "Or his destruction."
Imani was clearly enjoying the expressions of hopelessness and frustration playing on the two companions' faces. "Faced with the loss of your friend, you became sufficiently enraged to attempt his destruction, and when you realized the only way to supposedly save your friend was to finish the job, you did exactly what we all wished."
"You used me," Xena growled. "You used me to kill your own creator."
"We all used you, Xena," Imani laughed. "With the blood of Titus intermingled between the five surviving members of the Conclave, and Nickoli's final destruction, the blood line was freed to grow without the concern of being brought down by the fall of any one of us."
She stared at both of them. She had an expression that could only be called cold pride.
"Congratulations, Xena, Gabrielle," she cooed. "You were instrumental in the birth of an entirely new nation. We have chosen to be called Vampire, after our immortal father. I just thought the two of you should know." She rose and fixed the two of them with an icy stare. "Good bye, Xena. I do hope that we never must cross paths again." She turned as if to depart.
"I've already made sure your nation does not survive for long, Imani," Xena said.
Imani stopped and turned back. "Oh, I assume you refer to the Black Scrolls of Arijanii, yes?" Again she smiled. "Yes, Talcus played his part well, always being the romantic one of us." She smiled as she mocked his tone. "There must be balance."
She stepped closer to the two women and sneered.
"Was there information in them that could hurt us?" she said knowingly. "Yes to some very small degree. The majority of those scrolls are nothing more than fictitious fantasies and half truths designed to send man on the wrong path. Those devices that do work, will only work on the most recently converted, and some who can be saved will die in the attempts to stave off the change. The information contained within them is enough to keep mankind on the wrong path for centuries. I don't doubt that the scribes of Athens have already sent copies of the scrolls to Heliopolis, Alexandria, and a dozen other centers of study in the world. The scholars will learn them and many will die putting them into practice." She turned to depart again.
"Remember, Xena," she chided. "You should always wrap a lie inside a truth. It makes it more convincing. Farewell."
Xena exploded in frustration. Her sword rang out and she leapt over the fire at Imani, but the female Vampire simply leapt across the water, landing like a cat on the other side.
"This isn't over!" Xena shouted in helpless fury.
Imani only smiled and waved in farewell before turning and vanishing into the shadows between the trees.
Gabrielle stood next to Xena, looking across the silver line of the river.
"I think I'm going to be sick," she said. "Xena, what have we done?"
Xena stood at the bank of the river, staring across at the shadows and stewing in aggravation. She felt used. She felt as if something deep inside had been violated in a way that was worse than any torture she had ever endured. Her entire being trembled with anger. Tears stung her eyes as she turned back to look at Gabrielle, staring mutely into the distance.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked in a hoarse voice.
Gabrielle didn't match Xena's gaze, her face bore a haunted expression.
"By the gods, Xena. What have we done?"
And that is how the Bacchi became known as Vampires. ;-)
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