By Red Raven
(Copyright April, 2000)
Disclaimers ~ See Part 1.
As the following weeks turned into months, Xena and Gabrielle settled into a comfortable and devoted partnership once more; Gabrielle content to make the town house her new home with Xena, at the ancient warriors request. With the assistance of their Europe-based familiars, they passed ownership of Gabrielles property into the keeping of the Strasbourg Talisman Circle. They also gradually merged their interests and businesses, leaving only one or two small New York and San Francisco galleries as they were, solely in the hands of established and trusted humans.
At Burgess Hill, the Talisman Circle Mother house was delighted that Xena and Gabrielle had healed the rift between them and the fates of these two ancients were once more intertwined. The news was discreetly shared with the two other groups in Strasbourg and Boston respectively, prompting the urgent arrival of a letter, delivered by hand from the American-based daughter group. The Talisman Circle Director, Simeon Travis, known simply as the Caretaker, telephoned Xena, requesting that she and Gabrielle join him at the Mother house that evening to receive the letter, which was addressed to them both, and to discuss one or two other items. Just after ten-thirty that same night, Xena and Gabrielle sat with the grey-haired, bespectacled Caretaker in his comfortable, albeit dusty, office.
"Here it is." Simeon smiled warmly as he slid a manila envelope across his desk towards his guests. The letter was met with a gasp from Gabrielle and a look of complete surprise from Xena as they both gazed at the familiar handwriting.
Gabrielle leaned forward and picked up the letter gently, as if a fragile object. "For the attention of Xena and Gabrielle in the event of their reunion." She read out loud, before turning to Xena with a smile. "Mels not quite left us after all!"
Xena took the letter and turned it over, noting the professors official stamp on the reverse side. Although faded at the corners, the letter had remained crisp and evidently unopened. She carefully slipped a fingernail beneath the envelope flap and ripped the letter open, leaning closer to Gabrielle so they could both read the single sheet of paper she removed.
My dear friends,
Although I cannot be with you physically, I can picture this moment in my imagination and share it with you as I write this letter. In the years Janice and I were involved with each of you in friendship, our only sorrow was that we couldnt entertain the pair of you at the same time. However, we always knew with certainty that you would see sense one day and mend what should have never been broken in the first place.
Xena and Gabrielle unconsciously reached for and clasped each others free hand as they continued to read.
You both know how much you came to mean to Jan and I, more so to me after I lost that dear woman who was the fullness of my life. It always struck me as ironic that I never got the chance to tell the two of you this simple fact, thats why you now both hold my letter, perhaps long after my death, just as each of you held Jans and my heart and friendship in life. I hope you find joy and contentment again. I also trust you will remain in contact with the Talisman Circle. It may seem a strange comment, but over the years you have become far less objects of fascination or intrigue to the group and much more family. I swear though, I am certain youll never hear that from Simeon Travis, since hes even more reserved than I am!
One more thing: you both need to be warned about something, though perhaps by the time you have this letter you may already know what Im about to tell you. I do not know how it occurred, but I am convinced the destruction of Mathias in Italy was no lucky accident for the hunters who dispatched him. They have discovered some new weapon and are evidently using it. Please be on your guard, both of you. Watch out for each other and find out what you can from Simeon. You can trust him as you trusted me.
I love you both very much and, if eternity is kind to us, I pray Jan and I may even now be reunited as you read this, and also, perhaps one day well be able to share time (if time remains real in eternity) with you again.
Good journeys my friends,
Xena and Gabrielle passed the letter to the Caretaker, happy for him to read it, then turned to each other, opening their thoughts for one another to read.
What do you think? Xena narrowed her eyes.
I still miss her, Xena.
I do too, but I meant what do you think about Mathias? She offered an apologetic smile.
Oh, that Gabrielle looked away briefly. I dont know what to think, Xena. Its a little scary I guess, but weve managed to avoid stakes, beheadings and the like, up until today. Hopefully well beat whatever it is hunters have discovered now.
Mathias fell to it.
Maybe Mathias had an off-night. Gabrielle offered a light-hearted smile, though her eyes betrayed her fears.
Xena nodded slowly. Yeah perhaps youre right. Well just be careful more vigilant, right?
Yeah more careful and vigilant.
Both vampires thoughts were interrupted by the Caretakers quiet laughter as he read the professors comment about him. Xena and Gabrielle then watched him frown at the final notes of warning in the letter.
Simeon sighed heavily. "Yes, Melinda was absolutely right to warn you, as I should have done some months ago." He laid the letter down on his desk. "Its just that we have so little proof to go on really, the information currently known to us would be of no greater help to you than this dear ladys words. Even so, it is appropriate that her letter broaches the subject it is something I wish to speak to you about." He softly touched the signature on the letter and smiled gently. "We lost a fine and dedicated archaeologist when Janice Covington passed away, but when Melinda Pappas died last year well, a small part of the groups soul was lost." He regarded Xena and Gabrielle silently for a moment. "She was an extraordinary woman and a fine professor with a remarkable mind. Id almost hoped, as had our Austrian colleagues and American cousins, that one of you might have turned Melinda, perhaps even both professors, for the sake of retaining their services. A selfish and no doubt foolish notion on our part, I appreciate."
Xena grinned, flashing her fangs in the glow of the desk lamp. "Lets just say the offer was made, Simeon. Trouble is, it was rejected by both of them, actually."
"Oh?" The Caretaker eventually chuckled, nodding to Xena. "I see. Yes, of course. I doubt they even contemplated such an act for themselves."
"Simeon?" Gabrielle caught the Caretakers attention. "What do you really know of Mathias destruction? And have other ancients been targeted by hunters in this same way?"
"Oh, my dear Gabrielle." Simeon observed the beautiful vampire, so respected and trusted by the Talisman Circle. "I wish I could tell you more. In truth I know very little. Our group in Austria has analysed some of the ashes from Mathias. A small amount was secretly collected and smuggled out of Italy by one of our contacts there." He linked his fingers together and leaned forward on the desk. "All I can tell you is that the ashes were formed in such a way as to suggest ultraviolet light had somehow been introduced directly into his body."
"How?" Xena asked. "From the sunrise, when he was staked to the hillside?"
"No." The Caretaker shook his head gravely. "This occurred some hours before dawn."
"But thats impossible, Simeon!" Xena lurched forward from her chair.
"I assure you its true."
"Do you have any idea how it was done?" Gabrielle leaned forward to remain level with Xena. "Or what the weapon was?"
"Thats the piece of the puzzle we have not yet solved." Simeon smiled sadly at Gabrielle then at Xena. "We only have our suspicions so far, from limited evidence, no tangible proof."
Xena rested her chin on her hand. "So what are your suspicions?"
Simeon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "That hunters have discovered a compound identical to the characteristics of ultraviolet light and have managed to successfully suspend it in a liquid or gaseous form. We certainly have some evidence that implies this compound, by itself, destroys vampires by incinerating them from the inside out, once its saturated his or her body." He turned his head to address Gabrielle. "But in answer to your other question, so far the only true ancient to fall foul of hunters in this manner is Mathias."
Xena sat back in her chair and ran a hand through her hair. "Then fledglings and immature vampires have succumbed to hunters with this this new weapon?"
"Yes, unfortunately." The Caretaker frowned. "Some do have a tendency to, shall we say, be less concerned with covering their tracks? Unlike ancients such as yourselves, your younger kin seem to think a solid human cover, along with a certain amount of discreet invisibility at night, is an unnecessary burden. Of those we know about, twenty or so vampires have met their doom. Half of them in America, four over here, one in Switzerland and the other in Morocco; the victims ranged from a few weeks in age to more than a hundred years."
"I guess its serious then." Xena whispered, more to herself than anyone in particular. Then she addressed the Caretaker. "You said theres evidence that this stuff destroys by itself... it doesnt just weaken us and allow hunters to take us out to meet daylight, as in Mathias case?" She waited for Simeon to shake his head. "What evidence?"
Before he answered, the Caretaker opened a small top drawer in his desk and pulled out a dark blue folder, which he opened and placed on the desk, lifting out a dozen photographs. "Its rather ironic to think that your pale beauty cannot be captured on film while you live. In death however, vampires are not so camera-shy." He spread the photos out as Xena and Gabrielle leaned across the desk, then pointed to the various records of vampiric destruction. "That vampire and this one were both in the same place when their destruction occurred. There were no windows to let in the light, no stakes, no trace of cursed water; they were neither decapitated or impaled not even the merest whiff of garlic! Similar stories with these three here, though their destruction took place at different times and at different locations. The ashes of each of these five vampires suggested incineration due to the introduction of ultraviolet light into their bodies." He sighed heavily and sat back in his chair. "Forensic results, for each of the others, are the same, although their demise took place out in the open." As an afterthought, Simeon addressed Xenas puzzled look. "We do know that the remains of a vampire destroyed by natural daylight do not actually show traces of UV light in case youre wondering."
Xena nodded slowly. "I was." She sat back in her chair and looked first at Gabrielle and then towards the Caretaker. "So if I understand this correctly, theres an ultraviolet light substance that hunters are using. Its evidently lethal to our kind, young and old alike, it could be in some kind of gas or liquid, but we dont really know what, and we dont know how hunters administer it, right?"
Simeon nodded slowly. "Thats about the sum of it Xena, yes."
Gabrielle dropped her gaze from Xena to the floor. "Why do I suddenly feel like a rat in a laboratory maze, with nowhere to hide anymore?"
"Hey, its not that desperate, Gabrielle!" Xena reached over to her beloved and took her hand. "From the time our kind first existed, hunters have been trying to rid the world of us. Its gone on for thousands of years and itll go on for as long as the world exists."
Gabrielle raised her free hand to stroke Xenas cheek. "I hope youre right, my heart."
"If it is any comfort my friends " Simeon brought his guests attention back to the desk. "Be assured that the Talisman Circle is already committed to trying to fully understand what this substance is and to somehow counter it."
"That couldnt have been an easy decision to reach even for you!" Xena couldnt stop the grin that spread across her face. "What happened to the ethics behind good old humans versus monsters and protection of the natural order et cetera?"
The Caretaker raised an eyebrow and cast Xena a sardonic look. "Our ethics cover a multitude of sins Xena, as well you know. You are a species, as humanity is a species, and just as much part of the natural and equally valid preternatural order. You understand exactly where we stand on the issue and have done for countless decades." He smiled at the immortal and leaned on the desk, resting his chin in his hand. "This battle between vampire and hunter has traversed as many centuries as our kinds have both existed, but it has always been a somewhat balanced battle that is, until now." He reached for a bronze console on his desk and pressed the button of an intercom. "What hunters now possess seems to spell a far greater danger to the ancients and it is not in the interests of the Talisman Circle to condone world-wide genocide of the vampire, whatever mortal thought may be regarding the matter on the whole. And besides "
The intercom buzzed and a womans voice sounded. "Yes Mr Travis?"
"Ah, Sarah. Would you be kind enough to bring in my other guests, please?"
"Of course. Right away." The intercom clicked off.
"You were saying?" Xena smiled.
"Oh, yes " The Caretaker blushed slightly. "I was just going to add that well, apart from anything else, you are indeed family to us, just as Professor Pappas so aptly pointed out. We owe a duty of protection to you as we would any member of our institution."
In a movement too fast for the human eye to follow, Gabrielle suddenly rose from her chair, moved round the desk and stood at the Caretakers side. "Simeon, that has got to be the most affectionate thing youve ever said to us!" She leaned over and kissed the elderly man on the cheek.
"Oh my goodness I dont know what to say!" Simeons blush turned scarlet as a smile spread across his face. He looked up at Gabrielle and laughed. "I um I do trust youve fed recently."
Gabrielle returned to her seat and smiled at the Caretaker. "Cmon Simeon you know Id rather starve than put you on my menu!"
"Oh, I dont know though " Xena raised an eyebrow. "Might be nice to have a dad around again. How about it, Simeon wanna direct the Talisman Circle forever?"
"Ladies, please!" The Caretaker regained his dignity and usual colour. "That is a non-starter as a topic of conversation."
A knock sounded at the door before being opened. Two women entered the room and walked slowly up to the Caretakers desk. One was Maori in appearance and large, with an inviting smile; the other was smaller, blond, very like Gabrielle in appearance and evidently nervous. Both were identified instantly by Xena and Gabrielle as being vampires, one ancient and a long-standing friend, the other no more than a day or two old and recognised as being Rowan, Gabrielles descendant.
"Kira!" Xena rose to greet the ancient vampire. "Youre a damned long way from home." She glanced at the younger vampire briefly and suddenly felt guilty when she remembered how her first encounter with Rowan involved knocking her unconscious below Brighton Pier.
Gabrielle stared for a moment at Rowan, evidently at a loss for what to say. She settled for a smile and a nod in her direction, before turning to the bronze-skinned ancient. "Its good to see you again, Kira."
"Good to see you. Even better to see youre together again!" Kira grinned. "I wont be round this place much longer, just staying to watch over our young one here for a while. Lots to do back home. You should come down there for a bit, though."
"Maybe, but not for a while, Kira." Xena laughed. "Last time I flew down to New Zealand I forgot about how the time difference works and it was virtually daylight when I got there even at my speed!"
"Youre just sour in your old age need some sweet Kiwi blood to perk you up!" Kira laughed and gently pushed Rowan forward towards Simeon. "Go ahead that one dont bite!"
The Caretaker rose from his chair and bowed his head briefly in the direction of his new guests. "Kira, thank you for joining us and for accompanying Rowan to the Mother house." He gestured to some other chairs near his desk, which the newly arrived guests took, then divided his attention between Gabrielle and Rowan. "I realise Rowans arrival may be a bit of a shock to you Gabrielle, and that what is required here is not so much an introduction as an elementary explanation."
"No kidding, Sherlock." Xena commented dryly.
Simeon raised his eyes to the ceiling and tutted at Xena before continuing. "Rowan knows who everyone is in this office, though she is no doubt a little bewildered concerning her recently acquired immortality." He offered a warm smile in her direction and was met by an equally warm expression from a much calmer vampire. "Three days ago, Rowan was left for dead by a hit-and-run drunk driver. I did try to send word to you that same night, after I was informed by our contact at the university where Rowan studied. Unfortunately, neither of you were at home for my telephone call and your server appeared to be playing up so I couldnt mail you electronically, either."
"Damn!" Xena cursed quietly. "We did have a few problems with one or two galleries trying to reach us a couple of days ago."
Gabrielle shifted in her chair. "But surely someone could have looked for us around the town, couldnt they Simeon? Were not quite so invisible to the group, are we?"
"No, youre not." The Caretaker smiled warmly. "However, time was of the essence. Rowan was very close to death and would not have survived a second night at the hospital. Kira was already on hand, being over here for a while to help conduct a little business for the group, and had been watching over Rowan from time to time at our request. She saw the accident occur but was unable to actually prevent it from happening. Gabrielle, I am sincerely sorry we could not reach you to seek your approval to bring Rowan into the preternatural world. The decision was made for several reasons and " He fixed his attention on the newly made vampire. "Rowan is a very special young being, with many skills."
A smile played at Xenas lips at the Caretakers comment, as she remembered from ancient days the phrase so readily applied to her.
"We could not afford to lose her." Simeon continued. "Its evident she also has a powerful will. Kira was able to make contact telepathically. It revealed that Rowan herself did not want to pass so soon from earthbound existence."
"So it was Kira who turned you?" Gabrielle addressed Rowan.
"Yes." Rowan answered quietly. "This is all so weird to me I keep waiting for the punch-line, where I wake up to find its all been a dream."
Gabrielle reached over and took Rowans hand, smiling gently. "Its no dream, its very real. Well help you learn, though." She took the opportunity to assure Rowan and all present that she was content with the decision to turn her descendant. "It may seem strange now, but youll adapt quickly enough. Youve been turned by the dark blood of an ancient one, so youll have strengths, abilities and certain immunities you probably havent even considered!" Gabrielle caught Kiras eye and threw her an affectionate grin before continuing. "As for existing in your new-world, I am here for you, as is Xena, and youll always have a bond with Kira, as the one who made you."
"Thank you should I call you Aunt Gabrielle?" Rowan offered a puzzled look. "Should I think of you as my sister or mother now?"
Gabrielle grimaced. "Just Gabrielle will be fine, Rowan." She noted a sudden sadness cloud Rowans face. "What is it?"
"My mother and brother they came to the hospital mortuary this afternoon to identify me and make funeral arrangements." Blood tears welled up and Rowan couldnt prevent them from spilling over. "It was so horrible. I had to just lie there I couldnt tell them that I hadnt actually died and was really undead now. How can I tell mum Im a vampire? I only came down here to get my degree! Am I blessed now, or cursed or what?" She gave into her tears and let Gabrielle pull her close.
"Oh my dear " Simeon pulled a large silk handkerchief from his breast pocket. "Here!" He let Gabrielle take the offered article and slip it into Rowans hands. "This must be very hard for you to deal with at the moment, I cannot begin to imagine the hurt you feel for your family and no one here would pretend that it is an easy matter to deal with."
"It will get easier, Rowan. It wont seem like it for quite a while, but it will get better." Xena leaned close to Gabrielle and stroked Rowans hair. "Whether its a blessing or a curse though thats down to you to decide. Its different for each of us."
"I hope youre right oh Im sure you are." Rowans sobbing eventually turned to sniffs and deep breaths as she tried to gain control over her emotions. "Thank you. Some sense has to come out of this eventually." She eased back from Gabrielle slightly. "Oh Gabrielle, your jacket! Im so sorry." The shoulder and front of Gabrielles light-blue jacket was spattered with dark stains from Rowans blood tears.
Gabrielle rested both hands on Rowans shoulders and met her eye to eye. "That doesnt matter its just a jacket. Right now youre all that matters." She kissed Rowans forehead gently and eased her back into her chair.
Rowan wiped her eyes and cheeks with Simeons handkerchief as she regained her composure, then her brow furrowed for a moment. "So what happens when the funeral people come to pick up my body from the hospital tomorrow and Im not there?"
"Things will work out alright, youll see." Gabrielle looked up and threw a thought towards Kira, carefully blocking any access Rowan might have. Has she fed since her turning? Kira nodded. And theres help on hand to avoid problems with the hospital? Again, Kira nodded in response. Good. She regarded Rowan carefully. "When the funeral director - or whoever - arrives, they will pick up the body of your first feed and take her in your place. Your hospital tag will be on her and certain human friends will be there to ensure the switch goes smoothly."
Rowan was thoughtful for a moment. "Is that why Kira helped me to find someone who looked a little bit like me? I couldnt understand why at the time."
"Thats right." Xena confirmed. "Under the circumstances its the simplest way to prevent any awkward questions being asked, like whered your body walk off to or who stole it."
Rowan smiled sadly. "At least in their own way my family can say goodbye, then."
"Forgive me, Rowan." The Caretaker smiled sadly. "As much as I wish I had something more constructive to say to you I dont."
"Its alright really it is." Rowan leaned back in her chair. "And I realise there is more to discuss here tonight than my funeral arrangements."
"Yes, there is." Simeon nodded, grateful for Rowans understanding, and cleared his throat. "Id like us to turn to this matter of hunters and their new weapon." Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances with each other and Kira, then turned their attention back to Simeon. "Rowan, you may be very young, but you are far more powerful than most newly made vampires, because you have been made by an ancient." He nodded politely in Kiras direction. "As a consequence, there is no reason to keep this information from you. Indeed, it may even help to forearm you against hunters." Rowan gave Simeon a gentle smile and a nod before the Caretaker continued, addressing Kira. "You contacted me earlier this evening to say you had something of interest."
The ancient Maori grinned, before hesitantly slipping a hand into her jacket pocket and withdrawing what appeared to be a syringe, a cork firmly embedded on the needle. "I reckon thisll help your people get to the bottom of what the hell it is theyre using." She placed the object on the desk in front of Simeon.
"My word! Is this what I think it is?" Simeon laid his index finger against the cork and regarded the rest of the contraption. "Where did you come by it?"
Kira sighed. "I pulled it from the chest of a brother this evening." All eyes turned to her suddenly. "Naah, it wasnt anyone you knew. Didnt really know him that well myself, to be honest knew the hunter though!"
"Who was it?" Simeons tone was urgent. "Where is he or she now?"
"It was the same bloke who tried to get to me last time I came over to see you." Kira nodded towards Simeon. "Didnt know his name, just his face. As for where he is now Id guess at hell being the most likely place."
"Hes dead?" The Caretaker didnt hide his disappointment. "Thats a shame. Id hoped we mightve been able to talk to a live hunter by now."
"Yeah sorry, Simeon." Kira apologised. "I lost my temper and snapped his neck. I shouldve realised how valuable hed be to us alive, but I was angry for what hed done and Well, I uh "
"It cant be helped now, Kira." Simeon shrugged and smiled at the ancient, then looked down at the weapon again.
"Thats not a conventional syringe." Xena commented, then grinned at the cork. "I see you didnt wanna take any chances, Kira!"
"That would be great, yeah?" Kira laughed. "I get the damned thing here, then prick my finger on it as I give it to Simeon all very Sleeping Beauty stuff, while I melt or something in front of everyone!"
The Caretaker carefully lifted the syringe up by the cork and held it against the light. "The plunger on this seems to be internal. I dont understand how the contents could be injected."
"May I?" Xena leaned across the desk, offering her upturned palm.
"Of course." Simeon gently placed the syringe in Xenas hand and watched her study it, content that as an expert in both ancient and modern weaponry, Xena would easily work out how the contraption worked.
"Its designed to be hand-held and thrown at the victim." Xena stated matter-of-factly. "The contents inject on impact."
"Like a tranquilliser dart? Gabrielle studied the syringe in Xenas hand.
"Yeah, much the same in principle. Only difference is, this sleeps permanent." Xena held up the syringe vertically. "At least there seems to be enough solution left in it to analyse."
"Well lets be thankful for that small mercy, at least." Simeon leaned down and opened a bottom drawer in his desk, pulling out a small metal box with a lock and key on the front. He lifted the lid, revealing the box to be empty apart from layers of bubble-wrap. Placing the syringe inside, he shut and locked it, removing the key and dropping it in his breast pocket. "Ill take this down to our laboratory right now. Its too important to wait." Simeon rose and walked to the door, turning back as he reached for the handle. "My friends, you have my word that well do our damnedest to get to the bottom of this." He smiled warmly. "Ill bid you all goodnight for now. Once Ive passed this on Im going to our main library. You are welcome to leave or to stay, as you please. All I ask is that, should you leave by my balcony door there, please remember to shut it once youre outside. Last time, I found the pages of a thesis I was reading scattered all over the room from a gale blowing in!"
Xena stifled a grin with the back of her hand, as Gabrielle gently elbowed her.
"Anyway, goodnight one and all oh and please, look after Rowan wont you?" Simeon stepped out of his office to the sounds of his guests calling out their farewells. He closed the door and headed for the basement of the Mother house and the Talisman Circles small but dedicated group of scientists.
The four vampires continued talking together around the Caretakers desk. They sometimes spoke of human days, which particularly intrigued Rowan as she listened to the three ancients, Gabrielle and Xena sharing about their adventures in ancient Greece and the known world of the day, and Kira recounting her days as a Maori shaman when the world was younger still. Occasionally they discussed the new threat from hunters and how best to avoid the problem altogether. Now and then, they compared mental notes on towns and cities that served them well as feeding grounds.
Eventually Kira stood up, checking her watch. "Dawns on her way, my friends and as much as I love this place, Id rather have the comforts of my English familiars wine cellar."
"Oh yes!" Rowan laughed, as she turned to Xena and Gabrielle. "Its wonderful, Kira showed it to me on the way here. The people there are a bit eccentric got a real thing about Greek mythology and have statues everywhere! I could sleep at the feet of Aphrodite or Ares, or I could curl up on the lap of Artemis. Great Aunts Melinda and Jan wouldve loved it, its so over the top!"
Gabrielle stood up and moved towards Rowan, embracing her. "I want you to take care, and I want you to stay close to Kira. Now youve entered the Mother house of the Talisman Circle, dont ever be afraid to come here." She stepped back and smiled. "They may be human, but they are our friends and protect us. Likewise, we help them from time to time and protect them if they need us."
"Im looking forward to seeing their library, thats for certain." Rowan smiled. "Im sure it beats the books and stuff at uni."
"Thats good." Xena approached. "I think the groups hoping youll continue to study with them now and maybe eventually take over from where Melinda left off." She laughed at the shocked expression on Rowans face. "Dont be so surprised! Theyre well aware how smart you are and what a great researcher youre becoming." Xena reached out and pulled Rowan into an affectionate embrace. "Rowan, do you recall meeting me before tonight?"
"Oh yes, Xena. I do now." Rowan hugged the immortal in return, assuring Xena that the memory was not overly upsetting. "I thought for a time Id drunk too much and dreamed that you appeared under the pier. Then I thought maybe it did happen and my, uh date for the evening ran off."
As they parted, Xena gave Rowan a sincere smile. "She didnt run, I fed on her and Im sorry, by the way, for hitting you."
"Its okay, you probably stopped me from making a mistake anyway. I guess you knew better than I did whether or not she was good or bad company to get involved with?"
Xena chuckled. "Not quite the type youd take home to meet the family, thats for sure." She rested an arm across Rowans shoulders and slipped a business card into her hand. "Now then, you may eventually choose to rest during the day with a human familiar, stay here at the Mother house for a while or find your own place. Whatever you decide, you can reach Gabrielle and I by email or telephone and youll always be welcome to join us at home. Kira will take care of you til she heads for her homeland, so learn all you can from her." She looked up briefly and winked at the ancient Maori. "Until we see you again then, take care just like Gabrielle said, keep alert and stay out of trouble. Get to know your powers and your limits and remember not to feed on anyone innocent at heart."
"I can just imagine you in your leathers and armour, riding tall in the saddle on Argo and wagging your sword at everyone!" Rowan grinned. "Were you always this bossy when you were human?"
"Always." Gabrielle stifled a giggle.
"I was not!" Xena raised an eyebrow. "And I never wagged my sword at anyone."
"Goodbye, Xena." Rowan stood on tiptoe and kissed the immortals cheek. "I will do all the things you said." She turned to Gabrielle. "See you soon. I really look forward to hearing more about your days as a bard and Amazon Princess!"
Xena and Gabrielle made their farewells with Kira, promising to visit soon, once she had returned to her homeland. Then together, they watched from the balcony as ancient and fledgling rose upward to disappear into the night, Kira holding Rowan in a secure embrace.
"I hope Rowan discovers her ability to fly pretty soon." Gabrielle slipped an arm round Xenas waist. "Theres no reason why she cant."
"Give her time." Xena kissed the side of Gabrielles head. "Theres a lot for her to learn and its early days yet."
"Do you think shell survive? Do you think well all survive?" Gabrielle looked up, imploring.
"Hey!" Xena turned and stroked Gabrielles face. "We are gonna be fine. Rowans gonna be okay too. Shes got us, remember?"
"For as long as she needs us."
"Gabrielle, you wont be thanking me for much longer if we dont either get off this balcony and go home or get down to the basement here."
Gabrielle looked up and grinned suddenly, squeezing Xenas waist. "We can get home in time. Cmon!"
Closing the balcony doors behind them, they rose swiftly into the air and raced each other back to the town house, stepping into Xenas study with little more than ten minutes to spare before dawn heralded the suns arrival.
"So whats it like, now youve moved in properly?" Gabrielle leaned forward in the armchair she occupied and regarded Rowan with interest.
"Oh, its really nice. Old Tudor, as you and Xena know, but its solid and Simeon even let me have a say in having it decorated." Rowan laughed. "Not quite his taste, I think. He came over one evening with David and Sarah from the group, to see if I had everything I needed. I kept hearing him sigh from time to time and lament, oh well, its Rowans home now. I think the Talisman Circle is just glad to have the property occupied again. Its stood empty for two or three years now since one of their experts in something or other passed away." She looked up and grinned. "I dont mind that though, makes it kind of interesting maybe Ill meet him on the staircase one night!"
"Doctor Jackson didnt die in the house, you know! Simeon told me it was at a hospice and was very peaceful." Gabrielle laughed. "And his field was in Ancient Near Eastern myths and legends. Youll probably find yourself reading his stuff from time to time."
"I know really Im just playing." Rowan chuckled. "Oh, speaking of Doctor Jacksons work, the best thing about the place is the library he left its wonderful! Mind you, I think David is pleased to have a bit of an extension to the main library at the Mother house. Its pretty much full there, so Ive kind of inherited the over-spill! Anyway, you and Xena must come and keep me company at the house again, one evening soon, now its all finished."
"We will." Gabrielle grinned. "Sounds like youve settled well. Sounds like youve settled well with your new existence, full stop."
"Yeah, I think I have." Rowan tilted her head to one side. "I didnt think I would at first. I felt like Id become the bogeyman or something! Im not completely sure if I even have a soul or not anymore. Being with you and Xena has helped, though and I think my familys begun to pick up their lives again. And before you ask no, I havent tried to contact them!" She smiled and was quiet for a few moments. "A few weeks back, I actually walked into a church and I really expected the water in the font to boil and the pews to melt or something and the cross on the alter to burst into flames!"
"Just like in the movies, huh?" Gabrielle watched Rowan, bemused. "What happened?"
Rowan sighed. "It was peaceful. So quiet, and calm. I could almost feel the years of prayers and hymns that had lifted from the congregation over the years." She chuckled and watched Gabrielle nod in understanding. "I met the verger there, too. He was tidying up and sweeping the floor. Nice old guy when he noticed me, he was very concerned that a young girl was out by herself at night and he told me off for not wearing a coat!"
"Well, shame on you!" Gabrielle laughed.
"He said Id catch my death of cold, if I wasnt careful. Oh, it was so tempting to give him a bit of a scare. I didnt though probably wouldve caused too much trouble." Rowan leaned back in her armchair and curled her legs beneath her. "We sat on the altar steps together and talked about God. I asked him if someone who was damned in life still had a soul."
"Just the usual, light-hearted conversation, then?"
Rowan smiled gently. "He told me that anyone and anything in life was Gods property and only God could decide what was and wasnt damned in life."
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, thoughtful. "Such questions bother you, Rowan?"
Rowan studied her hands. "A little. I know Im a killer, Gabrielle, but I dont think Im quite the evil monster made out by myths and storytellers. I havent fed on any innocents and I even managed to save a young guy from getting knifed for his wallet last week. Id like to at least think my immortal soul if I do still have one may have a place to go someday that isnt intended for demons and the like." She looked up and regarded Gabrielle intensely. "Dont you think about it?"
"Yes sometimes I do."
"So you must have some opinion about it all, after two thousand years or so."
"Rowan, I gave up having an opinion about eternity a long time ago, except for dearly hoping that wherever Im intended to be Ill be there with Xena. Whichever one of us true death calls first, I have to believe well be united again in the end. Nothing makes sense to me otherwise." Gabrielle offered Rowan an affectionate smile, as Xena walked into the lounge.
"That was Sarah on the phone." Xena cast Gabrielle a loving look, fully aware of what she had told Rowan moments before. "She says Simeon and the team have had their first breakthrough with that UV solution and want me and you to drop by tonight to help them with a couple of tests."
"Gods! We really are lab rats!" Gabrielle chuckled. "What tests?"
"Well, dont laugh, but they think they can stop the effects of this stuff with a kind of sun block solution."
Rowan burst out laughing. "You are joking!"
Gabrielle grinned. "Internal suntan lotion to counter internal sunburn, huh?"
"It does kind of make sense in a weird way." Xena shrugged. "Once you think about it."
"And they want to test it on you two, tonight?" Rowan questioned. "Doesnt that strike you as a bit risky?"
"Not actually on us on our blood." Xena raised an eyebrow. "They think theyve managed to produce a serum that prevents the UV solution from taking effect, but they need to start testing it on vampire blood to see how potentially effective it can really be. And since Kiras gone back home, were next in line to be asked!"
"You said it apparently prevents the effects " Rowan looked from Xena to Gabrielle. "Rather than counters them?"
Gabrielle nodded, understanding what Rowan meant. "Theyre looking for some kind of inoculation, rather than an antidote?"
"I guess so." Xena spoke evenly. "It would seem the better option, since this UV solution seems to work pretty fast. Besides, who wants to get jabbed with it just before dawn and have to face daylight in order to find the antidote?" She walked over to the couch and sat down beside Gabrielle. "I dont really see how an antidote can be found for this anyway, anymore than humans can find a cure for severe burning. That would mean tissue regeneration and somehow un-burning whats already burnt. It cant be done. No prevention, halting it before its taken effect, thats the way to go with this."
Gabrielle was thoughtful for a moment, before laughing softly. "I never thought wed see the day vampires would be on medication!"
"If Xenas right about what the groups trying to produce " Rowan stood up and looked at her watch. "That sounds exactly what itll be like. Well all be like diabetics needing a daily shot of insulin."
"Perhaps." Xena regarded Rowan warmly. "But I doubt itll be a daily requirement, by virtue of the fact of how we exist. If it works, and if the group can produce a strong enough serum, I reckon we may only need a measure of it in our systems after each time we feed. Maybe even just a one-off." She smiled. "But its too early to say what it can or cant do yet lets get some of these tests out the way first."
"Yeah, well good luck with that." Rowan stepped forward and kissed Xena and Gabrielle in turn. "Ive gotta go. Need to feed. So Im uh having a friend for dinner."
Xena groaned. "Ugh if I only had a dinar for every time Id heard that!"
Rowan grinned. "If you had a dinar for every time youd heard that, you wouldnt have much at todays rate of exchange!"
"Get outta here!" Xena laughed. "And be careful where you go, okay?"
"Will do." Rowan turned to go. "I really do hope the blood tests and everything go well. For all our sakes."
"So do we, Rowan." Gabrielle lifted a hand in farewell.
The basement bar of the mixed gay tea dance was a welcome change from the noise and constant beat of the various clubs Xena and Gabrielle visited from time to time. They enjoyed an occasional opportunity to share the intimacy of dancing slow and close in public, to music less vibrant on the senses. This night was no exception and, in their own quiet way, they were celebrating the promising results of the experiments with their blood, undertaken earlier at the laboratories in the Talisman Circle Mother house.
The four hours they had spent with the group had not been wasted and Simeon had been excited to see such potentially favourable results. The two doctors knew Xena and Gabrielle well, but the three technicians had never met any vampires face to face before and were initially hesitant, if a little terrified, to be working with undead immortals. However, Gabrielle soon won them over with her friendly and talkative manner, while Xenas sincere interest in their work and her in-depth understanding of warfare quickly melded the groups intrigue in their vampire guests and stirred their determination for the task in hand.
After extracting an agreed quantity of blood from both Xena and Gabrielle, various slides were prepared and examined. Some tested the activity of the UV solution on vampire blood alone, others revealed how the UV solution worked against blood with the blocking agent already present, and further slides looked at how far the block might actually reverse the UV solutions activity after the initial contamination.
With the use of microscopes linked to scanners, Xena and Gabrielle watched, with interest, as the contents of slides appeared magnified and clear on computer screens, to be quickly charted and recorded by the nimble-fingered technicians keying in their comments as the results occurred. Haematological questions and discussions rose as the images changed and the doctors disputed what chemical reactions were being witnessed before them. The division between preternatural myth and science was negated, as impossibilities became realities and principles of physics intertwined with the inexplicable. The doctors and technicians observing the strange battles unfolding beneath the microscopes were confounded by the contradictions they witnessed; equally strange was how the microscopes and slides themselves seemed unaffected by the violent reactions being studied. Given the choice, however, not one of the scientists would have wished to be elsewhere, missing such unprecedented events.
Much as had been expected, the solution attacked untreated vampire blood. Xena and Gabrielle watched horrified as a dark mist appeared and moved slowly around the red blood cells, swallowing them and turning them black as if scorching the very life from them. The rest watched in fascination and dismay as the red voracious blood of each of the vampire ancients was inexorably hunted down and burned across the length of the slides being examined. Red blood cells in the samples treated with the blocking solution seemed to ignore the same dark mist as it engulfed them. After a short time, it was the UV solution that reacted and began to collapse in on its self, finally fading until not even a residue could be seen. This result produced sighs of relief from the vampires and endless handshakes and slaps on the back for the doctors and technicians. The final set of tests yielded disappointing, though predictable results as blood initially corrupted with the UV solution then had the blocking agent introduced. The mist, stalking and charring the red blood cells, was slowed momentarily but not stopped. Here and there, in small areas of the slide, the blocking agent appeared to have fortified the blood and the UV solution receded. However, such victories were temporary and eventually even these areas succumbed to the merciless burning.
Xena and Gabrielle had left the scientists carrying out additional tests, to cross-reference the results, and to begin producing a larger quantity of the blocking agent. Now, as they serenely danced their way through the night in the crowded basement, they recognised the hope of finding a suitable protection against the effects of the hunters ultraviolet weapon. They also felt the concern of not yet having the blocking solution in any real quantity to use, and of having no cure in the foreseeable future for any vampire caught unaware by hunters with the lethal weapon.
Xena breathed in suddenly. "Can you feel them?"
"Feel them?" Gabrielle lifted her head. "I can smell them! Six of them, right? Two by the bar, four over there." She jerked her head in the direction of the wall to her left.
"Wanna leave, quietly?" Xena smiled reassuringly. "Now?"
"They might not know what we are." Gabrielle rested her head against Xenas shoulder. "At least, not yet."
"Now isnt that the jackpot question?" Xena raised an eyebrow, then closed her eyes in concentration. "I cant get into their thoughts theyre pretty strong."
Gabrielle smiled to herself. "Theres one definite weak link, Xena." She looked up, narrowing her eyes as she focussed her mind. "One of those by the bar hes not as experienced as the other hunters if I can just " She trailed off and stared at Xena.
"What is it?" The ancient warrior hissed.
"Xena, they know. They know what we are theyve known for a couple of weeks and have been looking for us!" Gabrielle concentrated on remaining calm. "Weve been betrayed by a familiar at the New York gallery."
"Oh that Thomas is so dead!" Xena pulled back her shoulders, standing to her full height. "First of all though, wed better sort out this little mess." She smiled broadly at Gabrielle. "We can do this, okay?"
Gabrielle nodded slowly.
"Just dont let them touch you and shatter anything they throw at you, alright?" Xena rested a hand on Gabrielles shoulder. "Anything!"
"Right." Gabrielle took a deep breath, preparing herself for the fight that was unavoidable. "Nearest exits that fire door by the bar."
"Yeah, thats the one." Xena grinned.
"For the first time in a long while, I wish I had my staff, Xena."
"And I wouldnt say no to having my chakram with me, either." Xena glanced up. "Well at least you can improvise!"
"Yeah, that could work." Gabrielle looked over to where Xena nodded and saw a six-foot wooden curtain pole hanging on a wall, supporting nothing more than a couple of hooks from which a notice board hung. "If I could start with those two at the bar, then ?" She smiled as she raised a hand above her head.
"No problem." Xena leaned down and kissed Gabrielle soundly. "Just like old times, huh?"
Gabrielle stroked Xenas face with her free hand and smiled. "Just like them." She glanced back at the pole, which suddenly tore itself loose from its brackets, shrugged off the hooks along with the notice board and flew across the room into her hand.
The two quickly stepped across each other and turned back to back, ready to face their opponents, who were moving into attack positions. Onlookers scattered, startled by the noise of the pole being wrenched from the wall and wanting to avoid the apparent trouble spilling over on the dance floor.
Xena focussed on the four individuals, now less than ten feet in front of her, anticipating which of them would move first. A man and woman stepped forward, suddenly crouching and producing what appeared to be little more than high tech water pistols. Pointing them at Xena, they let fly streams of liquid that hit her head and shoulders.
Xena laughed. "And this would be ?" She stood, dripping but bemused by the action of her would-be assassins. "Oh cmon now, whod ya think youre dealing with?" She ran a hand through her hair and rubbed her fingers together as she grinned. "Enchanted water? Blessed by some priest or shaman?" She brought her fingers to her mouth and nose, easily picking up the aroma of henbane and garlic, substances towards which she had complete immunity after so many centuries. "This stuffs so effective, huh?" She watched the same two attackers reach without hesitation beneath their coats, bringing out wide bladed, long, curved daggers. "Now, thats more like it!" Xena smiled broadly, revealing her fangs. "Silver? Platinum, maybe? You could give a girl a nasty scratch with one of those, ya know!" She snarled at the two hunters as they dashed forward and lunged with their daggers outstretched.
The man managed to cut Xenas upper arm before she quickly lashed out and sliced through his throat, severing his trachea and his jugular vein with her fingernails. He dropped to the floor instantly, dying in the bright red puddle spreading out beneath him. Without stopping to check her handiwork, Xena grasped the dagger hand of the woman and spun her round, holding her tightly as she wrestled the blade away. The second pair of assailants moved together, both letting fly weapons at Xena but hitting their colleague instead. A now familiar-looking syringe hit the woman in the stomach, but being human she suffered no ill effects beyond the sting of the needle. The same could not be said of the dagger however, now protruding from the hunters chest. She looked up in pain and surprise at her associates before sagging in Xenas arms, her eyes glazing over as the life left them.
Xena gazed in disgust at the two hunters still standing before her. "Is your aim really that abysmal, or do you make a habit of killing your own?" She let the woman fall by the side of her already dead colleague and readied herself to face the next onslaught.
Like Xena, Gabrielle had begun the fight drenched by ineffective, blessed water and now stood smiling at her opponents, both leaning against the bar and nursing their chins after Gabrielles make-do staff had hammered into them. She observed the hunters closely and watched them slowly snake their hands into their coat pockets. "Oh, no you dont!" She allowed her staff to swing down to the ground and held it with one hand while she raised the other.
The less experienced hunter, whose mind Gabrielle had tapped into, suddenly cried out in pain and withdrew his hand from his pocket. It was lacerated and bleeding freely from the syringe that had shattered in his grasp, the contents spilling harmlessly down the leg of his trousers. The second man had managed to throw his syringe at Gabrielle, but the weapon exploded in mid air from Gabrielles mental command and the cut cheek she received from a flying shard healed in seconds. While the injured hunter nursed his hand, the other drew a dagger and another syringe from beneath his coat. Thinking again, he reached behind him and laid the syringe on the bar, not wishing to meet the same fate as his colleague. He spun around from the bar to engage Gabrielle in battle and was taken aback by the gentle smile waiting for him.
"We dont have to do this, you know." Gabrielle leaned against her staff and watched the hunter sweep the blade backwards and forwards in front of him. "I dont really want to hurt you."
"You and your kind are darkness incarnate and have to be stopped!" The hunter spat. "You dont belong on this earth and Im gonna send you to hell where you belong!"
Gabrielle sighed. "I dont suppose youd prefer a theology or philosophy debate on the nature of hell ?" The hunter yelled in response and swung the dagger above his head. "Ill take that as a no then!" Gabrielle lifted the wooden pole above her head, locking her powerful shoulders and easily deflected the blow that crashed down on her. She followed through with a right-handed swing into the mans side, causing him to cry out from the pain and the sound of a rib breaking. Circling round that same side, Gabrielle dropped to one knee and swung the staff hard against the hunters ankles, knocking him flat on his back to lay gasping for breath. "Im sorry " Gabrielle rose and stood over him. "If I dont stop you here, youll no doubt go on to murder some or other member of my kin!" She raised the staff a final time and swung it like a golf club against the hunters temple, crushing his skull and killing him instantly. She closed her eyes briefly, sorry for her action but accepting its necessity, then focussed on the younger hunter still nursing his badly cut hand.
Xena moved like lightening against a volley of five more syringes hurled at her, deflecting each of them with the dagger she held or with punches from her other fist, sending them to shatter against a wall or the floor, but careful not to let any hurtle in Gabrielles direction. She also took care to keep her cut arm turned from the hunters as she hit the lethal missiles away. She recognised that the wound, taken from what was a silver dagger, would take a couple of days rather than seconds to heal and she was not about to risk a drop of the ultraviolet solution splashing onto her. One of the remaining hunters dived to the floor, retrieved a dagger from a fallen associate and rolled into a standing position by Xenas side. The blow from his weapon, meant to find purchase across the vampires neck, found nothing but air to slice through, since Xena had side stepped him and pivoted to stand directly behind him faster than he or any human could have seen.
"Not your night, is it?" Xena placed a hand around the hunters neck, snapping it like a matchstick, and letting him slump to the floor, dead. "Just you and me, now." She raised her weapon in salute to her final opponent and watched him swallow hard as he drew his own dagger. "How about I turn you, my friend? Dya think your organisation would like that?"
"Id rather die!" The shocked look on the hunters face said more than his words. Realising he had little chance of defeating, in close combat, the vampire that had so easily dispatched his colleagues, he threw his weapon directly at Xenas heart and ran. He knew the immortal was fast, but still didnt expect to find her standing directly in his path after having caught the dagger without receiving so much as a scratch from it. The hunter skidded to a halt, narrowly missing running onto the pair of daggers Xena now held up in one hand.
"Leaving so soon?" Xena grabbed the hunters shoulder. "And just when we were having fun."
"Go to hell!"
"Oh dont be like that, I " Xena trailed off, suddenly catching the hunters thoughts as fear clouded his mental ability to block the vampires mind-reading. "What do you mean it wasnt this way in Italy?" She tightened her grip and all but lifted him off the ground. "You were one of them, werent you? You were there! You killed Mathias!"
"I I " The hunter faltered, pain searing his shoulder and terror creeping into him as he realised he would probably not leave the building alive. "I destroyed a soulless vampire!" He spat through gritted teeth.
"Wrong!" Xena brought the mans face within an inch of her own. "You murdered a good friend of mine... and he may have been many things, but he wasnt soulless."
"Yeah, well " The hunter struggled against Xenas iron grip. "If I live to see another day, Ill do it again, and again!"
Xena lowered the hunter and regarded him intensely. "But youre not gonna live to destroy another vampire or kill another mortal for that matter." Her tone was calm and quiet as she released him and took up a dagger in each hand. As the hunter turned to run, Xena crossed her arms and raised them, bringing a blade level with each side of the hunters neck. A final swift movement and Xena stood with her arms outstretched to either side while the hunters headless body took two running steps before collapsing, his head tumbling to the floor to roll against the leg of a dead associate. She discarded the weapons, leaving them with the bodies of their owners, and walked over to Gabrielle. "Well these guys sure know how to break up a good party were the only ones here now!" She grinned briefly before realising one of Gabrielles assailants was alive and well apart from a cut hand. He also had an injured jaw, judging by the way he nursed it with his good hand, and was quietly leaning against the bar talking with Gabrielle. "Why is he still standing?" Xena watched him cower against the bar as she approached.
"Xena, this is Michael hes not actually much of a hunter, more of a researcher. They only brought him with them tonight because their numbers are dwindling."
Xena was unimpressed. "Really? Next, youll tell me hed rather be one of us." Her tone was caustic.
"No, he doesnt." Gabrielle glanced at the human, who was physically shaking, and turned back to Xena. "Listen to me a minute he told me that about half the known hunters have been wiped out during the past few months."
"By what the group? Vigilante vampires?" Xena glared at the hunter. "Whos been killing off hunters, apart from us here, tonight?"
Gabrielle smiled slightly and opened her mind. A single vampire, apparently probably with a little help from the group and familiars.
Xena concentrated on Gabrielles thoughts while she watched the hunter gingerly wrap his hand in a bar towel. Kira, by any chance? She smiled at Gabrielle.
Judging by the description given to Michael it certainly sounds like her unless there are other Maori vampires we dont know about, immune to all the traditional hunter trappings and not averse to using a little natural magic from time to time. How did you know?
Back in Simeons office, when Kira brought Rowan in that time Simeon mentioned how she was over here conducting a little bit of business for the group. I guessed what she was up to, especially when she gave that syringe to Simeon.
Xena leaned towards the hunter. "So you dont really belong to these ex-hunters of yours?" She jerked her head in the general direction of the bodies.
The hunter was evidently terrified. "Not not really no." His voice was shaky as he stood up and made his way down the bar, reaching for an untouched, abandoned bottle of lager and noticing the unused syringe left there by his dead associate. "I really am just kind of just filling in, because because their numbers are down." He sipped from the bottle, trembling.
"Is that so?" Xena raised an eyebrow and turned back to Gabrielle, opening her thoughts again. We cant let him live.
Xena, I dont want to kill him.
You dont have to Ill do it.
But he could prove useful to the Talisman Circle and to all of us if we take him back with us.
Gabrielle, look around you weve just slaughtered his colleagues.
In self defence!
Oh, like thatll make a difference? Xena caught the distant sound of police sirens. So they attacked first, okay, but weve still killed his friends. He is not gonna want to talk about anything he doesnt have to, beyond trying to save his own neck. Besides, if he lives hell just go on working with other hunters.
You dont know that, Xena.
No, but Im pretty damned sure. Xena sighed, and lifted a hand to stroke Gabrielles face tenderly. Alright Look, we have to get rid of him or take him with us, but whatever we do, weve got to do it now and get outta here, fast!
Lets go then and take him with us.
Right. Xena grinned and shook her head. Well take him to Simeon hell know what to do with him.
Fine. Ill get upstairs and see if the coasts clear.
"You do that." Xena grinned after Gabrielle, who headed for the fire door now wide open from the panicked crowds who rushed through earlier. "Okay, Michael " She turned back to the hunter and was greeted by a look somewhere between desperation and determination.
"If one of you is gonna kill me, Im not going alone!" With his good hand, he reached for the syringe on the bar and hurled it clumsily.
Xena hardly needed to duck. "Dont be stupid! No ones gonna kill you."
"Xena " Gabrielle whispered.
"Were just taking you and us out of here before the police arrive and to discuss a few things with you." Xena smiled briefly.
The ancient warrior turned round, expecting to hear that the police had arrived or, more annoyingly, another group of hunters. Gabrielle was leaning against the doorway, holding the syringe in her hand and it took a few moments for Xena to realise she hadnt caught the weapon as first thought. "Oh gods where?" Xena rushed to Gabrielles side.
"My shoulder, it it feels strange." Gabrielle closed her eyes.
Xena slipped a hand under the neck of Gabrielles T-shirt and eased it down enough to see where the syringe had hit her. "Theres no wound, but it looks bruised and Gabrielle, the bruise is growing... getting darker, too." She looked intently into Gabrielles face and made herself smile as she took the syringe and held it up. "Its still half full, maybe that means "
"It means half of it is in me, Xena." She smiled gently. "I may not have much time left, so lets just go please?"
Xena breathed in deeply. "Alright, were going just let me wring that son of a bitchs neck first!"
"Leave him, Xena! It doesnt matter now." Gabrielle reached out and took Xenas hand. "It was a lucky shot I shouldve moved more quickly." She tilted her head in the direction of the hunter. "Leave him to the police what can he say? Theyll either take this to be some kind of weird gang warfare, or theyll certify him as insane when he starts rambling about vampires." She grimaced. "This stuffs spreading fast. Please get me out of here. Take me to Simeon. I want to be with you and my friends for the time I have left."
"Dont talk like that!" Xena stroked Gabrielles hair. "Were gonna beat this. Well go to Simeon and his scientists will sort this out."
"Maybe, maybe not." Gabrielle gripped Xenas shoulder and leaned into her. "Just please get me out of here, my strengths failing."
Xena closed her eyes against her anger and frustration and picked Gabrielle up, cradling her head. She now knew for certain how Mathias had been rendered weak enough to be bound and staked out on a hillside. Certain that Gabrielles face was nestled against her jacket, Xena turned towards the hunter, who had backed up between the bar and a stool, too scared to move. "I guess were leaving. You can stay and explain all this to the police." She dropped her gaze to the floor, quickly locating the nearest discarded dagger and walked over to where it rested against the wrist of a hunters corpse. "You can tell them whatever you want theyll be here real soon, now." She checked that Gabrielle still wasnt watching, then slipped the toe of her boot beneath the weapon. Finding the daggers balance between the hilt and blade, Xena judged the weight then kicked forwards, hard and fast.
The dagger flew straight and true, impaling Xenas target and skewering him to the bar. The hunter stared at Xena for a moment, then looked down at the blade before his eyes glazed and his head lolled back on his shoulders, his arms falling limp at his sides to twitch briefly then remain still.
"Explain that, you bastard." Xena whispered under her breath, then charged through the door with Gabrielle in her arms, raced up the stairs and searched for the nearest back window. Once found, she tightened her hold on Gabrielle and crashed straight through it, immediately soaring upwards into the night sky before speeding towards Burgess Hill and the Talisman Circle.
Simeon spent almost as many nights in the library or in his private rooms next to his office at the Mother house as he did at his home. Since work began on analysing the ultraviolet weapon and finding a safeguard against it, he had hardly left the building except to meet with colleagues or visit Rowan. By the time Simeon was roused from sleep and had quickly dressed, Gabrielle had been taken to one of three guestrooms there and made as comfortable as possible. He knocked softly and entered the room to find Xena in quiet but intense conversation with one of the groups doctors, a technician and their archivist, David.
"But cant you at least try?" Xenas tone was pleading. "Maybe in quantity itd work!"
"Xena, if I thought for a moment it would work " The doctor spoke calmly. "Id let Gabrielle have the entire batch put into her. I dont want to lose her any less than others here. But youve seen the results yourself it wont do any good!"
"Additional tests yielded the same results, Xena." The technician joined in. "The blocks no good on blood already infected by the UV. Even saturating the contaminated blood with the block does nothing more than gain moments, Xena Moments, nothing more!" The pen she had been toying with suddenly snapped under her pent-up frustration. "Im sorry... Hell! I feel so bloody useless!"
Xena rested a hand on the technicians shoulder and smiled sadly. "Dont beat yourself up about it. I know youve been working hard on this." She turned back to the doctor. "Cant you cut it out of her, or or drain her! Couldnt you do that? Drain her she can have my blood!"
The doctor ran a hand across his mouth. "I wish we could, Xena. Truth is, we actually tried that on a vampire a few weeks back he and his companion came here after they were attacked. Hed been hit with a damned syringe while they fought to get away from hunters. She was okay and begged us to try and save her partner by draining him while he fed from her. So, we did as she asked. We drained him and did our best to make sure all the infected blood was taken out. Damned stuff just moves too fast! It didnt work. It was all we could do to keep her with us when he after we lost him."
Xena turned to David. "What about some kind of ancient magic? Something to sustain her while we work out what to do! Please, David do something!" She grasped the archivists hand. "Anything!"
The archivist shook his head. "Theres nothing, Xena Im so sorry." He tentatively rested his other hand across Xenas and clasped her fingers. "The books have nothing for this kind of situation I dont think sorcerers or necromancers of the age thought much about protecting or saving the undead, only how they could use them." He dropped his gaze to the floor. "Forgive me... the books are useless."
Xena touched Davids face. "Its not your fault. I know if there was a solitary spell or incantation thatd help, youd know where it is."
"Xena!" Gabrielle called softly from the bed where she lay. "Will you get over here and stop bothering our friends, please?"
Xena walked quickly over to the side of the bed and kneeled down. "Are you in pain, my love?" She noticed the bruising now blackened Gabrielles entire arm, from shoulder to fingertips, and was creeping up her neck. She felt sure that if she lifted Gabrielles T-shirt, she would find the colouring spreading down her chest and abdomen.
"No, theres no pain just heaviness and weakness. Its like my whole bodys slowing down. Turning to stone."
"Maybe we could try to drain out all the bad stuff in you and then "
"Shhhh . Xena, stop now." Gabrielle found Xenas hand and gripped it tightly. "Stop pretending about this. You and I both know I just ran out of time but theres one or two things we need to discuss, and a couple of assurances I need from you." She watched Xenas bright blue eyes brim with blood tears.
Simeon made his way quietly to Gabrielle and kneeled down the other side of the bed, taking Gabrielles free hand. "I always believed that you and Xena would see out another hundred directors here at the Mother house. Gabrielle, please forgive the group and this old man for being so impotent when you need us most."
Gabrielle smiled sincerely. "Theres nothing to forgive, Simeon. But theres a lot to thank the Talisman Circle for, and you. It been special to me being involved with all of you over the centuries. Lets just consider this a warm farewell."
As always, despite his feelings Simeon was captivated by Gabrielles smile and her charm. "Then goodbye, my friend. I am all the richer for having known you. I shall always treasure your friendship, and the times Ive enjoyed the pleasure of your company." He stood up slowly, then leaned over to gently kiss Gabrielles forehead. "Good journeys, Gabrielle. Perhaps when my time eventually comes, you and I and Melinda and Janice will all get together and celebrate old times."
"I look forward to it." Gabrielle squeezed Simeons hand and watched him step away. She didnt see him discreetly bring a handkerchief from his pocket to his eyes. Gabrielle turned back to Xena to find her trying to stem her own tears. "Always so beautiful, my heart dont spoil it with tears."
"Sorry." Xena sniffed back her tears, took a deep breath and forced herself to grin. "So, what are these assurances you want from me?"
"To look after Rowan. Be her mentor and keep her safe. I also want you to keep an eye on the Talisman Circle and be kind to our friends in the group. And I need you to sort out my side of the business for me."
"That all?" Xena brought Gabrielles hand to her lips and softly kissed the knuckles, trying hard to ignore the steady blackening from the UV solution coursing through her. "Well, the last ones no problem Ill fix all the business stuff. Cant promise about Rowan or the group, though. I probably wont be around here much longer need to get away you know, yeah?"
"Oh, okay." Gabrielle studied Xena closely. "Hang on Xena, just where are you going?"
"Travel a bit. Get away. See new places." Xenas tears began to fall and she purposely avoided Gabrielles gaze. "Ill go and spend some time with Kira, or maybe go back to America for a while. I do have to pay Thomas a visit in New York anyway, dont I?"
"Or Egypt could be fun."
"Or the Caribbean for a change yeah, somewhere that has warmer nights would be nice."
"Xena, stop it!"
"Then again, I might just stay around the UK and see the rest of it head up to Scotland."
"Xena!" Gabrielle tugged Xenas hand. "Stop this right now! I can read you like one of my old scrolls! Youre intending to give up on life and try to follow me please, dont do it! I need you to look out for Rowan."
"Rowan can look out for herself just fine!" Xena brushed her jacket sleeve across her eyes.
"You are not going to walk out into the daylight or throw yourself into some furnace or other! Listen to me Rowan does need you, whatever you say! She may be strong but shes still a fledgling with a lot to learn please, be a mentor to her."
"I cant!" Xena sighed heavily. "I want to be with you. I I need you! I cant do this by myself, Gabrielle. I cant be without you again."
"Yes, you can." Gabrielle brushed a new tear from Xenas eye. "Dont mourn me, Xena. Honour my memory, yes. Remember me, and love me always. But dont mourn me and for Rheas sake dont try to follow me before your time! By rights I should have been ashes and dust almost two thousand years ago, not seeing in another millennium with you."
"On that score, then, I shouldnt be here either!"
"Please, Xena just look after Rowan for me."
"I cant, Gabrielle." Xena let her head fall gently forward to rest on Gabrielles midriff. "Not without you!"
"You managed for three hundred years without me, you can do it again." Gabrielle stroked Xenas hair.
"No dont you see ? The Fates are mocking us! They brought us together again after centuries, only to tear us apart now!" Xena raised her head, renewed tears coursing down her cheeks.
"I think they are being kind dont you see that?" Gabrielle smiled warmly. "I think they knew my time was nearly at an end and have allowed us to share these last precious months together. Now my times over." She stroked Xenas face. "Let me go."
"Gabrielle?" Xena touched her face. "Dont go."
Gabrielle squeezed Xenas hand. "Do you love me, Xena?"
"I love you, Gabrielle. You know I do." Xena frowned through her tears. "What sort of a fools question is that?"
"Then look after Rowan for me, for as long as she needs you."
"Gabrielle, I "
Xena was silent for a few moments. "I promise." She determined that Rowan didnt really need her at all, whatever Gabrielle told her.
"Thats all I ask, my warrior."
"Gabrielle, I want so much to stay with you."
"Its okay. Ill wait for you, I promise youll find me again, somehow. I know you will. Just make sure you dont follow me too soon, okay?" Gabrielle closed her eyes.
"Gabrielle?" Xena realised the hand she held began to feel increasingly hot, and Gabrielles other arm was now blackening. She leaned quickly over Gabrielle and kissed her deeply. "Dont leave me."
"Ill always love you, Xena." Gabrielles eyes opened briefly and she smiled. "Always."
"Gabrielle, please!" Xena begged. Her face and neck were bloody from the tears that now flowed freely. "Not like this! Dont leave me!" Gabrielles hand slipped from Xenas and was still. The immortal stared at Gabrielles face for s few moments, then let her head drop forward onto the bed, sobbing quietly. "Oh gods, no! Please, Gabrielle no not like this!"
The doctor exchanged a sombre glance with Simeon and gestured that Xena should be taken from the room. Simeon nodded, took a deep breath and steadied himself. He knew that it would be only a matter of time now before Gabrielles body deteriorated and charred to ash. He wanted to spare his vampire friend the additional pain of witnessing that.
The Caretaker walked quietly to Xenas side and gently touched her shoulder. "Xena, my friend, I " He sighed, heavily. "It might be best if "
"Your thoughts are all over the place, Simeon." Xena placed her hand over Simeons and looked up. "I know what youre trying to do." She stood up, wiping her eyes, and looked at Gabrielle. "Looks like someones just carved her likeness in beautiful black marble."
"Yes, it does." Simeon squeezed Xenas shoulder.
"I know she wont stay like this, though." She sniffed and allowed herself a deep breath before tuning to Simeon. "Youre right, of course. I dont really want to watch Gabrielles body burst into flames or break up or or whatever happens now."
"You are welcome to go to my office, or my rooms, Xena."
"Sure, yeah thanks." Xena suddenly regarded the Caretaker purposefully. "I dont want her remains taken to the lab, Simeon."
The technician spoke up. "But Xena please, you must understand "
"No!" Simeon raised a hand. "This is not just any vampire. This is a respected ancient, Xenas partner for the best part of two millennia and my friend." He smiled sadly at Xena before turning back to the technician. "I trust, that as the groups director, I still have some say on the matter?"
The technician lowered her gaze. "Yes sir Im sorry. I meant no offence."
"Very well." Simeon nodded, then looked round the room for the archivist, finding him gazing out the window into the night. "David " He waited for him to turn round. "Do you think we might have a suitable container for Something to hold Gabrielles remains? An appropriate vessel of some kind?"
David dropped his head, quickly running the back of a hand across his eyes before clearing his throat. "Im certain we have something like that around the house or in the library, Simeon. Perhaps even a proper urn " He turned to Xena. "If thats alright?"
Xena nodded and spoke quietly. "Thank you, David."
Simeon looked back to the bed and realised smoke had begun to drift from the now completely blackened shell that had been Gabrielle. He quickly stepped over to Xena and placed an arm around her back, leading her firmly towards the door. "Come, my dear. We still have roughly two hours of night you can change your jacket and shirt, if you wish to, of course. Then you can settle here for the day and sleep."
Xena allowed herself to be led out the door by Simeon. "I cant sleep too much to do." She stopped halfway down the well-lit corridor. "Simeon, could I borrow a computer and a telephone? I might as well get on with putting everything in order, as Gabrielle requested."
"Of course you can but rest for a while first, alright?" For the first time that night, Simeon realised Xena had an injury to her left upper arm. "Lets see if we can encourage your usual healing abilities to kick in, too."
Xena glanced down. "Oh, yeah. Id forgotten that. Silver dagger. Itll be okay just take a bit longer, thats all."
"Even so, lets clean the wound for you and let you rest for a time, alright?" Simeon waited for Xena to nod and then motioned for the two of them to head down the corridor again. "Anyway, youll need to return home for your business addresses and the like before you start contacting your associates and familiars, wont you?"
Xena sighed. "Simeon, its my heart thats wrecked, not my mind." She managed a small smile. "Every contact and how to reach them is all in my head." She tapped her temple. "I just want to get on with something need to be busy for a little while, okay?" Simeon nodded in response and the two of them walked the rest of the way in silence.
Xena spent the next two nights at the Talisman Circle Mother house, either walking round the grounds or spending time in the library or Simeons office. Whatever she did, she did alone, shunning company or invitations to talk. Soon after watching Gabrielle lose her battle to hold on to an earthbound existence, she had thrown herself into the human role of antiquities expert and art dealer. For several hours Xena worked at Simeons desk, hidden from daylight in the shuttered office, rather than sleeping in the basement. She emailed various galleries and telephoned contacts, leaving instructions and guidelines with each of Gabrielles and her own familiars. She was somewhat surprised, though satisfied by, the news that the one who betrayed her and Gabrielle had already been dealt with. Thomas had met with an unfortunate but fatal accident and would not cause further trouble. Xena was annoyed at not having the opportunity to deal with him herself, but was pleased that she would not have to waste time seeking out the turncoat.
The archivist, David, gave Xena a bronze urn containing Gabrielles remains. The ashes had been collected under Simeons supervision and, true to his word, he warned the laboratory against requesting a sample and even forbade them to remove traces from the bedding before it was disposed of. Xena had simply held the vessel close to her heart and remained motionless in an armchair for the next six hours. Her look of concentration and the occasional movement of her lips were the only indications that she was conscious, pouring out her thoughts to Gabrielle in the simple belief that her hopes and fears, her longings and affirmations of constant love would be heard by her.
Now, Xena rose from the window seat in the library, where she had sat for most of the night, and picked up the urn that had not left her side since David gave it to her. "Its not enough, Gabrielle!" She announced to the empty desks and unattended shelves. "Itll never be enough!" She made her way out of the library and through the empty house, now and then catching sounds of movement that confirmed the Mother house was not entirely asleep. A clock softly chimed the quarter hour and Xena looked at it, establishing that it was four-forty five and the warm mid summer night was coming to an end. Finding her way to the ground floor hallway, she rounded a corner to a dark porch way and unbolted the heavy oak door that led outside to the grounds. She walked along a stone pathway, moss and grass encroaching on the paving slabs and shielded by hanging laburnum. The aroma of honeysuckle and night-scented stock hung in the air and an indignant tawny owl declared its presence somewhere overhead. Stepping from the path, Xena made her way across the extensive, well-kept lawns until she reached a sunken garden, surrounded on three sides by a low wall and predominantly filled with roses.
As she took a seat on the bench, Xena thought back to the many evening conversations she had enjoyed with Simeon there in the past; sometimes on the nature of good and evil, more often about some point in history Xena had been present at and could recall in detail. She smiled sadly and turned to the urn. "I guess thats the one thing Ill regret leaving behind, Gabrielle." She looked up at the moon, already beginning to fade as the sky turned from dark blue to a lighter, shadowy hue. "Not long now, my love. Just a little more time and the sun will be here to bring me to you."
"And just what were you going to do for me, Xena?" A soft thud came from Rowan descending from her flight to land a few feet in front of Xena. "Leave a note?"
"Rowan, you shouldnt be here."
"Actually, I was just about to tell you the same thing." She took a step closer. "The sunll be on its way soon if you hadnt noticed." She sighed, and seated herself next to the immortal. "This is beautiful I havent really seen the grounds properly." She breathed in the fragrance of the roses and recently clipped grass.
"Youll like them." Xena stared ahead. "Theyve got a couple of good gardeners here theres always something special to see or a wonderful scent to enjoy. Even at night."
Rowan turned to face Xena. "Perhaps you could show me around, since youre staying here for a while?"
"Ask Simeon or Sarah theyre more appreciative of the plants and flowers."
"Id rather enjoy it with you while you tell me about your life and adventures with Gabrielle." She was met with silence. "Xena I know whats happened. Im so sorry shes gone." She gently reached out to place her hand on Xenas arm. "But its not a good enough reason for you to sit out here and wait for your own destruction."
"You dont understand, Rowan."
"I understand that your suicide isnt the answer to losing Gabrielle."
"It is if it takes me to her."
"Oh thats just brilliant thinking, Xena! And when you find Gabrielle again, whats she gonna say? How glad she is that youve thrown everything away to get there? Including the Talisman circle and your businesses? And including me?"
Xena flinched slightly, recalling Gabrielles last requests before true death claimed her. "Rowan, please try to accept that I have to do this. Im not that strong I cant "
"What utter rubbish! You dont have to do anything, apart from honour Gabrielles memory and be all that you should be." Rowan stood up and faced the ancient vampire. "Youre too special, Xena! More than that, youre special to me! In the short time Ive had to get to know you both, Ive come to love you and Gabrielle so much. Youre my family, I trust you and I need you. Now Gabrielles gone, youre all I have, Xena please, I cant please dont do this!" She began to cry in anger and upset.
"Rowan, I cant stay here." Xenas heart melted to see Rowan cry. "Please let me go. You have the group to teach you and guide you, and you have Kira you only have to send word to her and shell be here for you. You know that."
"Its not the same, and you know it! Kiras an amazing being and shell always have my love and respect, but shes not you and she cant replace Gabrielle!" Rowan knelt gently before Xena and rested her hands on the immortals knees. "Please, Xena. Do I have to beg you to stay? I will, if thats what it takes."
"Dont get into the habit of begging anyone for anything. Youre better than that." Xena leaned forward and cupped Rowans chin in her hand. "Rowan, Gabrielle asked me to take care of you and be your mentor, but the truth of the matter is you dont need me. You are your own teacher and youre your own mentor "
"Uh when what?"
"When did Gabrielle ask you to take care of me?"
Xena dropped her gaze to the ground. "A little while ago."
Rowan regarded the vampire thoughtfully. "Xena, I may be young and I may well be naïve as a fledgling, but Im not that stupid you may be able to stop me from catching your thoughts, but youve got guilt written all over your face!"
"What are you talking about?" Xena feigned innocence.
"Guilt! Conscience! Xena, one thing Ive learned very quickly from you and from Great Aunt Mels translation of Gabrielles scrolls, is that youre a rotten liar when you know youre in the wrong."
Xena regarded Rowan long and hard before letting out a heavy sigh. "Okay, alright it was one of the last things Gabrielle asked before I lost her, but you dont really need me do you, Rowan? Not really."
It was Rowans turn to feel her heart melt at the look of sadness on Xenas face. "Probably not forever, but right now ? Yeah I need you, Xena. Im scared of the hunters and I feel safer knowing youre around to run to. Theres so much I dont understand about my powers and I need you to help me learn. Besides, youre " Rowan looked up suddenly and swallowed hard. "Xena, the suns rising!"
"Get indoors, Rowan!" Xena looked over her shoulder and was momentarily blinded. "Run!"
"No, Xena, I cant." Rowan stood her ground, despite the feeling of steadily growing heat pouring on her. "Not without you! You wanna stay here and get a sun tan, fine! Im staying right here with you!"
"Dont be stupid. You have to go, right now!" Xena cursed under her breath as Rowan adamantly folded her arms and closed her eyes against the sun and the wisps of smoke beginning to rise from her hands and face. "Youre impossible!" Xena leapt to her feet, snatching up the urn beneath one arm and grabbing Rowan with her other hand, then flew at a speed which made both of them seem invisible. Within the blink of an eye, Xena hauled Rowan across the grounds, up the stone pathway and through the side door she had exited earlier.
"Well, that was close." Rowan grinned sheepishly as Xena set her down in the dark porch way.
"Youre a little burned." Xena stated dryly.
Rowan shrugged. "So, itll heal."
"Thats one of the most irresponsible, thoughtless actions Ive ever known a fledgling to carry out!" Xena was losing the battle to keep her voice low as her patience slipped from her. "If I ever catch you pulling another stunt like that again, Ill What in Tartarus were you thinking?"
"How to get you away from the sun, Xena! For my sake and for Gabrielles sake."
"Dont you even mention Gabrielles name like that!"
"Why? Because you know Im right?" Rowan grabbed Xenas free hand and lifted it to her own throat. "Go ahead rip it out! Break my neck or tear off my head if Im out of order so much!"
Xena stared at her.
"You know Im the only one talking sense here! Gabrielle wouldnt want you to throw away this life just to be with her again at least, not for a long time." Rowan dropped Xenas hand and smiled sadly. "Please ? I know youre hurting God knows I am! Were all hurting for losing someone as precious as her. Xena, youre piled up with more grief than you know what to do with, and its clouded your judgement." She fell silent, watching the immortal think through what she had said.
"Alright, Rowan." Xena whispered. "It was Gabrielles wish, just before I lost her, that I look after you. Youve asked me yourself to watch over you and be your mentor." After several moments of silence, she raised a hand to Rowans shoulder. "Okay then, Ill do it. Ill do it out of love for Gabrielles memory and out of duty to you; someones gotta teach you some common sense, girl!" Xena allowed herself a small smile.
"Thank you." Rowan breathed a sigh of relief, then frowned. "How do I know you wont just walk out into the daylight, the moment my backs turned?"
"Bottom line is you dont." Xena carefully switched the bronze urn to her other arm. "Youll just have to trust my word to you, Rowan, but Ill tell you what Ill give you a week, starting tonight, and Ill give you a day for every book, scroll or manuscript you can read in that week. If, after that time, I still wanna leave this world and cross over to the next to find Gabrielle, you wont stop me. Thats the best I can do. Deal?"
Rowan was thoughtful. "You give me your word?"
"You know that I could speed-read as a human, dont you?"
"I heard." Xena raised an eyebrow.
"And now I can speed-read ten times as fast, as a vampire?"
"I guess you can, at that."
Rowan placed her hands on her hips. "And you do actually realise that Ill do everything I can to make you want to stay in the end, dont you? Youre my kin, as far as Im concerned, and youre my friend I love you Xena, and Im not gonna let you go without a fight!"
Xena was taken aback for a moment; Rowans stance and the feeling in her voice was so like Gabrielles. "Ive no doubt." She eventually managed, when she found her voice.
"Okay then " Rowan smiled slowly. "Its a deal."
Xena turned back to the still wide open door and reached for the latch, thankful that the entire porch remained in shadow, enabling her to close it easily despite the steadily increasing daylight outside. As she swung the heavy door into its frame she sensed, more than heard, a soft breeze stir through the laburnum and she gave it her full attention, without knowing why, until a whispered but unmistakable voice filtered into her mind.
Thank you Xena, you wont regret this. I love you and Ill be waiting for you come to me when its time, but not before. Soon but not before your time. Ill wait, my heart, for as long as it takes. Remember I love you.
Xena leaned against the door and closed her eyes.
"Xena?" Rowan reached out and touched the immortals shoulder. "Are you alright?"
Xena sighed and shut the door, turning slowly to face Rowan. "Im not sure. I think so. I thought I just heard " She trailed off and frowned.
"What, Xena?" Rowan moved forward. "What did you hear?"
The ancient warrior was still for a moment, before she raised her head and slowly smiled. "I heard the breeze, Rowan, thats all. The softest, gentlest breath, reminding me that our life goes on for now, at least." She stepped forward and placed her arm around Rowans shoulders. "Which means, we sleep in the Mother house basement for today, and tonight, after youve studied a scroll or something in the library, Ill show you how to increase your flying speed. I think you need it!"
The two headed for the lower stairs of the house, managing to avoid the beams of sunlight beginning to spill into the hall from various windows. As they descended the stairs, Xena looked back towards the porch way. For the first time since losing Gabrielle, Xena allowed herself a genuine smile. She accepted her responsibility towards Gabrielles young descendant and sensed now, with assurance, that the remainder of her earthbound days would not be so very hard to bear. She resolved that in time, she would welcome her final journey away from the eternal night and back to the one lasting light she had trusted and believed in since first stumbling across it in an ancient, tiny, and very mortal Greek village. Soon, my love not for a while but soon. She allowed her thoughts to drift towards the heavy oak door and beyond.
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