Disclaimer: The recognizable characters in this tale belong to Rob Tapert and Co., RenPics, Studios USA, MCA/Universal and anyone else who has an investment in Xena: Warrior Princess. I am just borrowing them for use in this story. No profit is being made from this and no copyright infringement is intended. This is because Steph asked me to play and Pink & Fluffy came up with this idea.
Thanks: To my beta readers Phil, Mac and Jeanne who put up with me regularly and who had to push through this overnight for me to get it turned in on time – or more accurately... a week late. And to Steph for not only inviting me, but graciously allowing me to turn this in way behind schedule.
Author’s Note: I lied. I really, *really* was hoping to have Devil done by now, but a number of factors conspired against me and Pink & Fluffy gave me this at the last minute... literally. However, I am making good progress on getting Devil finished and I have started another original story named Guardian Angel. With any luck, there won’t be any more delays and they’ll both be posted post-haste. Keep your fingers crossed. J
Oh PS – this Xena and Gabrielle are the immortal Bacchae from Blood Bond.
The Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is in effect.
A Picture’s Worth
For years the story was told that on nights when the moon was full - when the wind roared and the rain lashed against the windows - that the picture came to life. But it was only a story - no tangible proof in the light of day; no evidence that couldn’t be repudiated by a plausible explanation - only a story that was told to keep busybodies away.
For years the story was enough. Children grew up in fear of the story and all its implications and as those children grew into adulthood, they passed the story to their own kids until it became more myth and legend. And as happens with all myths and legends, it eventually faded - until the day that it all came to life.
“... of course, it was all just a story. There was never any way to prove it, but it makes for a good Halloween tale,” the tour guide added with a smile as she raised her voice to carry over the wind and the distant rumble of thunder. “Moving on to our next stop,” motioning the group forward along the avenue in the fast approaching darkness. Two of the group remained behind, gazing at the house.
“You think this is the right place?”
“Only one way to find out. C’mon.”
Gabrielle held the flashlight while Xena finagled with the lock on the ornate gates. A snick sounded when the tumblers fell into place and Xena pushed the gate open just far enough to slip inside, waiting for Gabrielle to follow her before easing the eerily silent gate closed once more.
They stood looking at the house as it was outlined by lightning flashes, noting how well-maintained it was despite the fact no one had lived on the property in over a century. Gabrielle shivered in premonition and took Xena’s hand, then they walked gamely side by side as they approached the front door.
The door, like the gate, opened soundlessly and they stood in the foyer for a long moment, noses wrinkling in the stale air. Then they turned into the large room on the right, empty of everything except a painting. They stared at the painting as they moved into the room.
“It looks... benign... innocuous, even,” Gabrielle commented. “Not that looks can’t be completely deceiving,” she added with a grin, canines elongating even as her eyes flashed yellow. Xena chuckled wryly. She had always been more pragmatic about it, but despite the millennia she had lived with the curse, it had taken Gabrielle a long time to be comfortable enough with her Bacchae nature to make jokes about it. “After gods, angels, demons, trips to hell, Tartarus, Elysia and Illusia, we’ve seen enough to know better than to believe anything is impossible. But are we sure this is the one we’re looking for?”
“We won’t know until we know. But Dite said it was, so....”
They turned to face the painting again. There were trees - lots of trees - and a patchwork quilt of landscapes. The only hints of civilization were in the chimneys and gabled roofs just above the tree line. It was coming on twilight, in the painting with part of the picture cast in shadow while the remainder reflected the setting sun. Yet even as they watched, the picture slowly began to morph and change, darkening and shifting in tenor and color, even as thunder rolled even closer and the wind outside began to pick up into a steady frenzy.
“C’mon, bard-o-mine. We’ve got a lot of preparations to make and not much time to get done from the looks of it.”
Gabrielle emptied out her backpack, carefully laying out the totems and paint pots even as Xena dumped the two bags of firewood she’d hauled into the house. Quickly, she laid a fire in front of the fireplace, taking special pains to insure it wouldn’t burn the house down while they were busy with their ritual. Once the fire was well started, she turned back to Gabrielle.
They didn’t need words - they stripped carefully but with haste, well-aware of the changes that were occurring to both the weather outdoors and the painting inside. With great care they marked one another... much in the manner they had so many years before on a wild, Indian plain.
Gabrielle unfurled the scroll Aphrodite had prepared for them and together she and Xena began the chant that would bring to an end this particular malady once and for all. Before they were able to complete the final part of the ritual, the painting stopped shifting and a hand reached forth... and pulled them into it.
Only the crackle of the fire bore witness to their passing and their belongings stood silent sentinel as a reluctant eyewitness to the truth.
The wind whipped up gusts of leaves around their feet and the rumble of thunder was much louder in this place. The scent of rain was strong and Xena and Gabrielle blinked as they realized that instead of bringing their prey to them, somehow they had been transported into the painting. They exchanged glances and looked around carefully, hoping to spot who or what had done this to them.
Xena looked down to find herself in very familiar brown leathers sans armor and weapons while Gabrielle wore crushed red velvet and tooled leather belt.
“Son of a bitch,” Xena muttered, shaking her head. “What the hell just happened?”
“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
Xena glowered. “Thanks, Dorothy. I got that much. Question is - what brought us here, and how the hell do we get out of here?”
“This wasn’t exactly covered in Dite’s notes.”
“Of course it wasn’t,” said an unfamiliar, unseen voice. “This is far removed from her domain.” A dark, cloaked figure stepped into the path, face hidden by the hood and the thick darkness that surrounded them. “Hello, Xena. It’s been a long time.”
The rough, smoky voice was all they needed to recognize the individual that stood in front of them and Xena and Gabrielle chanced a look at one another. “I guess now we know,” Gabrielle commented before they turned to face their opponent. “Personally, I don’t think it’s been nearly long enough.”
“No one asked you, Blondie,” the voice replied as one hand reached up to remove the hood and the other held out a hand towards Gabrielle, thinking to propel her backwards by thought alone. Brown eyes widened comically when Gabrielle didn’t even flinch.
“It took a lot for you to bring us both here. Did you really think it would be without consequence?”
The brown eyes flared with fury and hatred, but before Xena and Gabrielle understood the intent, the figure swirled the cloak around itself and disappeared.
“All right - that was weirder than a box of rocks. Now what?”
Xena shrugged. “Now we figure out how to get the hell out of here.”
“I think that’s gonna be easier said than done.”
At that, Xena grinned. “Isn’t it usually with us?” Gabrielle smiled wryly and they headed down the path, hoping to find shelter from the imminent storm... or a way out.
“Do you think this means we can’t defeat her?”
“I think it means we have to defeat her to leave here.”
They had spent what felt like an inordinate amount of time exploring the dimensions of the picture, soon realizing that not only was there no physical way out that they could determine, but also that it was the stuff nightmares were made of. The roofs and gables that had just been visible before the painting had changed housing horrors they hadn’t expected to find.
There were bodies and blood everywhere - some had been eviscerated; others hung by their necks, swinging like macabre chimes in the wind that was blowing so fiercely around them. A few had been crucified and more than one had been beheaded.
For a long silent moment they looked at one another, then the rough cackle of laughter turned their attention to the figure that reclined on the porch closest to them.
“A work of art, wouldn’t you say? Even at the height of my crime spree during my last incarnation I never imagined the myriad of ways I could torture and kill people. I can’t wait to get out of here and wreak havoc in the real world again... and you two are my ticket out.”
“I don’t think so,” Xena commented with edgy menace.
“Oh... you don’t have to think, Xena. It’s a fact. I simply have to defeat you.” A mad smile was briefly reflected in the moonlight that peeked from between the clouds. “Then I return to the real world, and you and Blondie get to stay here with,” motioning around them, “all this.”
Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another before returning their attention to the individual who watched them with a touch of insanity.
“Can I ask what brought you here? I mean, this really is quite a come down for you. These bodies aren’t even real - they’re just illusion.” The figure growled but Gabrielle stood her ground. She had seen and faced too much in her immortal lifetime to be afraid of a villain they had defeated every time they had met in combat. “C’mon, Alti. You’ve gotta be dying to share as long you’ve been here. The last time you faced us, it wasn’t even us - it was our clones that kicked your ass.”
Alti leaped from the porch, then skidded to a stop when Gabrielle bared her fangs. “Oh my my....” walking around Gabrielle thoughtfully. “That adds quite a twist to things now. How did I miss this little tidbit of news?” letting the illusions shimmer out of existence.
“You wanna answer her question?” Xena asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
Alti turned her attention to Xena, noting that Gabrielle had shifted back to her normal self in the brief time it took her to look back. “Why should I? What’s in it for me?”
“We won’t make you suffer when we kick your ass... again.”
Alti laughed. “Oh Xena... please - where’s the love?” She turned back to Gabrielle. “Tell you what, lapdog. I’ll answer your question, but when I kick your collective asses, Xena goes with me. You get to stay here and hold my place alone... for eternity.” She looked at Xena. “You can be *my* sidekick.”
Xena snorted. “You couldn’t keep up. But please... enlighten us.”
Outrage crossed Alti’s features for the tiniest moment before she chuckled. “I’ve been waiting for you a long time; it really is nice of you to finally join me here. Things here have been so dull since....”
Alti circled them again, noting with interest that both warrior and bard followed her motion with their bodies. She stopped in front of them and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Do you remember the unsolved serial murders - gods, it must be over a century ago now? I’ve kind of lost track of time here. They were spectacularly gruesome - the bodies were cut open from chest to groin and all the organs were removed.”
Xena and Gabrielle turned to one another again. “I think I remember that. We were in Greece at the time. I seem to remember hearing about it when we were leaving Olympus.” Gabrielle looked at Alti again. “It was over the course of six or seven months, wasn’t it? Thirteen bodies before the killing suddenly stopped.”
“Very good, Blondie. Maybe you are more than just a pretty face.”
Gabrielle glared but didn’t respond, instead turning her focus back to Xena. “My guess is her being here is what ended the killing spree. The question is,” returning her attention to Alti, “who and how.”
“The ‘who’ doesn’t really matter,” Alti replied lazily, leaning one shoulder against a tree stripped of life and holding a swinging skeleton just out of reach. “It was an old gypsy woman whose name I never learned. The how,” she added, shaking her finger and shifting to put both shoulders against the trunk. “The ‘how’ was actually quite clever - worthy of me even.”
“You wanna share?” Xena asked when the silence dragged on.
“After your clone roasted me like a burnt marshmallow - don’t think I’ve forgiven or forgotten you for that either - I pushed to get back into the circle. I can be very persuasive and men... even gods... are easily manipulated,” Alti offered before either woman could ask. “I figured I may as well have a little fun waiting for you to return to the circle - I didn’t realize you were immortals that never left.”
Gabrielle smirked in Xena’s direction. “Guess we should’ve sent out announcements.” She turned back to Alti. “You wanna get to the point some time tonight? We have an anniversary to celebrate and you’re not invited.”
“Immortality has given you some real sass, Blondie. I’m going to enjoy sucking it out of you.”
Xena snorted. “You’ll never have enough suction,” she prodded, finally pushing Alti into action. She found herself pinned to a nearby tree by an invisible hand that was slowly closing around her throat.
“Maybe I won’t need it,” Alti said with a cruel smile. “Maybe I’ll leave you here and make your bloodsucker my own little pet. Ah ah,” she cautioned Gabrielle who was circling up behind her. “You don’t want to do something that will make me kill her before you hear the rest of my story, do you?” tightening her grip enough to make Xena wheeze in an effort to catch her breath.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances, their unspoken communication completely missed by Alti as she kept her focus on the physical reality of their separation.
“Good girl,” Alti’s voice oozed oily tones when Gabrielle stopped moving. “Now where was I? Oh yes - it was easy enough to coerce Hades into releasing my soul back into the circle and I got to work as soon as I could, fully expecting to get your attention. Oh it was glorious for a little while - the rush of power I got from the fear I induced was intoxicating and I was drunk on the blood lust; it made me just a little too careless.”
Xena and Gabrielle remained still and quiet, not wanting to draw Alti’s attention to the transformation that was taking place.
“There was a sweet little girl... about sixteen... fascinated by the dark arts. Gods... what luscious fresh meat. She would have made an outstanding protégé. Unfortunately, her grandmother was a priestess of white magic who had figured out who I really was... and what I was doing.... If I could have just kept her with me for a little while, I could have turned her and her grandmother couldn’t have touched me. But the girl’s power wasn’t strong enough to keep her grandmother at bay - she was number thirteen.”
Alti sighed. “What I didn’t know was that she had been booby-trapped. Can you believe it?? Her own grandmother booby-trapped her to keep me here and I was so busy enjoying her that I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.”
“So what’s the deal with the others?” Xena choked out, keeping Alti’s attention on her. Alti cocked her head and released her hold just slightly, allowing Xena to speak without gasping for breath. “We know you’ve tried to get out before - the stories of the painting are legendary.”
She laughed manically. “How precious. I can still terrorize humanity even from here. It’s quite simple really - because the girl had some knowledge of dark magic, on nights when the moon is full and storms rule the darkness, the link between the outside world and this one is at its thinnest. And even though I could not fully escape, I was able to force part of myself out of the picture to search for a substitute to take my place here. Only I was never able to find anyone to do it... until tonight.”
Alti stepped closer, not close enough for Xena’s long legs to reach her, but close enough to enjoy the agony she was causing the warrior to feel with the power of her mind - it had been a long time and she wanted to relish it. She clenched her hand tighter and smiled viciously when Xena’s eyes started to bulge from her head as the color drained from her face. Alti raised her other hand already curled into a fist, fully intent on striking Xena across the jaw....
... only to find it caught and held. Shock forced her to loosen her grip on Xena’s neck as she faced Gabrielle who had fully morphed into her Bacchae persona. She smiled wickedly at the shamaness, allowing her canines to extend completely.
“What’s the matter, Alti?” she hissed. “Bacchae got your tongue?”
Alti jerked her arm from Gabrielle’s grip, discovering she didn’t have the strength to do so. Then it didn’t matter as she found herself flying through the air, the feel of Xena’s boot prints in her back painful enough to leave a bruise. Alti twisted mid-air to allow her to land on her feet and turned back toward Xena and Gabrielle, snarling in her rage. Then she realized that Xena had morphed as well and in place of the warrior and bard she had tormented for lifetimes stood two furious Bacchae bent on destroying her... once and for all.
She raised a hand, only Gabrielle wasn’t where she’d expected her to be. Alti swung her other arm just to discover Xena had moved as well. Back and forth she went, trying to focus on one or the other of them long enough to catch them, but they were too quick, employing their stealth and speed to keep her off balance.
Finally, Alti got a grip around Gabrielle’s throat and lifted her from the ground, growling in her triumph. “What’s the matter, little bitch? Bat got your tongue?” her arm trembling just slightly in an effort to maintain her hold with her mind. She hadn’t understood how completely out of shape her powers had become here - but that would change soon. Soon she would be back in the real world and she would have plenty of evil and darkness to draw strength from. She turned her brown eyes to Xena, her smile wicked and victorious. “Are you ready to say goodbye to you precious soulmate, Xena? Are you ready to concede defeat?”
“Are you?” Xena asked with a smirk, nodding her head in Gabrielle’s direction. Alti turned back to Gabrielle, to find her grip around Gabrielle’s hand, and Gabrielle’s fangs extended towards her neck. She didn’t even feel them pierce her skin until she started sucking, and the resulting pain came from the sensation of being drained completely dry.
Alti felt herself growing weaker and weaker, sliding to the ground when she was unable to remain on her feet any longer. She forced herself to focus, feeling the last drops of blood being sucked from her body and noting the sad exultation in Xena’s expression before her eyes finally closed in death.
Around them the painting began to shift once more, returning to its original state. Before they could move closer together, Xena and Gabrielle found themselves thrown from the picture, returning to their naked, painted human state on opposite sides of the fire Xena had built before their encounter with Alti. Without hesitation, Xena snatched up the dryad bone Aphrodite had included as one of the totems and slammed it into the heart of the painting, sighing in satisfaction when the artwork burst into flames.
She felt Gabrielle come up beside her and wrapped an arm around her, tucking Gabrielle protectively into her body. Xena brushed a kiss over the top of the blonde head tucked into her neck. “You all right?” she whispered, knowing the self-hatred Gabrielle felt when her Bacchae nature took over - even when it was for the greater good... even when she knew it was necessary. Xena felt the hesitation before Gabrielle shook her head just slightly. Xena tilted Gabrielle’s chin up to meet her eyes. “Thank you,” she added softly. “I know you hate this part of our nature, but you know what Dite said - you had to be the one to do that.”
“I know and I would do it in a heartbeat a thousand times over for you, Xena - you know that or at least I hope you do by now. You are and always will be my greater good; it doesn’t always make being Bacchae any easier though. My saving grace is I’m not in this alone.”
Xena leaned down and licked the drying blood from Gabrielle’s cheeks and chin, swallowing the moan she elicited from her actions by covering Gabrielle’s lips and capturing her mouth in a passionate kiss. She felt Gabrielle’s hands tangle in her hair, pulling them together forcibly and creating a delicious friction between their bodies. Xena wrapped her arms tighter around Gabrielle’s waist, letting her nails lightly scratch up and down the sensitive ass cheeks and relishing the shudders that were left in her wake.
“Ooooh, feel those juicy love vibes flowing. Gods, you two are way better than a rad meal of ambrosia and nectar, babes!” came a voice from the shadows of the room. Slowly Xena and Gabrielle separated, pinpointing Aphrodite with unerring accuracy and pinning her in place with dual baleful glares. She laughed. “Wow, dig those gnarly scowls. Chill, dudettes. I’m here with good news.”
“And it couldn’t have waited a few minutes?” Xena growled, garnering a full belly laugh from Dite.
“C’mon, warrior babe - you and I both know once the two of you get into a groove, it’s not gonna be a few minutes.” Xena’s scowl deepened but she didn’t refute Aphrodite’s words. Gabrielle cleared her throat.
“Dite, could you give us a minute to put something on?”
“Sure,” the deity said without moving. Blonde and brunette brows hiked in identical expressions and Dite rolled her eyes before snapping her fingers. “Honestly, you’d think the two of you could like, get past this modesty issue. Better?” motioning to the clothing they now sported. They glanced at themselves and then each other before nodding their approval. Dite rolled her eyes again. “Great, can we talk now?”
“Absolutely,” Gabrielle invited, linking her arm through Dite’s and pulling her closer to the fire. “What’s up?”
Dite scrunched her nose at their bare surroundings and popped in a few comfortable pillows. “Much better,” sighing at the effort it had taken. Although things were better, they would never be like they had been and it was a lot more work to do things she had once taken for granted - even with Xena and Gabrielle around to keep the love biz batteries charged. She sighed again as she settled down into the soft nest she’d created.
“I just thought you’d want to know - it’s a totally done deal. Hades caught her soul when she arrived at the River Styx and it’s been like, destroyed. No more Alti.”
“Can he do that?”
“Can and has, Cutie. That nasty bitch nearly cost him his marriage. Persephone may be among the more laid back goddesses, but she’s got a radically wicked jealous streak. It could have gotten way, way uglier on Olympus than it did. Even Ares didn’t kick up much fuss about it.”
Xena and Gabrielle shared a look. “So we’re all done here?” Xena asked, wrapping an arm around Gabrielle and arching an eyebrow in Dite’s reaction.
“We’re so done,” Dite reassured them. She leaned over and embraced Gabrielle, brushing a kiss over her temple. “Ya did good, Cutie. You saved her,” cutting her eyes towards Xena. “Now let her save you,” kissing her once more before rising gracefully and reaching for the remains of the frame. “I gotta jet, but I’ll make sure this gnarly thing is taken care of. Toodles, babes!” waving her fingers at them. Before they could answer, Dite disappeared in a shower of rose petal and sparkles. “Happy anniversary!” came the echo of her voice.
They looked at one another and chuckled. “Glad she’s on our side,” Gabrielle commented. “You think we’ll ever know the whole truth about that gypsy?”
“I dunno, and frankly right now I don’t care. I’ve got far more important things to be doing than worrying about some old gypsy woman,” Xena stated firmly as she removed Gabrielle’s covering and then her own. She let her eyes roam Gabrielle’s naked body possessively before sliding skin and skin together, smiling at the gasp Gabrielle couldn’t contain. “Dite was right about one thing,” she added, letting her hands traverse the skin her eyes had already marked as her own. “We’re going to be here more than a few minutes. I plan to see... and touch... and taste....” committing each action as she spoke to emphasize her point, “every single inch of you... repeatedly... in a very leisurely fashion.”
Then her words were stolen when Gabrielle unexpectedly captured her lips and flipped them over to put her on top. “Me first,” she murmured, then proceeded to make good on her threat.
She took her time – touching, exploring, rediscovering - igniting Xena’s passion as well as her own and celebrating the joys of coming together, letting Xena’s touch heal her and make her whole once more.
They met body to body, heart to heart and soul to soul. And at the height of their passion, just as the clock struck the witching hour, they renewed their blood connection and once again, the circle was complete.
The sun peeking over the horizon found warrior and bard tangled together in a boneless heap. The picture and frame were gone and the only reminder of their night were the pillows they were currently ensconced on and the backpacks they’d brought with them.
“You think that’s it? You think it’s finally over?”
Xena shrugged. “I dunno. Aphrodite seems to think so. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
“I guess. It’ll make for a great Halloween story to tell around the campfire,” Gabrielle added with a smile. “It’s not like anyone believes any of my stories are true.”
Xena uncurled herself and padded to her backpack, palming a tiny device and and returning to snuggle up to Gabrielle once more.
“Whatcha got?” Gabrielle asked with an impish smile and a cocked brow. Xena opened her hand to reveal a camera. Gabrielle’s second eyebrow rose to meet her first at her hairline. “You wanna be an exhibitionist now?” gesturing between their nude bodies.
Xena shook her head. “Not for anyone but you. I just figure if that picture was worth a thousand words,” lifting the camera and snapping a photo of the two of them smiling at each other. “Then something like this would be worth a bazillion,” snapping several in rapid succession as their lips met. Then she forgot about the camera and the pictures, and focused on the kissing instead.
And from somewhere on Olympus, Aphrodite pumped her fist. “Bitchin’, babes! You go, girls! Happy Halloween!”