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Disclaimer: Nearly all characters contained within are property of MCA/Universal.

Warning: This story contains Joxer, references to vampires, violence, nudity, and a little bit of crude humor. If you do not like that, please do not read this story.

This story is Part I. Its purpose is to set the stage for Part II, which is forthcoming.

The Kiss of Death

Part I:
Something Unsavory

by The AnOrExOrCiSt


~~ Chapter I ~~

The tavern was silent when the familiar sound of clanking armor stumbled through its open doors. The Warrior Princess and her young traveling companion exchanged looks and a mutual groan. They did not turn, hoping that he would not see them, and that they could leave without him noticing their presence. They had no such luck. "Xena! Gabrielle! Hold on, I’ll be right there."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. They had just gotten into the town of Braxius and were trying to keep a low profile, as requested by Tritus, the boy who had brought them to the village. They were to help his mother, he’d said, although he’d been vague as to why his mother needed any help. Xena only knew that his mother was a servant to the monarch here, and that this monarch was also well known as a powerful sorceress. Joxer would only end up getting in their way, and he might just get himself killed. Gabrielle knew the look meant not to speak a word of their mission so long as Joxer was around.

The idiot, himself, took a bar stool between the two and grinned merrily as he clapped both of them on the back with a heavy hand. "My friends," he announced. "How have you been? Long time no see, eh?"

"Joxer," Xena started slowly, "it’s only been a week."

"But a week among friends is an eternity!" The idiot’s smile broadened as he turned to Gabrielle. "Hey, Gabby-" Joxer was interrupted by a sudden blow to the gut, which knocked the wind out of him. Gabrielle smiled thinly.

"Don’t call me Gabby," she said pleasantly. "I hate it when you call me that." Joxer coughed, trying to catch his breath; she’d knocked the wind out of him with the butt of her staff.

"Right," he said, wheezing. "Sure, Gabby." He offered a silly grin and Gabrielle was tempted, sorely, to hit him again. But she resisted, her thin smile plastered to her face. "Anyway," Joxer was saying, "I got a new crossbow! Remember the one you broke?"

"How could I forget?" Gabrielle replied, remembering how sobering it was to beat the stuffing out of the so-called-warrior when he’d tried to kidnap her so that he could join Callisto’s army. Joxer was straining to show her his new crossbow; obviously he was quite pleased with himself that he’d managed to obtain another one.

"This one won’t break as easily," he said. "I’d like to see you try to take me now, Gabby. I’m virtually an unstoppable fighting force now! The bravest of warriors will cringe when they hear the name of Joxer the Mighty!" Joxer thrust his arm and his crossbow into the air, then gave a yelp as he fell off of his stool. Xena heard the distinct sound of the crossbow firing, and she stifled a chuckle as she heard another yelp across the room. Glancing over her shoulder, she could see a burly specimen making his way over, limping, with an arrow sticking out of his leg. Xena turned to watch, taking a long drink from her mug of ale. If nothing else, Joxer provided premium entertainment. Gabrielle sat to Xena’s right, still grumbling about idiots and making an off-hand comment about wanting something really strong to drink if Joxer was going to be hanging around. Xena knew she was kidding, though. Gabrielle couldn’t handle strong drinks, just as Joxer couldn’t handle mighty warriors, or any warriors for that matter. But Xena wanted to be entertained before she stepped in to save him this time.

Joxer was struggling to his feet, worrying about his new crossbow, when the burly warrior grabbed him and spun him around. Joxer looked surprised to see him. "Does this belong to you?" the warrior growled, pointing to the crossbow arrow sticking out of his leg. Joxer gulped.

"I, uh, y-yeah...I guess it does," he said. The burly warrior lifted him onto the bar and pulled his face close.

"I ought to rip you apart right here," he snarled, causing Joxer to quiver with fright. "I could tear you limb from limb, little man, but I hardly think you’re worth the trouble. So I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do; I’m gonna beat the stuffing out of you, and then I’m gonna shoot you with your own crossbow! Sound fair?"

"Well, not entirely-"

"Tough!" The man threw Joxer across the room, his shiny new crossbow and all. Joxer crash-landed on some poor observer’s table and caused it to crumble. The burly man was on him before he could stand and again throwing him across the room, this time having Joxer smash a dent into the wall and landing on another, more solid table. He moaned as he lay in spilled food and drink, his crossbow falling to the floor.

Xena took another drink from her mug of ale and rose to her feet as the big warrior approached Joxer’s moaning form.

"That’s enough," she said, stepping between Joxer and the warrior.

"Out of my way!" the warrior growled, reaching out to move Xena. She grabbed his outstretched hands and threw him to the side. He hit the floor pretty hard, himself, and looked surprised at the strength of the Warrior Princess. Of course, he had no idea that he was not dealing with an average woman. "Oh," he said, as Xena folded her arms over her chest, "you want some of this? Then bring it on, babe, I’ll give you all you want."

Xena’s eyes were blue ice. She drew her sword. "If that’s how you want it," she said. The burly warrior staggered to his feet. He’d been drinking, and he’d had a lot more than Xena. He drew a long dagger and lunged for her. She easily parried and stepped out of his way, raising a boot to trip him. He crashed head-first into the bar near where Gabrielle sat, watching. He looked up at her as he fell to the floor.

"Hi," she said, smiling; her foot was flying at his face, and his world flashed, then blackened as he lost consciousness. Xena sheathed her sword, then went to see if Joxer was all right. The idiot was bleeding, but not too badly, just from his nose and a contusion on his face that would bruise nicely. Joxer would love that, and Xena knew he’d fabricate a great battle in which he’d received this hideous wound. She slapped him.

"Wake up, idiot." Joxer snapped awake, his two-inch dagger in hand.

"Where is he?" he snarled. "I’ll murderlize him! Just wait until I get my hands on-!"

"Joxer, shut up. We’re leaving." Xena glanced over her shoulder as Gabrielle had gathered her things and was ready to go. "You’re coming with us, for now."

As the trio left, no one noticed the tall slender figure, covered by cloak and hood, that rose to its feet from a table in the corner. It stepped into the shadows of the tavern, and had anyone been looking, they would have caught a glimpse of blonde hair and black leather before the figure vanished, leaving only the cloak behind, in a heap on the floor.


~~ Chapter II ~~

"Why can’t I go with you?" Gabrielle complained, as Xena opened the door to their plush room at the local inn. Quietly, she added, "Don’t leave me here with him. I might kill him, and you wouldn’t want blood on my hands, now, would you?"

Xena chuckled. "I think it might be good for you. It might teach you some tolerance."

"I’ve got plenty of tolerance!" Gabrielle hissed. "Just not for him! He’s an idiot!" Xena laughed.

"Just don’t kill him. I’ll be back soon, I just want to check some things out and see what I can see. I’m pretty sure it’s safe, but I have to be doubly sure. There’s something in the air here that I don’t like, but I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that’s making me uncomfortable."

"Queen Medina is said to be a powerful sorceress," Gabrielle warned. "That could be it. Be careful if you go to the palace."

"You know I will. Look after Joxer, make sure he doesn’t go anywhere. He took a good blow to the head; I don’t want him leaving this room."

"Xena, you know he’ll do anything I ask him to," Gabrielle groaned. "So I guess I’ll stay and look after him."

"I appreciate it." Xena slipped out of the door. "I’ll be back in a little while. Be good."

Gabrielle stood at the door for a few moments, thinking about following Xena, anyway, when she decided against it and sauntered over to the bed. Joxer lay sleeping; he’d been traveling all day, trying to catch up with Gabrielle and Xena, and he was tired. Now that she took the time to notice, he was kind of cute when he was sleeping, in an impish, boyish sort of way. If only he weren’t such a clumsy oaf, Gabrielle thought, she might have liked him as more than just a friend. As he was, he was little more than an annoyance who even she could beat the stuffing out of with her bare hands, and Gabrielle was practically useless without her staff. "Joxer, Joxer," she said, running her fingers through his mousy brown hair. "I hope, for your sake, that you become a great warrior one day." She sat in a chair beside his bed, against the wall, and decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a little nap. Xena would probably be gone for a while, and Joxer wasn’t going to go far without protection. After all, the big chap they’d knocked out in the bar probably would love to run into him on a lonely road without Xena or Gabrielle to back him up.

She, too, had had a long day. She was asleep in minutes.

*   *   *

"Wake up, idiot." The voice was sweet, soft, feminine, almost seductive, yet dripping with sarcasm. Joxer’s eyes fluttered open and he looked around.

"Gabrielle?" The bard sat asleep in a chair beside the bed, her head against the wall, her mouth open, her soft snores filling the room, a little drool at the corners of her mouth.

"No," the voice said. "Not Gabrielle." Joxer sat up and reached for his sword, which lay on the floor beside his bed.

"Show yourself," he said quietly, raising the blade for whomever was speaking to see. A hooded figure emerged from the shadows and stood before him, at the end of the bed. Joxer saw little of whoever was under the cloak, only that it was a woman, and that she was tall and thin. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"You don’t recognize my voice?" the figure asked, clasping its hands together in an almost holy gesture. "Tsk, tsk, idiot, I’m disappointed."

"Well, Disappointed, I hope you’re scared, too." Joxer allowed a smile to stretch across his face slowly. "You don’t know who you’re dealing with."

"Oh?" the figure replied, chuckling softly.

"Yes." Joxer sat erect. "I am Joxer the Magnificent, great warrior and good friend of Xena and Hercules. Prepare to die, woman, and pray that I show mercy and kill you quickly."

"But Joxer," the hooded figure replied. "Don’t you want to know who I am?"

Joxer raised an eyebrow. "Yes," he said. "Who are you?" He heard another dark chuckle. The figure raised its arm and pulled back its hood. Joxer dropped his sword and choked on his next breath. "C-Callisto...?"

Callisto smiled, a lop-sided, childish affair, and giggled. "Yes, it’s me," she said. "I’m back."

"This is impossible; you’re dead," Joxer stammered as Callisto sashayed over. "I-I mean, you died, right? That means you can’t be here, and can’t be you, because you’re dead! Why aren’t you in Tartarus, roasting for all that you’ve done?"

"Hades came up with a worse punishment for me," Callisto pouted, sitting at the foot of the bed. Joxer raised an eyebrow.

"A w-worse punishment?" he asked. Callisto nodded solemnly.

"Yes," she said firmly, glancing at the sleeping Gabrielle with a sly grin, then focusing her penetrating gaze on Joxer. "He did."

"What could be worse than roasting in Tartarus? Even you couldn’t have enjoyed that!" he cried, scooting up next to her. "No offense, though." Callisto’s chuckle was dark.

"None taken," she said softly. Joxer frowned.

"Something’s different. You haven’t tried to kill me, and I’ve been talking to you for a few minutes." His eyes widened as he remembered Gabrielle. "A-And Gabrielle! You haven’t tried to kill Gabrielle, either!" Callisto shook her head sadly. "Then it must be Xena...that’s it, you’re after Xena, aren’t you!" he accused. Callisto again shook her head, watching him. He frowned.

"Then why are you here, Callisto?"

"Joxer, I wish I was here for Xena, or for Gabrielle," she muttered. She looked him over and shuddered. "By the gods do I wish I was, but the truth is so much worse, so depressing," she added.

"So...what is the truth?" he asked softly. "Why are you here?"

Callisto laughed softly, shaking her head. "Because I’m your new guardian goddess. I’ve been assigned to teach you to be a great warrior." She rose to her feet, faced him, and sighed. "That’s my punishment from Hades. It’s kind of a deal that I made with him. If I succeed, and you become a great warrior, I get another shot at life and at Xena. If I fail, I have to travel with you as my burden for the rest of my life, then burn in Tartarus for all eternity." She leaned over and pulled him close. "So don’t screw this up for me," she growled, "or so help me, you will know what true pain is, idiot. I swear it on my mother’s grave that I dug with my own bare hands."


~~ Chapter III ~~

Callisto shot a quick glance at the door handle as it began to turn. Quickly, she pointed a finger at Gabrielle and a bolt leaped from that finger into Gabrielle, who began to stir. Then Callisto stepped into the shadows, winked at Joxer, and faded as gods often do. "We’ll talk later," she said, as she vanished, cloak and all.

The Warrior Princess strode into the room. Joxer sat, dumbfounded, on the bed. "What’s with you?" she asked him, raising an eyebrow when she got no immediate response.

"Callisto was here," Joxer said. "Something about how she’s my dark angel and she’s going to train me to be a great warrior, or else I’m going to experience pain...lots of pain." Xena stared at him for a moment, then lay him on his back in the bed.

"I think that blow to the head was a little worse than I thought," she replied. "Why don’t you get some more rest, Joxer. Gabrielle and I have some talking to do, and then we must go to the palace to speak with Queen Medina."

"Xena," said Gabrielle, fully alert and standing across the bed from her friend. "Didn’t you already talk with the queen?" Xena shook her head.

"No, I didn’t even go to the palace. I talked to some of the townspeople to find out what’s been going on here. We need to talk about it in private, though. Joxer, will you be all right?" Xena draped a cool, wet cloth over Joxer’s forehead. He looked up at her and blinked.

"Callisto was here," he said. "I swear it."

"Callisto’s dead, Joxer," Gabrielle replied. Joxer shook his head.

"No, she was right here, talking to me," he insisted. "I know she was here; it couldn’t have been anyone else." Gabrielle laughed.

"Joxer, if Callisto was here, I would have heard her."

Joxer shook his head. "She put a spell on you so that you wouldn’t wake up while we were talking," he said. "I saw her lift it right before you walked in, Xena. I’m being honest; Callisto was right here."

Joxer heard a giggle as Callisto faded into existence behind Xena, dressed in a simple white toga. She winked at him, and began to make faces at Xena behind her back. "Look!" he cried, pointing. "She’s right there!" Both Xena and Gabrielle whirled, Gabrielle reaching for her staff and Xena with chakram in hand.

"Joxer," Xena said, glancing over her shoulder at him. "There’s no one there."

Callisto was standing right in front of her, sticking out her tongue and tugging on her ears! "She’s right there! She’s making silly faces at you! I’m serious! Get her!" Callisto’s laugh pierced his ears as Gabrielle turned to give Joxer a disapproving look.

"I think you’ve got a concussion," she said, reaching down to adjust his cloth. "You need to relax." Callisto appeared behind Gabrielle.

"That’s right, Joxer," she cooed. "Listen to Gabrielle!" She jerked the back of Gabrielle’s top and it fell off. Joxer’s eyes widened and Gabrielle’s cheeks burned as she was momentarily too embarrassed to move. Xena burst up laughing and Joxer felt his own cheeks hot with excitement and shame, because he couldn’t take his eyes off of Gabrielle’s...well, her...

The bard reach down to grab her top and ran to the shadows of the room, cast by candlelight, to put it back on. Callisto was on the floor howling with laughter and Xena had doubled over. "That was no accident!" Joxer cried. "It was Callisto!"

The goddess disappeared and reappeared on the bed beside Joxer, under the sheets, her blonde hair once again long, cascading over her shoulders. She was completely nude, although Joxer didn’t dare peek under the sheets. Callisto giggled mischievously. "They can’t see me. Only you can see me."

He gulped as Xena began to recover from the hysterics of Gabrielle’s losing her top. "Can you make them see you?"

"Of course. I’m a god." She disappeared again. "I can make it so that even you cannot see me. She reappeared in Gabrielle’s chair, in her battle leather, her sword in her lap. She looked like the Callisto of old, the Callisto whose army he had so desperately wanted to join long ago.

"Joxer," Xena said, still chuckling as Gabrielle emerged from the shadows of the room fully clothed once again. "Who are you talking to?"

"I-" he began, but then thought better of it. "No one, sorry, just, uh, mumbling to myself. Nice, uh, equipment you have there, Gabby." Gabrielle blushed and hurried out of the door. Xena laughed and moved to follow.

"You stay in bed, Joxer," she said with a wink. "That was funny, but I’m serious about you not leaving this room until your head gets better. I’m the experienced healer, here, so I don’t expect you to move until I say move." Joxer stifled a giggle; Callisto was standing beside Xena, mimicking her. It was almost a relief once the Warrior Princess had gone and he and Callisto were alone.

The goddess reappeared in Gabrielle’s chair once Xena had gone, yawning. "You’ll need to leave here as soon as Xena says you can go."

"Why do I have to wait until Xena says I can go?"

"Because I will not train you until you are healthy, is that understood?" Callisto snapped. "I’ve only got one shot at getting this right. If I screw it up, I screw it up, but I’ll be damned if you screw this up for me. Do you want to be a great warrior, little man?"

"More than anything."

"Then it’s my rules. You do as I say. Right now I say listen to Xena. She knows more about healing than I do. I can only kill; I don’t know how to do anything else."

"Have you ever tried to learn?" Joxer asked.

"Ha! I wouldn’t waste my time," she snarled. "Helping people and healing; that’s for fools like Xena who think redemption from years of murdering people comes in the form of a few good deeds."

"You would be surprised what a few good deeds could do, Callisto," Joxer said. He ignored the icy glare from the goddess. "Before my training is complete, I hope I can help you to see that. There is good inside of everyone."

"There is nothing good left inside of me, Joxer." Callisto shook her head. "It was destroyed a long time ago, in a little village called Cirra."

"Hades must believe there is good in you." Joxer nodded as he made himself more comfortable in his bed. "He wouldn’t have sent you here just to train me. There’s got to be more to it than that." Callisto shook her head.

"No. He only sent me here to train you as part of a bargain I was able to persuade Persephone to talk him into. I’m only here to get my revenge on Xena. I don’t care about you, I don’t care about anyone. That’s my purpose, my only goal. If it means I must train you, then that’s what I must do. The end will justify the means."

Joxer watched Callisto for a moment. The goddess had turned the chair so that she could look out of his window at the night sky. She wasn’t looking at him for the moment, and in that moment he noticed her striking beauty. It was a shame, he thought, that such a great warrior and beautiful female could be so cold, and heartless. Yet he still felt there must be hope for Callisto, a teeny, tiny patch of goodness in her heart, simply because he refused to believe that anyone could be completely and totally evil.

"Whatever you say, Callisto." She spoke with such conviction. But as Joxer began to fall asleep, he vowed that he would find the good in Callisto, if it did, in fact, exist, no matter the cost.


~~ Chapter IV ~~

Gabrielle was quiet. Xena had noticed that her friend appeared tired, but hadn’t said anything about it. Xena often preferred silence to chit chat. Gabrielle usually chattered away on any hikes taken into the woods; the girl loved nature and often spun wonderful tales from the top of her head about many things in the forest. Tonight, though, she was very quiet. "Gabrielle?"


"What’s wrong?"

Gabrielle frowned as Xena paused to talk to her. "I don’t know, Xena. There is something unsavory in the air here. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like this place."

"I know the feeling." Xena continued walking; Gabrielle followed. "I also know what it is that has you concerned. I’ve felt it since we arrived here. I wanted to talk to you, alone, before we visit the palace tomorrow. It’s what I’ve found out about our quaint little village, here."

"What did you find out?"

Xena shrugged. "Let’s wait until we get to the creek before we get into this topic. It’s a long story; that’s why I was gone for so long this evening."

"Why do I have a feeling this ‘long story’ is going to give me bad dreams tonight?" Gabrielle muttered.

The duo came to a clearing before they heard the creek running through the middle of it. Xena gestured to a cluster of boulders near the running water and she and Gabrielle took a seat on separate rocks. Xena closed her eyes and took a deep breath as a cool breeze blew from the direction of the creek, which ran about fifteen feet to her right. Gabrielle sat across from her, taking in the surrounding area, almost feeling a need to do so. Something foul was definitely in the air.

"Xena," she said, disgusted as she realized the immediate air was a little too foul. The Warrior Princess shrugged.

"Beans," was her explanation. "Sorry."

"You could at least excuse yourself," the bard replied. "That’s gross."

"It’s natural," said Xena. "But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I want you to sit, and listen. There’s a full moon tonight, we’ll be able to find our way back to the inn no matter when we leave here. I’m going to tell you what the townspeople told me. Are you listening?"

"Yes." Gabrielle closed her eyes and opened her ears, her mind. "I’m listening, Xena."

"All right. The story I was told begins over a year ago. You have to listen to this story with an open mind, because it is almost unbelievable. When I’m finished, I’m hoping you can give me an idea of what we might be dealing with."

*   *   *

Xena’s Story


As you well know, Queen Medina is a sorceress, or so the legends say. I’ve not met the queen and do not know for certain whether her reputation is earned or merely legend. I only know that there have been violent murders here for the last year, many disappearances, and that the queen has something to do with them, although what that something is, no one will say. But there is speculation...

However, I will start at the beginning. There was a girl who lived here a year ago named Ariel. The locals say she was much like you, Gabrielle; young, impetuous, hungry for adventure and a walk on the wild side of life. The queen was looking for volunteers, and only taking those from out of town, so the stories say. But Ariel was insistent on being included in those chosen to live in the palace and take part in the queen’s volunteer work, as the promised reward of such work was great. I was surprised to learn that no other locals had pestered Medina to be involved; it seems word was out already that something unsavory was, indeed, going on inside of the palace already, and that out of the new wave of volunteers something horrible would spring forth.

Two months after the volunteers had gone through the palace gate, only one of the volunteers emerged from the palace walls alive: Ariel. Only, the townspeople say, Ariel was not alive as you and I are alive; she was something else. Something deadly. The dying did not begin immediately, though. Everyone could tell that there was something different about Ariel, something cold, but she was as she had always been; she was impetuous, mischievous, kind and loving, although these last two emotions were nothing more than an act of what Ariel used to be. It was as if something had taken over her body and was only reacting to Ariel’s memories of acceptable behavior, and in turn felt nothing at all. She could look at you with the sweetest smile, but her eyes would never change. They remained cold, unfeeling, and calculating. People got the uneasy feeling that she was wondering if she could eat them when she would look at them and stare for a little too long. They felt she was secretly plotting their demise, and only waiting for the right time to strike.

One day, a boy, who was courting Ariel before she’d gone into the palace and who’d resumed after her release, went off into the woods with her and disappeared. He was never found alive. Ariel returned days later, perfectly all right, saying that a predator had attacked the pair, and that the boy was carried off, kicking and screaming. She, Ariel, had been able to escape without injury, but the boy had been killed, and taken. No tracks were ever found, but they did find the boy’s body, and there wasn’t much left of him when they did. He’d been drained of nearly all his blood, and been torn from limb to limb. Ariel was questioned at length, but there was no room to convict her of a crime. How could they? The boy had to have twice her strength and speed; Ariel was not a big girl and could not have overpowered him easily. But the boy’s mother said she could see something unsavory about the girl; about her reactions to the whole situation. Ariel was not afraid, nor was she mournful. In fact, she appeared to have no emotional reaction at all. Instead, the girl had reacted, and here the mother swore to it, with amusement, and a sense of satisfaction. She preached that something evil had taken the place of their Ariel, that she had been subjected to unthinkable mystical experiments deep in the bowels of Medina’s castle. The woman called for Ariel to be destroyed, and soon, she had half the town believing in her wild stories..

The woman disappeared soon after that. Her body was found, torn limb from limb. Others, too, began disappearing, including Ariel, herself; her true nature had come into question by those remaining in Braxius. Some bodies were found, littering the forest, some mutilated beyond recognition, others drained of blood. But there was not enough to compensate for the missing.

The townspeople became desperate as time went on; months passed and each night, someone new was missing. They went to their queen, and she responded quickly, having heard the rumors that she was the ultimate source of this damnation, and fearing a rebellion against her. Queen Medina, using her magical powers, somehow located Ariel and her fiendish followers on an island in Lake Trepideau, not far from Braxius . It seemed they were blood drinkers with powers beyond reason; the strength of five men, the speed of Zeus’ lightning bolts, and an insatiable thirst for blood and for life...the strongest of these creatures was Ariel, the first, born of Medina’s own magical experiments. She easily had the strength of twenty men, more than twice the speed of the strongest of her followers. A manhunt was organized to try to bring back the missing and to destroy those who could not be saved, who had become like Ariel, for they knew that she held a power within her that allowed her to make others like herself; evil.

The hunt began, but Ariel did not resist for long. In a grand display of power she destroyed the first wave of hunters, then allowed herself to be captured, having sent her followers away, back to Trepideau Island. Once brought back to town, there was a clamoring for her death, but not before she had a chance to speak.

Ariel boasted that she could hear an ant crawling out of its hole three kilometers distant, and see as far as the sea was wide . She claimed to be the most powerful creature in the land, even more powerful than the almighty gods, and she offered this power to all those who should request it and pledge their allegiance to her, Ariel... and it was then that she was sentenced to death by Queen Medina, who personally had come to see this evil being that she had created, and it was a fate Ariel faced without fear. They say that she laughed, as the noose was draped around her neck, that her death would only make her more powerful than any of them could possibly imagine.

Ariel was hanged. Her body disappeared before it could be burned. It was never found. Some say she merely got up, and walked away; so great was her power that she could not be so easily killed. No one who disappears comes back alive, one way or another. They say that those who’ve disappeared are like Ariel, alive, yet not alive, destined to walk the earth forever, for they are immortal, and they must drink blood to survive. Some also say that they saw Ariel hang, but they do not believe that she died that day. They believe that it is she who comes for them deep in the night, and steals the life away from them while they are sleeping, because of the life that was taken from her in Medina’s castle and replaced with something unsavory...and that she offers, only in return, her immortal black blood...the blood of a life worse than death.

Here, the story ends.


"Well," Xena said softly. "What do you think?"

The Warrior Princess waited while Gabrielle fought to get control of herself. The story had frightened her, and with good reason. The little bard was pale, and she was scared. "There is a word for creatures like them."

"They are like the Bacchai," Xena said. "They drink blood."

"Yes, but they are not Bacchai," Gabrielle stammered, opening her eyes. "I’m afraid they are much worse, much more powerful. Although they do not have shape-shifting powers, as the Bacchai do, they are stronger, faster, and they do not have any aversion to the sun. It will slow them down, but not much. Nor does running water bind their steps."

"Gabrielle, what are they?"

Gabrielle’s expression was flat, her voice toneless. "They’re vampires, Xena. And they’re immortal."


~~ Chapter V ~~

Joxer the Magnificent stumbled over a rock as Callisto appeared at his side. "Zeus!" he cried. "Let me know when you’re going to drop in on me like that!" Callisto chuckled.

"Keep walking, idiot. Be glad Xena let you go early." She fell into step beside him.

"Can people even see you?" Joxer snarled. He hadn’t had breakfast this morning. Callisto had eaten it. She said it would keep him aggressive for his morning workout, and had promised a grand meal when he was finished, since it was his first day training with her.

"Yes. They can see me," Callisto replied. "Why? Are you ashamed of me?"

"Actually, no." Joxer shook his head. "It makes me feel powerful to have a goddess by my side." Callisto grinned.

"That’s right," she said. "And a goddess I am. Did you see Xena and Gabrielle this morning? They look spooked."

"They certainly did," Joxer said, thoughtfully. "I wonder what’s gotten under their skin?" Callisto frowned.

"So do I," she muttered, deciding she would find out what they were up to later. As a god, she would have no problem doing that. Joxer was talkative today, though. Callisto, despite her better judgment, wasn’t finding his company all together unpleasant.

"So, Callisto, if you’re a god, why are we walking? I mean, can’t you just, you know," he snapped his fingers, "poof! And we’re there?"

"Yes." She tripped him, and he fell flat onto his face into a mud puddle. "But it’s much more fun to go this way. So shut up and do as I say. We’ll be there soon enough, little man."

"There" turned out to be at the top of a steep hill, which Callisto used her powers to scale and forced Joxer to climb. She insisted it would make him a better man. Joxer had the feeling he would be hearing that a lot the next few days, which was how long Callisto said it would take for her to turn him into a respectable warrior, but only if he was willing to practice hard, all day, every day. Joxer had said he was willing.

She started Joxer running up and down the hill in a variety of ways. She ran with him, she said, for old time’s sake. Callisto really liked to work out. Joxer was surprised at the enthusiasm that she had for it. She said it was the only time she’d ever felt alive, that she’d ever felt anything since Cirra had been destroyed. Joxer pretty much felt tired. He tried to quit in the middle of the running work out but Callisto beat the snot out of him as soon as he slowed down. Once finished, however, he had to admit that the workout was invigorating.

Callisto sat beside him as he rested; Joxer was panting. "Wish there was some water around here," he wheezed. Callisto opened her hand and a mug of cool, clean water appeared in it, which she handed to Joxer.

"Water is important," she said. "A good warrior takes care of his body. He doesn’t drink intoxicants or use henbane. Those are bad for you. Make sure you ask me if you need some water, I can’t have you getting dehydrated and I can’t have you developing heat exhaustion. I can cool you down if I must. Drink." Joxer drank the water, which never seemed to run out in his mug. He credited that to Callisto’s powers.

She watched him drink, then waved a hand over him to cool him off. The gesture felt great. "Thanks, Callisto," he said.

"Save it. You’re not going to thank me when you hear what I’ve got to say next."

"What’s that?"

"Give me that mug. Start running. I’ll set your pace and you keep it up." Joxer got to his feet quickly and started running.

"Where am I running?" he asked.

"Nowhere," Callisto replied appearing next to him on a golden board of some kind. "You run until I tell you to stop."

"Hey," Joxer whined. "You’re not running with me! What’s with the hovering board?"

Callisto laughed. "Do you want some cheese with that whine, Joxer?" she asked. "I got it from Apollo. He said I was a rad babe and gave it to me. Now, keep up the pace!" She drew her sword and smacked him on the rear. "Move! Move! Move!" Joxer grimaced and groaned as he hopped forward to keep up her pace.

This was going to be a long week. He hoped he was done with basic training by then.


~~ Chapter VI ~~

Xena and Gabrielle had taken a booth in the corner of the tavern. Gabrielle was still unnerved by the story of the vampires which Xena had shared with her the night before, and had been quiet most of the morning. Xena was a little spooked, herself, but only because she worried for Gabrielle’s safety. Not for the first time since learning what they would be dealing with, she wondered if she should send Gabrielle in search of Hercules while she, Xena, attempted to handle the situation in Braxius. Hercules, so Xena had been told, was not far. At the worst, it would take three days from him to arrive. He might even be heading in their direction. Stories about Braxius’ vampires had begun to spread, although most would have called them the "undead."

The duo were waiting for Tritus to return from the castle with his mother. His mother was a servant to Queen Medina and had sent him to find Xena and Gabrielle. She had said there was much to tell about what had happened to the girl, Ariel.

Gabrielle had requested strong cider, and Xena hadn’t objected. She was on her third mug of ale, and it was still early. "Do you think Tritus will be back soon?" Gabrielle asked. They were seated by a window, although the glass was stained and it was not easy to see out of. Gabrielle had been staring at the window for some time before she’d spoken.

"He said he wouldn’t be gone long," Xena replied. "What’s the matter?"

"I don’t like it here, Xena. I want to get out of here as soon as possible. If there are vampires here, we’re going to need help."

"Well, Joxer’s certainly not an option." Xena smiled as Gabrielle chuckled.

"You’re right about that," she said. "But I was wondering...I mean, I’ve heard that Hercules is in the you think that he would be able to help?"

Xena was thoughtful. "I was thinking the same thing. You wouldn’t mind going to get him for me, would you?"

"Xena, you can’t go in there alone and try to get to Queen Medina," Gabrielle said, shaking her head. "You’d be killed."

"I wouldn’t do that, not without help," Xena replied. "But would you go, look for Hercules? He’s in one of the neighboring towns, and we could really use his help if we are dealing with immortals."

"I think, Xena, that it’d be best if I did. I don’t want you to do anything irrational while I’m gone, but I don’t feel we’ve got much of a choice. We wouldn’t stand a chance against these creatures, if the myths are true about them. They are powerful." Gabrielle finished off her cider in one big gulp.

"When would you like to go?" Xena asked quietly, watching Gabrielle. The bard was not drunk, but she was loosening up.

"Now. The sooner, the better. Then we can leave this place." She grabbed her staff and bag and stood.

"I want you to take Argo with you," Xena said, also rising to her feet. "It’s safer that way, and she’ll watch out for you. Come on, we’ll go to the stables now and get everything ready for you."

"But what about Tritus?"

"I’ll return before he does." Xena looked around the bar, noticing for the first time how empty the place really was, save a few large fellows and a couple of young men. "You’re right about this town, though. The place gives me the creeps."

*   *   *

Xena returned to the tavern to find Tritus and his mother waiting. Tritus noticed Xena’s entrance and beckoned her to their table. "Warrior Princess," he said softly, as Xena sat across from her and his mother. "Word has spread that you are in town. Did I not request that you keep a low profile?"

"Sorry," Xena replied. "I had a problem idiot who has a big mouth."

"It makes no difference. The queen probably knows you are here. She is very powerful, Xena," Tritus said. With a quick frown, he added, "Where’s your friend?"

"Gabrielle has gone for...back up," Xena replied. "I’m here right now, though. This is your mother?"

"Yes." Tritus reached over and gently touched his mother’s shoulder. The woman had fallen asleep in her chair. "Mother, Xena is here. She wants to meet you, talk to you about Medina."

The boy’s mother awakened quietly and offered Xena a warm smile. "Xena, it was good of you to come." Xena gave a nod. "Do you know why you are here?"

"I have an idea," said the warrior. "Bizarre murders, disappearances, a girl named Ariel." The woman nodded.

"You’ve done your homework," she said. "I’m impressed. I knew the girl," she added softly. "Ariel. A lovely girl."

"How well did you know her?" Xena asked. It was the first of many questions she had for the lady, and she hoped the woman could provide her with the answers she would need. In addition to talking to Tritus’ mother, she intended to have a chat with Queen Medina, whether Gabrielle thought it dangerous to infiltrate the castle or not.

The woman’s answer was interesting, to say the least. "I knew her better than anyone, Xena."

"Oh?" The Warrior Princess raised an eyebrow. "And how’s that?"

The woman smiled. "I’m her mother."


~~ Chapter VII ~~

Xena narrowed her eyes. "Do you know where she is?"

The woman sighed. "No. Tritus and I have searched for her, in the surrounding woods, but even we have been afraid to venture to Trepideau Island. Ariel is not dead, if that’s what you’re asking. She has come to visit me several times, although she says little and does no harm while she is in my home."

"What can you tell me about...what’s she become?"

"Xena, you understand, I’m certain, that it is hard for me to talk about my daughter- Tritus’ sister- this way. I love Ariel, even though I don’t think that it is really my daughter who lives inside of her anymore."

"What do you think is inside of her?" Xena asked.

"Something." The woman shuddered. "I think a part of Ariel is still there. She calls me mother, and the only time the expression in her eyes changes in when she is with me, or with her brother. But there is something else inside of her, as well. Something cold, something evil."

"What is she like?"

"She is strong; stronger than she’s got any right to be. She can easily lift things no mortal should be able to lift, and jump higher than the top of any tree. She can also hear and see exceptionally well, and while the sun slows her down it does not slow her down much. I don’t know much about what she does to people, only that she offered to make my son and I like her, an offer than we both refused. She accepted it from us, and said that we would forever be under her wing of protection. And it is true that whenever trouble has risen against either one of us, the person who is the cause of the trouble disappears. The only person she has not gotten to is Queen Medina; my master."

"Why do you suppose that is?"

"I think that Ariel is afraid of her. She won’t go anywhere near the palace." The woman took a drink of water from a mug that had been set in front of her. After what she had just said, she deserved that drink. "This place is quickly running out of residents, though. Ariel’s army of immortal soldiers grows by the day. Soon, I think, they will leave Trepideau Island and set out to conquer other lands, and other villagers. I think that she only stays to destroy what is left of Medina’s village out of pure spite."

"If she fears the queen, then the queen must have some kind of power over her, or be more powerful than your daughter is," Xena said. "Do you think that’s true?"

"I think that Ariel is more powerful than Queen Medina, but that it doesn’t matter." The woman paused. "The queen hanged Ariel but everyone knows my daughter is immortal; she didn’t die. But Ariel has never returned for the queen, and the queen does not go after Ariel, which is a sign of fear. Trust me, I know Medina; she loathes the creatures that come swiftly in the night, taking her subjects and turning their loyalty away from her. I think that Ariel does not attack the queen because of whatever it was the queen did to her in that castle, during those mystical experiments. Ariel remembers the fear and the terror of having that...thing...invoked and put inside of her. I don’t think she ever wants to return to that place. She has said that she will never set foot on the castle grounds again."

"Hmm." Xena was thoughtful. "I have a friend who is on his way here with my other friend, Gabrielle. Tritus, I instructed them to come here when the sun is at its highest point, tomorrow afternoon. Gabrielle had a good idea of his whereabouts, and they are not far. Do you think that you could meet them here?"

"Sure," Tritus said. "But where are you going? Won’t you be here?"

"Maybe." Xena stood. "Thank you, ma’am, for the information. Would it be possible for to summon your daughter?"

"You do not want to meet my daughter. She is not human. She is something else, something evil." The woman was certain of this.

"This island you speak of, I must go there. If I am to defeat this enemy, I must see where they live, and how it can be exploited. I am sorry, ma’am, but before all of this is over, I am going to kill your daughter."

"Xena, my daughter is already dead. If you go to that island, you will be dead, too."

Xena smiled. "I’ve been a warrior since I was sixteen years old, ma’am. I’m not dead yet. I won’t be dying any time soon. Your concern is appreciated, but I can take care of myself. I think I will wait for my friends before I try to gain access to that island. Thank you for your help. You’ve told me much about my enemy that I needed to know."

"There is one more thing," the woman said, as Xena turned to walk away. "Do not look into Ariel’s eyes, or any of their eyes. Do not listen to them talk. They can control you if you do. They have mental powers that even Medina does not understand."

"Understood." Xena nodded to them, gave a small, two-fingered salute. "Thank you."


~~ Chapter VIII ~~

Night found Callisto and Joxer by a campfire. The goddess sat, whetting her sword, and the trainee sat eating a huge meal that Callisto had produced with a wave of an arm. Callisto, for her part, was silent, and Joxer was curious. He’d heard tale that she was talkative, especially in Gabrielle’s eyes, but she wasn’t living up to her reputation. In fact, during the sparring they’d done that day, Callisto hadn’t said much at all. What she had said had been indicative of the former warlord enjoying herself.

He found her not unpleasant at all. She was kind of charming in an immature, girlish sort of way. "Can I ask you something?" he said, chewing on a drumstick from his huge meal.

"All right." When she wasn’t trying to be a pest, Callisto’s voice was very pleasant, very soothing. Joxer was finding more and more pleasant things about her than he had expected. She really wasn’t so bad when she wasn’t being the Warrior Queen. She was almost friendly, but in a childish sort of way. She liked to pick on him.

"Why are you the way that you are?" he asked.

Callisto grinned. "You mean why am I crazy. It’s a long story, Joxer."

"It’s a long night, Callisto," Joxer replied. She raised an eyebrow, but set her sword aside and relaxed.

"So, you want to hear my story?" she said. "Where should I begin?" Joxer frowned, thoughtful.

"How about right after Cirra was destroyed," he said quietly. Callisto chuckled at the careful tone which he’d used to say those words.

"I’m not going to hurt you for speaking the name of my home," she replied. "But I guess that would be an appropriate place to start. I guess that means you want to know how I became a warrior? How I was trained?"

"I’d like to know everything."

"Then get comfortable. This is a story you won’t soon forget."

*   *   *

Callisto’s Tale


After I’d buried my parents, I wasn’t sure what to do. I was young; I’d seen ten summers. I pretty much became a beggar. It was an easy way to get food because I was young and I was cute, but no one ever took me in. Eventually, I was captured by a slave trader. At the time, I didn’t know how to fight, so I was taken easily about a year after Cirra had burned. I was sold for one hundred dinars at a public auction, and loaded into a wagon with a cage on the back. It was a very small cage, you understand, and I wasn’t the only one crammed into it. When you’re a slave, people don’t really take the time to make sure that you’re comfortable. I cried as we left the village where I’d done my begging. Nobody cared, though, and I doubted the citizens of the little place would miss me. No one likes a beggar.

Naturally curious, I constantly asked the guards who walked beside our cage in the wagon where we were going. One of them took a liking to me; he told me we were headed for Lybia and that we slaves would be thrown to animals in the Lion games, as we had been the most spirited in the bunch and had the most potential to entertain the wild crowds that are there. As a child, I was not happy to learn that this was my fate, but I had enough natural ability and street smarts to kill an animal. Who knew? Maybe they’d let me eat its remains, which was something I could get used to. I wasn’t used to eating much at all in those days.

Once there I was thrown in a dungeon with the other slaves. One of them was Theodorus, my old lieutenant. He was in the cell next to mine. They were more like cages, made of bars, and he and I began to talk to each other after a week or so. At dawn every day, we were forced to run, train, and fight so that we could put on a good show. That is how I learned to fight. I went against Theodorus every day; at first he was better than I, but the master became the apprentice six months later. By then, I had seen thirteen summers and I was starting to grow a little bit, in more ways than one. I could easily beat any of the slaves in battle, and soon I was thrown into a pit with a wild boar. An arena had been built around the thing, and there were thousands of people screaming for blood, and not the boar’s. But I was the best, and I could take care of myself. I was given a sword as my only defense. The boar did not live thirty seconds in the pit with me. The King of Lybia was pleased. He said he’d never seen such fire in one so young. I never told anyone except Theodorus that it was the thought of my revenge on Xena that fueled my anger.

I became a fan favorite as the years went on, and by the time I was seventeen I was the king’s personal slave. I did whatever he wanted me to and I lived the life of a princess. The king said I made him more money than anyone ever had. By then I looked the way I do now, and he used me for physical pleasure as well as sparring, although I never beat him because I didn’t want to. Not yet, anyway. Little did he know during those wild days and nights that I was planning to kill him and destroy his entire wretched kingdom as soon as I could get my hands on the necessary weapons. Theodorus and most of the slaves, who would later become my first army, had a few connections, as did I; I’d been in Lybia for about four years by then. Those were long years. I was hardened and my drive to kill was fed daily. Soon, the king had run out of animals to pit me against, and began to have me battle slaves from other kingdoms to the death in a special arena near Athens. Although no one knew my name, they all respected the great female warrior who could beat any man in hand-to-hand combat or combat with a sword. I was even given a chakram; there were only three or four ever made because they are a difficult, yet effective, weapon to master. I was the best. I defeated any and everything I ever had to fight, and each of those fights was a battle to the death. I was so good that it scared me, because I knew that I was out of control. My fury could come like a typhoon at sea; suddenly, and unrelentingly. But it was also when the fury came that I fought my best and did my worst killing.

One day, at the arena in Lybia, I was supposed to fight a lion with my bare hands. Little did they know that I had long ago mastered the lock of my cage and could easily come and go as I pleased when I wasn’t in the palace with the king. I had set everything up in advance, and had requested the presence of each and every one of my fellow slaves for this, my moment of triumph. The king had been amiable. As the lion was released into the pit, I gave Theodorus a signal and then went to battle. So enthralled were the guards by me that they did not notice my little army going for their weapons. I had stolen the key to the shackles for the slaves and had passed it to Theodorus, who’d freed himself, then freed the slaves. As the lion moved to attack me I made a running leap, with a back flip, and I was out of the pit.

Theodorus threw me my sword, and we destroyed the king’s simpleton guards. I killed the king, myself, and he died whimpering in my arms. Do you know what he and his wife had the nerve to say to me? Before I slit their throats, both of them cried and said, "Please...I don’t want to die!" Do you know what I said to them?

I laughed and I said, "Then you should never have been born." But I spared them; they died quickly enough.

As for my warriors, they destroyed the arena and we crucified or hanged every last person who had been in the crowd. No one escaped us. I’ve heard it’s been rebuilt and that a new king still rules there. Word is they still have slave fights there. I’ve always wanted to close that place down for good. But to answer your question, I’m the way I am because of the way I grew up. I was orphaned, enslaved, taken advantage of by a dirty old man, and forced to kill; so much that I began to enjoy it, and I finally lost my mind and went over the edge. Xena started it, King Menthes finished it. But he’s dead, Joxer, and so in my eyes, Xena must also die...

*   *   *

"Do you understand?" Callisto sipped water from her cupped hands from a bucket she’d made earlier and filled with water.

"Yes. That must have been hard for you."

"At first. But they broke me, eventually," she replied. "I’m glad you understand. Maybe after Xena’s dead I’ll destroy the arena in Lybia. I still remember how to get there."

"Why not end slavery there instead?" Joxer suggested. "You could do it, Callisto, I know you could."

"Why should I do that?" Callisto snarled. "That wouldn’t do me any good."

"You’d be surprised," said Joxer. "Think about it, Callisto. There could be another little girl there, just like you, that you could set free. Or think of all the mothers and fathers who are locked up and all the families that are torn apart. You could do something about it."

Callisto’s gaze was blank, but Joxer could practically hear her thinking about it. She suddenly grinned. "I’ll consider it," was all she said.


~~ Chapter IX ~~

Xena’s day was going to be long. Stretching, she looked at the not-so-insurmountable wall of Queen Medina’s palace. Well, if I’m going to talk to her, I’d better do it before Gabrielle and Hercules arrive, she decided. The best route of entrance would be to scale the wall and then, when no one was looking, drop on the other side and make a dash for cover. Xena knew it was a feeble plan, but she didn’t exactly have a lot of options. No one was going to give her any information on what she might face on the other side of the wall.

Thankfully, she’d brought a rope with a grappling hook with her, swiped from a local vendor when his back was turned. Xena hadn’t felt good about the theft, but hadn’t felt bad, either. She twirled the rope, and let it fly, feeling good as it connected on the first try, and as she found that the rope was able to support her weight. Planting her feet firmly against the wall, she began to pull herself up, step by step. It was early dawn, so she was not worried about being spotted. Aside of that, Medina’s castle was secluded, in the trees, several kilometers from town. The patrols would start, soon, and Xena had to be over that wall before a guard came by.

That turned out to be easier done than said. Xena was over the wall in a few minutes and coiling her rope, which she threw over her shoulder. The palace walls hid nothing grand. The castle stood tall in front of Xena, and around it there were battle stations and places for catapults to launch boulders. Other than that, it was rather plain. There were many entrances; the warrior had her choice.

As Xena spotted a favorable window to climb into, a guard came whistling around the corner, although he stopped whistling when he saw her. She froze, then smiled and gave a half-hearted chuckle, as if she were frightened. "Hi," she said. The guard smiled, drew his sword.

"What are you doing back here, little lady? How’d you get over that wall?" he asked, despite the rope coiled over Xena’s shoulder.

"The wall?" Xena feigned pondering. "Uh, one of your friends let me in."

"One of my friends?" he said incredulously. "I don’t think so. Now, why don’t you come with me, and we’ll get you out of here."

Xena smiled. "Okay." He reached for her; she knocked him out, decided that his armor might come in handy. She put it on, hoping it would allow her a little more freedom to roam the palace once she was inside, helmet included. As long as no one spoke much to her, she would be all right.

Deciding against going through the window, Xena went for the direct approach; she found an entrance, and walked right in.

The palace was dark and she had no idea where Queen Medina might be. That was a problem, she didn’t want to blow her cover but at the same time, she was in a hurry and had no intention of being in the palace longer than an hour, maybe a little more.

Back outside, she found a guard, alone. The young man greeted her; he was very friendly, until she used her knowledge of pressure points to cut off the flow of blood to his brain. The young man fell to his knees, choking. "I’m not Cadus. I’m a warrior on a mission. I’ve just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You’ll be dead in a moment unless I release you. I need to speak to Queen Medina. She will not be harmed; I just want to talk to her." He nodded. "Where can I find her?" Xena asked.

"Fifth floor. You will see the royal throne room if you stay in that hallway. Medina is always there this close to sunrise. Always."

"Good boy." She released the choke. "I’m sorry, but I can’t have you talking to your friends and alerting them to my presence. Sit still and this will be quick."

"Be warned," said the young man. "If you go to Medina’s room, it will be you who dies. The queen does not take kindly to intruders. She is very powerful. She probably knows that you are coming."

"Well, good for her." Xena brought up her fist. "Good night." She hit him, and he blacked out. Shaking her fist, she stood. Easier to climb the stairs, she decided. She walked toward the entrance, and made her way to the fifth floor once inside. It was almost too easy. Xena had been expecting a battalion of guards to intercept her at every turn, but in reality there weren’t many guards and what guards there were thought that she was one of them.

The queen was alone in her throne room, standing at the window. She was not dressed in her royal robes; she wore merely a peasant’s gown and at this Xena was somewhat surprised. Also, Medina was supposed to have been ruler of Braxius and its nearby territory for years, yet she appeared to be young, even younger than Xena.

Medina chuckled darkly. "Yes, Xena. That is true. You may take off the helmet, the armor. I know who it is who stands in my doorway."

Xena wasn’t surprised. Medina also had a reputation for being clairvoyant, another reason Xena had wondered as to why she would perform strange experiments on an innocent young girl. The Warrior Princess removed the guard’s armor, and closed the door. She strode quietly to Medina’s side and studied the young queen. "How old are you?" she asked finally, curious.

"Twenty-five. I inherited this throne at the age of five years." She smiled as Xena opened her mouth to ask another question, and the warrior quieted. "You want to know about Ariel," she said, nodding.

"Yes. She must be stopped. Why haven’t you stopped her?"

"I cannot stop her." Medina sighed. "She is much more powerful than I."

"What is she?"

"The modern term for what she is would be a vampire. But Ariel is not like those that have been changed by her. Ariel is a pure vampire. I summoned a demon from a dark, hot place called Hell. I had much contact with this demon beforehand, and its was a power I did not understand. It promised I would know its power when I had found the "chosen one" for it to take form in. When Ariel came, I did not know it was her whom it sought. She was the last to perform the ceremony of invocation, and the demon took possession of her body. All others who had come before her had perished. They could not harness the power of the demon." She took a breath. "But Ariel could. Her strength frightened me, as did her weird habits after the invocation. She drank blood, she killed my guards and laughed as she ripped their limbs off. I was forced to let her go, although she could have escaped on her own, if she’d wanted. But I think there was a little bit of Ariel left in there, and that little bit of Ariel keeps the demon from returning to claim me, to take away my powers, and to end my life, as it desperately wishes to do. The real Ariel is afraid of me, because of what happened to her, and will not return here." She paused, look at Xena. "Does that answer your question?"

Xena raised an eyebrow. "You are perceptive. But no, it does not. Can she be saved? If not, then how do I kill her? The last thing we need is a horde of these vampires overrunning the world."

"You are right on that point. I don’t think that Ariel can be saved. Whatever is inside of her has taken over. There’s very little of Ariel left, and what is there has been shattered beyond repair. To kill her, you must get close enough to her to chop off her head, or impale her through the heart."

"Easy enough." Xena smiled. "I’ve gotten very adept at doing both of those things over the years."

"Not easy; she is fast. In the blink of any eye, she can cross a room, and trust me because I have seen her do this. You will not be able to get close to her." Medina shook her head. "She is unbeatable."

"I don’t know the meaning of that word." Xena began to pace behind the queen. "Everyone has a weakness that can be exploited. Would she die if she were crushed?"

"Yes, but you’d have to have her down for no less than a day to be certain that she would not heal and rise again." Medina shook her head again. "Xena, even you cannot defeat this enemy."

There was a shout and a guard skidded across the floor and crashed into the wall, unconscious.

"What about Hercules?"

Both women turned at the deep masculine voice coming from the doorway.

Hercules leaned against the wall in the entryway, his arms folded at his chest, with Gabrielle at his side. He glanced at the armor Xena had left at the door way, wearing a disapproving look. "Xena," he said. "What have you gotten us into now?"


~~ Chapter X ~~

"How did you get here so fast?" Xena asked, giving Hercules a hug in greeting.

"I ran into Gabrielle on her way out of town last night. I was on my way here. I’ve heard there’s been trouble, and Gabrielle filled me in on it." He returned Xena’s hug. "We followed you here. Had a little more trouble with the guards than you did." He kicked Xena’s stolen armor aside and strode into the room.

Queen Medina’s attention had been roused. "You didn’t kill my guards, did you?"

"No, just roughed them up a little," Hercules replied, offering her a smile. Queen Medina was pretty. "I don’t believe we’ve been introduced?" She was very pretty.

Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. This is not the time, Hercules."

"I am Queen Medina of Braxius," Medina said softly, blushing. "So, you are the mighty Hercules? I’ve seen you in visions." She paused. "You’re much more striking in person."

"Thank you," Hercules replied, taking her hand, giving it a soft kiss. "A pleasure to meet you. But I’m here on business, and I’m not known to mix business and pleasure. What have you two been discussing?"

"Xena wishes to go after Ariel," said Medina. "I’ve advised her not to."

"I want to see what we are up against, Hercules," Xena put in. "There’s an island south of here, if you follow the creek, called Trepideau Island. That’s where the vampires live. Medina thinks it’s a bad idea to go there."

Hercules raised an eyebrow. "Medina?"

She turned her back, strode to her window. Her gaze shifted over her land, and she sighed. "Do what you must. I will remain here until I think of a better way to defeat this enemy. I pray to the gods, however, that you are successful and return from the island...alive."

Hercules gave a soft snort. "I wouldn’t put too much stock in the gods," he said. "But I do have faith in us, Xena, and Gabrielle. Whatever you two decide, I’m here to help."

Xena looked at Gabrielle. "I think we should meet this enemy head on, and find out where she’s weak before we try to destroy her. To do that, we have to come face to face with her, and on her terms...Hercules?"

"Let’s do it," he said, nodding his approval.

"Gabrielle?" Xena waited a few tense moments.

Finally, the bard shrugged grimly. "Why not? I’ve always wanted to live forever," was all she had to say.

To be continued...

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