Disclaimer (being a legal statement that covers one's ass while committing blatant violations of copyright law): the main characters are the property of RenPics and MCA/Universal. I'm just borrowing them without permission and promise to return them in semi-working order at the end.

This is an alternative fiction piece and a sequel of uncertain length to my earlier story "The Feast of All Souls." You can therefore expect some violence, some sex and a fair amount of love between two women.(hey, I may be a guy, but I can tell the difference) More significantly, this deals with the after-affects of rape and torture, sometimes graphically depicted if only in flash-back.

It was brought to my attention recently that I left several issues unresolved at the end of "All Soul's Night", specifically those mentioned above. This is simply not acceptable to me where such issues are concerned, either as a writer or a human being. In that vein, you'll need to read that story to understand the situation in this one. They're too involved and complicated to be adequately summarized here. If you have difficulty linking to the story chapters, let me know and I'll email the compilations to you. You can expect spoilers from the Fourth and Fifth seasons of the show. There will also be mention of various other shows from rival networks; a Non-Prize to anyone who catches them.(appropriate disclaimers will be tacked on where needed)

Please note: while I am bound by Katrina’s canon stories, I also like to accommodate developments in the series as they appear. "Fallen Angel" and "God Fearing Child" kind of cancelled certain assumptions I had made concerning Callisto and her role in this little altverse of our’s. What you see here is my own (re)interpretation of events, no one else’s. Any confusion or continuity error’s are mine alone.

Honest criticism and fawning praise accepted. Flames, shames, and gender-based tirades will be summarily ignored.

This goes first and foremost to Kieran, my Anam Cara, who told me where I had gone wrong, and to Claudia, who doesn't let me go into that dark night quietly. Kudos as well to Katrina, the Creator and without whom this would not exist, and Sharon Bowers, without whom I would have neither the challenge nor the inspiration to carry on.


Yuletide Rites.

By UberScribbler


"And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." ---Matthew 10:18


One: A Winter of Discontent.

Xena waited exactly two days and one night before coming to her decision.

Arriving at her destination, she dismounted her motorcycle and fearlessly strode into the lion’s den. She breezed past the bouncers at the door, neither one foolish enough to block her path. The imperious glance thrown their way for emphasis and warning should have been but a touch of gentle breeze against the twin mountains of flesh and bone it was directed towards. Should have been, had she not let her shields crack just enough for them to get a whiff of her power. They were briefly overpowered by this, rocking back as though struck in the privates, and yet somehow managing to keep upright as well as their distance.

The pair might have even genuflected at her passage, had they not been frozen stiff with fear.

Xena cared nothing for their discomfort. Her eyes were for a more worthy prey.

She had come dressed as much for seduction as for battle: black jeans that hugged her lower half down to her ankles, biker boots polished to a shine, and a leather vest which was no more than three pieces of fine cowhide sewn together and looking ready to burst from the effort of containing her powerful form. She had brushed her hair until it shone, then tied it into a tight braid which hung loose down her back, nearly reaching the curve of her buttocks. This only served to accent her natural beauty, giving her intense features a razor sharp edge that would have been marred upon a lesser creature. Her blue eyes burned with a fierce purpose all nearby sensed more than saw. It could scald flesh from bone, had she so wished.

Xena settled for the wide berth afforded her by the rest of the club-goers.

She passed the 'offerings' tethered just past the entrance. It was three girls that night, each one long of limb and shaved completely of all hair and their arms raised and held over their heads. The oldest could not have been past twenty. They twisted and moaned in dramatic ways, their nude forms moving in time with the pounding beat of the music shaking the floor above. Already both sides of their bodies showed signs of use under the flogger and riding crop. No doubt there would be more welts for them before the dawn.

The club was called "The Den" for a variety of reasons. In addition to catering to the Goth-industrial scene, it served as an informal site for lightweight b/d and s/m activities. "The Den" was a sufficiently disarming title not to attract too much attention from the moral segments of the populace, yet carried innuendo enough to invite those wilder than their forebears. No drugs, at least ones external to natural bodily processes at least, were utilized on the premises. The leatherplay was limited to light discipline and the creative uses of rope and restraints.

Everybody knew everybody else involved, thereby limiting the number of wagging tongues to zero.

The club was known by another designation, one shared among only a select number of patrons: "The Belfry". Those who knew of this shared both the secret and the reason for it. Said reason flowed in their veins, heady elixir that it was, that left them forever gripped by a thirst sated only by the taste of warm blood.

Xena knew very little of this. She knew of the club from her days as a streetwalker, the block it was situated on being one of her earliest territories. She had even gotten a bit of business from its patrons in the form of the richer, more decadent sort who wanted a warm ass and back to work their frustrations out on. The fact she healed fast made her all the more desirable to that brand of degenerates, worse than cruising Ivy Leaguers.

She quickly wrestled those memories down and concentrated on ascending the spiral stairs to the main level. There were a few other patrons ascending ahead of her, though they quickly parted way to allow her to pass. Xena threw them a feral grin in silent thanks and continued on her way.

Upon reaching the main landing, two stories up, the iron doors leading to the main area opened as she approached. Word spreads quickly among the Kin, and so her approach was anticipated and prepared for. She barely acknowledged this, save to grin once more. The temperature of the air lowered a good ten degrees with this gentle curve of her lips.

Xena showed no interest in the tight knots of dancers on the floor. More accurately, she surveyed them with predatory eye and ears, all attuned to searching out that single target that might yet make this entire venture worth the effort. Admittedly it was a tactical risk. If the Kin did decide to try for her en mass she'd be lucky to escape with just a few mortal wounds. Strategically however it was the only course she could think of. And if she played her cards right…well…

The target proved surprisingly easy to spot, wearing a gleaming white suit and shirt that shone like a beacon in the dark sea he navigated through. The aura the figure gave off could only be described as malicious hunger; every young body near him was visually evaluated as though they were a piece of meat meat. Which given his particular appetites wasn't far from the truth. And to add to his otherworldly air, he wore a silver chain about his neck, an inverted cross of gold and inlaid with blood-red rubies at the end of it. His one bow to the pseudo-blasphemy of fashion enjoyed by this crowd.

She only recognized him by scent, not by name or appearance. His handsome features tickled a vague memory. Too vague, too insubstantial to divine details from, and one tinged with scent of wood smoke and the wails of the damned. A mystery for another time. Her brazen step and body language showed none of this momentary recollection as she broke through the crowds and directly into the path of her target.

The target's reaction was the complete opposite of her own. He clearly recognized her. And going by his new expression the memories were less than welcome.

Fixing his gaze on her with flat, dark eyes he said "Well met, Destroyer of Nations." His greeting drifted through the crashing air between them as though it all mere silence. Xena managed not to so much as flinch as her gut nearly exploded in fire at those oh, so, softly phrased words. The title alone had been bad enough, but the undercurrent of mockery in his voice said he did not even believe his own words. It was a well-known fact that the ‘Destroyer of Nations’ had been rotting in the earth for the past century. The victim, it was said, of an ancient enemy’s rage, never to return. At this greeting of his, her expression hardened even further, giving it the consistency of solid bedrock.

Her lack of reaction seemed to amuse the man further. "I do not see the Sunwalker with you this evening." His smile became wider and cruel, showing his elongated canines. "Have you come to…play…with us?"

Xena continued to smile and held herself still. To move a single finger right then was too risky. She might well tear them all apart and, like it or not, she needed these animals alive and intact enough to spread a message for her. It was through will alone that her voice continued to work. "Odd you should mention her," was her only comment.

"Odd?" the dark-eyed one smirked, confused. "Why 'odd'?"

"'Odd', because she's exactly why I've come to see you tonight." She didn't allow him more time than it took for his brow to curl in puzzlement before striking.

The three heavies who had been flanking their so-called ‘prince’ found themselves flying, both literally and mentally, as they were struck with bone-cracking force. Each was in such exquisite agony from this that the neurons in their brains fired so quickly more than a few reached overload. Biting down on a high-tension power cable (a favorite game among the thickest and most twisted of the Kin) could not have reached such levels of raw nerve-fire.

Their prince hadn’t been allowed time to register this, or even so much as blink, before he too was sent sailing. Fortunately for him, he was merely sent over the bar counter, impacting with the large mirror beyond and collapsing to the floor amid a rain of bits of glass splintered wood. His heavies landed like so much deadweight an instant later. With the impact, came screams and commotion that succeeded in drowning out the music over the dance floor.

Cries of "Hunters!" and "Slayers!" and "You bitch!" and "Run!", screamed out in a dozen different tongues, soon accompanied the growing tidal rush for the doors. A few of the Kin had seen what had transpired with their nominal prince, some even going so far as to move forward. All were stopped dead upon catching sight of Xena.

The warrior herself had turned to face them fully. In doing so, she had allowed her power to once more slip from behind its veil for an instant. Her eyes momentarily became aglow with pure balefire, and the air surrounding her fairly crackling with St. Elmo’s Fire. The scene lasted no more than two heartbeats, but it was more than enough to send the strongest among them scurrying after the mortals.

The rest of the floor was evacuated in a surprisingly short time. As a result, it was merely herself, the young prince, and his still-blissfully-in-agony heavies lying several meters distant. Precisely as she had wanted it.

The prince clamored to his feet, supporting himself with some difficulty and reaching about blindly for a weapon. There was a jagged tear across his forehead, a sizable piece of glass still lodged there and thick icor spilling out around it. This was matched with a second gash in his right shoulder, the pristine fabric of his coat and shirt now dark crimson and rapidly becoming solid black.

Xena seriously doubted he was nearly as hurt as he appeared. The Kin, even youngsters such as him, were supremely hardy and so capable of withstanding far more serious wounds than this. Before her supposed ‘death’ a century ago, Xena’s own hide had sported scars aplenty to prove this. Just as well, as she still needed him to deliver her words. It wasn’t merely terror she wished to incite among them. Were that the case, she would have been satisfied with dismembering this high-browed youth and his entourage and letting that be her message.

But no; her needs were more precise that night. Events were directed to a singular purpose, one more important than any fleeting pleasure she might take in the other route.

Still, it was a struggle to keep her hands firmly gripping the lapels of his ruined jacket and not twisting the boy-prince’s neck into some version of a pretzel solely of their own accord. His mockery of her was no real crime; her own memories on that score were half-certain at best. But his mockery had extended to Gabrielle as well, her informal title spoken without proper respect and her name consequently besmirched.

Xena debated with herself for a moment just how much she really needed this fool to be able to speak coherently. Could she make do with tearing his jaw off but leaving his hands intact? No, she decided. Emotions needed to be carried behind the words if the message was to be taken as seriously as she desired it. Otherwise it would simply be dismissed and she’d have to do this all over again.

Not that she was necessarily opposed, mind, but the danger of getting carried away was too great to risk. And the last thing she could really afford was being distracted by a war with the Kin. One had to prioritize.

With this firmly in mind, Xena hauled the prince over the bar and purred into his ear. Her words were molten honey across his dead flesh.

"Listen to me very carefully, young man. Tell your cousins that the Destroyer has returned to the world. And that she wishes to know precisely where her Ancient Bard has gone to."

"But…" The words bubbled up bravely through his throat as his one good eye regarded her with increasing panic. "But…you two…"

"Now would I be asking you if I already knew where she was?" She pulled him closer, close enough to feel her breath kiss his lips, for his sight to be burned with her smile. "Would I?" The prince felt vertebrae scrape as he shook his head once, twice. "Precisely," the Destroyer of Nations whispered in a voice that could strike down legions of mortals. But she refused him that mercy, releasing him and watching with flat eyes as he collapsed to the floor at her feet.

"Take my message to your Kin. Tell them I will expect answers should I seek them out. And bid them remember I can be most…generous…to those who I take in favor." With that, she released the cloth and turned away, not bothering to watch as he collapsed to the floor. His bowels had let go in the process. She might have wrinkled her nose at the sudden stench, but that would have entailed acknowledging his existence.

Instead she simply strolled away, step unhurried and unmoved by his wail of pain and humiliation.

No-one, mortal or otherwise, moved to impeded her departure in the slightest. Xena nearly laughed at the courteous half-bow the two by the door gave her as they held them open. It was nearly too comedic for words. But she kept her peace all the same. The mission was completed; nothing else mattered.

The first snowflakes had begun to fall when she reached her bike, cooling her skin as she climbed back atop it. Reviving the engine back to life, Xena spun the machine around and drove back into the night. The shadows of the city soon rose up and swallowed her whole, leaving only the cold silence in her wake.


Xena blamed only herself for her current circumstances.

It was an irrational response to an otherwise intolerable situation. Noone would really blame her for arriving at such a conclusion. Even though all agreed there had been very little she might have done to prevent it. But they hadn’t grasped how the very concept of being helpless, however transient such a moment proved, was an utterly alien concept to a warrior’s thinking. Someone had to be responsible for events, and that someone had to be herself.

It was, she rationalized, because of her that Gabrielle had given herself over to the Circle and its knives. It was through her dreams that the Circle found her. It was because she had been too slow and dense that she hadn’t been able to defend her bard.

Ergo, it was because of her that Gabrielle had left their home.

No note, no sign, no trace. Just "poof"…and her half of the bed was suddenly empty.

The Porsche was gone from the garage, as was several thousand in cash from her study. Xena could find nothing more out of place. It looked like she hadn’t even taken a single change of underwear with her. This suggested Gabrielle hadn’t planned on being gone for any length of time.

That had been ten days ago.

Xena had cursed herself up one side and down the other for hours in the days following. In hindsight it was perfectly clear something had changed between them. She’d simply been too distracted to see it. Every instinct in fact had been pulling her in competing directions the past month. One unconditionally trusting in her lover and many-times savior, and yet, on the other hand wishing to keep her beloved safe from all further harm. She had settled for a combination of the two, keeping Gabrielle almost constantly in sight, yet giving what she felt was sufficient distance for her bard to adjust and recover from her ordeal.

This had translated into Xena staying constantly in the background as Gabrielle tried to go about her daily business, watching all who came within sight for any hostile move in Gabrielle’s direction. Consequently she had become every bit the lurking menace that she had been guarding against with such vigor. Unfortunately, that arrangement proved only to give the both of them very little in the way of comfort and next to nothing in any sense of security.

Gabrielle had thrown her many a meaningful glare that should have sent her away. Naturally, they all bounced completely off the hard shell Xena had unknowingly spun about herself. Conversation between them had subsequently dribbled off to nothing. Their loving-making had especially suffered, Gabrielle all but deigning that she not be touched as they lay side-by-side. Nor had she touched Xena in over three weeks. There seemed to be nothing Xena might do to entice her, no outfit or pose proving provocative enough to bring her bard around.

Neither slept any length anymore, their rest punctuated by nightmares and making rest all but impossible. The horror's perpetrated so visibly upon her bard only a few weeks prior still made Xena cringe, their bloody evidence gone but not forgotten. The memories for both of them actually seemed to grow all the more vivid the more time that passed, to the point where sleep was nearly impossible.

Was it any wonder then that Gabrielle had chosen to leave? No, Xena would eventually admit to herself. If she’d had even half a wit left to her, she would have left immediately after dealing with the Circle and spare Gabrielle the constant reminder of exactly who was responsible for it all. That she was unlikely to survive long without the bard’s presence didn’t even enter into her thoughts.

She was to blame, so she should have gone.

To say she became enraged her that Gabrielle left first would be a bit of an understatement. She didn’t go into a screaming tear or the like.

Quite the reverse, she became…quiet.

Madrigail and the rest of the staff, even dense Peter Marcous, recognized it for what it was: the sort of beautiful, apparently beneficent calm that precedes the most terrifying storms. Silence after all is wholly relative to the sound dispelling it. The more absolute the calm, the more shocking the thunderclap.

The staff nevertheless all went about their daily chores, secure in their knowledge that whatever might come, their children and their children’s children would be looked after. Gabrielle was a generous employer, writing irrevocable provisions into their contracts that ensured their family’s livelihood for years to come. Hence their own seeming calm in the face of Xena’s threatening rage.

But Xena did not explode. Such a reaction never even occurred to her. Despite her emotional turmoil, her thoughts were clear enough that she could direct her energies in more productive directions than simply punching holes in the walls and reducing priceless artwork to so much kindling. Her trip to The Den that night was to be but the first in a series of such visits she had planned. It had been a positive relief to burn of some of the fury built within her, even if she would have to be a bit more patient for the anticipated results.

And patience was not in the greatest abundance within her right then.


After returning to the house, Xena found herself even more energetic and tense than when she’d set out for The Den. It was as though she had fully awakened from a long but restful sleep. Her hands fairly itched to do…something. Anything. Everything.

After parking the Harley in the garage, she practically kicked the connecting door off its hinges as she stalked into the kitchen. Xena immediately took to wandering throughout the ground floor. ‘Wandering’ was actually somewhat inappropriate, for there was nothing uncertain or slow to her movements. Every room experienced her presence, the fire in her eyes leaving a lingering glow in the air. One might have thought she was searching for something.

In a sense this was true, as Xena was searching for distraction. She sough something to repair, or examine, or to consider a threat and simply kill. Trouble was there was really nothing available that might hold her attention for more than a few seconds. She’d already seen or repaired or killed everything in sight that was even vaguely interesting, damaged, or threatening…and not necessarily in that order.

Disappointed, she considered taking a sword from the armory and going out and hacking some firewood out of the nearby forest. That entire notion was dismissed almost out of had. Those woods were Gabrielle’s annual hunting grounds, as well as her personal sanctuary. To take anything from it was nearly inconceivable. Plus, she might not be welcomed there anymore, now that her true nature was asserting itself. The memories however were enough to stay her hand.

Denied this outlet, she could only stomp soundlessly through the rooms and curse her lack of courage that kept her from going upstairs and trying to find rest. She knew full well that the empty bed awaiting her would allow her neither peace nor comfort. When was the last time she had actually slept soundly? Hell, when was the last time she’d actually closed her eyes for more than a few minutes at a stretch?

Eventually her legs ceased to support her and she all but collapsed into one of the over-stuffed chairs in the library. Irony of ironies, Xena recognized it as Gabrielle’s favorite. She suddenly hadn’t the energy to even chuckle at this. It seemed her stamina was limited, even for the bastard daughter of a bastard god. Another irony.

The tears came then because she no longer had the strength to fight them. Soon she was shaking, her excess energies finding vent in her weakened state, hating herself all the while for it. Xena bit her lip to keep the sobs from likewise escaping. The enormity of it all was finally breaking upon her.

She had lost Gabrielle and all but declared war on the Kin. What elder would seriously believe she was really Ares’ bastard? One look at her right then, shaking like a leaf and crying like a schoolgirl, and they’d be on her like flies on honey. She barely been able to defend herself, never mind Gabrielle, against just five of them. Oh, she’d hacked her way through a pile of their minions back in the cemetery, but that had hardly been a challenge. None of those youngsters had the least inkling of the more subtle powers at their command and so had been easy enough to cut through. No special technique or fancy footwork required.

Without Gabrielle, who commanded both fear and respect, what hope did she have of surviving their first assault? And what about the rest of the house? These monsters would cut down Madrigail and the rest without a thought, bleeding them slowly for their amusement. Her head fell into hands, fresh terror bringing the taste of bile to her tongue.

What in the name of the gods was she going to do?

The answer was spoken gently, tickling her ears. "You win. Just as you always do, Xena."

"Ha!" was the warrior unconscious, choked laugh. She looked up, believing the voice to be mere dementia and expecting only the shadows of night to greet her.

Instead, floating scant feet away, was a figure swathed in gold and purest white. Xena blinked once, disbelieving. Looking further upwards, she met expressive brown eyes and elfin features surrounded by a halo of silken gold locks. The head was tilted slightly to one side, as if divining her thoughts.

Xena sat back into the chair and closed her eyes, momentarily beyond caring whether she had truly snapped. "Come to try again, Callisto?"

"Again?" the apparition asked, smooth brow furrowing slightly. Her voice seemed to warm the air surrounding them.

"To fucking kill me again! What do you think I mean?"

"I could not kill you, Xena." There was no inflection. This was merely fact being stated. "I could never harm…"

"Oh, right," Xena sneered, anger giving fresh strength to her right then. She stood and glared at the shimmering figure for a moment before turning away. "I suppose that was your evil twin who blasted me to ashes a century ago."

The apparition remained hovering where she was. "That deed was the work of a demon who made you and Gabrielle believe the impossible.

I was forbidden to intervene and tell you the truth. Even after you were reborn as you are now."

The warrior snorted her disbelief. "Excuse me?"

"You don’t need to know more than that for now…"

"The hell I don’t!" Xena snarled, forgetting her despair and taking a daring step forward. This brought her within a hair’s breadth of the luminescent robes.

The Callisto-figure ignored the interruption and calmly met the force of her glare head-on. "Instead, know that I am here to guide you…"

"Guide me?!" Xena interrupted again, this time incredulous, only to be overridden. "’Guide me…where…?"

"…and to warn." With this, two slender finger reached up and touched her on the forehead, the world falling completely away with their touch.

She falls face-first into the mud. The smell of death is everywhere.

"Hurry!" a voice, both human and beast entwined, growls into her ear. It is agony to regain her feet, yet she manages.

Her lungs burn. The air is hot here in the darkness, heavy, difficult to breathe.

She knows nothing of this place or how she came here. She knows only the why.

A scream comes from up ahead. She answers with her own, ever more desperate cry:



Xena started awake so violently she nearly fell from the bed. Her heartbeat calmed surprisingly fast as she looked around the room for any sign of her angelic tormentor. Seeing none, Xena lay back down, content to relax there upon the downy mattress and just drift.

Here eyes snapped open again.

Mattress? Hadn’t they been in the library?!

She sprang to her feet again, looking about wildly and hands flailing for a weapon. The Roman sword hidden behind the curtains came to hand on pure instinct. Xena hefted the short blade expertly, eyes tearing the room apart for the smallest sign of danger. But, as before, there was nothing.

The house was silent.

Cautiously, Xena glanced at the bedside clock. By her calculations, less than five minutes had passed between her coming to rest in the library and waking there in the bedroom. Which was ridiculous because she felt as though she’d slept the night through for once.

"Any more ridiculous than having a conversation with an angel, after you’ve practically tied a Kin elder into a knot?" Xena muttered philosophically. "Maybe I’m finally losing it completely."

This happy thought in mind, Xena carefully set down the sword and rubbed her now pounding temples. Too much happening too quickly. Small wonder she had a bloody headache. Hallucinations, while unexpected, were certainly understandable under such circumstances. Why she would imagine Callisto of all things was a bit of a mystery and one she could readily do without right now.

Moving over to the window, Xena looked out over the grounds that led to the wood and city streets beyond. The interstate was nearly visible from there, the sight of the concrete loop giving rise to memories of another life, one lived beneath the stars and warmed by love.

These struck her with an almost physical pang in the chest, nearly brining tears to her eyes once again. This time she marshaled her entire will against them and held them firmly at bay.

Upon opening her eyes, she was nearly felled by the sight on the grounds below. A figure clad in glowing white was moving…floating…across the gravel driveway and away from the house. It stopped and turned, gazing up towards her. She could make out no details across such a distance, nor did she need to. The sight, however fleeting, was enough.

"Here to guide…" Xena echoed, the implications settling upon her.

The figure turned away and resumed its departure. Xena herself lost no time in acting. She moved through the bedroom with practiced efficiency, grabbing a small duffel and stuffing it with changes of jeans and underwear, then pulling a leather jacket and gloves from the closet, and finally grabbing her slim wallet off the vanity table before racing downstairs. She stopped off in the study and made a quick raid on the safe under Gabrielle’s desk. Spinning the correct combination the first time and grabbing a sizeable handful of bills. She stuffed the money into her jacket as she carefully closed the safe and spun the combination wheel once more.

Her next stop was the armory, where she stood before the many cases of swords and knives, silently debating which one to take. If she was going to be on road, the last thing she wanted was to raise too many eyebrows carrying a Claymore or equally massive blade. She also needed to be as mobile as possible, which further limited her options. One of the katanas was certainly an option, but not easily concealed.

She really couldn’t afford to be delayed by some outback law enforcement detail.

Something caught her eye in the endmost case: a small wooden case lying on its side, and so almost hidden from sight. It was no larger than a standard briefcase, its sides battered but stained and cared for. Xena retrieved it virtually on automatic pilot, her eyes never leaving the object. Without realizing she was speaking aloud she said "I can’t believe…you kept it…?"

Snapping open the brass locks and opening the case a crack, Xena peeked inside, then quickly shut it once more and closed the locks.

Pressing her lips into a thin line she picked up the case and retrieved the duffel from where she’d dropped it by the door. Her hold on the former was a white-knuckled death grip.

Her last stop was the kitchen, where she quickly scribbled a note for Madrigail and left it upon the breakfast bar, weighed down by the salt shaker. This done, Xena returned to the garage. She momentarily considered returning to the Harley, but quickly reconsidered. Powerful and intimidating as it looked, the hog was bitch to maintain and control at times. She quickly settled on the sleek Yamaha that stood out among the many restored and partially restored chassis and parts. Right then she needed speed and agility to catch up with Gabrielle, and the Yamaha offered both in abundance.

Decision made, Xena donned her helmet and secured the bags to the bike. Pushing it out onto the drive she made a final check of the security systems and watched the garage door shut. She then turned back and climbed atop the bike, kicking the engine to life. She could see her ‘guide’ was already far into the distance, nearly lost in the first glow of morning. Xena nevertheless suspected she would have no difficulty following her trail.

With eyes fixed firmly ahead and mind strangely at peace, Xena dropped the helmet’s visor and aimed the motorcycle to follow the glowing figure into the first, weak rays of dawn.

Madrigail arrived back at the house less than an hour later. She saw the note waiting for her almost immediately, but didn’t pick it up. She knew what it would say.

Cold dread wrapped itself around her heart at the knowledge. It was time to call in reinforcements.

She went to the main study and picked up the phone, wanting to do this thing in as calm and peaceful an environment as possible. Her fingers fairly shook as she dialed the number, but her voice was steady as ever when she spoke.

The grandfather clock chimed the hour of six. Each chime echoed a dial tone. Five went by, the opposite end picking up on the sixth chime.

"Its Madrigail," she began without preamble, quickly delivering her message and setting the phone down. The elderly housekeeper then spun on her heel and made for the nearest toilet, into which she promptly threw up every ounce of food in her stomach.


Two: Cold Light of Morning.

It would only be in retrospect that the man known to his associates as Martin Nelson would recognize the signs of the coming changes to his life. Even then, his seeming inattention could easily be dismissed as the natural result of having to attend to the hundred and one tiny details that make up a single life. And the signs themselves were hardly wonders to behold; just the odd little occurrences that, in total, were every bit as blatant as the writing on the west side of the Berlin Wall.

The morning of the phone call seemingly began no different than any other. The clock at his beside had gone off precisely at quarter to six that morning, as it had every morning since Thatcher and the Tories had taken over Number 10 Downing Street. Nelson, who was not the earliest riser, greeted the morning with his habitual groan of "I bloody hate England!" and brought a fist down on hapless timepiece, which, wisely, went silent.

Rising with another habitual groan, Nelson would pad naked to the shower stall that took up a sizable portion of the flat’s private WC. The water was cold, which was unusual as the building owner prided himself upon providing all the ‘luxuries’ to his boarders. This at least had the effect of waking Nelson fully, even if his morning washing up was hasty and less than relaxing, and gave him incentive enough to dress and put in his contact lenses quickly. The flat was a poorly insulated one, despite the outrageous rent for it, and so the early winter weather was as evident within as without.

Next came breakfast, which as usual consisted solely of a cup of tea (made from soaking two bags to compensate for the poor quality of the leaves) and muffin bought from the grocer’s the previous evening. The tea tasted far bitterer than normal, almost acrid and reminding Nelson of ashes for some reason. He put this down to having left the bags to soak longer than he should have and listened to the radio while he ate. As the flat consisted solely of the bedroom and WC, with just enough room to make it livable, Nelson had become used to eating from atop the small bureau for drawers at the foot of the bed.

This was actually his favorite time of the morning, listing to the inane chatter of BBC Radio and offering his own comments to whichever pundit was allowed airtime that morning. As it was most mornings, it was some voice from the hard right, whose eloquent tirades against immigrants, the Euro, and the world in general garnered a hearty "Sig bloody heil, squire!" from Nelson.

Breakfast finished, Nelson collected his briefcase and trenchcoat and headed out into the city. The west end of London, where he had set up shop, seemed forever in motion. A quirk of the city Nelson was grateful for as it made shadowing him next to impossible. This was an ever-present danger with his work, and a technique that he would not put past his associates.

That morning it seemed as though every bike messenger in the city was out to run him down. He managed to dodge three of them and had the toes of one foot run over by a fourth as he stepped off a curb. A near miss with a fifth had him wondering whether someone had painted crosshairs on his back without him knowing it.

Fortunately he suffered no further such incidents upon reaching the tube station. The ride to Fleet Street where his work was located was similarly quiet, though his hackles were certainly raised as he anticipated further trouble. Nothing happened, which paradoxically only set him further on edge.

Arriving at the stone-fašade building, he made his way to the third-floor office he shared with five others. The rest were there already and hard at work. Nelson offered no greeting to them and simply took his small desk by the office’s sole window. Turning on the desktop and setting his briefcase down, Nelson steeled himself for another day of moving millions through companies and charities in his name that existed nowhere in the physical world.

Or to put it another way, launder money on behalf of the Russian mafiya.

It was normally monotonous work that was more mind-numbing than his days in Hong Kong in ‘92 playing investment banker at the behest of British Intelligence. It was his work there that had led him to his current supposed masters. Numbers were numbers, no matter how many zeros were involved or how much larceny was attached to the transaction. Nelson had long ago become bored with the whole thing and was

itching for the smallest excuse to leave it all. There was danger to such an action of course, but nothing leaving him overly concerned. He’d been preparing for that day almost since the beginning of this little venture.

This was just as well, as the phone rang just past eleven that morning. Nelson finished shifting the profits from a non-existent shipping firm in Memphis, Tennessee into a numbered account in the Caymans (the owners of which lived in Warsaw but were in fact natives of Baku, Azerbijan and were alumni of the NKVD training grounds outside Noversibersk) before picking up the phone. It was not that unusual for anyone in the office to receive calls, so no-one paid him any mind. Even if they had, it was unlikely they would have noticed how he went perfectly still for several seconds before resuming his typing.

Nelson said nothing into the receiver, merely listened and set it back atop its cradle. He typed a few more lines into his computer, shifted a few more currencies, then shut it down. Running fingers through his cropped hair he bent down to collect his coat and briefcase. "Anybody want anything while I’m out?" he asked the rest in a disinterested tone.

"Where you off to?" a heavyset Slav near the door asked.

"Northside t’flog the monkeys from Johannesburg." The Slav seemed satisfied by this and returned his attention to his own screen. The "monkeys" in question were a team of accountants retained through blind third parties to produce financial statements on their behalf.

Nelson had made it a point to ‘visit’ them at least once a week over some supposed defect in their work. Nelson himself actually prepared the statements, the accountants every bit as fictitious as the businesses they all ran.

No one else present seemed to have heard the exchange. Nelson took a last glance around and was out the door. Outside, he quickly walked to the tube station, dutifully buying a farecard and standing at the platform waiting for the appropriate train. When it came however he did not board it, instead ducking into the crowd the train disgorged and followed it out the opposite end of the platform, letting the small crowd of faces carry him to the exits. He felt it extremely unlikely any tails his now-ex-associates might have set upon him could have successfully followed him, thereby allowing him to turn to more immediate means of transportation.

Hailing a cab, he directed the driver to take him to Riggs International Bank along Bayswater Street. There, armed with driver’s license and papers identifying him as "Richard Milton" of Oxford, Nelson proceeded to close two accounts he had overseen. He left the bank with a mix of Bearer Bonds and cash totally approximately 30,000 Pounds Sterling. Hailing another taxi, which delivered him to a large branch of Lloyds of London near Victoria Station, he presented himself as "Julius Driver" and closed out another account this time for 50,000.

Over the next two hours he visited six more institutions but never under the same name twice. By the end of it, Nelson had nearly a quarter-million in his possession, all of it nearly untraceable. This done, his next stop was a post office near Padington Station, where he posted a thick envelope to addressed to a reporter named Westerby, formerly of the Financial Times, now a freelancer and low-weight lush.

Within the envelope were copies of several of the statements he had prepared for his nominal employers over the past two years. He had no doubt Westerby, despite his tumble from grace, would immediately recognize the papers for what they were and do the appropriate thing.

Catching the hourly shuttle between Victoria Station and Gatwick International Airport, Nelson installed himself in the WC and quickly set about changing his appearance. First, he very carefully removed his contacts. His eyesight was actually close to perfect; the contacts were merely for coloring, turning normally light colored irises dark brown. His hair was kept a short length to make it easier to keep styled and dyed. Running a comb through it gave him a more dishelved look, which would have to do until he could get a hotel room and work on a different dye. As a final touch, he turned his trenchcoat inside out, the coat specially tailored to function both ways. The interior had a plainer, more practical look to it. Hardly the sort of thing a high-priced executive would be seen in.

The result was a weary-looking commuter who carried himself with a world-weary air, bearing little resemblance to the sharp-dressed money launderer who had stepped onto the train half an hour previously. Certainly not the sort one would think carried a briefcase packed full of Bearer Bond certificates, bundles of multicolored Pounds, and papers for over a half-dozen false identities.

Nelson remained in the WC until the train arrived at the airport, leaving only once he was sure there were sufficient crowds around for him to melt into. He moved quickly to the nearest Lloyds branch, bringing out yet another identity. This one however had been established over a decade earlier. "Jerry Fitzgerald" made one small deposit to his meager savings account there and wished to access his vault box. Like most large branches, this one had a secure room where clients could examine the contents of their boxes in privacy.

Once in the room, Nelson quickly removed the contents from the metallic box. This consisted of a small wooden carrying case, a British passport, and a couple pieces of identification. Setting the small case aside and pocketing the passport and cards, Nelson replaced them with all the Bearer Bonds and a portion of the Pound notes. The rest of the notes would go with him on his journey. Destruction of the papers and cards for "Milton", "Drivers", and the rest would have to wait until he checked into a hotel.

He took a moment to open the case and examine the contents. Two folded sheets of paper lay atop an slender, cylindrical object made of what appeared like yellowed ivory with one end tapered to a sharp point. He made no move to pick up either the papers or ivory. Rather he just stared at it for several long moments, a sad look to him as if attempting to reconcile himself to some great duty handed him.

Nelson closed and locked first the case, then the vault box. He made sure the latter was safely returned to storage before bidding the manager good day.

The final stop of that day was Hilton International, located within easy distance of the air terminal itself. There, he checked in as Fitzgerald and paid for two day’s stay. This was something of a calculated risk as his former employers were certain to be on the warpath by now and certain to be out looking for him. With luck however they would by then be too busy dealing with Westerby’s inquiries - as well as the many, many police and legal inquiries that were certain to follow from there - to cast their nets too widely. In any event would take only a change of clothes and some hair dye to make "Martin Nelson" disappear every bit as effectively as being fitting for an old-fashioned ‘cement overcoat’.

He for one would not mourn the man’s passing.

Besides, he needed time to prepare for his journey to the states. Upon reaching his room, the man stretched out on the bed and looked over at the digital clock. It had only just turned five. A mere six hours had passed since receiving the phone call that had sent him running. Six hours that had felt infinitely longer.

He closed his eyes, intent on a much needed nap, but careful all the same to keep a firm grip on the small case he had taken from the bank.

Even asleep, he held on to it like a drowning man might a life preserver, or a holy man would a talisman against the blackest evil.

The skies outside darkened quickly with the threat of snow.

And the phone call that began this whirlwind of action? It was a simple enough message, the words holding meaning only for the parties involved:

"Its Madrigail," the distant voice called through the hum of transoceanic lines.

"Your grandmother has disappeared, and the warrior is out searching. The…weapon…might be needed."

Nothing more was said. Nothing more needed to be said.

Three: The Closing Circle, First Arc

Callisto (or whatever she…it…was) led her northeast for nearly a full day. The snow had fallen a good deal heavier upstate, making the roads a bit more treacherous than Xena was expecting. It was wet snow, and so made the asphalt dark and slick with small patches of white here and there. The snowfall was not actually that heavy to the point where visibility was wholly obscured. She’d have lost sight of the apparition otherwise.

Not that it was entirely smooth sailing. There were still plenty of cars about, all of them completely oblivious to the figure floating around, among, and even at times through them. Xena followed this winding course perfectly, guiding her bike around and between cars with such a practiced hand as to make it look effortless. Clearly her time spent as Scooter’s ‘doggy bitch’ hadn’t been a complete waste.

Still it was a bit of a challenge keeping pace with the figure. She didn’t dare concentrate on it to the exclusion of all else lest an accident ensue. The snow didn’t help any, nor did how the helmet restricted her vision to merely what was in front of her and nearly nothing else.

Xena had considered, more than once in fact, simply tearing the helmet off and tossing it away. The thought appealed to her enormously; some urge deep in her soul to ride free of all restriction, her face upturned and defiant of all the elements.

Propriety and practicality won out however. She wasn’t on horseback, and moving at a minimum of thirty miles per hour with a lot of cars and very solid buildings around. If there were a crash she might be able to roll clear of it in time, and maybe she could land on a reasonably soft surface so that maybe, just maybe she wouldn’t end up breaking every bone in her body in the process. She might have the power of a true Olympian coursing through her, but that was no guarantee her all-too-frail human form could survive a multi-vehicle pileup should it occur.

Besides, wearing a helmet was the law. And Xena, who could recall (however vaguely) seeing wanted posters with her name on them and all offering outrageous sums for her head, saw little reason to cause history to repeat itself. Similar posters were probably being put right then amongst the Kin, offering prime positions at local blood banks rather than cash. No sense in getting mortal law enforcement to start chasing her as well.

And so she drove on through the snow, heedless to nearly all things save keeping the figure ahead of her in sight and avoiding the odd car or obstacle. Everything else was ignored, from the cold of the air to just how treacherous these unfamiliar streets she now rode through were becoming.

She really wished she could get rid of the helmet, if only to shout at Callisto, but couldn’t. Not for fear of any potential accidents, her frustration levels having built to the point where she no longer really considered physical dangers, but simply because she didn’t want to take the risk of loosing sight of her so-called ‘guide’ completely as she’d have to slow down to get the damn thing off in the first place.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, if she just knew where the hell she was being led. Not that it mattered really.

She drive straight into the flames of Hell itself if that’s where Gabrielle was.

It did not seem, however, such distances were needed however. The glowing figure of Callisto slowly glided to a halt before a mansion.

Xena herself cruised to a halt before the dark building, whose solid lines and graceful curves harkened back at least a century. It reminded Xena of the antebellum mansions she’d seen in pictures of the deep South. Granted the gathering dusk made it look a good bit more foreboding than it probably was, but Xena couldn’t help the shudder that crept down her spine at the sight of it.

She turned to Callisto, about to ask a question, only to find herself completely alone. Xena quickly spun about in a tight circle, ready to start calling out even though she suspected it would be a pointless gesture. Ultimately she decided against such attention-attracting displays and settled for a silent snarl.

Setting her helmet on the handlebars, Xena put down the kickstand and pulled the key from the ignition. She was just outside the weak illumination of the streetlight overhead, so she was reasonably confident the bike would remain unmolested. The snowfall had more or less ceased, the moon now peaking out from beyond the clouds overhead, giving temporary features to the broad mass of shadows before her.

The house that lay beyond the iron fence she faced was, to put it charitably, an eccentric mix of styles. Half of it looked like a Victorian mansion, while the rest was an uneven mix of classical art deco and red brick fašade. The whole structure seemed like an exercise in design and engineering only the truly mad might execute. The ultimate effect was to make the whole thing almost…hypnotic to look at.

Pulling her eyes away from the house itself, Xena concentrated on the grounds surrounding it. There was only a thin layer of snow atop the lawn, which hid nothing of its overgrown and uncared state. There were no lawn ornaments or the like around, nor in fact anything to suggest the house was even occupied. All the windows were dark, the short gravel driveway undisturbed, the grounds completely silent.

She risked a glance back at the house, not recognizing it as any of the many properties she knew Gabrielle owned. She seriously doubted Gabrielle would even want to own such an eye-sore to begin with. "So why am I here, eh?" her voice muttered, the words running parallel to her thoughts. "Guess I should go and find out." With a heaving sigh, Xena turned back to the bike and pulled out the small case. Cracking it open, she quickly pulled its contents out and hit it within her leather jacket, keeping a very careful grip upon it.

Moving as swiftly and casually as possible, Xena made her way down the sidewalk to the break in the fence surrounding the property where the driveway met the street. The moon had retreated once more behind the clouds, causing her to disappear into the shadows. There was no gate barring her way there, and so afforded her the easiest point of access. Anxious as she was, Xena did not relax her guard one iota. Indeed, precisely because she was approaching the easiest point of entry, paranoia sharpened her every sense. It felt like an overly-tight spring had coiled in her stomach.

Yet nothing happened as she stepped unto the drive. Even the gravel was silent underfoot. Clenching her teeth against any hope that it could be so easy, Xena ran across the drive and flattened herself against the closed garage door, always keeping one hand inside her jacket and not letting her grip there slip even the smallest fraction.

Rather than try the front door, Xena quickly slipped around to the back of the mansion, intent upon making her entrance as much of a surprise as she might manage.

Xena found a number of back doors to the house, both for the ground floor as well as ones leading presumably to the cellar, given how they were positioned at a sharp angle to the foundations. She would have used these to make her way inside, stealth still being her preferred way, except they were chained and locked shut. For a moment Xena thought about using the weapon she held close to her breast to break the rusty chain, but quickly dismissed it. Such an attack would ring out like a thunderclap in the still air and would certainly alert those inside to her presence. She settled for gritting her teeth and trying each of the other doors in turn.

Unbeknownst to the warrior, her approach was anything but a surprise to the occupant of the house. Observing with senses at once vaguer and infinitely sharper than mere sight or hearing, the solitary occupant had already begun moving about in the dark interior to prepare for the arrival of this long-awaited guest.

The first two doors were locked tight, but not the third, which opened slightly at the first touch of the knob. This time Xena kept her voice silent as she thought "Can we spell 'trap' here, anyone?" Unzipping her jacket fully, she pulled out the weapon that she had guarded so zealously.

It was a Chakrum. Or, more accurately, the Chakrum. Not the precisely forged replica Hephestus had created to her specifications millennia ago to act as the key to her Sire's tomb, nor any of the more conventional types used for centuries on the subcontinent.

This was the weapon she had created just after killing the Balkan war god Kal, combining the two empowered rings of Light and Dark into one, all the while barely conscious of doing so. Though she never questioned her decision, there was always a part of her that wondered why hadn't sliced into her godsbedamned Sire before doing so, ridding the world of both Kal and Ares. Of course, as Ares' one-timed Chosen and direct offspring, she would have likely been called to take his place; gods alone knew where that might have ended up, especially with how badly confused she had been back then.

She'd believed the balanced Chakrum long destroyed. Obviously Gabrielle had found it at some point in the past century, who knew where, and reclaimed it. She'd have to remember to ask her exactly where it had been found. The fact she'd hidden it away suggested the acquisition had not been an easy one.

Holding the weapon carefully in one hand, luxuriating in the familiar feel of it in her palm, Xena nudged the door open enough to allow her to enter. She slid in, keeping the Chakrum up and at the ready, finding herself in narrow hallway without the least bit of light. Xena even felt a small flicker of fear as she eased down the hall, trying not to think of the many terrible nights growing up she'd been locked into a trunk by the patron or by her malicious bitch of a "grandmother". This fortunately had never developed into a full-blown case of claustrophobia, though gods knew she'd always made it a point to avoid dark, enclosed spaces when and wherever possible.

She was actually sweating a little by the time the hall emptied to a much larger corridor. There was still no light to be had. Calling upon centuries of discipline only dimly recalled, Xena stood there for a few moments to collect herself. A silent breath emptied past her lips as she instinctively took a defensive stance as her racing thoughts slowed and ultimately stilled.

So occupied, Xena naturally did not see how a pair of bright eyes opened literally out of the wall just behind her. Nor was she aware how the wall similarly seemed to grow a body of them, or how this new form actually walked out of the wall and headed down the opposite direction, all of this happening just a few feet from her back.

Perhaps the warrior did sense something, as she stiffened ever so slightly a moment later, keeping her eyes fixed forward the way one does when one both does and does not want to turn about and look behind them. The Chakrum was raised almost unconsciously, ready to be flung in any direction needed.

Suddenly the corridor became alight, old fashioned wax candles igniting on both walls, completely of their own accord. They did so in domino-like progression, starting before her and moving past and behind her. "Very melodramatic," Xena thought savagely as she slowly turned, finishing in a quick spin the instant she saw movement behind her. The Chakrum flew from her hand at the first sight of a tall figure moving at the opposite end. It sailed through the air with its trademark scream, impacting with the figure with a resounding 'crash' of broken glass.

"It was mirror?" she thought in near disbelief, wanting to laugh at the realizing she'd just 'killed' herself. Her hand plucked the Chakrum out of the air on pure instinct, her thoughts still distracted by this development.

The last of shard of glass fell to the carpeted floor when a new voice spoke out. "Well," said the familiar, quiet voice, "that must be embarrassing."

Xena spun again, bringing up the Chakrum once more, wielding it like a conventional blade. She held it at chin level of the speaker, eyes narrowing as she coolly regarded the speaker who had appeared behind her.

"Hope," was her only greeting.

The half-demon immortal's mouth quirked slightly at her name. "Guilty as charged," she said without humor, bright green eyes flickering down at the curved blade at her throat. "May I at least offer you a cup of coffee before you begin trying to hack me to pieces?" She didn't add "Again"; she didn't need to.

Xena lowered the Chakrum and stepped aside to allow Hope to pass. She followed the smaller figure without hesitation or fear, letting herself be led to a sizable though clearly disused kitchen. Nearly every surface had a light layer of dust upon it, with the occasional cobweb here and there to complete the picture. At least there was no moldy fruit or filthy plates as one might have expected.

She concentrated instead upon her hostess, trying to keep her shoulders from automatically tensing and fists from clenching, unsuccessfully on both counts. She hadn't changed since coming to them over a month ago at that restaurant. Her hair was still the same shade of flaming honey as her mother's, but all resemblance between parent and child stopped there. Hope's face was lined and thinner than Gabrielle's, with a olive cast to them not unlike Xena's own. Additionally she had a good few inches over Gabrielle, which also left her looking thinner than the bard. The way she carried herself was completely different as well, with her shoulders hunched as if supporting some great weight and moving with a tired step, as if life were but a weary progression of moments to her.

Xena's musing were interrupted by Hope's asking "So, how did you find me?" She poured two steaming cups of coffee as she spoke.

"You could say I was…led here," the warrior replied, setting the Charkum down on the kitchen table and sitting down in a dusty chair, careful to keep in within easy reach.

Hope set the two mugs on the table before her but didn't sit herself. Rather she went back to the battered-looking refrigerator began rooting around inside it, as if searching out creamer and sugar. As the chore seemed to stretch overly long, Xena quickly coming to suspect another motive besides mere hospitality was in play. From behind the door, Hope asked "May I know who the guide was? I thought I'd covered my tracks rather well."

There was no missing slight quavering to her voice. 'You nervous, girl? Well join the fucking club.' Xena kept those thoughts to herself and instead said aloud "I suppose you could call her your…sister."

"Ngh," the smaller woman grunted. "Which one?"

"Callisto." All movement on the other side of the dented aluminum door ceased at this. Hope slowly stood and peered over it, eyes boring into Xena's own, her mouth curving downward ever so slightly.

"Why would Callisto come to you?" she asked, her entire form going still as she closed the door. "What's happened to bring her down from her perch overhead?"

There was a demanding tone to the half-demon's voice Xena, who was starting to feel the effects of three days without actual sleep, found irritating. She responded in any equally aggressive tone. "Do you mean you actually care, girl?" She found herself standing, keeping one hand ready on the Chakrum. "Funny, I seem to recall you were the one who walked away from us a few weeks back. Or was that some other self-pitying wench?"

"What…happened?" Hope half-spat, half-growled the words, but Xena was deaf to this.

"Were you there when she started having nightmares, when she started hating herself so much she couldn't stand to be touched anymore?

Where were you, huh?" Without realizing it, Xena had been closing the distance between them, their noses soon touching. "You didn't have to listen to her screaming…her begging…night after night, did you?! You haven't had to…to…"

Her words were cut off when a blast of pure force slammed into her like a pile-driver. It propelled her back and pinning her spread-eagle to the wall, the tips of her boots left dangling several inches from the floor. Realizing what was happening, Xena quickly fought down her

natural panic and mentally kicked herself for letting things go this far. "Hope…" she tried to speak, only to find the force pinning her body was also pressing upon her throat as well.

"What happened?!" Hope demanded again, sounding at once furious and terrified, her own voice raising a pitch with each word. "What happened to moth…to Gabrielle?!?"

"She…" Xena coughed, trying to form words around her blocked trachea. "She…ran…cough… cough cough…" Hard as she tried to fought the darkness creeping into her vision, Xena couldn't keep unconsciousness completely at bay.

Hope's voice echoed in her ears. "Where is she? What's happened to her?" Her eyes began rolling upwards as she tried speak one last time.

"Ho…Ho…Hope…!" Darkness enveloped her completely as the weight upon her chest and throat vanished completely, sending her tumbling to the ground in an unconscious heap.

The air was thick, humid and stinking with corruption.

She mopped her brow, forearm coming away dripping with something thicker than just sweat.

Up ahead of her is movement. Large forms, dark and indistinct. Sounds of a struggle.

Beyond them is another form, smaller, almost aglow in the darkness. She knows this figure.

Her voice rattles in her parched throat, a pathetic croak she alone hears.


Xena screamed aloud, sitting up so abruptly she nearly fell out of the bed she'd been lying in. Hope, who had evidentially been napping in a chair nearby, was at her side in an instant, placing steadying hands on both her shoulders and keeping her still.

"Its alright, Xena," she said quickly, trying to calm the warrior.

"No no no!" Xena insisted, looking about almost frantically. "She's…a cave…where…" She calmed almost immediately, finding herself in an actual bedroom rather than in the cave of her dream. Giving a quick sigh of relief, she shrugged off Hope's hands and asked "How long have I been out?"

"Most of the night," Hope replied, taking a step backwards. "I was afraid I'd…I'm sorry."

"Its alright," Xena breathed, wincing as she felt around her throat. "I shouldn't have gotten in your face like that." She looked up in surprise at Hope's reaction to this.

"Will you stop that!" Hope nearly shouted, shocking herself and Xena at her shrill tone. "Stop forgiving me, for gods sake! How can you forgive me for…I damn near killed you just now! I…I've…"

"Hope," Xena said quietly, reaching almost desperately for something more to say. She knew better than to try reaching out to her right then. Instead her hands bunched up the unwashed bedsheets beneath her, thoughts racing at fever pitch. 'Damn it all,' she wanted to curse. 'I've never been good at sensitive chats!'

She blew out a breath between tightly clenched teeth, close to surrendering to the frustration of it all. "Look," she growled as she slid across the lumpy mattress and moved to stand. "I really don't have time to sit here and listen to you moan about what a goddamned witch you are. Hell, I don't even know why I was brought here to begin with." She took a moment to look for her boots before seeing them sitting by the door. Snatching them up as she walked out the door, Xena hopped down the hall on one foot while she wrestled a boot onto the opposite foot, saying as she did "I've got to get moving."

"Its something to do with Gabrielle, isn't it?" Hope called as she followed the warrior down the hall, a small grin coming to her at the larger woman's hopping about so.

"I told you, she's gone…somewhere. I don't know where." Xena paused only long enough to put a foot atop a covered credenza and quickly laced it up. She repeated the process before continuing on. "Where's my jacket?"

"Still in the kitchen." At a single raised eyebrow thrown over her shoulder, Hope quickly elaborated "Second on you right. And what d'you mean you've no idea where she is?"

"Just that," Xena shrugged, more distracted than indifferent. "She went off three or four nights ago and I haven't seen or heard from her since." Checking to make sure the Chakrum was there as well, she slid the garment on and breezed past Hope, who had been standing near the doorway, watching.

Hope cleared her throat, stopping Xena in mid-stride. "Ahem. Wouldn't you prefer to leave through the front door?" She gestured casually in the opposite direction Xena had been heading. The warrior woman said nothing to this, but did head in the direction indicated. She remained silent even as she passed Hope once more, ignoring the pointed look that was directed at her as she passed.

"I presume you've asked the Kin if they've heard anything," Hope asked, her own frustration now evident. "What was that?" she asked with a slightly sharper tone, not clearly hearing Xena's response.

"I said 'after a fashion'."

"Which means what exactly?"

Xena spun, teeth clearly bared. "It means, Hope, that the last thing I want is for your various cousins to go around thinking Gabrielle is out there alone, unguarded, and vulnerable! That would prove just a little dangerous, don't you think?"

"So why come here?" Hope replied, folding her arms.

"I told you I was led here. Do you honestly think I'd be standing here, wasting my time with you if…"

But Hope wasn't listening to these protestations. "Led here by Callisto?"

"Yessss," Xena hissed. Then she laughed, almost bitterly. "I'm not sure I believe it either. I didn't even know she was still…intact or…whatever the hell she is now…"

"Oh, I believe you. She's reportedly the Angel of Mercy these days," Hope sighed as she leaned against the wall, eyes far away. Xena mirrored the motion, resting against the wall opposite her. "You shouldn't be surprised she's still around, you know," Hope told her. "It was merely her Essence that went into creating Eve, not her soul. Callisto herself is going to be around for, well, forever probably."

Xena snorted "Well there's good news." She screwed up her courage and looked over at Hope. "Hope, I…" She was stopped by an upraised hand.

"Xena, please. There's too much blood and history between us. One conversation isn't going to settle anything. Not now, not under these conditions."

Much as she wanted to protest this, Xena found she couldn't argue. She had neither the time nor the words. All she could do was close her mouth and let Hope continue.

"Go find her Xena." It was at once the command of a goddess…and the plea of child before her parent. Under other circumstances Xena might have called her on it. There and then, however, Xena only heard the latter. "Call me if you need me. I'll hear you wherever you do. And if I hear anything, you'll know the instant I do."

Xena nodded and quickly turned away, sparing them both the awkwardness of appearing so vulnerable right then. Neither were ready to speak their hearts, nor could they have found the words even if they'd wished to.

Hope slid to the floor as Xena left, wrapping her arms around her legs and burying her face into her knees, wishing with all her too-human heart she could simply hate her mother once more. That she could hate both of them. Hate was ever the easier emotion, so direct and clear in its content. You could hate somebody with an absolute purity.

Love on the other hand? Hope, child of the Fire, Flower of the Abyss, could honestly say the past two thousand years had provided her with little experience and absolutely no understanding of that particular emotion. Her sporadic encounters with her mother and her warrior, as well as the few occasions she'd had to discuss the notion with poets and philosophers, had not helped any.

So why did her chest always physically ache whenever she so much as thought her mother's name, or caught even the briefest glance of anyone bearing the most passing resemblence of her?

It would be some time before she found either the strength or desire to move.

Xena kept her steps even only through supreme effort of will. She once again felt pulled in competing directions, a part of her wanting to put as much distance between herself and the house as possible, while an equal part all but demanded she turn around and finish what had only

been half-started. The fact she was moving away from the house, back to her bike, only seemed to strengthen the latter than the former. She resisted this pull every bit as hard as it pulled upon her soul.

When she was almost to the street, the dark woman dared a glance back to the house, its immoble bulk taking on a surreal grandeur in the dusk. The sky overhead was clear now, the first stars already out and adding their own indistinct light to the scene. The works of Poe, whom she had rather foolishly read the night after Gabrielle had left, came to mind. "Goddamned House of Usher…" she muttered to herself, words cutting short when she turned back and found Callisto's shinning form hovering near her bike.

Resisting the urge to race forward and try strangling the apparition, Xena instead sauntered over, holding the Chakrum in clear sight.

Making a bit of a show of putting the Chakrum away and examining her helmet, she casually inquired "Want to tell me what all this was about?"

There was no mockery or levity in Callisto's reply. Only a deadly earnestness that held Xena's full attention. "Tell me this, warrior: what would you call a tactician who fights a war on two fronts at the same time?"

Xena couldn't resist. "A damn fool."

"And one who fights on many fronts at once?"

"The mother and father of all fools."

"Exactly." Xena had been careful not to give eye contact to the apparition, knowing her self-control was a tad too shaky right then to stand the sight. Even so, she felt the warmth of those phantom lips brushing oh, so close to her ear. Her eyes flickered closed at the intimacy as the words were poured directly into her soul.

"Your heart and soul rages and wars on many fronts, warrior princess. You must declare a cease-fire on them all…if anyone is to survive what is to come."

Xena angrily spun towards the warm voice and snarled "What the hell does that…?" There was only empty air to receive her rage. Once again she spun about, looking for the smallest sign of her enigmatic 'guide', if only so she had a target to try throwing the Chakrum at!

There was a flash of shinning gold further down the street, gone almost before she even realized it. Pondering Callisto's words, Xena hastily crammed the helmet back unto her head and hit the ignition. The engine quickly purred to life and the bike virtually leapt off the ground as Xena swung it about to follow the distant glow. Her thoughts were no longer with Hope or the old guilt that lay there. They were directed once more upon the road ahead and the silent prayer that wherever her bard was, it was warm and safe.

Four: Wasteland

She didn’t recognize the face in the mirror. Nor had she any wish to.

It was that simple.

Who would want to? Cheeks that had lost nearly all color, green eyes pale and flat as a lizard’s with fleshy bags hanging under them, blonde hair gone dull despite being freshly washed; all she’d need was some black lipstick, monk’s robes, and scythe and she could pass herself off as Death’s younger sister. There was no humor to the thought.

Besides, what would Death’s younger sister be doing in Kansas? The chuckle that this brought out was less a human sound and more akin to the grinding of decayed bones against one another.

Another thought came to her. Was she even in Kansas?

Gabrielle pushed herself away from the mirror and half-walked, half-stumbled out of the small bathroom. The rest of the motel room wasn’t much to look at: a twin-sized bed smelling like it had been washed with mothballs, a bureau, two rickety chairs near a round table that was barely large enough to hold the lamp that balanced atop it, a 1970s vintage television that provided ten channels of static, and a bedside telephone that looked as if it had been attacked by horde of homicidal cigarettes.

Anonymous, antiseptic, and definitely not the sort of surroundings conductive to help clear one's thoughts. She couldn’t even remember arriving at this place, let alone checking in.

Shaking her head, the small blonde sat on the edge of the bed and reached for the dog-eared telephone directory the telephone sat atop. She had to squint in the room’s dim light to make out any details from the tattered cover. It took a moment to make out the name of the state.

"Oklahoma?" The book slid to the floor from nerveless fingers. "What am I doing in Oklahoma?"

The answer to that was simple enough, one she was too honest to deny.

She was running.

Simple as that.

Curling up into a naked lump atop the bed, Gabrielle fought to keep her thoughts from moving any further from that point. She didn’t want to think about where she might be running to, and above all else keep from remembering what she was running from. She didn’t want to remember the past weeks.

She didn’t want to have to remember the feel of the claws and knives on her skin…or the tearing and bleeding between her legs…or how she could see Xena stop loving her by inches…or the way everyone around her would no long look at her…how Xena stopped touching her…stopped loving her…no love…no love ever again…

Gabrielle sprung off the bed and raced for the bathroom once more, doubling over the toilet and retching hard. She hadn’t eaten in days, and so there was nothing to throw up. Her dry heaves were all the more painful for it.

Eventually the torment passed, but not before a few tears and drops of dark blood now floated in the clear water beneath her. The tiled floor and walls were cold to skin, but nothing compared to freezing lump that had replaced her heart. Gabrielle found she couldn’t control the shivers that came with these chills. Nor did she even try. The pain reminded her she was alive. It was the whole of her world now.

And she was beginning to like it.

A week ago she would have been revolted by the thought. Now it was just a plain fact and no longer a mere emotion. At some point she had become reconciled to this. After all, what else was there to life?

Gabrielle got back to her feet and moved back to the bed. To occupy her mind, she took to examining her soiled clothing. The white blouse was dark with sweat patches and the grit of extended wear, while the designer jeans sported stains so set into the rough fabric they had hardened to brittle flakes. The underwear, not surprisingly, was a loss though her sneakers were still serviceable. The tweed jacket lay in the corner where she’d tossed it, looking as sorry as the rest of her surroundings. Dollar bills and coins of various denominations lay scattered on the carpet and bedspread, the keys to the car somewhere among them.

With a sigh of resignation, Gabrielle set about collecting up the money and searching out the keys. She’d need both when she headed out. Disinterested as she was with everything else, simple practicality demanded these items remain on-hand for the time being.

Especially now that she was hungry.

Her stomach growled audibly, reinforcing the point. Going by the amount of noise involved it must have been days since she’d properly eaten anything. Truth be told, she couldn’t really remember the last time she’d eaten, save that she’d bought something spicy yet undercooked from a drive-thru. When had that been? How many states back? She couldn’t even remember the name of the restaurant.

Just the thought of the food set her stomach churning. It was time to feed the beast once more. And this time it would have to be more substantial fare if she was going to stay upright much longer.

She went through the clothes again. The jeans weren’t really in that bad of shape, and the bra, which was an emerald green hue that usually matched her eyes, could still be worn. The cotton panties were another matter, however. Burning them was probably the most hygienic thing she could do right then. The same, she concluded with a sniff, for the socks.

Pulling on the jeans and the bra, Gabrielle next picked up the blouse and just held it for several seconds. The material was gritty and rough to her fingers. Damn thing would probably have her itching the second she put it on. Did she really need that kind of irritation reminding her of how dirty she was?

The blouse was left to fend for itself all with the other discarded clothing. Gabrielle picked up her jacket and slipped it on. The silk lining proved rather soothing to her skin. Buttoning up the jacket gave her ample coverage, yet left enough exposed that she was certain to attract at least some attention. She could have done without the way the denim rubbed against her with each movement. It was distracting as hell and pulling her thoughts away from food…and into… directions…she distinctly wished to avoid. She had to concentrate, dammit, not pine for the impossible like a fuzzy-brained schoolgirl.

Besides, hadn't it been clearly demonstrated she didn't…didn't…deserve…that she was too…damaged for…?

As a solution, she pulled the form-fitting garment further up. Where once the rubbing had been gentle, it was now coarse and sharp. It was just the sort of irritant that was certain to help her concentrate. Besides, it wasn't as if she was likely to attract that much attention on her own.

Leaving the room behind, Gabrielle was mildly surprised to find the Porsche where she had parked it the previous night. Or was it days ago? Or only hours?

Gabrielle shook her head to clear it. How long she had been there didn't matter. She needed to refuel before trying to fire up any additional mental or physical cylinders.

She didn't bother to check whether the room door shut completely behind her or not; merely walked away from it and back to the Porsche. The compact sports car stood out like blood upon fresh snowfall in the nearly empty lot beside the motel. Its only company was a beaten-looking Ford pick-up and a Taurus hatch-back with Minnesota plates. Gabrielle stood there for a few seconds and tried to gauge the rest of her surroundings.

The motel was nothing but a series of small units attached side-by-side, the manager's office being only slightly bigger and similarly attached to the rest. A neon sign near the road named the small complex "Star-Lite Motel", with the subscript "Vacancies" flashing pathetically in the gathering twilight. There was otherwise almost nothing to see save the road that stretched in either direction, hills, and the dust kicked up by the wind. There was a glow down the horizon a bit that suggested other habitation. Otherwise there was nothing to see or hear. Even the air was mostly still.

With a small sight, Gabrielle got into her car and fired the engine. She put it in gear and swung out of the lot, but paused at the road before her to consider her options. There was no question her stamina was up to another short jaunt. But was she up for the company of others anymore?

"Oh, what are you so worried about, Sunwalker?" she muttered to herself. "You're fucking immortal, right? What have you got to worry about from mere mortals?"

She turned towards the lights in the distance, nudging the car in the proper direction.

The usual Thursday night crowd was in attendance at Weed's Service Center and Diner, all five of them. There was the Murray brothers, both roving mechanics whose competence with tools was more than compensated for by their comparative poor social skills. Sitting in the furthest booth was Leonard. Whether that was his first or last name no one knew or really cared, any more than they cared what his unknown profession might have been. He drank and caused no trouble, and that was that.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Richie Talant and Jerry Miller, a pair of quintessential red-necks who essentially squatted in an old house a mile away from the diner and who floated into Weed's on some invisible current much like flotsam. To be fair, there was really nowhere else for them to float to, as the diner and the Star-Lite up the road was all there was for several miles all around.

Unlike the Murray boys, they had neither their own transport nor any obvious skills to market. Both were heavy and muscular, their skins deeply tanned and chins unshaven. But it was their eyes that deterred Walt Weed from making greater issue of their often noisy and occasionally violent play around the pool table. Both gazed at the world through cold, snakelike eyes that held no fear. Not very intelligent eyes, mind you, hence their unspoken nicknames of ‘Dumb’ and ‘Dumber’, interchangeably used between the pair. They could play a mean game of Nine Ball, and could speak lucidly even after their ninth draft, but that seemed the extent of their skills.

Walt knew these were hard men, and unlikely to be intimidated by the slightly squat and distinctly overweight frame of the county sheriff.

He could only count his blessings both seemed to reserve their worst for each other, wisely steering clear of the Murrays and apparently taking no notice of old Leonard.

The diner itself had little to offer by way of amusements: a jukebox whose selections hadn't been changed since Reagan's second term in Washington and the pool table, which Walt kept in immaculate condition. There were magazines and old paperbacks on the rack near the cash register. Deliveries of new editions were always few and far in between, particularly this far away from OK City.

Calling the other side of the building a 'service center' was a rather generous assessment of the facilities. There were gas pumps for both regular and octane fuel, and the lot behind the building provided a rest area. The Murray brothers were often available and offered a fair price for their services. Beyond this there was nothing else Weed's could offer patrons.

Walter R. Weed himself was well into his sixth decade, having managed the business for the past forty, running himself and two marriages into the ground in the process. Both wives and their children had made lives for themselves far away from US Route 70, leaving him to the business alone. And to his considerable pride he did it quite well. His burgers and eggs and home fries wer edible, and he could work the job every bit as hard as a boy half his age. He'd never had cause to be audited by the Eye-Are-Ess and kept his books every bit as clean as the pool table.

Business was steady but had never been overwhelming. The notion of retirement was a laugh; the only way he'd be able to retire with any comfort was when he was carried out, feet first, on his way to the county cemetery. Walt had no complaints on that score, though he would occasionally wish for a small windfall to come his way. What was it the Good Book said about the meek? It was hard come meeker than Walter Roland Weed.

It seemed no one heard the purr of a car outside, or looked up when the bell over the door jingled with the new arrival's entrance. Walt himself didn't even offer his usual greeting of "Howdy.", being too busy scraping the grease residue off the grill. The 'crack-crack' of pool balls on the table continued, though they were joined a moment later by the clatter of two pool cues on the floor.

Even the incessant chatter between the Murrays went quiet.

The soft footfall of sneakers on the floor was the only clue as to the cause.

When Walt himself finally glanced up, it was all he could do to keep from dropping his own tools. Just as well, as the floor was already rather cluttered with pool cues…and the jaws of the other patrons.

Sitting in the booth nearest the pool table was quite simply the most beautiful woman his old eyes had laid upon in years. Blonde, slender, with clear hazel eyes and a gentle smile. She waited there with almost angelic patience. Walt estimated her age to be no more than twenty, twenty-two at the absolute worst. He didn't recognize her, certain he would have remembered this face no matter how passing the sight. Wiping his hands quickly, he picked up his order pad and a menu and headed towards her.

Talent and Miller, of course, made no effort to hide their interest in her, while the Murray boys resumed their conversation but without taking their eyes off the woman for long. Leonard had frozen momentarily at her arrival. The old codger’s hand was visibly shaking as it resumed its normally smooth movement of raising his glass to his chin. This was despite his not having once looked in her general direction.

It was actually a rather common reaction on his part to people he’d not seen before.

Walt made it to her booth without stumbling over himself while like a fool, even though she had yet to look up from her hands in her lap. "What can ah do you for?" Despite the perfectly composed and beneficent features that gazed up at him, which showed not a dram of disapproval or dislike, Walt suddenly felt extremely embarrassed by his spotted apron and hands. To say nothing of his unkempt tangled hair and generally shabby appearance. The snickers coming from Dumb and Dumber a few feet away while they lined up their next pool shots didn't exactly help his composure.

Rather than let himself think about any of this, he concentrated on the customer, and in the process getting a better look at her. She was beautiful, no question, but it was beauty tainted a bit by obvious fatigue and some internal stress. Her eyes was pale and slightly unfocused, as they darted here and there as if searching for something she alone could see. Her slim shoulders were hunched as if carrying the weight of all her years. Close up, she looked a fair bit older than twenty-two, despite the lack of wrinkles and gray in her golden hair.

"Er, sorry?" he said, realizing she'd spoken.

"I said, I'll have coffee for right now." There was no annoyance in her voice. In fact, it seemed… empty, without any inflection or emotion to it at all.

"Decaf or regular?"

"Regular. And black, please." She went back to staring at the tabletop before her, though she did open the menu Walt put in front of her and began perusing the neat handwriting of the laminated sheets. He could tell her interest was minimal at best and tried not to think about the view he'd gotten from standing over her.

Returning with her coffee and a small bowl of creamer, forgetting she had asked for black. Belatedly, he remembered and quickly pulled the order pad. "What's your pleasure, littt' lady?" he asked, catching the double meaning as he spoke and hoping to high heaven he hadn't just chased a paying customer away. The snickers by the pool table became all the louder from this.

The short blonde however seemed oblivious to it all. She simply ordered two of the "three egg specials" – a total of six eggs, two sausage patties, a full tomato, two-thirds of a whole green pepper, two very hearty helpings of homefries spiced with onion and ground pepper, six strips of bacon, a full green pepper, with six pieces of toast and a small choice of jams on the side. "Are you expecting someone else?" Walt asked, his practical mind reeling from the amount of food involved. The woman shook her head without looking up.

"No," she said in a soft voice. "And scramble that all together, please."

"Er, even the toast?" The thought alone made the cook within him cringe.

"No, that can stay on the side."

Walt made a note to that effect. "Would you like some juice or something with all that?"

"Orange juice." Walt made another notation on the pad and returned to the kitchen, rather glad to put some distance between them. On his way there, he noticed Leonard had finished his beer and was quietly sliding out the door, this being the first time he’d actually seen Len leave in all the years of his patronage at Weed’s. This was quickly forgotten as he set about making the order given him.

Scrambling the food all together actually took a bit of time and attention. Especially the meats, which had to be attended to carefully so as not to leave them undercooked or burned. The vegetables and potatoes each had their own frying time, a challenge against which Walter R. Weed rallied his full concentration and talent. Though this didn’t keep him from checking the room periodically.

He would look out every few moments to make sure she was still there, as well as checking to see if the rest of his patrons were behaving themselves. He was less worried about the Murray boys, both of whom had a variety of ‘steadies’ spread across the county. Dumb and Dumber were another matter entirely. There were ugly stories coming as far as two counties over about their being party to everything from rape to armed robbery to drugs. How much of it might be true was beyond him, and he had no wish to find out the real score there.

He had no idea what exactly what he’d do if they did make a move. There was the revolver hidden under the register, which he neither had bullets for and only the vaguest idea about how to load it. The baseball bat near the door was simply too far away to get to in time should things go bad.

Amazingly, however, the pair restrained themselves to snickering and passing suggestions between themselves and continuing their game.

The small blonde no doubt heard every word, yet hadn’t made a move to distance herself from them. She didn’t seem to move at all, in fact, not even to take a sip of her coffee. For some reason, this left old Walt even more disturbed than the prospect of an incident with Dumb and Dumber.

Despite this, he managed to finish the order properly and place it before the woman. "Here," he said. "Sorry for the wait. 'Night, guys." He nodded to the Murrays as they stood and left. "I'll have your OJ in a minute, okay?" The woman gave a nearly imperceptible nod and began digging almost mechanically into the food.

Walt had to think for a minute exactly where he'd put the juice. The truckers and travelers who were his regular sort of customers tended to prefer the strong coffee he brewed or the occasional beer. It had been some time since he had call for something as basic as orange juice.

He located the carton hidden away in the refrigerator. Pulling a tall glass from the overhead shelf he quickly filled it with what he hoped was still fresh juice and returned to the dining room. To his amazement, the plate he had just delivered was already over half-finished. All eight pieces of toast had disappeared. Most of the meat as well. He returned just in time to see the slender blonde take a single great gulp of the coffee, her fork's movement pausing only long enough to swallow and showing no discomfort from the steaming-hot drink.

Walt set the glass down, half-expecting its contents to simply vanish before his eyes. He cleared his throat, somewhat uncertain, and asked "Eh, you'd like, uh, like anything else?" Three more forkfuls were consumed in the time it took him to say this.

The woman was polite enough to swallow before answering. "More coffee, please." As it to emphasize the point, she drained the rest of the still-steaming cup as he watched, not even flinching from the heat. Walt couldn't help but wince in supposed sympathy as he took the cup and returned to the kitchen to brew up another pot. He had the strong suspicion he'd need it.

Given how much a whirlwind his life had become in the past half-hour, it was no surprise how Walter R. Weed simply forgot the mundane operations of business. Being a fairly sedentary man of rather fixed ways and opinions, he was understandably striving with difficulty to make sense of the strange woman sitting in his diner. No easy task given what he'd seen. It was therefore easy to understand how he subsequently ignored the unusual the silence that descended in the next room just after he'd turned to the kitchen to clean up the grill.

Remaining oblivious to it for a good ten minutes. Even then, he came to realize it only very slowly, slipping between thoughts about how much older the blonde looked up close and just how hard it had been not to look down the very open V of her jacket and avoid any sight of her velvet green bra.

When sandwiched between two such distracting images, it is a wonder the implications of the silence even penetrated his consciousness in the first place. It all but propelled old Walt out of the kitchen when he did realize it, a cold knot of fear having tied itself in his stomach.

There was no sign of Dumb and Dumber near the pool table, nor was the woman sitting in her booth. The place was utterly deserted save for completely cleaned plates and a sticky-looking juice glass.

Going to the front door and pushing it open, Walt's eyebrows shot up at the sight of the sleek Porsche sitting nearby. He had no doubt it belonged to his missing customer as it was the only vehicle in the empty gravel lot. A muffled commotion back inside the diner tore his eyes from the car and led him back inside.

It was the woman, who was walking out of the back hallway that led to the restrooms, shaking loose drops of water from her hands as she walked. He found himself surprised once again, seeing now that she was standing that she was actually a bit shorter than he'd expected. For a moment he thought she might be ill as she appeared none too steady on her feet as she walked. Her cheeks appeared a little flushed, though in a healthy way rather than from heavy exertion as if she had been revitalized. She sat back down and looked at him directly for the first time. "My coffee?" she asked clearly.

"Eh? Oh, right." Walt quickly moved to the kitchen and back, bringing the fresh pot and a new cup with him. He filled the cup to capacity and collected her plate. The small blonde sipped the hot drink with obvious relish, this sudden shift in demeanor leaving Walt feeling ever more unnerved.

"Excellent brew, good sir. Just excellent," she praised, her voice taking a strange accent he couldn't place.

"Uh, thanks." Walt looked around the diner for a moment to collect himself. "The two guys that were in here earlier. Did you…did they…?"

"Oh, they left awhile back I think. I really wasn't paying attention to them." She suddenly stood up once more, her eyes never leaving his.

He could have sunk and drowned in those perfect green eyes. "Thank you for the excellent food. Keep the change." She reached into her the pocket of her jeans and set a single bill on the tabletop beside her coffee. Then, with almost surreal grace, she stood on tip-toes and gave him a gentle peck on the cheek. Walt felt his knees go weak at the brushing contact but managed to hold himself upright.

He couldn't help but stand there like a fool for several minutes after the small woman had left. By then all concerns about Dumb and Dumber, the coffee no doubt going stale on the burner in the kitchen, the nightly bookkeeping, and nearly every other small detail of existence had ceased to have any feeling of relevance to him. Setting the plate down on a nearby table for a moment, he picked up the bill she had left and moved to the register. He punched the number keys almost automatically, eyes straying to the bill as he did, hand freezing completely at the sight.

In his hand was a wrinkled but intact $1,000.00 bill. The first he had ever seen.

Walter Ronald Weed then did the only thing a man of his upbringing and experience could do under such circumstances.

He set the bill into the cash drawer of the register, then closed and locked the drawer tight. From there he walked like a robot to the front door and locked it as well, flipping the sign hanging on it to its "Closed" side before returning to the kitchen and retrieving an almost empty whiskey bottle from under the large porcelain sink. He promptly uncapped the bottle and up-ended the bottle to his lips, draining it in just a few deep swallows.

When the bottle was empty, he tossed it into the trash bin and fell back onto his butt, waiting patiently to wake up from the very strange dream his life had somehow become.

Gabrielle drove blindly, reliving it all from a distance.

There had been two of them. Smelly, large, reeking of beer and arrogance. Hardly worth noticing. Yes she was hungry, but not quite that Hungry.

Just their presence was trial enough. Their snide snickers and words were easy enough to ignore from a distance. But it was all she do to keep her dinner down when they left their little game and swaggered over towards her, just after the cook had brought her the juice. Theywere nauseating, and not simply because of their five-day stench.

Then one had the audacity to slide up next to her while the other sat himself across from her. Were she not utterly dead inside, she might have even taken exception to how the one beside her even dared to put her arm near her back.

"Hey there, lady-bug," Her stomach lurched as this grating greeting drilled into her ear. Perhaps she even flinched from the pain of it.

Rather than gag aloud, she quickly sipped her juice. This time she did wince as the overly tart liquid hit her tongue.

"You're really hungry there, lady-bug." It was the one across from her now, his voice only slightly less grating than the other.

"I'm told I'm insatiable." The words came out without thought.

"Insatiable, huh?" grunted the one beside her as they both laughed.

It hadn’t even sounded like her voice.

"Guess that means you’re still hungry fer some…meat, huh?" The heavier one across from her chuckled at his small joke, while the one next to her simply picked at the crumbs of potato left on her plate with his dirty thumb and forefinger.

"Hmmm," her voice purred, again totally independent of her mind. "Depends on whether you have one…" She turned slightly to glance at the oaf beside her. "…or two helpings."

This time both snickered, their aural excitement polluting the air. Her face hurt as it creased into a wide, lusty grin.

All three of them left the diner via the back, with her marching between the two oafs. She was quite ready to gag when they reached the open air. Even so, she kept her breathing slow and regular so as not to alert either of the oafs.

The back of the diner was actually a narrow alleyway separating the derelict garage from the main building itself. It held no absolutely no charm, the stink of a dumpster removed long ago clinging to the walls and fetid air between the walls. No surprise how at home the pair seemed there.

The heavier one pressed her back while his partner began working on his belt buckle. Nausea, caused not only by the stench, but by the awakened Thirst, quickly welled up within her throat. The touch of his lips upon her’s was more than reason enough for what came next.

First was her knee, driving up between his legs with sufficient force to crack a tree trunk. Grabbing his collar with one hand, she immediately followed up with a back-hand that echoed off the walls like a branch breaking. The oaf collapsed at her feet, curling immediately into a ball in a vain effort to protect his injured parts.

His partner growled something about ‘spitting teeth’, charging forward with arms open wide. It was a simple matter to reach out,grasping him by his thick neck and redirecting his momentum to carry him into the nearby wall. As a further demonstration, she lifted him with one hand by his shirt and threw him a good several feet down the alley. He was light as a feather to her Thirst-empowered strength.

He landed in a tangle atop his partner, who had only begun to uncurl himself. The impact rendered both unconscious. Easy prey.

She hauled the one who had tried to kiss her up so she could look into his eyes, and he into her's. What he saw, the heritage of her blood revealed in all its glory, left him gasping as he soiled himself in terror.

She fed off him then, her fangs piercing his neck and taking only a few sips before tossing him aside once more and turning towards the other one. Bitter as her taste had been, it satisfied the Thirst enough she could once more think beyond it. She could clearly see the blood staining her hands for what it was, causing her to stumble back into the diner, leaving her would-be meals to themselves.

She quickly found the ladies room and washed herself, rinsing her mouth out with several handfuls of water and scrubbing her hands vigorously under a stream of hot water. A feeling of light-headedness overtook her, a goofy grin accompanying this and leading her out of the washroom and completely out of the diner. Whatever words she exchanged with the cook must have been calm and rational enough to placate him, as he made no move to stop her flight.

There was only one clear thought above all the rest: flee!

And so she had, putting the petal to the metal and taking to the open road once more…long stretches of highway before and behind her…

Until she finally had to pull over, feeling a thick bubble of hot bile rising quickly in her throat and threatening to explode. Gabrielle managed to push the car door open and leaned out of it just before a good portion of her breakfast spilled out of her and unto the dusty ground beneath her.

She continued gagging and coughing for several seconds, her mind cringing before the memories of her Thirst and what she had done for it.

Eventually these became great racking sobs as Gabrielle all but screamed her despair for all to hear.

There was only the stars overhead, and they could offer the demigoddess no comfort.

Gabrielle arrived at the Mexican border just as the sun was setting a couple days later.

She didn't get out of the car, which by then had accumulated such dust and wear from the road it hardly attracted attention. This was just as well, as she had lost her bra somewhere and now wore only her coat. Her jeans were in a similar state to the Porsche, having suffered through a few more scuffles since the incident behind the diner.

The questions of the Border Patrol were polite and pointless. Purpose of trip? "Vacation." Are carrying any fruits or vegetables? "No." How long do you plan to be in Mexico? "A few days."

They might have noticed how she was barefoot, her sneakers having been lost a day ago, but didn’t ask her about this. Nor did they ask her to remove her sunglasses.

Had they, they couldn't have missed how her irises were now almost pure gold, and the whites a pale red.

They didn't ask these things, and would sleep far better because of it.

The border gate was raised without incident or comment, and Gabrielle drove on into the gathering night.

Five: Terms of Endearment, Rules of Engagement


The message went like this:

Three dial tones.

Gabrielle’s voice. "Please leave a message and your phone number. I will return your call as soon as possible."


Heavy breathing. A stranger's voice. "I just saw your mistress feed offa warm mortal. An’ I hear there’re those who’ll pay plenty to know about this. Meet my price an’ my lips’re sealed!" Connection cut.

Long dial tone.

Recording ends.

Madrigail listened to the message twice, memorizing the phone number displayed upon the Caller I.D. box. The area code placed the call from somewhere in southern Oklahoma, but nothing more certain.

The call had come the same night as Xena's sudden departure. Madrigail felt herself go utterly cold at the implications of it. She spent many an hour that morning turning the words over and over in her mind, searching for some hidden meaning behind them.

The message had stated Gabrielle (no mistaking what "mistress" it had been referring to) had "fed" on a living mortal. This was significant, as it indicated the mistress was still at least partially in control of herself and had only fed. She hadn't killed.

Madrigail refused to let this reported restraint engender even cautious optimism however. The message said nothing of how much she had taken or under what circumstances this had occurred. Without knowing more, she was understandably reluctant to let herself feel even the smallest flicker of hope for her beloved mistress and unsuspecting charge.

As a precaution, she had removed the tape from the answering machine and hidden it away immediately after hearing the message. The last thing she wanted or needed was the well-intentioned Marcous hearing it and start asking awkwardquestions that were better never touching the air. Even if he did believe the truth about Gabrielle, what could he do? Hire out detectives to find her? Then what?

No, better to keep the truth contained and veiled from all sides. She dared not even call the Children. The rest of the Kin watched them all too closely, every bit as the Circle and Cousins avoided watching Gabrielle, as though she were the Sun itself.

She was making dinner when the door bell rang. With a sigh, the elderly housekeep wiped her hands and went to answer it. The rest of the small staff had taken the night off. This left her alone with only her thoughts and fears. It consequently took her a minute to reach the main foyer and unlock the front door.

Surprisingly, there appeared to be no-one waiting for her. In times past there would be the sound of retreating footfalls and muffled laughter accompanying this. It had been a good many years since youngsters would disturb the nighttime peace this way. These days it was more likely they would be tossing bricks through windows or spray painting obscenities on autos; simply having her run about like a fool was too tame a prank for their blood.

To make sure there were no surprises, Madrigail made a quick but thorough search around the doorway, her well-honed senses alert for any trouble. The nearby bushes were all empty, as was the driveway and all the surrounding grounds. There was nothing to suggest anyone had come to the door in the past several hours, never mind mere minutes ago.

The whistle of the tea kettle brought her back inside. Said whistle soon took on an ever louder pitch as she re-locked the door and made her way back, only to hear it suddenly die away when she was but steps away from the kitchen door. The 'clink' of fine china and water being poured could clearly be heard through the door. Madrigail was instantly back on guard.

No surprise that she nearly jumped out of her skin when a clipped voice came through the door.

"You just going to lurk out there, old woman? Or are you going to come in an' have a nice cuppa?"

For just a moment Madrigail seriously considered kicking door off its hinges, pointless as such an action would have been. She nevertheless settled for knocking it wide upon and snarling as she stepped inside "Make yuirself at home."

The man formerly answering to the name Martin Nelson sat there, dipping a leafbulb into his cup. He didn't look up at her, focusing instead upon the cup and the steam rising from it.

Madrigail took the chair opposite him and stirred her own cup for a few moments, not wanting to immediately break the silence between them just yet. The Englishman was content to do the same while he took a few sips of the tea.

"Well," he said eventually, setting his cup aside but seeming to settle even further back into his chair.

"Well," Madrigail echoed, looking utterly calm and relaxed herself.

The Englishman traced the rim of his cup with a fingertip and said "Enjoyable as it would be to simply sit here, sipping Darjeeling and saying absolutely nothing, that isn't what you call here to do, is it?"

Madrigail stared down into her cup and quietly agreed "No, its not."

"Well, then," he said as he stood. "I'll need to know more if I'm t'figure what I'm to do here, aren't I?" He paused. "Unless she's already gone savage. In which case…"

Madrigail looked up and stood so quickly you could almost hear her joints snapping. "No!" she nearly shouted. Gathering herself, she repeated "No, she hasn't." Her guest had been taken aback momentarily, then nodded and invited her to continue with a single raised eyebrow. Madrigail almost chuckled at the similarity between him and the warrior, despite the supposed absence of blood-kinship between them. But then the warrior and bard were so entwined in body and spirit that it seemed only right the offspring of one, however distant, should wear similarities to both.

The elderly housekeeper shook herself from such meanderings and put her cup down. Motioning the man to follow her. She led him to the second floor bedroom shared by the missing pair. She knew well how sharp this one was. No doubt he'd be able to tell the story from the bedroom alone far more clearly than she herself might relate.

True to form, he took a single step into the room, eyes roam far and wide. The massive four-poster bed was nearly immaculate though it was clear someone had laid atop the covers recently. The closets were still open, the normally orderly arrangement of hangers and drawers clearly having been disturbed. Nothing appeared missing, however. The vanity table near the bathroom door appeared wholly untouched.

The carpeted floor was bare of discards of any sort. Not a single shoe, sock, or bit of underwear in sight.

"How long since either of the slept in here?" the Englishman asked as he ran a finger along the top of the vanity table, the tip coming away with a fine coat of dust.

"Nearly a week, I'd say." Madrigail had remained in the doorway, unwilling to intrude upon the room.

The man snorted quietly and pushed the closet door open a little wider, taking in the racks of dresses and clothes before turning away. He moved over to the bed, leaning over the slight rumbles in the bedspread. "A week?"

"I haven't disturbed anything."

"I don't doubt it. Looks more like she was placed here and woke up quick." He straightened and looked back to the door. "When did all this start?"

"Last month. All Souls Night."

"All Souls? This have anything t'do with a massacre of Kin that I'd heard about?"

"No," Madrigail shook her head. "It has everything to do with it."

"The bard ran off first, riot?"

Madrigail nodded. "Aye. Five, six days ago."

"How long did the warrior wait?"

"Two days. I called you when I found her note telling me…"

"Any ideas as to which direction they went?" Madrigail seemed to hesitate for a moment before answering.

"South. At least that's where Gabrielle seems to have gone. I don't know about the other."

Her reluctant tone caused the eyes regarding her to narrow. "An' you know this how?" he asked as he crossed the room towards her.

Madrigail produced a miniature tape cassette, the one from the answering machine, from the pocket of her apron and handed it to him. The Englishman looked at her speculatively. "I would have given it to you," the older woman said somewhat defensively.

"Nhh," was the only response as the tape was taken from her. "South?" the Englishman asked once more, inviting elaboration with two raised eyebrows this time.

"South." She handed a small post-it note with a phone number written upon it. "The area code is Oklahoma I think. I've no way of knowing exactly where, though."

The man turned the tape over in his hand before dropping it into the breast pocket of his shirt. "Good news or bad?"

"Good." Despite the confidence she tried to project, Madrigail couldn't keep the doubt out of her voice. However, the Englishman didn't call her on it, however, apparently too distracted to even hear it. He merely nodded and turned back towards the stairs.

He was halfway down when Madrigail called out behind him "Will you do it?" He stopped but didn't turn around. "Will you use the weapon if she is lost to us?"

The Englishman appeared to consider her words, weighing them, even half-turning and opening his mouth to answer her. He stopped, however, lips pressed tight and continued down the stairs, crossing the foyer and opening the front door without a single glance back.

The tense set of his shoulders was all the answer he had to give her.

Madrigail held herself steady as she watched his departure, letting herself sink to the floor and allowing the tears to fall only when the door clicked shut behind him.

Later, when she was of clearer mind and calmer heart, she would remember to offer a prayer to whatever presence might listen. Though on who's behalf, whether Gabrielle's, Xena's, his, or her own, she would never be about to say.

The Englishman sat in his dingy motel room near the interstate and listened to the message several times, ears taking careful note of each syllable and inflection, but in the end found no greater insight than Madrigail herself could have offered. Rather than waste more time than needed listening for some clue he was certain was simply not there, he finally called one of his many contacts for a trace on the phone number Madrigail had provided.

The network upon which he relied for information stretched into some of the darkest corners of society, both human and otherwise. This made him privy to secrets and tales at times too fantastic to believe. And on more than one occasion he rather wished he knew far less than he did of the invisible pivots upon which the world turned, if only so he might sleep a little better at night.

The Chinese curse of living in "interesting times" took entirely new meaning for him, the last forty years proven to be less than successful for the so-called higher powers.

Knowing over a hundred of the worst of the Damned had managed to escape the Moringstar’s Realm, for example. That was definitely something he could have done without, particularly as he’d crossed paths with the poor sod named Stone who had been dispatched to collect them all a few times and in the process learned the reasons for Stone’s own damnation and the price that was being put to him for redemption.

He himself took some consolation in the fact the Morningstar himself had to become involved on occasion. This meant the whole mess was bound to attract attention. Whether all of the escapees were sent back or not he didn't know, but this certainly didn't bode well for Hell's nominal master, who remained answerable to the same authority as his former peers whether he liked it or not.

Even the Younger Gods had had a hard time of it lately. There were rumors Cupid had gotten himself exiled from Olympus and was wandering around New York of all places, probably as payback for his part in making the 60s such a crazy time. This was one of the chief reasons he absolutely bloody hated being in the States. And while Ares was reportedly still entombed in Macedonia, one had to wonder just how much of the hundred-odd conflicts going on around the world right then were the doing of humanity alone. He himself had yet to summon the courage to go to Greece and search out Ares tomb to see for himself, more for fear of what he would not find than what might waiting there.

The Dannan of Eire and the Aesir of the Norsemen were making something of a comeback. Ditto for all the demifolk, the satyrs, centaurs, and the like who'd been driven from the world and sought shelter in the realms beneath the surface or had managed to blend into the masses so perfectly perhaps they'd forgotten who they once were. Oh, they were no threat to the monotheists yet. But he knew deep in his bones the day was fast approaching when the world would know their presence once again. Just what that would mean for the likes of the Papacy in Rome and the Imans in Tehran and Mecca and all the millions who looked to them for guidance he didn't want to even guess. Right then, sitting in his spartan and musty-smelling motel room, the Englishman wasn't thinking about the trials and tribulations of the world's major religions or those of the entities who'd inspired them. He was too busy staring at the cheap telephone at his bedside, willing it to ring, for such high-minded pondering. At that moment, the who<

Could he truly do this thing, should the circumstances warrant? He was after all a mere, short-lived mortal, now pursuing a being who had doubtlessly forgotten more years than three times his own lifespan and who could peel the flesh from his bone with but a word. Whatever her heritage, it was largely agreed the Ancient Bard was a force unprecedented in the Twilight World. She stood like brilliant Polaris in its darkness, a constant beacon against which the course of all things could be measured and judged.

And if she had fallen from grace, what then? Was it truly his place to put her down, to snuff her light from the heavens? Such dilemmas were not new to him. There was a good chance he'd unintentionally condemned Stone to Hell once more when he'd put that letter opener into the eyes of that Cossack savage that Stone had been pursuing. The Morningstar's assurances that the detective would not be penalized rang hollow, as was expected from the Prince of Lies. He'd been careful not to become directly involved when their paths crossed again. Keeping to the sidelines however was not an option here.

The fact the Warrior was out there somewhere as well weighed on his thoughts as well. Cornering a Pureblood would be difficult enough.

Against her he could at least fall back on a few tricks his father and grandfather had come up with for deal with feral Kin. But how did one deal with a force of nature like the Warrior?

Much as he might have liked, he didn't dare risk convincing himself she was no more than a delusional mortal who just happened to look exactly like the long-dead bastard of War himself. The power contained in such an offspring…was there anything that could have stood against that?

Ultimately the phone did ring. The waiting and all these worries however had drained his patience to its reserves, as demonstrated by the way he snatched the receiver from its cradle and all but screamed "Where is it?!"

The usual crowd had thinned noticeably in the days following the little blonde’s visit. Weed hardlky cared himself. Truckers and customers came and went with their usual frequency, business continuing unabated. Even hearing how Dumb and Dumber were found wandering around the brush a day or so back, totally incoherent and supposedly having shot themselves higher than most NASA satellites didn’t generate more than passing interest in him.

Weed was too busy watching attentively for the return of the small woman to really notice or care about any of this. It was a vague hope, he knew, but one that kept him going all the same.

That evening found old Leonard sitting in his usual booth, nursing his usual beer, while the Murrays capitalized on the absence of Dumb and Dumber and made full use of the pool table. They were on their fourth game of Nine Ball when the door jingled, heralding yet another customer to the diner. Walt was in the kitchen once again, seeing to some small repair or another. Since the blonde’s first visit he’d made it a point to see to every rusty pipe and greasy screw and broken tile in the restrooms and toss out every single scrap of food that was even a day within its shelf life. He’d scrubbed and mopped and swept and polished the tables and floors with the same enthusiasm he showed in greeting each customer, which all would have agreed was nearly manic in its intensity and a bit unusual.

He kept the source of this newfound energy to himself, confounding friend and stranger alike. Not that anyone was complaining, mind you. Hard to complain when the food actually tasted better than before, and lord knew the place had needed a decent cleaning since forever.

Walt peered out of the kitchen the instant he heard the tinkling of the bell, skin fairly tingling in time thanks to the soapy film covering his hands. He was only slightly disappointed to see it was not the small angel, as he’d come to think of the woman. Instead it was a man of middling height and weight, with dirty blonde hair that looked like it had never seen the teeth of a comb and what must have been several days growth of beard. He looked about the diner’s interior with intense hazel eyes that reminded Walt, however momentarily, of his angel’s own eyes.

Shaking himself, Walt quickly wiped his hands dry and stepped out of the kitchen. "How do," he called out, not so loudly that he disturbed everyone else present but with enthusiasm enough to carry across. "Jus’ sit yourself an’ I’ll be out with coffee."

The man nodded, obviously distracted. He took a chair at one of the small tables and continued looking about. Walt paid this no mind as he set another pot to brew. The Murrays followed this example, interrupting their current game only long enough to watch him sit down then returning to their own affairs. There were a couple other travelers and semi-regulars present, scattered as they were among the booths and tables, and most ignored this newcomer.

Only Leonard seemed interested enough to watch him for more than a few moments. Had anyone else been paying attention they would have caught the sneer that crossed the old man’s lips when the newcomer caught his eyes. He covered it by taking a slow drag from his beer. His opponent had no such cover available, yet managed to keep indirect eye contact without too much strain.

"Like anything stronger?" Walt inquired, suddenly appearing beside the new arrival and unknowingly breaking their little contest.

"Coffee will do for now, cheers," he said, making no effort to hide his clipped English accent. He took the offered menu and flipped it open, pretending to study its contents with interest while studiously and conspicuously ignoring Leonard entirely. The older man saw this and sneered once more, finishing his beer entirely before rising and half-walking, half-stumbling towards the back. He made sure to pass the man’s table, letting a small fart slip out as he did.

The Englishman didn’t react in the slightest. He merely sat there, sipped his coffee, wishing all the while it was a decent brand of Darjeeling, and waited. The Murray brothers finished their game and strolled out of the diner altogether, one nodding over to Walt who was busy wiping down the lunch counter.

After deflecting Walt’s multiple efforts to take an order and suffering through two more cups of coffee, the Englishman finally rose and headed towards the back. This was as much for reasons of practicality as cover: the caffeine had done its work well and his bladder felt as if it were being squeezed in a vise.

He quickly visited the men’s room, which didn’t stink nearly as bad as he’d feared it might, the Englishman slipped silently out a back door and found himself in a claustrophobically narrow alleyway. "You out here?" he whispered to shadows.

"Yessss," hissed a voice from nearby.

The Englishman looked around himself quickly, nearly spinning in place, before asking "Want to tell me where, exactly?" There was suddenly a brush of wind directly behind him. He didn’t dare turn around, though oddly the feeling of the presence that accompanied this, said presence rising to its full height and feeling not a little menacing, was actually rather a relief. The smirk that came to his lips appeared of its own accord entirely.

"Well," the Englishman drawled, unafraid, "Aren’t you the sinister one."

Allowing his bacchae blood to the fore, old Leonard hardly looked like himself. The marble white cast of his skin seemed to have eliminated all wrinkles and made him look easily twenty years younger, while his golden eyes flashed with a fierce, inner light that was anything but human. He even appeared taller than before, though this was purely because he was now standing completely straight. His lips curved around to what was meant to be a menacing smile, revealing several sharp teeth there.

For a single moment, the Englishman actually worried this idiot would try making a meal of him before telling him anything useful. He really didn’t want to tip his hand too quickly, but neither did he want to chance the diner owner coming looking for him, and he really, really didn’t want to have to reveal his ace-in-the-hole if he could help it.

The moment of worry passed, covered by his taking action. "This where it happened?" he demanded in a completely undemanding tone.

"Yesssss," the bacchae hissed, gesturing with a clawed hand towards the wall nearby.

"Oh, stop hissing, will you?" the Englishman growled. "Its annoying." He didn’t bother looking for what reaction this won him. Instead he simply knelt and ran an open palm across the dry, dusty ground at his feet. Keeping his eyes on the ground, he asked "You said she left both of them alive after she was done, riot?"

"Yes," slurred the bacchae as he drifted closer. "She only fed from one."

"But she left them alive?" This point seemed vitally important, though Leonard couldn’t see why.

"Yessss," he hissed once more around his fangs. "She left both alive and breathing."

The Englishman stood but still did not turn around. "And where are they now?"

"They were found wandering around the countryside yesterday, dazed. They remembered nothing of her or what happened. The law here are fat fools. They think it was too much drink." The bacchae was now within inches of his back. "I could tell them different, however."

"Shyah," snickered the light-haired man. "An’ they’d believe you?"

"They may, they may not. But others would hear. Others would believe."

The Englishman’s only response was to shrug and stick one hand into his pocket, using the other to scratch the back of his neck. "You do not care?" lisped the bacchae, slightly disturbed by this lack of visible reaction.

"Of course I bloody care. I’m just not concerned you’re going to blathering it about, is all."

"Oh?" Leonard bared his fangs in what was meant to be a show of power, hissing once more like the predator he was. This time the Englishman did turn around, though Leonard was surprised by the lack of fear in his expression. He seemed more…annoyed than anything else.

There was a swift movement as the mortal finished turning, his hand suddenly coming around, filled with something slender and white and tapered to a sharp point. Leonard had no time to react or pull back. The weapon was plunged none to gently into his abdomen, just below his ribcage, its point stabbing deep into him. He felt his attacker grasp him by the collar and pull the weapon from his stomach before plunging it in again, this time using his own momentum to push forwards so Leonard’s back was pressed against the wall.

"You’re stinking grass, you shit!" was snarled into his ear as the weapon stabbed him once again, hitting his heart. There wasn’t much point to this as his body was already starting to break down and decay, turning to dust even as the Englishman continued to snarl nonsensically at him.

"You think I’d risk leavin’ you t’grass on us, did you? Arsehole!" The Englishman let go of the body before him and turned away, completely uninterested in how quickly the bacchae dissolved to dust. Even his clothes felt apart and dissolved into nothing, disappearing into the wind. He would have kicked the body where it fell, were there anything left for his shoe to hit.

The bacchae had no time to scream as he felt his life drain through the deep gouges in his stomach. Death proved less a horror than he’d expected, the sensations involved proving surprisingly…well, pleasant. Not unlike taking a momentous shit after a very filling feast.

Leonard Abertsen, who had taken part in the great Westward Expansion and could remember the Great Land Rush, would only remember the infinities sense of peace that filled him even as everything he was drained out of him, leaving nothing to mark his passing. Even his killer had turned away, putting all thought of the dead from his mind. He had larger fish to fry now, after all, and could hardly be bothered with such trivialities.

Creation went on its way, heedless of the passage a single, lonely life.

A few hours later found the Englishman sitting in yet another musty motel room. He stood hunched over a map of the border states and northern Mexico, tracing various highways and byways with the tip of the weapon, its sharp length coated with the dried stains of bacchae icor.

Ironically, he was in the same room Gabrielle had briefly occupied several days earlier. He had no way of knowing this, of course, given he hadn’t thought to ask the manager. It would have been inconsequential even if he had.

The weapon was easily as old as the bard herself; perhaps older still. Bacchae Kin, unlike their distant and more conventional cousins the Wampyri, could not be killed by a simple stake to the heart. Such measures didn’t actually kill Wampyri, their highly efficient cardiovascular system managing to work around such damage. It did however slow them down sufficiently to where one could inflict more terminal damage.

The bacchae were different. Being the offspring of one of the Younger Gods, albeit several hundred generations removed, they were relatively immune to such tricks. Oh, they could feel the sting of a bullet and couldn’t simply regenerate a limb that had been hacked completely off. But to actually kill them required something as mystical as their heritage. A silver bullet blessed by a Pentecostal preacher might do the trick, provided the bacchae was of similar denomination and had at least passing respect for the ministry involved. Otherwise it was like trying to fell an elephant with a thumbtack.

There was one item in all the world that was uniformly lethal to all bacchae no matter who’s hand held it: the sharpened bone of a graveyard dryad. A completely different species of creature from the woodland spirits of the same name, the graveyard dryad was a closer relation to ghouls and marrow-worms: creatures existing beyond life but falling short of actual death. Their worldwide distribution made any research of their origins them exceedingly difficult, especially given the diversity of their appearances and habits. Why their bones proved deadly to the bacchae was equally vague; perhaps it was simply nature balancing off against the children of Bacchus. Most bacche Kin these days didn’t even know the hazard these bones presented them, and those who did simply made it a point to avoid graveyard if they could.

The bone weapon in his hand had been in his family for nearly three generations. Before that it had been the possession of a blood-offspring of one of the Kin. It had tasted the blood of many bacchae over the millennia, to the point where the blood had literally soaked ever inch of the bone. An interesting side-effect of this was the weapon now proved sensitive to the presence of bacchae near it, causing the weapon to vibrate like an over-stretched rubber band whenever one of them was near.

It had tasted the blood of many Kin, and drawn the blood of one in particular. One of a purer strain of the Blood than any other living could hope to claim.

The one he now sought.

The weapon was a veritable divining rod when it came to the Bard. The point drifted of its own accord towards the border, continuing south and heading into the mountains that lay near Mexico City.

When it reached a point a bit north of the city, the pull upon the weapon became so strong it all but flew out of his hand and impaled the map to the bed beneath it.

A small sigh blew between lips as the Englishman sat back. "Mexico," he murmurred aloud. "I bloody hate Mexico." With another sigh he pulled the weapon from the map and placed it back in its small carrying case, making sure to snap the locks closed and it was placed far from the map.

"What the hell would she be doin’ in bloody salsa land?" he mused aloud as he refolded the map and laid down. Shutting off the bedside lamp, the shadows quickly gathered over both the room and his thoughts.

A day later, he crossed the border at Brownsville, Texas. He immediately took the first turn-off onto Federal Highway 180, swinging southwards towards Mexico City, and simply let the signs he alone could perceive lead him.



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