"Quiet on the set. Roll 'em. Take one, 'Mel and Jan Studio Comments'."
In a seedy office with the words 'Sam Spade, Private Detective' lettered on the door, a man sits behind a large wooden desk, leaning back in his chair, his feet propped up. His tie is loose at the collar, and a shoulder-holster is evident against his rumpled white shirt. He hangs up his candlestick phone, then lights a cigarette and tosses the match into the ashtray. When he looks up, he begins speaking in a 'Bogartesque' manner, looking into the camera.
"The name's Spade. Sam Spade. The studio asked me to say a few words about the story you're about to read. Since I'm your typical stock 'film noir' character, and these stories take place in the late 1940's, they thought you'd like to hear this from me. Seems that they think I've got 'authenticity', whatever that means. Hope that ain't some kind of VD.
A few guffaws of laughter sound from off-camera, and a voice shouts, "Shaddup. Keep 'em rolling."
"Now, this is the seventh in a continuing series of 'Mel and Jan' stories. You've loved the last six; let's hope we do you right with this one. It's not easy, y'know, coming up with a real kicker each time, but since our job is to give you a great evening's entertainment, we damn sure try, sweethearts. Not as often as we'd like, though, because our writer is bellyaching about something called 'time management'. Yeah, sure. Heck, you think you've got problems? I got a house note, a car note, a wife and a girlfriend, and they're all a month overdue."
More laughter sounds from off-camera, and a voice shouts, "Hey, Spade. Can the jokes, will ya?"
"Yeah, okay." He pulls a fistful of papers from his desk, slowly leafing through them.
"Now, I've got here some e-mails..." He looks away from the camera. "Hey, Joe. This is 1949. What in the hell is an 'e-mail'?"
An irritated voice sounds from off-camera. "Just read the damned cue cards, will ya?"
Spade looks back at the camera. "Right. That's bein' a studio actor for ya. Two hundred bucks a week and no respect from the slobs behind the camera. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. Like I was sayin', you, the readers, have been fantastic in your responses to these stories. Without you, this gig would have folded up long ago. Hey, sweethearts, we love ya. You're the greatest.
"Now, a reader writes to us and asks for a scene of dialogue between Mel and her ancient ancestor, Xena, sorta like we been doin' with Jan and Gabrielle all along. Great idea. We love it. You got it, babe. It's in this story, just for you. Thanks for asking. Here's another, who wants more 'sub-text' in the story. Now, that one stumped us for a minute. After all, Mel and Jan are two gals who are crazy in love, aren't they? We gave 'em a romance to die for, didn't we? What more 'sub-text' can we give you? Then it hit me like a set of brass knuckles: you folks just want more sex. Heck, don't we all?"
A ripple of laughter sounds from off-camera and a voice shouts, "Come on, Spade. This thing is costing two hundred dollars a minute."
"Yeah, sure. Jeez. Now, our writer is a real shy type about doing sex scenes, but we figured we'd push the envelope a little on this one. So, we gave you gals a steamy bathtub scene. Mel was a little shaky about gettin' naked in front of the readers, but we poured a few stiff drinks into her, and she was finally game. Hell, Jan was all for it. That kinda figures, don't it? We got the thing past those tight-ass bluenoses at the studio's censorship department by slipping them a fat check, and they were cool with it when they previewed it. Hell, they read it five or six times. Yep. That's real devotion to duty, in my book.
"What else? Oh, yeah. You gals love the action, the plot twists and turns, the history tidbits, the humor and especially the romance, so we tried to give you all of that. You love the supporting characters, too, but we had to give Mack and Sallie most of the week off. Schedule problems, or something. Don't worry, they'll be back in the next episode, we promise. The writer loves those characters. Hey, Joe. Ya think that goof-ball writer has a crush on Sallie?"
More laughter sounds from off-camera, and an irritated voice shouts, "Wrap this turkey up, or you're fired."
"Yeah, yeah. Anyhow, keep writing and telling us what you love about it, and what you don't love about it. It makes us weave better stories for you. Give us your ideas, and we'll try to work 'em in if they fit. No promises, ya understand, but we'll sure think on 'em."
He throws the papers back onto his desk, then takes a drag on his cigarette. "Don't worry. Mel and Jan are back, they'll still have the kinda romance that we all wish for, and I've got a hunch that they'll be kickin' butt for a long while yet. Thanks to you, our readers." He pauses, then smiles. "Or my name's not Sam Spade. Enjoy the story, sweethearts. It's our gift to you."
"Cut! That's a wrap! Let's go home, everyone."
"Hey, boss. The studio censors want to talk to you, and they look hoppin' mad."
"Oh, man. Quick, tell 'em I'm not here."
Melinda Pappas sat at the sunlit kitchen table of the cottage which she shared with Janice Covington, squinting in concentration and thumbing through her worn reference book as she labored over a translation of an old Greek document. With a sigh of frustration, she placed the book aside, removed the wire-rimmed glasses from her nose, and rubbed her eyes. Yawning, she stretched her almost six feet of height luxuriously, then swept her long, loose black hair back behind her neck. She was about to resign herself to a weary return to work when the doorbell rang.
Somewhat relieved at the interruption, she replaced her glasses on her face, rose and opened the front door. The postman, a genial fellow of perhaps mid-fifties in age, smiled a greeting.
"Good afternoon, Miss Pappas. Here's your mail." Mel smiled at the familiar face, then noted that he seemed rather cold in the early December air. His breath came in puffs and his nose and cheeks were as red as the stylized pictures of Santa Claus which she remembered seeing as a child.
"Why, thank you, Charlie. You look cold. Do you have time to come in for a cup of coffee? I have the pot on."
A broad smile crept across his reddened face at the invitation, delivered in Mel's languorous, cultured southern drawl, and he snuck a glance at his wrist-watch. "Oh, I suppose that I have a minute. Very kind of you, Miss Pappas." She motioned him inside and he gratefully entered, closed the door behind him, and dropped his overstuffed letter-carrier's bag in the hallway. "Here's your mail. You and Doctor Covington get some of the most interesting postmarks on my route, you know. Greece, England, France, Algeria; how do you know all these people?"
Mel chuckled as she poured two cups of coffee and watched the talkative postman seat himself at the kitchen table. "Oh, we've met them on our travels. Over the years, Jan and I have come to know quite a few people."
He pulled off his gloves and gratefully accepted the hot coffee. "Guess it comes of being famous, huh? I saw in the newspaper that you two are going to receive the Nobel Prize for something-or-other." He glanced over at the document which Mel was translating, squinted at the neat rows of Greek letters, and shook his head. "Beats me how you read that stuff."
As Mel seated herself, she smiled indulgently and replied, "It grows on one."
He shrugged as he sipped at his coffee. "It must." He gestured toward the stack of mail which sat on the table. "Oh, might I ask a favor, Miss Pappas? My grand-daughter, you know, she loves to collect foreign stamps. May she have the ones from your letter there?"
Mel glanced at the stack of mail. "Certainly, Charlie. What letter is that?"
"That one from France, there."
She picked up the letter and examined it. The envelope was of high quality paper and the penmanship was exquisite, obviously a woman's hand. Mel smiled as she recognized the name. The letter had come, addressed to both her and Jan, from the outskirts of Paris. My goodness, Mel thought, a letter from Alais. What a delightful woman. I wonder how she's doing? She chuckled inwardly as she mused, She's an immortal. She's obviously doing fine. Her thoughts were interrupted by Charlie's inquisitive conversation, his eyes following her as she rose from the table and found her scissors, returning and neatly clipping the colorful postage stamps from the corner of the letter.
"Old friend of yours?"
"Why, yes. You could say that. The Countess d'Agee, but we know her as Alais." And Aphrodite, Mel added silently. "She lives in a most marvelous chateau in the countryside near Paris. We had the pleasure of staying there a couple of years ago when we assisted friends with some research." She glanced up. "I think they're on your route. The Doctors MacKenzie?"
His face brightened. "Yeah, sure. They just moved in a couple of months ago. Nice young couple. Are they professor types, too?"
"Yes. Jan got him a lecturer's post here at the local university. Sallie's still looking for permanent work, although she lectures some, as well."
The genial postman shook his head and smiled. "All that schooling. I've got to hand it to you. I never finished high school, myself. The World War came along, you know, and I enlisted. Never went back to school after that. Came home, got married, raised kids, and here I am, thirty years later, still pounding out a mail route every day."
Mel handed him the stamps. "Aren't you going to retire soon?"
He shrugged. "I think about it, but the Missus, she'd probably strangle me if I was to be at home underfoot all day."
Mel smiled. "I think I see what you mean." The deep, throaty purr of a motorcycle sounded from the garage near the kitchen, and Mel's expression brightened. "Oh, that's Jan. She's home." A moment later, footsteps clumped up to the kitchen door and it opened.
Janice Covington entered, pulling the gloves from her hands and muttering, "Oh, yeah. A warm house. I love it." She shook her athletic, petite frame out of her leather coat, then noticed the postman seated at the table. "Hey, Charlie, how's it going?"
"Just fine, Doc. Say, you going to ride that thing all winter?"
"Until it snows. You know me. Too stubborn to admit that I'm freezing my cookies off out there."
Charlie nodded. "I was a motorcycle messenger in the army, during the first war. Loved that machine, I did. It gets into your blood after a while, don't it?"
Jan grinned. "That it does. Why don't you get another one?"
"I could never take the nagging. I can hear the Missus now: 'Lookit the ol' fool, on a motorcycle. Gonna kill himself.' The darndest thing is that she's probably right."
"Yeah, but what a way to go."
Mel admonished, "Now Jan, don't you go planting ideas into Charlie's head. I'm sure that he gets into trouble enough on his own." She smiled conspiratorially at Charlie and added, "The Lord knows that Jan does. I simply can't handle her."
Jan's voice echoed from the hallway closet, where she was hanging her leather coat and her scarf. "Don't let her kid you, Charlie. She's the only one who can handle me."
Charlie finished his coffee and rose from the table. "Yep. Just like my Missus. Well, got to be going. Thanks for the coffee and the stamps, Miss Pappas."
"Anytime, Charlie. Do you have much more to go?"
"About an hour."
"Well, next time you want coffee, you just bang on the door."
The old postman's face brightened at the suggestion as he picked up his bag from the hallway. "Thanks, ma'am. You're good people. 'Bye, Miss Pappas. 'Bye, Doc." With that, he left the warm hallway and exited the front door, returning to his duty.
Jan entered the kitchen, padded across the wooden floor in her sock feet, leaned over and gave Mel a welcome kiss. When she straightened up, she groaned slightly and placed her hands on her back. Mel noted that and inquired, "What's this, Jan? Getting old at thirty-four?"
"Aah, too much sitting. I'm either parking my butt behind my desk or lecturing. Need to get back to the field again. That's where an archaeologist belongs." Jan padded over to the counter and poured a cup of coffee, lifting her whiskey bottle from the cabinet and adding a splash. "So what's new?"
"We got a letter from Alais."
"What's up with her?"
"I don't know, love. I haven't read it yet."
"Toss it here. I'll look it over." Mel sailed the letter across the kitchen, and Jan caught it and tore it open, unfolding the paper inside. As she sipped her coffee, she leaned against the kitchen counter, silently perusing the letter. "Hm. Interesting. Hey Mel, have we got any plans for the Christmas break?"
"No, Jan. Why?"
"Alais has invited us for a visit. She's invited Mack and Sallie, too. You up for it?"
Mel squealed in delight from her place at the kitchen table. "That sounds delightful, Jan. Let's do it."
"She says here that she's got a special favor to ask of us. Wonder what that can be?"
"Whatever it is, dear, we owe her a big one. She got you out of trouble with the law the last time we were in France, you know."
"Yeah, tell me about it. Hey, we need to call Mack and Sallie and see if they're up for it."
"Why don't you do that now, Jan?"
"Good idea. You want to meet them out for dinner tonight?"
"Wonderful thought, but we're absolutely not going on that motorcycle of yours."
"Aw, come on, Mel."
"No, no and no." Mel giggled, then added, "You are so cute when you pout like that."
Jan raised an eyebrow as she stretched and arched her back. "Cute enough to get a back-rub from my unbelievably gorgeous girlfriend?"
Mel eyed Janice from her chair, then allowed just a trace of an impish smile to cross her face. "You keep talkin' like that, cutie, and you just might end up with more than a back-rub. Now get in there and get undressed. I'll be in shortly."
"You don't have to tell me twice, gorgeous." As Jan disappeared from the kitchen, Mel heard her soft footsteps retreating toward the bedroom and a muffled "Oh, yeah. Life is good." Mel laughed aloud, placed her glasses down on the table, and rose to seek the bottle of liniment from the kitchen cupboard, humming a delightfully anticipatory little tune to herself as she headed toward the bedroom. Just outside the door, she paused, let her hair loose, and shook it out with a nod of her head. Glancing into the bathroom mirror, she nodded approval at the effect, dropped her hair-clip on the counter, squirted a hint of perfume onto her neck, and entered the bedroom, softly shutting the door behind her.
"Jeez, Mel. I'm glad to have my feet on ground again. I'll never get used to long flights."
Mel laughed pleasantly at her mate's exclamation. "That's just because you're a bundle of energy. You never liked sitting still for that long."
"Don't like standing in line, either. Customs sucks."
"A necessary evil, I suppose. Get your passport out, Jan."
Mel flashed a grin and glanced down at her petite friend. "Behave yourself, little girl, or you'll get a spanking when we get home."
Jan leaned close to Mel and whispered loudly, "Is that a promise?"
At the question, Mel's face reddened somewhat and she hissed, "Hush, Jan. We're in public." Jan's snicker was her only reply, a snicker which was drowned out by Mel's attempt to regain her ruffled dignity and answer the bored customs official's questions. He noted the nationality of the passports, made short conversation in English, and thumped his stamp into a blank page of the passports, waving them through the cluttered customs area and into the terminal beyond.
As they mingled with the throng of travelers and walked out into the large, airy building, they headed toward the currency exchange booths. A few moments later, they emerged from the terminal and noted the reams of taxicabs and private automobiles lined up and jostling for position near the doors. After studying the situation, Mel adjusted the wire-framed glasses on her nose and asked, "What do we do now, Jan? I thought someone was to meet us."
"Yeah, I thought so, too. Let's give 'em a few minutes to find us. If no one does, we'll just take a cab. Hell, we've been there before. We can find it again."
At that moment, a pleasant female voice tinged with a cultured, if somewhat indefinable accent addressed them. "Doctor Covington? Miss Pappas?" They turned in unison to see a young woman standing next to them, an inquisitive eyebrow raised. Jan answered for both of them.
"That's right. I'm Jan Covington. This is my friend, Melinda Pappas."
"I am here to greet you on behalf of the Countess d'Agee. I am Harmonia, her daughter." Without further ado, she leaned forward and kissed Jan lightly on both cheeks, then stood on tiptoes to offer Mel the same greeting. "I welcome you to France."
Jan, slightly embarrassed by the greeting, shrugged and mumbled, "Hey, thanks for asking us here."
Harmonia studied Jan's reaction for a moment, then chuckled and offered an apology. "Oh, I forget. Americans, you are not used to such a greeting. Forgive me. Come, the car is this way."
As Jan and Mel followed Harmonia through the throngs of people and cars clogging the roadway, Mel used the time to study their host. She was slightly taller than Jan, and carried herself with assurance. Her hair was a deep black, simply cut, and her dress unpretentious but of fine quality. Mel also noted with some interest that she wore no makeup, but her face revealed an exquisite skin and the same timeless beauty which marked Alais' face. Her eyes sparkled with deep intelligence, and seemed to be lined with a hint of the same sadness which etched the eyes of her immortal mother. Mel quickly found herself wondering, Another immortal? I suppose that it would be rude to ask.
In a short time, they found themselves settled into the Countess' still-opulent touring car and being driven away from Paris, into the surrounding countryside. Harmonia, seated in the front next to the driver, turned in her seat and addressed Mel and Jan, who relaxed in the spacious back seat. "I must ask: when was the last time you saw my mother?"
Mel answered, "This summer, in Lesbos."
"And how did she seem to you then?"
Mel shrugged. "She seemed well, but somewhat pensive, sad somehow."
"Yes, yes. She is always so. It is her nature, it seems. Tell me, what of her health?"
Mel looked over to Jan, surprised at the question. Unsure of exactly how to answer, she deferred to Jan, who was more blunt.
"She seemed tired." Jan leaned forward in the seat. "Is it possible that she could be ill? I mean..."
Harmonia smiled, answering the unspoken question. "Considering the fact that she is an immortal? Yes, it is possible. Even we immortals have weakness, you know."
Mel blinked in surprise. "Then you're an immortal, too?"
She nodded. "My father was a god. My mother, as you no doubt are aware, was the goddess Aphrodite." She paused, her eyes seeming to reflect a long-ago time, and added, "Then. Now, she is just Alais. I feel that she much prefers it that way."
The touring car glided into the courtyard of the chateau, and the driver bustled with their suitcases as Mel and Jan were led into the building. After seeing them to their room and leaving their luggage and coats, Harmonia led them to her mother's room.
The bed-room was spacious and airy, the afternoon sun warming the panes of glass and lending a soft, yellow light to the chamber's interior. A fire burned in a corner hearth, and the telltale sign of a pleasant fragrance lingered in the room. Jan blinked a few times as she entered, then looked to the large, canopied bed which dominated the sparsely-furnished room. At first, in the glorious streams of creamy, flaxen light which flooded the room, she did not notice anyone in the bed, but upon closer inspection, she saw Alais sitting up, pillows propped behind her, a book open upon her lap and a cup of tea near her hand. Alais looked up when her visitors entered, smiled a brilliant smile, and held out her hand.
"Janice! Melinda! It is so good to see you again. Please, come and sit with me. We have much to discuss." She cast a glance over to Harmonia and asked, "Have they been made comfortable?"
"Yes, Mother. I'll leave you now and see to dinner. I imagine that our guests are both quite hungry." With a pleasant nod of the head, she left the room, quietly closing the door behind her. Alais patted the huge bed beside her and said, "Come and sit. Let me look at you."
Mel and Jan perched on the edge of the regal bed, each taking a hand which Alais offered in greeting. They noted the same, familiar face: timeless, elegant beauty of an indefinable nature, the thick, blonde hair swept up onto the back of Alais' head and hanging in tendrils about her neck and shoulders, the sad, pensive, light eyes which seemed to sparkle and change colors with her mood. That was the Alais whom they remembered from their trip to France, the same Alais who guided them to their discovery of Sappho's home and remains on the island of Lesbos that summer. What seemed different about her was her subdued manner, a tragic air which enveloped her and cast an aura of resigned weakness around her beautiful features. She spoke slowly, eloquently, her accent indefinable but as elegant as her presence.
"Thank you so for coming. I am sorry that Mack and Sallie were not able to travel with you."
Mel answered, "They had family obligations, I'm afraid."
Alais nodded in understanding. "Yes, Sallie's grandmother. She is quite ill, I understand. Well, it is enough that you are here." She smiled apologetically, then added, "I must ask a dear favor of you both."
Jan was blunt. "It's yours, Alais. What can we do?"
At the question, Alais' eyes reflected a deep exhaustion and she pondered her answer, finally replying with just three simple, yet very poignant words.
"Save my life."
Both Jan and Mel were speechless. Here, in front of them, lay an immortal, a being who had lived since the misty dawn of western civilization, and she was in danger of dying? It made no sense. The question, mutually shared on Jan's and Mel's faces, caused a twinkle in Alais' eyes.
"How, you ask, can an immortal die? It is very possible. Let me tell you a story, and then you may understand what I ask of you." She shifted slightly in bed, then smoothed her bedcovers with a graceful hand and began to unfold her thoughts in her exquisite, velvety voice.
"When we Olympians flourished, a family of gods and goddesses who watched over a very young and mortal race of Greeks, we were endowed with power and ability. It allowed us to comfort, to protect, to guide and cultivate the marvelous Greeks much as a gardener lovingly tends his plants. Unfortunately, we were also endowed with human frailties. I know not why; perhaps it was so we would understand those in our charge. It proved to be our great failing, our weakness. Ego, lust, indolence, a propensity for violence and cruelty, we had those as well as the marvelous virtues which mortals show: love, selflessness, nobility, the ability to grow wise through life's experience. It was, I fear, our downfall. We quarreled and filled our time with intrigues, neglecting or mistreating humanity. The mortal world moved on without us. We became things of the past, having proven ourselves unworthy of the grand responsibility with which we were entrusted. We Olympians fell. Those of us who did not die at Xena's hand, when she had the power to kill gods, were left to retreat into the world of mortals, to live forever among those whom we had so miserably failed. It was a fitting justice, I suppose, for had we risen to our duties and guided the Greeks to their full greatness, this world might have boasted a far more noble history than it now does.
"Now, you think that immortals live forever, do you not? Such is not the case. Our continued existence and powers of godhood are conditioned upon a certain substance, much as mortals depend upon water, food and temperature to sustain their own lives. That has not changed."
Jan felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck as a thought struck her. She voiced it aloud. "Ambrosia."
Alais nodded. "Ambrosia and its accompanying drink, the nectar of the gods. It sustained us, gave us vitality and immortality. It still does. Without it, an immortal slowly dies."
"Is this what's happening to you, Alais?" In answer, the ethereal blonde nodded. "Why? Can't you get more? Can't you-I don't know-make some, or something?"
Alais shook her head. "It grows, replenishes itself. Periodically, all immortals left on the face of this earth must visit the place where it lies and partake of it, if they wish to continue existence in this realm."
Jan's voice betrayed her confusion. "I don't understand, Alais. How-?"
"I neglected it on purpose. You see, I resolved to die." She noted the shocked expressions on the faces of her friends and continued, "I have seen so much suffering. Ages, centuries have passed, and still, it is the same story. The mortal world around me is in agony. It breaks my heart. I feel certain that we, the Olympians, are much to blame for that. I found, after the brutality of the last war and my horrible imprisonment in a concentration camp, that I could no longer summon the strength to witness such suffering any more. I just wanted to die, and so I neglected the eating of the ambrosia. Gradually, I lost much of my strength, my powers. Now, I fear myself too weak to travel to attain it. I will finally get my wish, just when I have found a reason to live again. Ironic, isn't it?"
Mel's voice was soft, broken. "What gave you reason to live again?"
Alais gestured toward the door. "My daughter has come home to me. After two millennia, she has come home. The world knows no love like that of a mother for her child. It is the most selfless, the most noble love in existence. I simply want to be with her. Can you help me? Can you save me from my own foolishness?"
Jan looked over at Mel, and their eyes caught and held each other's stare. The communion between them was instant, decisive. Jan turned to Alais and said, "We will bring you what you need. I promise you that, Alais."
Alais smiled at that, an exhausted, painful smile. "Thank you, my dear friends. I knew that I could depend upon you."
"You'll have to tell us where to look. Teach us what we need to know to find it."
"Harmonia can do that. I am sorry, but I am so weary just now. Go and dine with her. She will teach you what you must know and take you there."
Jan blurted, "But-"
Mel placed a hand on Jan's arm. "Let her rest, love. She's so tired. Come on." Jan cast a guilty glance at Mel, then nodded silently. They stood, gazing down on the beautiful features of Aphrodite as she lay in the bed, her eyelids fluttering closed in exhaustion. When she began to breathe in an easy, regular manner, serene in sleep, Mel bent down and placed a kiss on her forehead, then took Jan by the hand and quietly led her from the room.
"So, Harmonia, just where do we find ambrosia?"
The young woman smiled at the question. She poured a bit more wine into her glass, then turned an eye toward Jan. "Where do the legends say that it lies?"
"Olympus, of course, but that's legend. There's really no Olympus." Jan studied her host, then asked, "Is there?"
"It still exists. It is hidden from mortal view and access. I will take you there, of course." She sipped at her wine, then continued, "The climate surrounding Olympus is quite inhospitable, this time of year. We will drive into Paris tomorrow to find you the proper clothing."
"Don't tell me that we have to ascend the summit of Mount Olympus. We'll never survive up there. It's got to be ten thousand feet high. Neither one of us are mountain climbers."
The immortal shook her head. "No." She leaned slightly forward in her seat, her face assuming a serious expression. "You must both understand that what I am about to tell you, no mortals know. It is a secret carefully guarded by those of us who still exist. If it is known that an immortal helped humans to attain entrance to Olympus and its ambrosia and nectar, there would be-" She searched for the right phrase. "Serious repercussions."
Mel asked, "What would happen?"
"The others would ban us from Olympus forever. It would mean our deaths, Mother and I."
Jan was perplexed. "Then why risk it? Can't you just pop over there and bring some back for your mother, or take her there yourself? Why risk having us involved in this at all?"
"Mother is now too weak to travel, I fear. She could die from it. The other complication is that it is also forbidden for an immortal to remove ambrosia or nectar from Olympus. I cannot bring it to her. That is why all immortals must travel there, from time to time."
Jan grinned. "Let me guess. It's not forbidden for a mortal to remove it?"
Harmonia nodded. "You are very perceptive. You are also very right. The taboo does not extend to mortals. That is why we need your favor in this."
Mel placed her fork down and fixed Harmonia with a puzzled glance. "Perhaps, dear, you should just explain all of this to us."
"First, you must promise me that you will not reveal the location of Olympus to any other mortal, for as long as you live. This secret, you must take to the grave with you."
Mel and Janice glanced at each other, then back at Harmonia. They both nodded, then spoke.
"You have my word on that."
"And mine, dear."
Harmonia nodded in satisfaction and leaned back slightly in her chair. "That will suffice. My mother says that you are two of the most honorable people she has known." She paused, then said, "And she tells me that you are guarded by your illustrious ancestors, as well: the warrior Xena and the bard Gabrielle." Her eyes flitted from face to face, and in those expressions she saw that she was right. "That is good. You may need their help. This quest is likely to be dangerous."
Jan smiled. "They've always been there for us before."
"So I am told. The last mortals to enter Olympus were Xena, her daughter, and Gabrielle. My mother told me the story: how she took them there to seek healing and to do battle with the gods. Two thousand years have passed, and now you will tread in their footsteps."
Jan placed a hand over Mel's, resting on her leg, and looked at Harmonia. "So exactly what is the plan here?"
The immortal began to outline her thoughts aloud. "Ah, yes. As I have intimated, Olympus is not at the summit of the mount. It lies within the mountain. There is an entrance, long unused and hidden, which I will show you. You can gain access there, then follow the tunnels to the Hall of the Gods. Once there, you must seek out the chamber in which the ambrosia and nectar is grown. It waits just off the main hall, clearly marked. You are both well-versed in old Greek, and will be able to read the inscription.
"Now, once there, you must obtain some of the ambrosia and nectar and bring it back to your starting point. I will be waiting for you there, just outside the mountain. I will spirit you back to this spot, and my mother will live."
Jan said, "It sounds a little too easy. What's the catch?"
Harmonia laughed at that, a slight, ironic laugh. "Ah, well. The 'catch', as you put it, is that you must not be discovered by any immortal who might be there at the moment. If you are, they will no doubt attempt to stop you. Also, there may be dangers unseen to confound unwary mortal intruders. You may stumble across them. Be most cautious."
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Yeah? What kind of dangers?"
"In truth, Zeus placed them. I do not know exactly what or where they are, or indeed if they even exist anymore. Oh yes, I was a child on Olympus, but left as a teen. I was given as a bride to Cadmus, founder and ruler of Thebes. I never knew exactly of Zeus' traps. As an immortal, they did not concern me. They may have died with Zeus. I can only caution you most severely about their possibility."
"Thanks. Anything else we should know?"
"Yes. I must warn you of the power of ambrosia and nectar."
Mel interjected her own thoughts. "Can it really confer immortality on a human?"
"It can. You see, if an injured or sick mortal partakes of it, it will cure him. If a healthy mortal partakes, it will confer immortality, invincibility. That is why it is so dangerous in mortal hands. Can you imagine what would happen if the wrong people got possession of it?"
Mel scratched her head in contemplation. "I think I see what you mean."
Jan was more blunt. "And you trust us with it?"
Harmonia smiled. "My mother trusts you. That is enough for me." She paused, collecting her thoughts, then spoke again. "I know that you have deep affection for my mother. I can feel it. That, and your inherent sense of what is right-" Her expression softened a bit at the next statement. "-which I can also feel is deeply rooted in you, is all the assurance that I need." She smiled and attempted a joke. "After thousands of years, I have learned to judge people rather well, I think. Now come, let us sit by the fire and I will tell you some marvelous stories of old Greece."
That night, as Mel lay in the darkness of their room, she heard the bathroom door squeak open. The bed bounced slightly as Jan slipped under the covers and snuggled up to her, wrapping an arm around her waist. Her voice was soft, a whisper. "Hey, Mel. You awake?"
"Of course, darlin'."
"What are you thinking about?"
She sighed. "Oh, tomorrow, I suppose. It will be quite an adventure, won't it?"
"Damned right, gorgeous. We'll be the first mortals to walk in Olympus in two thousand years."
Mel smiled in the night. "And you can't wait, can you?"
Jan chuckled. "What do you think?"
"I think that you'd like to go right now, if you could."
"Nah. The only thing that I like better than an adventure is lying in a warm bed, wrapped around you."
"You sweet talker, you."
After a moment's silence, Mel sighed deeply, a subtle sign of worry which was not lost on Jan. She lifted her head from the pillow and looked at the tall southerner. "What's up, Mel? Having doubts about this?"
"Aren't you? Don't you ever worry that, one of these times, we won't do so well? I mean, what if Ares is there?"
"Quit worrying, Mel. I've met him twice before and lived to tell about it. I can whip him again if he shows up."
"And you've been hurt quite badly both times. I worry about this, Jan. For some reason, I'm just scared." Jan could feel Mel's head turn toward her in the darkness. "Aren't you?"
"Nope. Whenever I worry about these things, I just have a chat with Gabrielle. I did that tonight, while you were in the bath. She's quite reassuring."
"What did she say?"
"That we're doing the right thing, and that they'll be with us." Jan squeezed Mel. "That's good enough for me."
"You and she enjoy quite a close relationship, don't you? I envy that a little."
Jan seemed surprised at the revelation. "Well, don't you and Xena talk?"
"She's not much for words, Jan. It's hard. In the past, it's always been enough to know that she's there."
"But tonight, it's not?"
Jan was quiet for a moment, then spoke decisively. "Well, go and talk with her. Go on. Wrap yourself up, go out on the balcony, and call her name. Wait quietly and listen with both your ears and that big, perceptive heart of yours. She'll answer, I'll bet."
Mel's answer seemed skeptical. "Do you really think so?"
"Trust me, Mel. Just go with it."
Mel laughed aloud at that. "My goodness. I still remember the first time you ever said that to me."
"Yeah? What happened?"
"You seduced me."
Jan snickered. "Well, see? Good things happen when you trust me. Just go and do it. You won't regret it." At Mel's hesitation, she urged, "Go on. I'll keep the bed warm until you get back, I promise."
"All right, Jan. I'll do it." She rose and donned her robe and slippers, opening the balcony door a crack. Just before she exited, Jan called after her.
"By the way, Mel, as I remember it, you seduced me."
Mel smiled. "Jan, honey, you have a very selective memory." She pulled her robe tight at the collar against the cold wind, then stepped out onto the balcony, shutting the door behind her.
Mel felt the winter's wind blow through her hair, chilling her. She pulled her robe a little tighter around her, then stepped to the railing, studying the night sky. The stars were myriad and brilliant, the moon bright and full, as only a winter's sky could make them. She took a deep breath, releasing it slowly to still her pounding heart, and then forced herself to relax. After a moment, she softly called, "Xena?"
She listened for a moment, listened to the soft wind and the thump of her own heart, then called again. "Xena?" It was not so much words which she heard, but a feeling of companionship which flooded over her, a feeling that she wasn't alone on the balcony. She opened her eyes and blinked at the darkness, then perceived a dim light which reflected off the skin of her hand. She slowly turned, gasped, and involuntarily shivered at the sight before her.
Standing on the balcony just a few feet from her, a form shimmered in the night. The soft silver light which it emitted gave the form near her an ethereal, ghostly quality. She studied it for a long moment as she shivered in the cold air.
The figure was her height, although the build was slightly more muscular than her own. Black hair flowed from Xena's head down and over her shoulders, braided at the sides. Dark leather and bronze armor glinted slightly, and she noted the pommel and hilt of a sword behind the warrior's right shoulder. It was the eyes, however, which caught and held her attention. A deep, piercing blue, they twinkled at Mel's aghast expression, eyes which combined the wisdom of ages with a deep sadness which the witness of centuries of suffering gave to them. It was the same lined expression which the two immortals in the house exhibited.. The figure blazed a smile, then asked, "Are you cold?"
Mel looked down at herself, her robe tightly wrapped around her, her slippered feet on the stone of the balcony, and gave her ancestor a sheepish expression. "Freezing." At the answer, Xena waved a hand. Mel felt a warmth exude through her body and her shivering stopped. She looked up at Xena. "How-?"
Xena shrugged. "Does it matter?"
Mel felt herself smile. "I suppose not. Thank you." At that, Xena merely nodded, then spoke to Mel.
"I'm glad that you called my name. You have no idea how long I've been waiting for that."
Mel blushed slightly. "Well, you're not much one for conversation, you know."
Xena grinned. "So says Gabrielle, too. Just one among my many failings, I suppose. Now, dear daughter, what can I do for you?"
"Do you know of our task tomorrow?"
Xena nodded again. "Yes. Are you frightened?"
"I suppose so." She looked at Xena with pleading eyes. "Is it right, what we're about to do?"
"Do you doubt it?"
"A little, I suppose."
Xena smiled. "Don't doubt the honor of your motives. You do this for Aphrodite, not for yourselves. The purity of your purpose gives you and Janice strength, you know." Xena shifted slightly, then continued, "Aphrodite was the only god for whom I retained any respect. Oh, she was shallow, self-possessed, as irritating as the rest of them, but not vicious. She never set out to hurt anyone. I always appreciated that in her." As an afterthought, she added, "She alone, of all of them, never tried to kill my daughter. Even Artemis, whom I initially regarded well, proved unworthy in the end. Aphrodite alone helped us. Perhaps it was her affection for Gabrielle which was her motive, or perhaps it was just because of her nature. She was, after all, the goddess of love."
"And now she's dying, and she needs your help. Give it to her, Melinda. Bring her what she needs. I'll be near you the whole way, never doubt that. As Gabrielle is for Janice, I am there for you." She fell silent for a moment, then said, "I always have been, you know."
"I know. I'm sorry that we haven't talked more."
"Me, too. I'm just glad you called for me tonight. It was worth the wait." Xena flashed a brilliant smile, one which seemed to warm Mel down to her toes, and said, "Remember, I will be near. If you need me, just call my name."
"I will. Thank you, Xena."
"Of course, my distant daughter."
"We'll talk again soon."
Xena smiled. "I'd like that very much." She folded her arms across her chest as if preparing to leave, then stopped. "A final word of caution. Be wary of the power of ambrosia. It can seduce, render selfish your motives. Keep in mind what you're there for. Keep your motives pure. Heed me, daughter. That, and not Olympus, may prove your greatest trial."
"I will. Thank you."
"Good-bye, my distant daughter."
At that, the ethereal figure nodded, then disappeared, the soft hue of silvery light disappearing with her. Mel stood on the balcony for a moment, quite humbled and speechless, and only then noted that she was shivering again. She turned and entered the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. Jan's voice addressed her from the bed.
"So, Mel, I take it she was home when you called?"
"Yes, Jan. We had a most marvelous conversation. I'm still quite dumbfounded by it all."
"Come to bed and tell me all about it, gorgeous."
In answer, Mel shed her robe and slippers and crawled under the covers. Jan had done her job well; the bed was warmed by her body heat, and Mel luxuriated in the delightful sensation of the comfortable feather-bed. She sighed contentedly as she felt Jan snuggle up to her and lay her head on her shoulder. "Why Jan, you've kept it absolutely toasty in here." Mel shifted slightly, then added, "I just wish that my feet weren't so cold."
"Damn, you're right. They're like icebergs. That's probably because your legs are so long, your feet are sticking out from under the covers."
Mel's answer was slightly sarcastic. "Ha, ha, ha, little Miss Smarty-Pants. At least I can see whenever we're in a crowd. And my feet are cold because you're too short to warm that part of the bed."
In answer, Jan said, "I'll fix 'em. Turn on your side, Mel, away from me. Go on." Mel wondered at that, but did as Jan said, settling on her side. "Now bend your knees up." As Mel drew her knees up toward her stomach, she felt Jan's body spoon behind her, the petite blonde's strong arms wrapping themselves around her waist.. In a moment, Jan's warm thighs pressed against the soles of Mel's feet, lending their heat to the icy extremities. "How's that, Mel?"
"Why, that feels delightful, Jan, but it must be awful for you."
"Nah. Nothing's too good for my Mel."
After a moment's silence, Mel whispered, "Jan?"
"Warming my iceberg feet is the most selfless demonstration of pure love that I have ever seen, and I'll never forget it."
Jan snickered. "My pleasure, Mel. Now tell me all about your chat with Xena."
Harmonia looked her two companions over, then nodded in satisfaction. "You are set, it seems. Now, each of you take my hand and do not be afraid." She smiled, an odd little smile, and attempted a joke. "I have done this many times before."
Jan and Mel, wrapped in their thick parkas, cast a hesitant glance at each other and nodded. "Um, yeah. Ready for blast-off, Mel?"
"As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose." They each reached out and grasped Harmonia's hands, and she closed her eyes and gave a deft nod of her head. A swirl of brilliant colors enveloped their eyes and their senses felt nothing. Jan had the distinct sensation of floating, lasting a couple of seconds, and then a blast of piercing, frigid air slapped her in the face. She opened her eyes and beheld herself surrounded by rugged, mountainous terrain, snow-swept and windy. As she blinked in surprise, she looked around. She was still holding Harmonia's hand. Mel was standing next to the immortal, a tight grasp on the other hand. Speechless for a moment, she slowly released the hand and gasped, "Wow. That was..."
Mel's voice completed the sentence. "Indescribable."
"So where in the blue blazing hell are we, Harmonia?"
The immortal laughed, a twinkling, infectious laugh, and pointed toward the cliff near them. "You are in Greece, at the base of Mount Olympus." She breathed deeply of the frigid air and then pointed, first in one direction and then in the other. "There, you see, is Thessaly. In that direction lies Macedonia." She seemed delighted at the travel and quite oblivious to the sharp wind and flurries of snow which spun around them.
Jan pulled back the hood of her parka and looked up. "And there's Mount Olympus. Damn, I can't even see the top."
"The visibility is not the best for that. It is often obscured by clouds, as it is today. Well, no matter. Come, I will show you the entrance." She waved a hand and began to tread between boulders and scrub trees toward the side of the mountain. Jan, a pickaxe in one hand and rucksack on her back, offered her free hand out to Mel. The taller woman grasped it tightly, and they followed Harmonia through the flurries of wind-driven snow which whistled between the large rocks surrounding them.
After a short walk, the immortal pointed to a spot in the face of a sheer cliff, overgrown with scrub brush and caked with snow. "It is here. Just a moment; I will clear it for you." She waved a hand and the brush and snow fell away, revealing a small arch seemingly carved into the stone. Around the periphery, a series of old Greek characters were chiseled. Mel approached it and read aloud, slowly, purposefully, as she pointed with her finger.
"Here ends the mortal realm. Hades will judge rightly from this place onward." Puzzled, she cast a glance over to Harmonia.
"An attempt to discourage any mortals who may be brave enough to enter, I suppose." Her explanation was not reassuring to Jan.
"Well, that's comforting. Let's get the show on the road, Mel. I'm freezing already." Jan walked over to the face of the cliff and tapped on the space under the arch with her pick-axe. It rang hollow. "How thick is this, Harmonia?"
"I don't know, Janice. Not very, I imagine."
Mel looked down at the pick-axe in Jan's gloved hands, then at the one in her own. "It seems the difficult way to do this, Harmonia. Can't you just work some magic on it?"
She shook her head. "I can help no more, Melinda. It is in your hands now." She squatted by a large rock. "I can only wait for you."
Mel's voice reflected worry. "Won't you freeze?" The immortal only raised an eyebrow at that, and Mel blushed sheepishly. "Oh, right. I forgot. Immortal."
"Well, if it makes you feel better, Melinda." The immortal snapped her fingers and a thick, dark cloak appeared around her. She gestured again, and a long scarf appeared in her hand, one which she deftly wrapped around her neck, flinging the end over her shoulder with an air of abandon. At the next gesture, a small fire appeared at her feet where she squatted, and she leaned forward slightly and warmed her hands at it. "Now, I am well cared for. I will be here when you return. Good luck, my friends."
Jan grinned. "See you in a jiffy. Come on, Mel. Let's make a hole." With that, she hefted her pick-axe and thumped it into the rock wall under the arch, the tip digging in about an inch. As she pulled it away, a small hole appeared and powdered rock sprinkled across the snow. Mel shrugged, lifted her own pick-axe, and swung where Jan had made the hole. The rock chipped away slightly more. They fell into a rhythm, alternating whacks at the stone, the arch echoing a hollow ring each time they struck. In about ten minutes, they had chipped away a hole large enough to easily put one's fist through.
Jan placed her pick-axe down and waved a hand. "That's enough, Mel."
"Why, we'll never get through that, Jan."
"We don't have to." Jan glanced up at Mel's puzzled face and wiggled her eyebrows in a gesture of evil satisfaction. Shrugging off her rucksack, she fumbled with the buckles, then cursed under her breath and pulled off her gloves. With her hands free, she deftly opened the sack and produced a white block of something-or-other, which she nonchalantly tossed to Mel. "Hang onto that for a minute, will ya?" Mel caught it and examined it. It was square, twice the size of her fist, and appeared to be formed of a white, chalky substance. There was a hole through the center of the square.
"Why Jan, what's this?"
Jan looked up from the rucksack. "Huh? Nothing, Mel. Just TNT."
Mel was stunned. Her face, already whitened from the snow and frigid air, seemed to pale even more, and she studied the block of explosive in her hand. "And you threw it to me?"
Jan pulled a bundle of wire from the rucksack, then looked up at Mel's incredulous expression. She grinned evilly, then said, "Relax. It needs another explosion to set it off."
Mel gingerly held the block between her fingers, examining it at arm's length, then looked down at Jan. "And just how do you propose to do that, Jan?" After a second, she added, "Or should I ask?"
Jan held up the bundle of wire. Hanging off the bundle at one end was a thick red cylinder. "With this detonator cap."
"Um, Jan? Are you quite sure that this is safe? Is this really necessary?"
"Yeah, sure." Jan smiled innocently, then added, "Unless you want to keep whacking away at this door all day."
Mel considered the alternatives, then agreed, "Ahem. I suppose not."
"Well, then. Watch, listen and learn. Toss me that TNT, Mel." Jan held out her hand, but Mel leaned down and gently placed the explosive in her hand. Jan squatted at the door, her eyes level with the hole, and inserted the block of TNT, tapping on it with the heel of her hand in order to seat it snugly inside the rock. She then loosened the ties holding the bundle of wire and inserted the detonator into the hole in the center of the explosive. She picked up her gloves, stuffed them into her pockets, and handed the rucksack to Mel. As she stood up, she looked around her. "That way, Mel. Let's get some distance from this thing." They retraced their steps away from the cliff's face, Jan carefully unreeling the wire as they did so. As they passed Harmonia, Jan stopped. "You might want to come with us."
The woman smiled. "Oh, I'm sure that I will be fine, Jan. I am an immortal."
Jan shrugged. "Have it your way. Come on, Mel." They resumed their slow backward trek, Jan unreeling the wire, until they were some way from the arch. Jan pointed toward a large rock. "Behind here." They crouched down behind the rock. Jan lifted the rucksack from Mel's hand and rummaged in it, producing an electric detonator. She set it in her lap, blew on her hands, rubbed them together, and then found the end of the wire. It had already been stripped of insulation, the two copper wires exposed. Jan loosened the two terminals, wound an exposed end of wire around each one and tightened them down, then held the detonator in one hand as she grasped the T-handle, dangling by a thin chain, with the other hand. As she placed the handle on the small, square detonator, she looked over at Mel. "You ready for this?"
Mel raised an eyebrow. "As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose."
"Okay, then. Fire in the hole." With that, Jan twisted the handle, and a resounding bang sounded. Bits of rock showered down around them and Mel ducked her head, holding her hands over the hood of her parka. When she looked up again, Jan was standing. "Come on, Mel. Let's see if we can get in."
Mel, her ears slightly ringing, stood and blinked. A thick plume of smoke hovered around the base of the rock cliff, and she could see bits of rock discoloring the white snow on the ground. They paced back up along the path, following the wire. When they passed Harmonia, she was picking herself up from the ground and dusting a layer of powdered rock off of her dark cloak. Mel asked, "Are you quite all right, Harmonia?"
The immortal stood and coughed a couple of times. Jan thought that she could almost see smoke issue from her mouth as she replied, "You could have warned me, Janice."
Jan couldn't help the grin that spread across her face. "Hey, I tried."
Harmonia studied Jan's grinning face for a moment, then responded with a slow smile of her own. "Yes, you did." She glanced toward the arch. "I believe that the door is open, dear friends. Go on, now. I will await you here."
Jan glanced at the large hole in the cliff's face, then back at Harmonia. "We won't fail."
The immortal's expression softened. "I know. Hurry, please."
With that admonition in their ears, Jan and Mel approached the arch. The hole blown into the door was wide enough for them to enter, bending over somewhat. Once inside, they looked around them. They were in a tunnel which wound uphill and around a corner. The only light which lit the tunnel entered through the hole.
Jan pulled the parka's hood from her head. "That way. Only way to go." They began following the tunnel on its gentle slope upward, and when they rounded the corner, the light became much dimmer. Jan stopped and gestured with a hand. "Let's dump our stuff here."
They unzipped their parkas and dropped them on the ground at the side of the tunnel. As Jan knelt down and opened the rucksack, Mel took stock of the tunnel.
"It's warmer in here, Jan. Still a bit chilly, though. I'm glad we wore thermal underwear and winter shirts. Dark, too. Wait, is it my imagination, or do the walls actually seem to glow somewhat?"
Jan stood. "Yeah, they do. Weak light, but some. At least it won't be totally dark in here."
She handed Mel a flashlight, then tucked another one under her arm as she strapped on her pistol belt and settled the holstered pistol over her right hip. Mel watched her as she pulled her bullwhip out of the bag and tied it onto the belt on her left side with a thin leather strip, then smiled.
"Are you ready, Jan?"
"Not quite yet, Mel." The petite blonde reached down and pulled her worn fedora hat from the rucksack, shaking it out and thumping it into shape with her fist. She clapped it on her head, then rummaged in her shirt pocket and pulled forth a short, cigarette-sized cigar, which she jammed into one side of her mouth and lit with a clack of her Zippo lighter. After taking a drag and blowing out a luxurious cloud of smoke, she looked over at Mel and said, "Let's go find some ambrosia."
Mel smiled. That, in front of her, was all Janice Covington. The cocky, confident air, the worn hat, her flannel shirt rolled up to her elbows revealing the sleeves of her long underwear shirt, the fire in her eyes and even the sweet, pungent odor of the tobacco, all reminded Mel of the Janice that she had first met so many years ago in Macedonia. She felt the same tug of emotion in her chest now that she did then. God, she thought, Look at her. What a girl. I'd follow her anywhere. "I'm ready, Janice. Let's do our job." With a nod, Jan clicked on her flashlight and began walking up the tunnel, as Mel scooped up the rucksack with a long arm and followed her lover into the depths of an unknown world.
The tunnel meandered into the mountain at a slight incline up, the walls seeming to glow of their own accord. It afforded just enough light for the two explorers to see each other's forms, dimly reflecting the odd reddish-golden hue. They walked slowly, side by side, the beams of their flashlights bobbing continually back and forth in the tunnel, illuminating dark corners and the floor in front of them. After some time, Jan glanced at her wristwatch. "Been going about twenty minutes. I wonder how the hell long this is going to take."
"Well, it is a rather large mountain."
"Yeah. Great." She shined the flashlight ahead and squinted with interest. "Hm. Looks like an intersection up ahead. Let's go."
Within a minute, they stood in the intersection of three tunnels. One, they had just traveled; the second passed off to their left and slightly downward, and the third continued up and into the mountain. Jan considered the left one first, grunting and shaking her head, then studied the third one more intently. As she did, she was interrupted by Mel's voice.
"Jan, turn off your light."
"Huh?" She looked up at Mel, who was squinting down into the second tunnel. "What's up?"
"Turn it off. Look down there."
Jan clicked her flashlight off, then peered down into the second tunnel. "What?"
"Let your eyes adjust. Don't you see it? Look, there's a light coming from down there which is a different color from the walls."
After a moment's reflection, Jan agreed. "Yeah, you're right, Mel. It looks white. Let's check it out. Oh, hang on a minute. Let's mark our way out."
Mel rummaged in her shirt pocket, produced a thick white stick of chalk, and scrawled an arrow on the tunnel's wall pointing back toward the entrance they had used, writing the word 'out' above it. Jan nodded with satisfaction, then clicked her flashlight's beam on. Slowly, they trod the tunnel downward, careful to keep their footing, and when they turned a corner, were faced with a hole in the side of the mountain. A gust of cold air crept in through it, scattering the ashes of an extinguished camp-fire which had been burned just inside the hole. Jan's flashlight beam darted around the scene, then stopped when it exposed some winter clothing and a large knapsack stuffed into a corner. Jan was stunned. Slowly, she looked up at Mel, whose face reflected the same sense of shock that she was feeling.
"Someone else is in here, too."
"Bingo." Jan leaned down and scraped through the ashes with a half-burned stick, noting the embers at the bottom of the fire still flare slightly and glow when the wind puffed at them. "This is recent. Probably just one person, from the amount of equipment. He can't be far ahead."
"What will we do, Jan?"
"Do?" Jan stood, took a final drag on her small cigar, then tossed it into the remnants of the camp-fire. "We'll get the ambrosia, that's what we'll do." She gestured toward the fire and added, "Before he does." She pulled her revolver from her holster, cracked it open, and assured herself that it was loaded. Then, with a loud click, she closed it and holstered it. "Come on, Mel. We've got even less time than we thought. This changes everything."
They turned and retraced their steps to the tunnels' intersection, continuing their trek up into the mountain. For several minutes, they walked quite rapidly, their breaths becoming louder with the exertion, scanning the floor and walls in front of them with their flashlights' beams as they trod the ancient path. At a bend in the tunnel, Jan stopped suddenly. Her voice was a loud whisper. "Turn off your light, Mel." In unison, both their lights clicked off.
Mel leaned down close to Jan's ear. "What is it?"
"I think I heard something. If he's just ahead, I don't want him seeing our lights."
They stuffed the flashlights into their back pockets and continued forward, bathed only in the dim light of the tunnel's walls. The sound of their breathing and their footfalls echoed in the silent tunnel, accompanied by the pounding of their hearts in their ears. Jan noticed the hair begin to bristle on the back of her neck and held up a hand, thumping Mel in the chest. "Something's just ahead. I can feel it. Stay just behind me."
"Gladly. What is it, Jan?" Mel glanced over at the familiar form near her, then blinked in surprise. The form was gone. She took in a shocked breath, then felt her heart thud loudly in her chest. "Jan? Jan? Where are you?"
A strained voice echoed from the direction of her feet. "Down here. Jesus Christ, Mel. Help me up."
Mel blinked down at her feet, but saw only darkness, a darkness which prevailed in spite of the dim glow of the walls. She pulled the flashlight from her back pocket and clicked it on. One foot in front of her was a patch of darkness spanning the width of the tunnel. "Jan?"
Something grabbed at her foot, and she jumped back. When she shined the light on it, she recognized it as Jan's hand. The beam followed the arm to the edge of the dark patch on the floor, and she saw the face of one very chagrined archaeologist blinking back at her. "For Chrissakes, I'm hanging on by my boobs here. Help me up, Mel."
"Oh, my." Mel knelt down and dropped the light on the floor, grasping Jan's wrists and giving a hard pull. With a grunt and some effort, she pulled the little blonde up until she was standing. "What happened, Jan?"
Jan said nothing, just bent down and picked up the light from the floor. She shined it down on the patch of darkness, and the light's beam revealed a hole in the floor, it's sides sheer. They leaned forward carefully and shone the light down into the hole. The beam dissipated in the darkness; they could see no bottom.
Mel's voice reflected a tone of horror. "Oh, Jan. That was close. You almost..."
Jan answered her in a sour snap. "Tell me about it. Look, next time, be a little quicker, will ya?" Silence answered her, and she instantly felt a bit of a heel for the nasty retort. She sighed, then said, "Sorry, Mel. I didn't mean to snap." She reached out with an arm and found Mel's waist, snaking the arm around it and giving her a squeeze. In answer, Mel's voice was apologetic.
"I'll be much quicker next time."
Jan chuckled sardonically. "Next time. Jeez. Hole in the floor. Oldest trick in the book. I should have seen that one coming."
"Well, I suppose that accounts for our mystery companion in here. He's very probably down there."
Jan directed the light's beam around the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, examining it carefully. "Nope." She held the light stationary. Mel followed it with her eyes and saw the end of a rope hanging down from a stone arch above the pit. "Smart. This guy's a pro."
"Well, so are we. After you, Jan."
The little blonde stared up at her companion's face, then cracked a broad smile. "That's my Mel." She reached out to grasp the rope, leaning slightly over the pit, and felt Mel's firm grasp upon the back of her shirt. After a couple of attempts, she growled, "Shit. Can't quite reach it."
An audible giggle erupted from behind her. "What's the matter, cutie? Too short?"
"Grrr. Alright, wiseacre, you reach it and I'll hold on to you."
Another giggle resounded, and Mel stood at the edge of the pit. Jan held tightly to her friend's arm as she reached out with a long leg and caught the rope with the toe of her boot. She drew it slowly to them and grasped it, handing it to Jan, who received it with a look which silently spoke, 'Don't you dare say a thing'. Backing up a few paces, she tugged on it a couple of times to insure that it was secure, then swung across the pit. She threw the end of the rope back to Mel, who swung across the void and handed the rope back to Jan with a smirk, a raised eyebrow, and the exclamation, "Shall we?"
"Onward and upward, gorgeous. Oh, wait a minute." Jan dropped the end of the rope on the ground next to her feet. "Let's keep it ready. We may be getting out of here in a hurry."
They resumed their walk through the tunnel, silent for the next several minutes, their feet and their breathing the only sounds in the tunnel, until Jan's voice broke the silence. "Mel?"
"You're getting pretty good at this stuff, did I ever tell you that?"
"You just did, and thank you." After a second, she added, "I learned from the best."
Jan chuckled, then affected her best Humphry Bogart impression. "Stick with me, sweetheart. I'll show ya the world."
In the dim light of the tunnel, ahead of the two women, a figure hugged the wall and listened intently. In the deep shadows, his form was lean, his eyes perceptive under the brim of his fedora hat. Someone else, he thought. That wasn't part of the deal. What the...? Who can they be? What are they after? He coughed quietly as he answered his own question. They've got to be after the same thing that I am. Well, they're not going to get to it first. The dark form moved out of the shadows and hurried upward through the tunnel, keeping to the wall and attempting to pace as silently as possible.
Jan found that the tunnel veered sharply to the left, a direction from which brighter light glowed. As she studied the tunnel, she noted that there was no other direction in which to travel, and concluded that they must be near the main chambers of Olympus. The sudden, sharp turn gave her pause, however; she didn't trust the blind spot in the tunnel. So far, this was much too easy. There had to be more.
She grasped Mel's hand, held a finger to her lips to indicate silence, and flattened herself against the wall. Removing her hat, she slowly peered around the corner, then pulled her head back, blinking in surprise. In her ear, she heard Mel's whispered question.
"What is it, Jan?"
"It's a garden."
"A what? In here?"
In answer, Jan grasped Mel's hand and pulled her out into the hall. They walked slowly forward, hand in hand, blinking in astonishment at the sight before them. The tunnel expanded into a large, cavernous hall, a luxurious blanket of green grass carpeting the floor. Trees laden with ripe fruit offered a welcome treat, and the gurgle of a clear fountain echoed in their ears. The soft, melodic song of myriad birds twinkled in the background, and glorious splashes of colorful flowers blazed in the warm, white light which illuminated the place. An occasional butterfly twitted past their eyes, landing upon flower or shrub. In stunned silence, the two women stood still and gaped about them, overwhelmed at the incredible beauty of the surroundings. After a moment, Mel asked, "Are we here?"
Still awestruck, Jan replied, "I don't know. Let's keep going." She tugged on Mel's hand, and they began walking through the gardens, their gaze moving constantly from side to side, attempting to register the unrivaled beauty of the gardens. "This is incredible, Mel."
"Isn't it, though? Look at this place. Why, I could just stay here for the rest of my life. My, the grass is so thick and green, I just want to take off my shoes and run in it."
Jan looked down at her feet. It was inviting, she thought. Perhaps it was just a little too inviting. "Let's get out of here, Mel. I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Oh, you cynic. Let's stay just a bit."
"No, Mel. Let's keep going. There's another tunnel just ahead."
"What can it hurt, Jan? Oh, look at this!" Jan turned to watch Mel extend a hand. A butterfly, exquisite patterns of design on its wings, perched on her knuckles and slowly fanned its wings. "It's beautiful. Come and see."
Jan felt a wave of irritation rise in her, then glanced up at Mel's face. Her love's blue eyes were wide with the fascination of a child, her expression one of rapt delight. Well, Jan thought, just a moment won't hurt, I guess. Look at Mel; she's having the time of her life. "Yeah, okay." Jan stepped closer to examine the butterfly, then froze as the hair once again prickled at the back of her neck. They weren't alone. She'd had that warning too many times before to ignore it now. Lifting her pistol from its holster, she whirled and then stood, mouth agape, staring into a most incredibly beautiful face. The face regarded her with kindness, then spoke in a soft, pleasant voice, the words echoing a very old dialect of Greek.
"Welcome, pilgrims. Refresh yourselves."
Jan glanced down and saw that the face belonged to a young woman of exquisite perfection, draped in a tunic and holding before her a tray with two ornate cups. Slowly, her eyes traveled up from the tray, and she felt herself transfixed at the sight before her. Her eyes fastened upon the young woman's face. The flawless beauty of the face held Jan's attention; she was unable to remove her eyes from it until she felt a hand place itself on her shoulder and Mel's voice ask, "Why, who's this, Jan?"
Jan tore her eyes away from the face with some difficulty, then sheepishly cast a glance up at Mel. "Ah, I'm not sure." Looking back at the young woman, she repeated the question in Greek.. "Who are you?"
"I am to render comfort to all travelers who pass this way," she replied. "Drink, and rest. You must be tired."
Jan studied the eyes carefully. As she did, she saw an eerie, dancing gleam deep in the dark pupils, and once again felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. Even as she felt herself mesmerized by the woman's beauty and, to her private embarrassment, felt herself physically respond with a tug of arousal, she forced herself to back away a step. In Greek, she replied, "Ah, thank you. No. We will continue."
"Why, Jan, don't be so rude."
Jan grasped Mel's hand and pulled her past the young woman. "Come on, Mel. Let's get outta here. I've got a bad..."
Jan never got the chance to finish her thought, for the young woman turned and faced them as they passed her. She dropped the tray, held her arms above her head and uttered a cry which chilled both explorers to the bone. As they watched in frozen horror, the young woman began growing, changing color from white tunic and bronzed flesh into a deep, ruddy brown. Her eyes came alive, flashing like red coals from a fire as her body transformed from an image of perfect beauty into a leathery, bat-like vision of vengeance, a demon loosed from the deepest realms of some hell. Her mouth opened; two rows of sharp teeth displayed themselves, her breath smoky and foul.
Jan did not consciously remember speaking, but heard her own voice echo in the garden. "Holy shit. Run, Mel!"
Both women turned and sprinted for the far tunnel, Jan's feet desperately beating the grassy ground in an effort to keep pace with Mel's longer legs. Time seemed, to them, to run in agonizingly slow motion as they sprinted toward the tunnel. Jan was acutely aware of the sounds of flapping wings and the hot breath of the apparition just behind her. How close the demon was, she did not know. She didn't dare turn and look, for fear that it would slow her progress. Her heart pounded as she ran, ran as fast as her legs could work, keeping abreast of Mel as they darted for the safety of the tunnel.
After a seemingly endless, terrible few seconds, they sprinted into the tunnel. Mel, slightly ahead of Jan, turned and peered back over her shoulder, her eyes wide with adrenalin. She slowed, then stopped, breathing heavily, and pointed back toward the garden. "Look," she gasped, "It won't follow."
Jan turned, panting and leaning upon her knees. The apparition stood at the tunnel's entrance, emitting a deep growl which reverberated through the tunnel, but did not make an attempt to pursue them. Its eyes, still glowing red, peered at them, sending a shiver through both women. "It can't, I guess. It must be confined to the garden." Jan breathed deeply, attempting to relax the pounding of her heart in her chest, and waved to Mel. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
"I'm with you." Mel stood erect, grasped Jan's hand, and they retreated up into the tunnel, keeping a wary eye toward the beast. The tunnel turned sharply; as they rounded the corner, they both leaned against the wall, still panting, and slowly slid to the floor in unison, sitting and allowing their breathing to return to normal. After a few moment's silence, Mel's whisper broke the silence.
"What in the fuck was that thing?"
Jan blinked owlishly a couple of times, then slowly turned her head and stared at her lover. A grin splashed across her face, and she began to cackle in laughter. Mel stared down at the petite blonde, then felt a huge grin spread across her own face. She found the laughter absolutely infectious. She leaned her head back against the wall, her own howls of mirth joining Jan's. After the fit of screaming laughter subsided, draining the tension from their bodies, they quieted, just sitting in silence, an occasional chuckle sounding in the tunnel. Mel's voice broke the silence again.
"Whatever are we laughing at?"
Jan pointed a finger at Mel. "You said 'fuck', Mel."
Mel wiped a hank of dark hair out of her face. "My goodness, I did, didn't I? You must be rubbing off on me."
Jan reached out and took Mel's hand in her own. "That's okay. You know I love it when you talk dirty to me."
"Janice Covington, you're a total pervert."
"Hey, I can't help it. I went to Catholic school."
Mel rolled her head to the side and fixed Jan with an affectionate expression. "Well, that would explain a lot." She began struggling to her feet, and pulled Jan up by the hand. "Come on, you perverted cutie, we've still got a job to do."
"I'm with ya, you gorgeous potty-mouth." Together, still hand in hand, they began trekking up the incline of the tunnel, clicking their flashlights on to scan the floor in front of them.
Several minutes' careful walk up the tunnel brought them around another sharp bend, and their noses wrinkled in unison from a musty odor. Mel covered her face with a hand. "Oh, that's awful. What is that?"
Jan, just ahead of her, was standing still, shining her flashlight's beam on the floor several feet ahead of them. "Bodies, Mel."
"What?" Mel stopped next to Jan, directing her own flashlight onto the floor where Jan was pointing. There, in the dim light of the wall's glow, the tunnel had widened. The smell was becoming more noticeable, and Jan slowly walked forward. Scattered around the floor, on the widened portion of the tunnel, dark lumps of clothing inhabited by grotesque, decomposed bodies were evident in the light. The flashlights' beams caused the grinning, naked skulls to shine. Jan stopped in her tracks.
"Don't move, Mel. Don't touch anything."
"Why, what killed these people, Jan?"
"Don't know. Whatever it is, it could still be working. Watch yourself. Let me check it out."
Jan crouched down, slowly creeping forward and shining her light around her and over the walls and ceiling. Mel stood quietly, studying the decomposed bodies at her feet, then noted, "These people are wearing uniforms of some sort. They look familiar. I've seen these uniforms before."
Jan stopped, then cast her light's beam over the lump of clothing nearest her. "You sure have. They're Wehrmacht."
"Yeah. German. Mountain soldiers, from the Edelweiss patch on the uniform. Holy crap, their weapons are still here, rucksacks, everything." Jan Poked at the lump of uniform, gingerly lifting the front of a tunic. "Look at the battle decoration on this one. Iron cross. These guys were experienced soldiers. What in the hell killed them?"
"They've been here quite a while, haven't they?"
"Sure. Anywhere from five to ten years, I guess. Oh, man. Look at this. A Luger pistol. I've always wanted one of these things." She pulled the pistol from its leather holster and shoved it into her back pocket, then extracted something from the tunic and studied it under her flashlight. She held it up for Mel to see. "Dart. There's a couple of them in this one." Jan carefully shone her light on the floor, creeping forward on her hands and knees. "I don't see any kind of trap. I would expect a trip wire."
Mel cautioned, "Jan, please be careful."
"Sure, Mel. Okay, here it is. Trip wires. They're hard to see." She directed her light to the walls and only then noticed the myriad small holes in the sides of the tunnel. "Shit. Mel, don't move your feet at all. Let me come back to you."
Alarmed, Mel directed her light to the ground around her feet, carefully studying the stones for any sign of trip wires. She saw none, and then examined the walls. The scores of holes which dotted the walls began about three feet in front of her. "Jan, I'm okay. It doesn't begin until, um..." She looked at the walls, then at Jan's position. "About five feet behind you."
"Just stay there. I'll come back." Jan slowly turned around and crawled toward Mel, her expression intent as she examined the floor in front of her face. After several breathless minutes, she sat at Mel's feet. "Whew. Glad to be out of that one."
"We've still got to go through that, Jan."
"Yeah. We'll set 'em off in front of us. Here, hold my light for a minute." Jan stood and handed her light to Mel, then unfastened her bullwhip from her side. She produced the German pistol from her back pocket and yanked the clip from the handle, then fastened the end of the bullwhip around the trigger guard. "Okay, keep behind me. Here we go." Jan tossed the pistol out in front of her, allowing it to clatter across the stones at the farthest reach of her whip, then slowly pulled it back toward them. She felt it tug on something, then a 'whoosh' sounded and darts peppered the walls on both sides of the tunnel. As she drew the heavy pistol toward her, she felt another tug and, again, a series of darts peppered the walls. When the pistol made its slow progress to the toe of her boots, she picked it up. "Clear to that point. Let's walk ahead and do it again, until we're past the holes in the walls."
The slow, careful process of clearing the tunnel took them more time than Jan had anticipated, but she kept her impatience in close check as she concentrated on her deadly work. Eventually, they were past the point where the dart holes in both tunnel walls exhibited themselves, and Jan removed her hat and wiped her forehead with her sleeve. "Damn. Don't want to do that again." As Jan reloaded the pistol and shoved it into her back pocket, Mel spoke. "Look at this, dear. This is so sad. It's a family picture. It must have belonged to one of these soldiers."
"Huh?" Jan turned around. Mel was examining a flat leather wallet which she held under the flashlight's beam. "Lemme see."
Mel tilted the leather-cased picture, still illuminated by her flashlight, so that Jan could study it. "It's a darling little girl, just the sweetest-looking little thing. She must be perhaps ten or so. I wonder who it is?" Jan said nothing. She stood, her face drained of blood, her expression slack and disbelieving. Mel looked at Jan, noted the horrified expression, and became concerned. "What's the matter, Jan?"
Jan's voice was a thick whisper. "Where did you find that?"
"Over there, on the ground. Why?"
"All right." Mel stepped back a few paces and pointed to the ground near a body. "Here."
Jan slowly walked forward, shining her light on the body where Mel indicated. It was wearing a green-brown Wehrmacht uniform like the others. Jan bent down and examined the body, then slowly stood, her face a mask of absolute abhorrence, her eyes wide. "Whatever is the matter, Jan?" In answer, Jan fell to her knees, coughing, and vomited on the floor. Mel watched her in shocked disbelief, then knelt down and placed a hand on Jan's shoulder. Jan's retching had stopped, but Mel felt a deep fear envelop her as she attempted to study her lover's face. "Jan? What's the matter?" She felt a shock at the thought which struck her, and she softly asked, "This girl in the picture. Do you know who she is? Do you recognize her?" In answer, Jan's head nodded, but she said nothing. Mel whispered the next question, slowly, softly. "Who is it, Jan?"
Jan wiped her mouth on her sleeve, then looked up, a tear tracing its path down her cheek. "It's me, Mel."
Jan sat down on the floor. "It's me."
"But that's impossible. You..."
"I remember when the picture was taken. Yeah, you're right. I was about eleven then. It was on a dig in North Africa." She looked over at the body, then shook her head. "Dad always kept it with him, in his pocket."
Mel, shocked beyond emotion at the revelation, muttered, "Are you sure? Can't you be wrong?"
Jan looked up at Mel's disbelieving face. "Look in there. There should be one of me when I was in my first year of college."
Mel examined the leather case, extracting another picture from behind the first one. As she glanced at it, her heart fell. Staring back at her was an image of a teenaged Janice Covington. The same blonde hair, the same cocky grin, the same hazel eyes shone out of the picture. She slowly turned it over. On the back was scrawled, To Dad, with love, Janice. Autumn, 1933. She gently replaced the picture behind the image of the younger Janice, then closed the wallet. "It's there, Jan. I'm so sorry."
Jan glanced over at the body. "Not half as sorry as I am." Her voice rang with whispered vehemence. "God damn it, Dad. Why'd you have to die like this? With these guys? What in the hell were you thinking? What were you doing in here?" For a long moment, she sat so, just staring at the body, then stirred herself and stood. Her face was a frozen mask of dead emotion. She shook her head, then looked up at Mel. Her chin trembled slightly as she said, "He was always my hero, Mel. I adored him. This doesn't make sense. Why would he wear this uniform? Why would he be here?"
Mel reached out and wrapped Jan in her arms. The blonde head fell against her shoulder, sobbing. "It... just... doesn't... make sense." Mel said nothing, just held her in her arms and allowed her to cry, stroking her back as she felt her sob. After a moment, Jan quieted, then pulled herself away and looked up at Mel. As she wiped her face, she spoke with a hint of derision in her voice. "I know what he was doing in here. He led these guys in here. They were after the ambrosia, just like us. Goddamn mercenary son-of-a-bitch. He'd go after anything for money. I always knew it would kill him one day."
"Jan, you mustn't remember him badly."
Jan glanced down at the body once again, then sighed. "I can't. Whatever else he was, he was my dad." She wiped at her face again, then took a deep breath. "This isn't getting the job done. Aphrodite's dying. Let's get crackin', here. Come on, Mel." She waved a hand and began walking forward through the tunnel.
Mel caught up to her, grasped her hand and said, "I'm with you, Jan. I'll always be right here."
In answer, she felt Jan squeeze her hand. "I know, Mel. You're the only one who ever has been. For that, I owe you my life." As they resumed their weary pace through the tunnel, Mel blinked back a tear of her own, looked down at the wallet still in her hand, and tucked it into her shirt pocket for safekeeping.
The continued journey through the tunnels was a quiet one, Janice saying nothing as she led the way and Mel allowing her the therapy of silence. Mel did note, however, that as quiet as Jan had become, she was still alert and on edge, her head constantly shifting from side to side and her flashlight's beam continually roaming the confines of the tunnel just ahead of them for signs of trouble. As they walked, Mel studied the petite blonde and gave only silent voice to the myriad questions which plagued her. What a blow this must be to her. Her father, in colleague with Nazis. I can literally feel the wall she's put up around her; she won't talk about it for some time, I know. I wonder if I'll ever get her to open up about it.
She sighed as she trudged along the tunnel, their boots the only sound echoing anywhere. I'm getting rather weary. I wonder how much longer we'll have to walk before we find the Hall of the Gods. It can't be that far ahead, can it? And what lies between it and us? What is the next danger which Zeus has left for us mortal intruders? She considered the possibilities, then thought, And for whoever that is ahead of us?
As she found herself lost in her thoughts, she bumped into Jan. "Why, what...?"
"Shh. Quiet, Mel. Listen." They strained their hearing, standing quite still, willing their breathing to be soft, and Jan's whisper again reached Mel's ears. "There. You hear that?"
Mel cocked her head to one side, listening. A deep, intermittent growl was rumbling down the tunnel from ahead, just around a corner. As Mel opened her mouth to speak, the growl rose in fury and became a scream. To Mel, it was strangely reminiscent of the sound of a furious bull, a sound which she remembered from her childhood days in the country. Once again the scream sounded, a scream which was cut short by two ear-splitting gunshots. Jan tapped Mel on the chest and waved with a hand as she set her feet into a run toward the sound. "Come on, Mel."
Her heart pounding, Mel scrambled after Janice, catching up to her at the corner. She expected Jan to stop, but she did not. She charged around the corner, lifting her pistol from her holster, all caution thrown to the wind. As Mel followed around the corner, she skidded to a halt. Just in front of her stood Jan, her pistol by her side, looking down at her feet. Mel leaned over her friend's shoulder and peered down. In front of their feet, lying in the path, was a body, unmistakable in the dim light, but unrecognizable. From what Mel could see, however, it looked to be a very large man, possibly one of the largest men she had ever encountered. Both their flashlight beams scanned the body, and in unison, they gasped.
The form was humanlike, but not at all human. The flashlights revealed the thing to be at least seven feet tall, covered in dark, short hair, and possessed of humanlike arms but with cloven hooves for feet. It had a short, ox-like tail. Its head was massive, with two horns protruding from the skull. Its face resembled that of a bull, the mouth slightly open and the tongue lolling out from one side. It lay still on its side, a dark puddle of blood forming at its chest. Jan bent down and examined it closely, directing her light on the animal's chest. Two deep, ragged holes had been ripped into its breast, and it was bleeding profusely. After some examination, Jan looked up at Mel. "Shotgun, I'm guessing. Recognize this thing from the legends, Mel?"
She nodded. "A Minotaur. I thought that they were mythological."
Jan raised an eyebrow. "Guess they're not Damn, it took balls to get close enough to this thing to put those holes in it." She stood, then directed her light's beam down at her feet. At the edge of the growing puddle of blood lay two spent shotgun shell casings. "Yep." She looked up, then at Mel with a sudden, urgent expression. "Come on. He's just ahead. We can catch up to whoever's in front of us, Mel." With that, she turned and began running up the tunnel, light in one hand, pistol in the other.
Mel muttered, "I should have worn track shoes," and wearily prod herself into a run, attempting to catch up to her hyperactive friend.
As Jan, panting, rounded a corner, she slowed down and stopped, staring ahead of her in amazement. Absent-mindedly holstering her pistol, she strolled slowly forward, her mouth open in disbelief, her head turning constantly as she gazed around her. Mel's footsteps sounded just behind her, and the tall woman almost bowled Jan over as she darted around the corner, then screeched to a halt just behind her friend. She walked around the little archaeologist, her face a mask of amazement, pushed the wire-rimmed glasses up on her nose, and exclaimed, "Oh, my. I do think we're here, Jan."
In answer, the smaller woman just nodded, muttering, "Yeah. No shit. This has gotta be it."
Stretching out in front of them, an amazing panorama of ancient Greek splendor met their disbelieving eyes. Marble floors, dusty from long neglect, stretched out in front of them. Ornate pillars rimmed the huge hall, their splendor reaching skyward. Above them, the ceiling seemed to be open, revealing a rich blue sky dotted with puffy clouds. The unaccustomed warmth of a bright sun shone down, its touch refreshing after the frigid cold of the outside winter and the coolness of the tunnels. The walls which lined the immense hall were replete with murals, art of the most exquisite craftsmanship. Here and there, raised gardens contained trees, their branches laden with fruit. They noted the occasional tall column which had crumbled and fallen, its pieces lying haphazardly on the floor.
The two explorers stood in awe, struck quite speechless by the overwhelming grandeur of the Hall of the Gods. After some few moments, Mel felt Jan tap her on the arm. "Let's find the ambrosia. Start lookin'. It's got to be around the outside of the hall."
"Huh? Oh, of course. Let's go this way. It looks like that's the center of the hall ahead of us."
Jan squinted in the direction Mel had indicated and nodded. "Yeah. Good eyes, Mel." They began walking, their footfalls echoing through the hall. As they approached the center of the hall, they noted ornate chairs and low divans scattered around in a large rectangle, pillows still upon them. A fountain gurgled in the hall, the water clear and refreshing. Occasionally, a discarded cup or plate of ornate artistry sat among the cushions and divans. Behind the divans, statues of magnificent quality rose to display their glory. Jan stopped and studied one of the statues, a female nude. As she contemplated it, Mel stood behind her. Jan motioned to it.
"Recognize the face, Mel?"
"Why, it's Aphrodite!"
"Yup. Wow. Now that's a figure to kill for."
"She's certainly quite beautiful, Jan." After a second, she voiced a second thought. "I wonder if she still has such an exquisite figure?"
Jan cracked a grin. "Haven't noticed." With a final, wistful, lingering glance at the statue, she began strolling off toward the next statue.
Mel watched her go, smiling to herself. Jan's making jokes again. That's a good sign, anyway. She always bounces back quickly. Aloud, she replied, "And you're a rotten liar, Jan."
In reply, Jan chuckled, then said, "Like you haven't checked her out yourself?"
"Uh-huh. Thought so. Come on, Mel. Stop gawking at her."
"Janice Covington, I'll have you know I'm not gawking." She walked in the direction in which Jan headed, still contemplating Aphrodite's statue, when she bumped into Jan. Her friend was standing, contemplating another statue. It was a nude also, a muscular, handsome warrior, replete with helmet, shield leaning against the side of the leg, and sword held aloft. "Who's this, Jan?"
"Look at the face, Mel. Take a good look. You've met him before."
Mel looked up at the face and instantly recognized the cruelly handsome features and the mane of curly hair which flowed to the shoulders. "Why, it's Ares, god of war."
"Correct. You get a cookie."
Mel contemplated the statue, remembering when she had seen the face last. It was in Athens, when they had discovered and spirited the remains of Xena and Gabrielle to the museum. He had attempted to kill them then. Seeing the face now sent a shiver down her spine. "He almost killed you twice, Jan."
Jan grinned. "But he didn't."
Mel gazed at the statue. "He certainly has big muscles, doesn't he?" Jan watched with mounting amusement as Mel slowly scanned the statue downward from its face, her eyes widening noticeably when they stopped, halfway down. She pushed her glasses up on her nose, then took in a breath. "Oh, my!"
Jan snickered, then teased, "Yeah. One of 'em in particular."
Mel blushed slightly, then muttered, "Jan, you're awful."
Jan chuckled again. "Hey, you're the one who's gawking."
"I am not gawking."
"Yeah. Right." She waved a hand in a gesture of contemptuous dismissal. "Aah, don't believe it. He always was a braggart." She turned and walked away from the statue. "Come on, Mel. We haven't got all day." About ten feet away from the statue, she noted that Mel was still intently studying the statue. "Hey, Mel? Mel?" Jan shook her head, then raised her voice slightly. "Mel!"
She turned and looked at Jan, then noted the impish humor in Jan's expression. Feeling her face begin to burn with blush, she cleared her throat and agreed, "Oh, quite right. Let's go."
Jan raised an eyebrow. "That is, if you're quite finished gawking?"
Mel pulled herself to her full height and affected a pose of injured dignity. "I was not gawking, Janice. It's simply an exquisite piece of art."
"Yeah, right." As they began walking away from the statue, she couldn't resist the urge to tease her mate. "Look, if you're that impressed with that, um, thing, I'll buy you one for your birthday."
In answer, Mel cleared her throat and replied, "Jan, I was not impressed, and you're a total pervert."
"So you told me already." They walked away from the statues in silence, Jan studying the walls for the telltale sign of the ambrosia room. After several minutes, she heard Mel's inquisitive nature bubble up in the form of a question.
"One can actually buy one of those things?"
In answer, Jan doubled over in a fit of hysterical laughter, then staggered over to a stone divan and plopped herself down, wiping at her eyes. Mel just regarded her with an irritated look, then retorted, "It wasn't that funny."
Jan, still wiping at her eyes, said, "Yeah, it was." She looked up, saw Mel's chagrined expression, and regained her composure. "Sorry, Mel." Her forced expression of composure crumbled, and she once again burst out in a cackle of laughter. Mel watched her, a tight smile forming on her face, then softening and spreading into a blazing grin, actually emitting an amused giggle of her own.
"I'm so glad to see you laughing again, love." She held out a hand to Jan. "Come on, cutie. We've got a friend in need."
"That we do, gorgeous." Jan took Mel's offered hand; they rose and, together, strode toward the chairs and divans of the main hall to seek out the room where ambrosia flourished.
"Oh, this is it, Jan." Mel pointed excitedly as she scanned the letters engraved over an arched door to one side of the Hall of the Gods.
Jan looked up, read just enough to confirm Mel's assessment, and nodded. "Then let's go." She nudged the door with her foot, and it swung open with a loud squeak. A stairwell, winding downward, led around a corner. Jan looked at Mel, shook her head, and cautioned, "This has been too easy so far. Stay behind me." She pulled the pistol from her holster, clicked her flashlight on, and slowly began to descend the stairs. Mel kept behind her a pace, her own light adding its yellow glow to Jan's.
The stairwell wound downward and to the left, and once they left the main hall, became dark, the walls emitting the same weak light which the tunnel's walls had shone. The noise of their breathing and the soft tread of their boots seemed almost deafening as they descended and followed the stairs around their winding way. It was only a few moments until they faced another door, slightly ajar, as was the last one. Jan stopped and studied the door at some length, then placed her foot against it and shoved. The door opened, and they slowly entered, once again staring in wonder at the sight before them.
An ornate fountain occupied the center of the small room, surmounted by a statue of a flawless young woman holding a large plate aloft in one hand and a pitcher under her other arm. From the pitcher's mouth, a stream of golden liquid gurgled and splashed into the fountain. The large tray which she held aloft was piled to overflowing with a reddish-golden brown substance which seemed almost to vibrate and sparkle with its own life. The entire fountain emitted its own light, a light which cast a glow into the room. Jan stared as she lowered her flashlight, her mouth slightly open, her eyes wide. After a moment, she found her voice.
"Holy crap. This is incredible."
Mel stood just behind her and placed her hands on Jan's shoulders. "It's-"
Jan finished her statement. "Yeah." She shook her head, bringing herself back to the mission at hand and holstered her pistol, stuffing her flashlight into her back pocket and shrugging off her rucksack. "Come on, Mel. Let's collect some of this and get out of here."
"Huh? Oh, quite right." Jan placed the rucksack on the edge of the fountain and pulled out a metal quart-sized canteen, handing it to Mel. "That liquid must be nectar. Fill the canteen, and I"ll get some ambrosia in this tin. Be careful not to get any on your fingers, Mel. If you get any into your mouth, it can..."
"Make me immortal?"
"That's right. Let's get to work." Mel unscrewed the top from the canteen and held it under the thin stream of liquid, watching the glowing stuff trickle into the container. She felt it grow noticeably heavier as it filled, exercising great care not to allow the nectar to splash down the sides and onto her fingers. When she finished, she carefully screwed the cap on tightly and placed the canteen into the rucksack, then looked up to view Jan's efforts.
Jan was on tiptoes, attempting to scrape some of the ambrosia from the tray atop the statue's upraised hand and arm. Mel rose and stood on the edge of the fountain, taking the tin from Jan's shaking hands. "Let me, shorty."
Jan moved aside, snorting in disgust. "Jeez. I'm getting some elevator shoes or something."
She watched the taller woman easily scrape a large piece of the sparkling substance into the tin, then clap the lid on and fasten it tightly. "Did you get enough?"
"The tin's full." They both stepped down from the edge of the fountain and Mel stuffed the tin into the rucksack, then bound the straps so that the bag was tightly shut. "Shall I carry this? You must be tired of it."
"What?" Jan looked over at her. "Oh, yeah. Thanks." She returned her eyes to the mesmerizing beauty of the fountain as Mel wiggled into the straps of the rucksack. When she was ready to leave, she placed a hand on Jan's arm. "Dear? Are you ready?"
"Not yet, Mel."
"Aphrodite's waiting for us. We need to leave quickly." Jan did not move. "She's quite weak, you know." Still, Jan did not move. "Jan, are you hearing me?"
Jan slowly turned her head. Her eyes were wide with a strange, profound gaze. "Do you know what we're looking at here, Mel?"
"Ambrosia and nectar, love. Now let's go."
"No, Mel." Jan turned and faced her friend, animated with excitement and wonder. "We're looking at the greatest boon to humanity that the world has ever known." She waved a hand at the fountain. "I mean it, Mel. This stuff can cure cancer. It can replace penicillin. It can heal any illness or injury known. It can end human suffering. Just think of the possibilities."
Mel stared at her, dumbfounded. Her mind whirled with the warning which Xena had spoken, just the night before in the chilly air of France. The power of seduction. "Jan, this isn't for us. It's for Aphrodite."
"Yeah, we'll bring it to her. But Mel, we have at our fingertips the answer to the world's suffering. We know where it is now. We can bring it to the world. Don't you see, we have the chance to do something really magnificent here?"
"You're being seduced by this. You're not thinking clearly. Keep your mind on why we're here, Jan."
The archaeologist stamped her foot in frustration. "I've never been thinking more clearly, Mel. Look at this. We can conquer sickness, infirmity. Mel, we can conquer- death."
Mel shook her head in disbelief. "It's not for us, Jan."
"Why not? If we could make the human race immortal, we could end war. Bloodshed would be a thing of the past. Armies couldn't fight if no one could die. Hell, the atom bomb would be useless. No more Hiroshimas. No more Nagasakis." Jan's eyes widened in exasperation. "Mel, we could bring the world a peace like it's never known, a peace which we've only longed for in vain until now. How can that be bad?"
"It's not right, Jan. Listen to your own heart. You know that this isn't right."
Jan's voice rose. "What's not right with it? World peace? The end to sickness and suffering? Here's the answer, and you want to walk away from it? We can live forever, housed in perfect bodies which never decay, and you want to turn your back on this?"
Mel grasped Jan by her shoulders and looked deeply into her wide hazel eyes. "Listen to me, Jan. You're being seduced by the power of ambrosia. Snap out of it."
Jan's wide, frantic eyes fixed on Mel's face, and she opened her mouth to speak, but said nothing for a long moment. When she did speak, it was in a whisper. "Are you so short-sighted, Mel? I thought that you, of all people, with your gentle heart and your deep wisdom, would see the truth of this."
Mel felt her eyes water and a tear track its way down her cheek as she spoke from the heart, sadly. "I do see it, Jan. Tell me truthfully: do you really want to live forever?"
"I do with you, Mel. We both could. Hell, we all could, the whole damned world. Humanity wouldn't suffer any more."
"Oh yes, it would. You wouldn't be ending the suffering of the human race. You'd only be stretching it into eternity. You'd be giving them hell, Jan, not heaven."
Jan blinked owlishly at Mel. "You'd better explain that one. I can't see it."
Mel wiped at a tear with the back of her hand. She looked deeply at Jan, and their eyes locked and stayed fixed, one upon the other's. "Don't you see? Ambrosia only affects the body, nothing else. Jan, the suffering of the human race doesn't come from sickness, or disease, or famine, or anything like that. It comes from the human heart. The hearts of all of us. People live in agony because diseased hearts and souls run the affairs of humanity. It wouldn't stop war, Jan. It would only prolong it. When soldiers no longer die, then they'll stay locked at each others' throats for eternity. They won't stop fighting; they'll just go on forever. When atom bombs no longer burn human flesh, then evil men will have an eternity to come up with something which does. Evil is only vanquished in this life because brave, noble people like you fight it and kill it, vanquish the ones who perpetuate it. If all were immortal, we couldn't fight evil, Jan. It would be as powerful as the good which lies in all of us. It would be immortal, as well. Don't you see?"
Jan sat down heavily on the edge of the fountain and removed her hat, resting her head in one hand. "But Mel, this stuff could do so much good, in the right hands."
"Not nearly as much good as it could evil, in the wrong hands." She knelt down in front of Jan and looked up into her face. "Don't you remember what we found in the tunnel? Nazis, Jan. What if Hitler had gotten his hands on ambrosia? Would he have given it to the world? No. He would have built an immortal army. What would have happened to the world then? I hate to think of it."
Jan touched Mel's face, her fingers gently wiping away a tear. "Don't you want us to live forever, Mel? I do. God, I love you. For the first time in my life, I have something which I don't ever want to be parted with: you."
"And you never will be. We'll live forever, you and I, in our love for each other. Consider Xena and Gabrielle. Their bodies returned to the elements two thousand years ago, yet they still live as one soul. We can do the same. We don't need ambrosia. We have all that we need: each other."
Jan studied Mel's earnest face for several moments, then sighed deeply. "If they had lived forever on this earth, then you and I probably would never have known each other, would we?"
Mel smiled. "You're catching on. Jan, just how many people do you think can inhabit this little planet of ours, anyway? If no one died, then where would our children's children find a home? We're not meant to stay here forever, I suppose. We're born, we age, we die and go on, and while we're here, we try to make a difference. You sure have, I know. You've done so much already."
Jan smiled. "Jeez. Here we are, sitting on a gold mine of ambrosia, and we're talking metaphysics. Ironic, isn't it?"
"The gods had everything, including ambrosia. They had perpetual beauty, vigor, power, youth. It didn't do them any good. They sure screwed up at running things, then they crashed and burned in a big way. Guess I was stupid to think that we humans could have done it better than they did."
"Perhaps we can, Jan. I have faith in the human race, in spite of all its shortcomings."
Jan sat up, sighed, and clapped her hat on the back of her head. "I'm sure glad you do, Mel."
"I know. You think me a bit silly, I suppose."
"No, you're not, and don't ever change. It's one of the things I love most about you." Jan stood, cast a last look back at the fountain, and motioned toward the door. "Now, let's get out of here. We've got a sick friend to visit."
They left, winding their way back up the stairs toward the Hall of the Gods. As their footsteps faded, a figure rose from the darkness behind the fountain, gazing down at the glowing substance in the glass jar which he held in his hand. As he contemplated it, his voice echoed through the room, a soft, gruff voice filled with admiration.
"Way to go, Tiger. I'm proud of you."
For a long moment, he stood so, then gently placed the jar down on the stones next to him. Turning his back on it, he picked up his short, sawed-off shotgun and followed them up the stairs, keeping some distance between the two women and himself.
"Why, Jan! Look at the butterflies in here. They're beautiful. I didn't notice them in here before."
Jan looked up as they strode rapidly through the great hall. "That's because they weren't in here before." As her eyes followed the group of insects, she felt the hair bristle on the back of her neck. Oh man, am I growing paranoid or what? her mind shouted. Now I'm getting that feeling at butterflies? She puzzled on that as they walked rapidly through the great hall, the tunnel's entrance ahead of them in the distance.
"They're keeping in a little group. I've never seen butterflies do that before, have you?" Mel's voice was full of wonder and curiosity, sounding much as if they were on a casual stroll through the countryside.
Jan halted and watched them intently, the hair bristling ever more noticeably on her neck. She watched the group of pretty insects spread out and begin alighting on the floor and divans in the hall. Mel strolled ahead, her eyes drinking in the splendor that was Olympus, when Jan's feet pounded past her and her hand grabbed Mel's arm, almost yanking her off balance. "Run, Mel! Those aren't butterflies!"
"Why, whatever do...?" She looked back as Jan pulled her along and her mouth fell open. One by one, the butterflies had begun growing, rapidly rising in height and changing their colors from bright splashes of beauty into a deep, dusky brown. "Oh, my. Jan, they're..."
"Yeah, I know. Harpies, like in the garden. Come on, Mel. Run!" Her last words were drowned by a shrill screech and the beating of leathery wings hovering over them as they sprinted through the cavernous interior of the hall. Jan felt herself pulled to a slower pace by Mel's tight grip upon her hand. She looked up at her and saw the claws of a Harpy grasp the back of Mel's hair and the shirt around her shoulders, latching on tightly and causing the woman to cry in pain and surprise. The leathery, bat-like wings beat the air furiously around them. Its coal-red eyes drilled into Jan as she looked up, its breath hot and foul as it opened its mouth and displayed long, deadly teeth. As Mel's feet left the floor, Jan gripped her tightly and reached down with her free hand, pulling her pistol from its holster. She pointed the gun into the creature's chest and pulled the trigger. A resounding bang made their ears ring, and the Harpy released Mel, flinching and retreating away from them slightly. Mel's feet landed on the ground and she staggered slightly, then broke into a renewed run, stretching her long legs in the effort and pulling Jan along with her.
The beating of the wings above them sounded louder once again, the air becoming hot with the creature's breath, and Jan looked back. It was above them once again, descending upon them with renewed vengeance. Jan turned and fired her pistol again, this time directly into the face of the apparition. She saw the head literally explode, spraying them with a fine mist of dark blood. The body of the Harpy thudded into the marble stones at their feet.
"Oh Jan, there must be half a dozen of them."
"Holy shit! We won't make the tunnel. Find us a corner, Mel. Quick." Mel glanced around, then quickly pulled Jan to one side, in the direction of the magnificent columns which surrounded the hall. They ran, Mel leading, Jan turning to attempt to seek out their attackers' places in the hall. Once again, she felt a blast of hot, putrid breath in her face and her ears resounded with the beat of wings. Hot, red eyes blinked down at her, and she felt a sharp pain in her shoulder as a Harpy's talons slashed at her and ripped the shirt over her upper arm. She cried out in pain, then raised her pistol and pointed it into the face which was descending toward her, its mouth open and its fangs showing. A long, snakelike tongue flicked out from the mouth and touched Jan's cheek as she pulled the gun's trigger. Another resounding bang sounded and, as if in slow motion, she saw the Harpy's head snap back, partially disintegrating. The creature wobbled in the air for an instant, then fell the stones just behind them.
Mel's breath came in gasps as she pulled Jan into the shelter of a small space between two massive columns. "Here, Jan. They can't get behind us here."
"Yeah," Jan wheezed. "We can't get out, either."
"Oh, my. What will we do, Jan?"
"Do?" Jan winced as she examined the rips in the cloth of her shirt, noting the red blotches beginning to soak the material. She glanced up, watched several Harpies gathering some distance in front of them, and then smiled evilly. "Kick some Harpy ass, that's what, Mel. Let 'em come for us."
No sooner had she said that than her wish came true. The creatures shrilled loudly, and a couple of them leapt into the air and attacked. Jan edged over until she was in front of Mel, her body wedging the taller woman into a corner between the wall and a column, and she raised her pistol, pulling back the hammer with her thumb. The two Harpies beat the air furiously with their wings, then launched themselves at the intruders. Jan took careful aim, then pulled the trigger. One Harpy fell from the air immediately, hitting the floor ungracefully, its shrill voice sounding as it slowly pulled itself across the stones. Jan switched her aim to its companion. Again, she fired her pistol. The Harpy bore down on them, its mouth open, its hands and skinny arms extended, sharp talons exposed.
"Shit. I missed." Jan pulled the trigger again, and the Harpy jerked backwards, hesitated, then renewed its attack. Once again, Jan took aim and squeezed the trigger. Nothing sounded from the pistol except a dull click.
The blood drained from Jan's face as she was struck with the realization that the pistol was empty. The Harpy's screech filled their ears and the sound of its wings became louder as it approached, its red eyes triumphant in its blood-lust. Jan snapped the pistol open, shook the spent casings out onto the floor at her feet, then reached with a shaky hand to her pistol-belt, attempting to pull cartridges from the leather loops and reload. Mel's voice was frantic in her ear.
"Jan? Jan? It's almost here, Jan!"
Jan dropped a cartridge on the floor, then hissed, "Get the Luger, Mel. Shoot the damned thing."
"Shoot it!" At that moment, the hot breath of the Harpy slapped them both in the face. Jan dropped her pistol on the floor and reached up to fend off the talons of the beast, grasping a leathery, skinny arm with her hand. She kicked with a foot and connected with the Harpy's chest. It squealed and retreated slightly, then struck out with its free hand. The talons slashed across Jan's face, and one of them connected. A single red line about two inches long began blossoming across her chin. Before it could strike again, Jan grabbed the other hand. They struggled so for an endless moment, Jan holding the creature's wrists and kicking at it, Mel just behind her and wedged into the corner.
The Harpy opened its mouth and hissed, the fetid breath almost causing Jan to retch. Its tongue snaked forth from its open mouth and flicked at the blood dripping from Jan's chin onto her chest, and its mouth poised open, preparing to lunge. Jan was sweating profusely and felt her chest tighten with fear until she struggled to breathe, clinging onto the vicious hands with all her strength. Her shoulders ached from the battle, and her breathing was almost panicked.
Mel's hand extended past her head, pointing the Luger pistol at the Harpy's chest. A flash blinded Jan and her ears rang with the gunshot. Another flash-bang sounded, and then another. Jan closed her eyes and turned her head from the flashes, so near her face. She didn't count the shots. When she opened her eyes, her ears ringing, she felt the Harpy's struggle lessen, then cease. The beast crumpled at Jan's feet, the wings still beating weakly, the chest a mass of red ooze, the red eyes dimming and closing. Jan felt the weight of the arms pull her hands down toward her waist. She let go, and the skinny, taloned hands dropped away to thump on the floor at her feet.
Mel's arm was still extended over Jan's shoulder, the hand pointing the Luger at the creature, the finger snapping the trigger of the empty pistol. Jan leaned against Mel's body, her head resting back on the taller woman's chest, and she placed her hand on Mel's wrist. "It's dead, Mel. You can stop now."
"Oh!" Mel lowered the pistol, then draped an arm around Jan. "Thank God. Did I get it?"
Somehow, the earnest nature of that remark struck Jan as extremely funny. She started chuckling and turned her head to peer at Mel's face. "You got it, Annie Oakley."
Mel looked down at the floor in front of them and grimaced. "Ugh." Her eyes flickered over to Jan's face. "Did I do okay?"
Jan smiled. Without a word, she leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed Mel soundly on the mouth. When she drew her face back, Mel raised an eyebrow. "Guess I did. That's the first time I've ever used one of these things." She studied Jan's face, then placed a hand on the woman's cheek and turned it toward her. "Oh, you're bleeding."
Jan wiped at her chin and gazed down on the blood on her fingers. "Cut myself shaving again?"
Mel did not seem amused. "Um, Jan?"
With an air of exhaustion, Jan replied, "Yeah?"
"There's another one out there, and it looks really angry."
"What?" Jan jerked her head around and looked out into the hall. The last Harpy was perched on a divan about thirty feet from them, rearing up on its legs and focusing on them with its red, deep eyes. "Oh, Shit." Jan ducked down and picked her revolver up from the floor, attempting to extract a cartridge from her belt and load the open cylinder. Exhausted, her hands were shaking and she had trouble pulling the rounds from her pistol belt. Mel's admonitions were not helping.
"Jan, it's coming! Jan? Jan!"
Jan glanced up. The Harpy was airborne now, its wings beating furiously, its speed increasing, and it was on a collision course with them. Jan swallowed hard. She knew that she didn't have time to reload, and she doubted that she had the strength to wrestle another of the creatures. She shoved the open pistol into Mel's hands. "Reload it, Mel."
Mel looked down at the open weapon with a frantic expression. "But I don't..."
"Learn fast!" With that, she pulled the bullwhip from her left hip and stepped forward several paces, flicking the length of the whip out. As the Harpy dove on her, she snapped her arm, and the whip made a resounding whizz-crack, its tip catching the Harpy on the chest. It squealed and hovered back a few feet, then darted forward again. Jan cracked the whip at it, and caught it on the arm, leaving a red streak. The Harpy roared, backed up, and kept just out of the whip's reach, hovering menacingly.
Jan glanced over her shoulder, attempting to catch a sight of Mel. At that moment, she heard a piercing shrill and felt hot breath on her, and when she turned, the Harpy was attacking once again. Jan cracked the whip across the creature's face, then brought it back and snapped it once again. The tip caught the Harpy around the neck, and Jan jerked the whip down toward the floor. The beast was yanked from the air and hit the stones with a crunch, but bounced up and slashed out with a taloned hand.
Jan let go of the whip and stepped back a pace, narrowly avoiding the sharp talons. Keeping he eyes on the animal, she shouted, "Have you got that thing loaded?"
"I don't have any bullets, Jan."
The words struck Jan like a fist. Fuck! They're in my belt. We're dead. Jan backed up and pressed herself against Mel's taller body, watching the Harpy crouch in front of them, watching its coal-red eyes study them, waiting for the moment when it would close the few feet of distance between them and attack, slashing with its sharp talons and biting with its teeth. She could feel Mel's frantic hands pulling at the leather belt around her waist, attempting to free cartridges from their loops. We're dead. She'll never get it loaded in time. Jan heard her own voice, strangely calm, speak even without her conscious effort. "Mel?"
She could feel, pressed against Mel, the woman's frantic efforts to load the weapon, feel the quiver in her voice as she answered, "I'm trying, Jan."
"I know. I love you, Mel."
The hands' frantic fumbling with the weapon stopped. A second of silence ensued, and Mel's voice replied, "I love you too, Jan. This is it, isn't it?"
Jan swallowed hard. "Yeah. I'll try to keep it off you for as long as I can. Run for the tunnel, love. Run hard. Get that stuff home to Alais."
Mel did not have time to answer. The Harpy shrieked, a shrill, resounding shriek, and launched itself at the two women huddled in the corner. Jan raised her hands to protect her face, pressing herself against Mel's body. As if in a terrible, slow dream, Jan saw the creature fly toward them, talons extended, teeth bared, wings pounding the air furiously, red eyes shining. As its hot breath assailed her senses, a tremendous bang deafened her. Tiny droplets of dark blood peppered Jan's face and arms. The Harpy jerked to one side, falling to the floor, an arm missing and a wing partially severed. It roared, recovered itself, and stood, staggering like a drunk. A second bang resounded, and the Harpy's head literally disappeared. The torso wavered, dark blood spurting from its neck, and slowly fell onto its side, twitching for a few seconds and then laying still.
Jan slowly lowered her arms, blinking in disbelief. She realized that she was holding her breath and slowly let it out, looking down at the mutilated creature at her feet. Her hands were shaking, and she only then noted the spatters of dark blood covering her chest and arms. She stepped away from Mel, then turned and looked up at her lover's face.
Mel's expression was also one of total disbelief. As the ringing in Jan's ears subsided, she heard Mel's voice. "What happened, Jan?"
"Damned if I know." Jan slowly stepped away from the corner and froze when she heard the loud click of a weapon being opened from behind the column to her left. A spent shotgun shell bounced across the floor, rolling to a stop near the carcass. A second later, a second spent shell rolled across the marble with a tinkling sound, coming to rest near Jan's feet. She placed a hand on the column's cool surface and slowly stepped forward, peering around it. Deep shadows colored the area just behind the column; she had trouble seeing into the darkness. After a moment, though, she could discern a figure standing in the shadows. It did not move except for one hand. The soft click of two new shells being inserted into the weapon reached Jan's ears, and then the arm lifted, bringing the short, sawed-off weapon up and allowing it to snap shut with a flick of the shadow's wrist. After that, the shadow did not move.
Jan slowly walked out into the light, stepping over the mangled carcasses of the nearest two Harpies, staring into the darkness. She felt Mel's hand on her shoulder as her lover joined her, and they stood, quietly awaiting their mysterious savior's next move. For a long moment, the two women and the shadow faced one another, they peering into the darkness and the shadowy figure standing quite still. Finally, Jan found her voice, however shaky it was. "Thanks, whoever you are."
She thought that she could almost discern a chuckle coming from the darkness. Finally, a voice answered her. It was soft, slightly gruff, and edged with a hint of humor and even affection. "Not a problem, Tiger."
Jan was stunned. No one had called her that in years. Her heart began to pound harder and she felt her chest tighten slightly. "Who are you?"
"You don't recognize me any more, do you? Once, we were close. The best of friends."
Jan felt her heart pound harder as her mind raced. He called me 'Tiger'. No one ever called me that but... Jan's voice wavered as she commanded, "Step out here and let me see your face."
Again, that soft chuckle emanated from the darkness, and the form nodded its head. "I suppose it's time." The shadow stepped forward several paces, slowly emerging into the light of the great hall.
They beheld a man, just slightly shorter than Mel, dressed in a checkered shirt with the sleeves rolled up above his elbows and exposing muscular, tanned arms. His pants were dusty army fatigue, his boots scuffed and worn, and his face half-hidden by the wide brim of the beat-up fedora which was pulled low over his eyes. In his hand, the smoking, sawed-off shotgun dangled by his right side. He slowly reached up and tilted the hat back on his head. From behind wire-rimmed glasses, a pair of bright, hazel eyes beamed at the two women from a face of perhaps sixty years of age. It was a handsome face, a face lined with life and character, a face shining with a wry humor and the touches of a go-to-hell abandon. They saw the face, covered with the silver stubble of a five-day beard, slowly spread out into a lined, jaunty grin. The voice, both gruff and friendly all at once, addressed Jan. "Hello, Janice. It's been a long time."
Jan clapped her hand over her mouth. She tried to speak, but could only manage a strained, shaky whisper. "Dad? Is that really you?"
In answer, his head nodded. "Yeah. It's me. Damn, but it's good to see you again."
Janice sobbed loudly, then fell forward into his arms, gripping him tightly about the chest. He embraced her, holding her as she cried, cradling her in his arms. Mel watched from her place near them, astounded at the unexpected appearance of a man whom they had considered dead for so many years, feeling tears well up in her own eyes as Janice poured her emotion out in the arms of her father. For a long moment, he held her tenderly as she cried, held her with the gentle embrace that only a father could offer a daughter in anguish.
Sniffing loudly, Jan straightened up and pushed herself away from him to face him, then clenched her fist and slugged him in the chest as hard as she could. The hollow thump reverberated through the quiet hall and he staggered back a pace, his hand rubbing his chest, a pained look in his eyes. He looked at her, his mouth slightly open, then said,"Damn, Tiger, you've got one hell of a right there."
Jan's voice hissed at him. "You son-of-a-bitch! I thought you were dead. I mourned you for years. It almost killed me, you know that?"
His expression was pained, apologetic. "I'm sorry, Janice. It couldn't be helped. I had to make the world think that I was dead. It was best for everybody." He paused, then added, "Best for you, too."
"Bullshit. I don't buy it."
He looked down as he rubbed his chest. "Guess I deserved that." His eyes returned to her, and he attempted to explain. "Listen, Janice. Know that I've always loved you more than anything I've ever known. It killed me to have to drop out of your life, believe that. It was the only thing I could do." He studied her skeptical face, then continued, "I know that I owe you one hell of an explanation and an even deeper apology. Let me try to explain, will you? After that, if you still hate my guts, then I'll drop out of your life forever, if you wish."
Jan's expression softened, and she reached out and gently placed a hand on his arm. "I could never hate your guts, Dad. Sure, I'm pissed, but I could never hate you." She looked up at his face. "And I'm ready to listen when you're ready to explain it to me."
"Fair enough, Tiger. I can't ask for any more than that." He motioned to Mel. "Who's your friend?"
Jan led her father over to Mel. "Dad, meet Melinda Pappas. Mel,..."
Mel extended her hand. "Harry Covington, I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance."
His face brightened. "Melinda? Mel Pappas' kid? Why, I saw you last when you were knee-high. You sure have grown up." His expression sobered, and he added, "I read of his death several years ago. I'm sorry. He was a real gentleman and one hell of an archaeologist. I thought the world of him."
"Thank you, Harry." She blinked, then rummaged in her shirt pocket. "I believe that I have something of yours."
She produced the wallet and handed it to him. "We found this in the tunnel, next to those Nazis."
"Oh, hell. It must have fallen out of my shirt pocket. Thanks. You know, I'm never without it."
Mel smiled at him. "I can well imagine."
He looked at it fondly, then stuffed it in his pants pocket. "Now, let's get the hell out of here. We're not home free yet."
Jan, who had retrieved her bullwhip and pistol, looked up from her reloading. "We're not? What else can happen?"
Harry opened his mouth to answer, but a deep rumble drowned out his words. "That. Come on." He gestured, and the three took off at a jog towards the tunnel. As they ran, Jan's voice rose above the next deep rumble.
"What in the blue hell is that?"
"You don't want to know. Get to the tunnel, fast."
They entered the tunnel at a run, slowing down when they were well inside. Harry stopped and looked back, studying the Hall of the Gods from his place at a corner in the tunnel. The roar echoed once again, much louder this time. As Jan crept up next to him, peering in the same direction, she puzzled over the noise. "What...?"
He pointed with the shotgun. "That. Run like hell. I'll bring up the rear." At that moment, Jan's eyes widened and her stomach twisted in a knot of real fear.
He shouted, "Go!" and the three turned and began jogging down the incline of the tunnel.
Jan's voice rose above their footsteps. "What is that thing? I thought that dragons were mythological bullshit."
Harry's voice puffed as he ran behind them. "Two-headed serpent. Zeus' pet. You might call it a watchdog." He snorted, then added, "A psycho rottweiler with two heads is more like it. It's sniffed us out."
"Can it get into the tunnels?"
The three ran down the tunnel, attempting to put as much distance between themselves and their pursuing nightmare as they could. Their feet sounded loudly in the tunnel, and they ran without the caution with which they had explored the tunnel on their trip into the mountain. Their only thought was to reach the outside before Zeus' pet could gain on them.
They ran for what seemed an endless period of time, when Jan waved a hand and halted. Breathing heavily, she pointed back toward the Hall of the Gods. "Let's see if it's following."
She looked back up the tunnel, and in the dim light of the walls' glow, she could see a dark, massive form lumbering slowly through the tunnel, an occasional streak of flame flickering from the nostrils on one or the other of its heads.
"Is it following, Jan?"
Jan turned and faced the others, a slightly pale pallor to her complexion. "Oh, yeah. It's there. Run!"
Again, the trio fell into a rapid jog through the dimly-lit tunnel. As they turned a corner, Harry, who was in the lead, shouted, "Jump!"
Mel vaulted the dead Minotaur lying in the center of the tunnel, followed closely by Jan. Harry waited until the two women had cleared the hurdle, then took a position behind them. They ran as fast as the dim lighting and twisting tunnels would allow, following them ever downward toward the base of the mountain.
Eventually, their speed was slowed by their exhaustion. They halted just around a bend, panting heavily, bending over with their hands on their knees, their breaths heavy in the still air. After a moment, Jan puffed, "Dad?"
"What is it, dear?"
"Is that thing still following us?"
"I'll have a look." He rose and wearily walked to the corner of the tunnel's bend, poking his head around the corner, then quickly pulled his head back. A tongue of flame shot past the spot where his head had just been. He turned, nodded emphatically, and gasped, "Hell, yes!" The three interlopers began their panting, exhausted run again, occasionally scraping a wall or stumbling on the uneven floor.
They turned a corner and Harry stopped dead in his tracks, Jan careening into him and Mel bumping into the petite blonde from behind. Her voice was urgent. "Why are we stopping?"
Harry growled, "Dart traps. Damned things. We'll never make it through."
Jan pulled on the front of his shirt. "Sure we will. I set 'em all off. It's okay. Come on."
"Hey, that's good..." His words were drowned out by a roar which reverberated through the tunnels, shaking them all to the bone. He watched the two women sprint toward the widened portion of the tunnel, and he muttered, "....work." With a glance over his shoulder, he ran into the dart traps behind the two women.
Jan, her attention partly behind her, tripped over the body of a dead German soldier and fell, her arms outstretched. She hit the floor with a thud, cursing, and lifted her face from the dusty tunic of a decomposed body. Wincing, she spat on the ground next to her. "Gah. That tastes like shit."
A strong hand grasped her by the back of her shirt and lifted her to her knees. "Come on, Tiger. It's gaining on us." As she felt herself lifted, she looked down at the tunic and the leather-clad equipment wrapped around the body. Her eyes widened, and she shouted.
"Hey, wait. Look at this."
Mel's voice was frantic. "Jan, we haven't got time..."
Jan reached down, grasped at the body, pulled something from its belt, and held up her hand triumphantly. In her fist, she gripped three long-handled hand-grenades of the 'potato-masher' style. "Bingo."
Mel stared, but Harry's face lit up in instant understanding. He waved a hand and shouted, "Bring 'em. Come on." Jan scrambled to her feet, clutching the grenades, and followed Mel and her father through the dart trap, scampering down the tunnel. Just around the next corner, they halted.
Between gasps, Harry said, "When he gets into the dart trap, let him have it." He held out his hand, and Jan placed a grenade into it. She offered one to Mel, who took it and studied it curiously. "You know how to work this thing, Tiger?"
Jan nodded. "Yeah. I do."
Harry looked over to Mel, whose face betrayed confusion and question. He panted, "Look, turn the cap on the base of the handle like so, then pull the string out."
"What happens then, Harry?" Mel's expression was one of an intensely curious child.
"It blows up in five seconds."
He peeked around the corner, then ducked back. "It's just entering the dart trap now. Remember, try to get it into the trap, right?" Jan and Mel nodded, and Harry peeked around the corner once again, ducking back quickly. His voice was a loud whisper. "It's sniffing the bodies. Now's the time."
All three explorers lifted their grenades, twisted the caps, and pulled them away from the handles of the grenades, the caps dangling down by a long string. Jan stepped out into the center of the tunnel and heaved her grenade. Harry and Mel threw theirs with grunts, watching the deadly instruments spin as they clattered off the walls and bounced into the dart trap. The two-headed serpent stopped sniffing the bodies, and both heads peered up at them. It lumbered forward a couple of steps, then emitted a deafening roar.
Jan grabbed Mel by the rucksack on her back and pulled her out of the center of the tunnel. They both collapsed behind the corner, Harry backing up and crouching. A second of deafening silence followed, split by three closely-grouped, deafening explosions. The tunnel filled with smoke and bits of rock flew about, causing the three travelers to cover their faces and cower before the stinging rocks and choking dust. Harry was knocked from his crouch, landing flat on his back. For several seconds, no one could speak. All that was heard was the sound of choking from the dust clouds and the patter of bits of rock scattering and coming to rest in the tunnel.
When the dust began to settle and the bits of flying rock halted, Jan raised her head. "Mel? You okay?"
"Yes, Jan. Are you?"
Another moment passed, and Mel asked, "Did we kill it, Jan?"
In answer, a large object rolled down the tunnel and bumped into Jan's foot. She kicked at it, then pulled her flashlight from her back pocket and turned the beam on. It was one of the serpent's heads. "I'd say so." She leaned over and peered around the corner, shining her light up the tunnel. After a moment, she leaned back, coughed a couple of times, and said, "Jeez, what a mess."
Harry's voice echoed Mel's question. "Is it dead?"
"Go see for yourself, but watch your step."
Puzzled, Harry slowly drew himself up to a standing position, his shotgun hanging loosely in his hand, and walked out into the tunnel's center, disappearing around the corner. In a minute, he returned, a disgusted expression on his face. "Well, you sure made a mess out there, Tiger. That thing's all over the walls." He plopped wearily down next to Jan, and the three exhausted, dusty, bruised adventurers just leaned against the wall, panting, an occasional cough coming from one or the other of them.
For a long time, no one spoke. Finally, Jan coughed and muttered, "I don't know about you two, but this has been one hell of a day."
Mel added her sentiments. "Jan, love, I couldn't agree with you more."
Harry was more succinct. "No shit." He pulled a cigarette pack from his pocket and placed one in his mouth, fumbling for his lighter. Jan's hand reached out and clacked her Zippo open, holding the flame in front of his face. He noticed it, wearily lit his smoke from it, and said, "Thanks."
Jan clicked the lighter shut. Harry took a drag, then looked over at his daughter. "What are you doing with a lighter, anyhow? You smoke?" She nodded wearily. "Bad habit." She nodded again. He held out the cigarette. "Want it?" She nodded once again and took it, inhaling deeply and blowing out a cloud of smoke. Mel's long arm reached across to Jan's hand and withdrew the cigarette from between her fingers. She studied it, then placed it between the lips of her weary, dusty face.
Jan watched her in total disbelief, then said, "What is this? You don't smoke."
"I do today."
"Well, I'll be a ten-dollar hooker. Mel's smoking. I can't believe it."
Mel replied, "Jan, if you'd told me this morning that I'd almost be eaten by Harpies, even killed one with a pistol, thank-you-very-much, been chased by a two-headed serpent, and thrown a hand-grenade, I wouldn't have believed it, either. Now shut up, darlin'."
Jan cackled, then pushed her hat back on her head, teasing, "Don't forget your other 'first' today."
"What's that, Jan?"
"You said the 'F-word'."
"Oh. So I did." Mel puffed delicately at the cigarette, then coughed. "These things are horrible, Jan. How can you like it?"
"Aah, it grows on ya, Mel."
Harry agreed, "Bad habits do. When did you start smoking, Jan?"
"After I heard that you died."
"Yeah, about that. Listen, ..."
Jan placed a hand on her father's arm. "Save it for later, Dad. I'm just glad you're alive."
He chuckled, then sighed, "Yeah. I'm glad we're all alive." Wearily, he stood and picked up his shotgun. "Come on, you two. We're not out of this yet."
In the garden, a graceful figure sat by the running water, trailing her finger in the clear reflections cast by the pool. She raised her head, listened quizzically to the rapidly approaching footsteps, then smiled and rose, lifting her tray. Gazing down at the two cups upon it, she squinted slightly and a third cup appeared. Thus armed, she stood serenely and awaited her visitors, as her duty had dictated that she do for the last thousands of years.
In the tunnel, Jan grasped her father by the arm. "The garden, Dad. There's still that- thing- in there."
He chuckled. "Yeah. Just do what I do, and let me bring up the rear." He watched the worried reaction form on her face, then raised an eyebrow. "What? I've never known you to be scared of a pretty girl before."
Jan snorted, then confessed, "Are you kidding? They scare the hell outta me."
"You too, huh? So this one's a little psycho, that's all. Let me handle it. You and Mel just run for all you're worth."
"I don't like this, Dad. You stick close."
He flipped open the breach of his shotgun, examined the two fresh shells inside, and snapped it shut with a loud click. "It'll be okay, Tiger. Trust me." He pointed toward the garden's entrance, about fifteen feet ahead of them. "Now run, both of you, and don't slow down for anything." At his gesture, Jan and Mel cast a glance toward each other, locked hands and began running toward the garden, Harry in close company and just behind them. As they burst into the tranquil beauty of the garden, Harry nudged them from behind. "Harder. Run right past her."
They ran as hard as they could through the gardens, their urgency a strange contrast to the sense of serenity which flowed over them and urged them to cease their desperate sprint. Jan felt Mel's hand tighten on hers and pull her ever faster as their footsteps pounded across the green, lush grass. She stretched her legs and ran faster in order to accommodate Mel's longer stride.
As they turned slightly toward the left to seek out the tunnel's continuation, they viewed the young woman ahead of them, smiling and holding a tray bearing three cups. Jan felt Mel's stride falter slightly at the sight, and she gripped the hand ever more tightly and held their arms aloft, at shoulder's height, urging, "Run, Mel. Don't stop now."
The young woman, replete in her flawless beauty and serene smile, held the tray and offered it out toward them. "Welcome, pilgrims. Refresh..." She never finished the sentence. Mel's arm, linked with Jan's, caught her at the neck. The tray jangled as it flew up into the air, cups scattering, and the woman was knocked off of her feet to land with an ungraceful thud on the ground. A second later, Harry bounded over her, keeping his eyes on her as he trotted toward the tunnel, his shotgun leveled.
A piercing, chilling scream filled the garden as Jan and Mel reached the safety of the tunnel. They stopped, looking back, and saw the woman morph from her alluring bronzed form into a large, leathery brown Harpy, eyes reddened and teeth showing, talons baring as her wings began beating the air furiously about her. She rose from her inglorious place on the ground and darted toward Harry's back as he ran, rapidly gaining on him. Jan felt her chest tighten in desperate fear as she watched the thing descend on her father. She opened her mouth and shouted, but the words seemed squeaky and high-pitched, not her own at all. "Dad! It's right behind..."
Harry whirled and fired his shotgun, the Harpy taking the full force of the blast in her chest. She jerked back, wavered, and fell to her knees, attempting to stand. Harry slowed to a trot, keeping his eyes upon her constantly as he edged closer to the tunnel. The Harpy squealed, then, somewhat unsteadily, bounded toward him, talons on one skinny hand extended, the other clutching her chest, her teeth bared. Even with a deep wound to the chest, the creature still moved with incredible speed. As its feet left the ground, Jan and Mel both reached out from the tunnel's entrance and grabbed the back of Harry's shirt, pulling him into the tunnel. Their frantic yank pulled him just out of reach of the slash of a long, taloned arm. His shotgun cracked again and the Harpy's head seemed to explode, the body unceremoniously thudding to the ground and skidding to a stop at their feet. It twitched slightly, then lay still.
For the longest moment, neither of the three explorers said anything. They just stood, panting, and stared down at the carcass at their feet. Finally, Harry tapped it with the toe of his boot and opined, "Shame. She was so pretty, too."
Jan added, "Yeah. Sure was. When she wasn't going psycho on us."
Harry chuckled. "Had a girlfriend like that once. Real charmer, then would suddenly turn 'Harpy'."
Jan looked over at him. "Yeah? Which one was that?"
"Aah, you wouldn't know her. Bar girl at Rick's, that classy dive in Casablanca. You remember that place?"
Jan pushed her hat back on her head. "And how. That was the last dig I was with you on, before I went to college. I must have been, oh, seventeen then. You taught me to play blackjack there." Jan squinted and looked at her father. "Oh, no. Tell me it wasn't Francine. Please, Dad, tell me it wasn't Francine."
He looked over, shocked. "Yeah. It was Francine. You remember her?"
Jan's expression was shocked. "Hell yes, I remember her. She couldn't have been your girlfriend."
Harry looked puzzled. "Why not?"
Jan faced him and tapped her chest with a finger emphatically. "Because she was my girlfriend."
Harry's face fell. "No way. She was my girlfriend. Sure you remember right?"
"Oh, I would remember that. She slept with me and then dumped me. Broke my heart in a bad way, Dad."
"Guess she played us both for suckers. Sorry, kid. I wondered what you were moping around about when we left North Africa." His expression softened, and he hugged Jan to his side. "Didn't I teach you anything, Tiger? You're not supposed to fall in love with gals like that."
Jan, her face buried in Harry's chest, mumbled, "Hey, what did I know? She was only my second one. I was just seventeen, all pimples and hormones."
He looked down at her. "Nonsense. You were a beautiful girl even then. I was so proud of you. Always was."
Mel smiled as she watched Jan and Harry in the hug, he speaking softly to her and she eating it up. Her smile faded, however, when Harry looked down at her, slightly surprised. "Second? Damn, girl. You started early. Who was your first?"
Jan opened her mouth to reply, only to be silenced by a loud 'harrumph' emanating from Mel's direction. She pulled her face from the front of her father's shirt, cast a sheepish look toward Mel, and whispered, "Tell you later. Mel and I don't talk about past loves in each other's company."
He nodded. "Good rule." Suddenly self-conscious, he released her and cleared his throat. "Well, not getting the job done. Let's get out of here. Should be easy money from here on out." With that, he cracked open his shotgun and extracted the spent shells, dropping them on the floor and reloading it. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he brought the weapon up and it clicked shut. "Show me the way you two got in here."
Mel couldn't help but grin slightly at the apologetic glance which Harry threw her way. She pointed and said, "Follow the chalk marks."
"After you, ladies."
Harmonia squatted by the fire, looking up at the late afternoon sky, then casting a worried glance at the tunnel's entrance in the mountain's side. She breathed deeply, attempting to dissipate her worry, and froze when she felt the presence of someone else nearby. Glancing around, she saw no one, but it did not ease her fear. "Who's there?"
No one answered her. She pulled the cloak more tightly about herself, then closed her eyes and concentrated. Almost in a whisper, she asked, "Mother? Is that you?"
In answer, a deep, taunting voice replied, "Nope. Nice try, though."
Harmonia's eyes opened. An expression of resignation crossed her features. "Father."
A figure materialized in front of her; a tall man, well-built and dark, sporting cruelly handsome features and a goatee beard. He was dressed in modern clothing, but his eyes carried the same timeless, knowing look of his fellow immortals. "Hello, Daughter. Been a while."
"Centuries. How nice of you to visit."
The icy sarcasm in her voice caused him to affect a posture of hurt dignity. "Ow. That hurt. You can't still be pissed about the Cadmus thing, can you?"
"You betrothed and married me to a mortal, Father. A self-centered, cruel and arrogant mortal. I was barely out of my childhood."
"That guy was up-and-coming. He founded Thebes, for cryin' out loud. Besides, I liked the guy."
She kept her eyes on the fire. "You would."
He squatted down next to the fire. "Hey, even Zeus approved of it. He sent you to the Elysian Fields, didn't he?"
She eyed him. "As a serpent. Thanks."
"It wasn't forever."
"No. The spell ended when Hercules killed my grandfather."
"Don't mention that half-mortal brother of mine around me. Hey, he killed Zeus."
"Grandfather probably deserved it."
"Well..." The dark man nodded in agreement, then resumed his tirade. "Nobody kills gods, Harmonia. It's bad form."
"For us. Not for mortals."
He changed the subject. "Hey, what are you doing here, anyway?"
"Meeting some friends." She eyed him critically, then countered, "And just what are you doing here? It can't be a family visit, not after all this time."
He grinned. "Came for some ambrosia. Isn't that why you're here?"
He jerked a thumb toward the hole in the entrance to the mountain. "Uh-huh. I thought so. Well, let's just wait and see who comes out of the mountain, shall we?" At that, she paled slightly. He nodded perceptively. "Oh, I see. Using mortals to steal ambrosia, are we?"
"It's for a good cause." She studied his face. "Not like you, I imagine."
"You misjudge me, Harmonia. You always have."
"Oh, don't be so self-righteous. I'm not doing anything that you're not doing. We're more alike than you think, you and I." She cast him a disgusted look, and he considered it silently, then restated his case. "Okay, so you're more like your goody two-shoes mother than me. I concede that. But we're both still here for the same reason. We're using mortals to steal ambrosia and nectar. You've probably got some grand, misguided scheme for it: curing cancer, or some such thing. Me, I've a more practical use for the stuff."
"Such as war?"
"Such as ending war forever." At her skeptical glance, her continued, "Look, mortals have been fighting for as long as they've been on the face of this pathetic rock they call home. With ambrosia, I can end it."
She glanced up from the fire. "How?"
"Humans wage war in groups, homeland against homeland. It's been that way whether they were living in caves, in clans, in cities, or in countries. Same dynamic, only the armies just got bigger and nastier. Now, I figure that if there was only one country, that motive for war would be removed." He smiled a little at that. "Imagine, one huge country covering the face of the earth. One government. One leadership. One army. War would end. Whoever heard of one army fighting itself?"
"Don't forget revolution, civil war."
He waved a hand contemptuously. "Aah, details. With ambrosia, with an immortal army, no one would dare oppose this government. Mortals would finally have what they've always wanted: peace on earth." He smiled knowingly. "I figure the Russians have a big enough army."
"With you at the head of it?"
He looked offended. "What's so wrong with that?"
"You're cruel, Father. You don't love humanity. You have nothing but contempt for them. That was always your greatest failing. If you ran this world, it would be with rapacious cruelty. I don't think that I'd want to live here."
"You're not going to have much choice now, are you?"
In answer, another voice echoed among the rocks, clear and certain. It was Jan's voice. "That's where you're wrong, Ares. We've always had choices."
At the voice, the man's face fell. He slowly looked up to see three mortals facing him. Slowly, he rose and walked toward them, his voice a growl. "Well, if it isn't the 'irritating little blonde number two'." He glanced back at Harmonia, then studied the three figures in front of him, clothed in their parkas. "I wondered who you got to steal ambrosia for you. I should have known. Like father, like daughter."
Harry looked over at Jan. "You know this guy?"
"Oh, yeah. Trouble."
"No, his name's Palo."
Jan shook her head. "No, it's not. Dad, meet Ares, god of war."
At the statement, Harry's face twisted into an expression of total confusion, an expression which caused the immortal in front of them to laugh aloud. "Yep. I'm busted, but no matter. Where's my ambrosia, Harry?"
He tilted the hat back on his head with the tip of his shotgun's barrel and smiled. "Changed my mind. You'll have to get it yourself."
Ares' face twisted into a mask of fury. "We had a deal, Covington. No one welches on a deal with the god of war. No one. Now get back in there and get me my ambrosia."
"Nope. Do your own dirty work." He gestured back toward the tunnel. "Go on. It's clear now. It's yours, if you've got the stones for it."
Ares reddened, the veins standing out on his temples, then forced himself to maintain his composure. "Look, I'll give you just one more chance. Go and get it, and I'll forget that we had this conversation."
"Not on your life."
"What's this? Growing a conscience? A little late for that, isn't it?"
"Better late than never."
Ares smiled. "What about your little 'condition', Harry? Don't you want to live? That was our deal. You get ambrosia for me, I cure you."
Jan grasped her father's arm, her expression aghast. "What's he talking about?"
"Nothing, Tiger. Forget it. He's bluffing."
Ares' eyes widened, and he pointed triumphantly. "Oh, this is rich! Don't tell me that she doesn't know, Harry. You didn't tell her that you're dying?" He stepped forward, pointing at Jan. "Let me guess. You ran into him in Olympus. You talked him out of bringing the stuff out, didn't you? You had no idea that, by doing that, you were sentencing him to a slow, painful death, did you? Oh, this is too good."
Jan's voice was a whisper. "Dad? Is this true?"
He did not move his eyes from Ares' face. "Can we talk about this later, kiddo?"
Ares shouted, "There is no later, Covington. Now is the moment of truth. Go get me what we agreed on, or you're dead where you stand."
"What's a few months, Ares? If I die a little early because I did one noble thing in my life, it's good enough for me."
Ares spread his hands wide in a gesture of surrender. "Have it your way." He pointed toward Harry. A ball of flame shot forth from his hand and hit the man in the chest, knocking him backward. Harry staggered a few steps, then fell heavily on his back, the front of his parka smouldering. Jan was at his side in an instant, beating out the small tongues of flame which flickered on the front of his parka with a gloved hand and speaking his name in a frantic, whispered, plea. Harry opened his eyes, and they locked with Jan's. In them, she could see pain, resignation and sorrow.
"Dad? What the hell's the matter with you? You didn't have to do that."
"Yes, I did."
"Why?" She hissed the word, tears stinging her eyes.
"Didn't want to..." He swallowed hard. "Let you down."
"You never did, Dad."
Ares interrupted. "Look, this is all very touching, but I want my ambrosia." He looked hard at Jan, then at Mel. "I'm guessing that you two brought some out for my errant daughter, here. Let me have it and you can go your merry way. I'll even cure your dear old dad for you. Now, I can't be more reasonable than that, can I?"
Harry laid a hand on Jan's arm, his voice a pleading whisper. "Don't do it."
"No, Janice. I mean it."
Ares' voice was angry. "Come on, Covington. I haven't got all day here. Now cough up the ambrosia."
Jan stood, her face a mask of defiance. "Come and get it, asshole."
Mel stood, horrified, as Ares approached Jan, his words taunting. "Oh, I've been looking forward to this since Algiers."
"I kicked your ass then."
"Lucky shot. You're going to suffer even worse this time, blondie." He reached out with lightning reflex and grasped Janice by the throat, lifting her off the ground. She kicked at him and struggled, but his grasp was firm and unyielding. As her face reddened and she gasped for breath, Mel watched the scene with shocked horror, her face drawn and her eyes tearing as Jan struggled for her life in the grasp of the muscular immortal. Mel's eyes slowly closed and her lips began moving, a pleading, whispered prayer.
In answer, a voice resounded inside her head.
Give me control of your body, then hang on for the ride.
Her hand slowly reached up toward her face and she removed her glasses, folding them and placing them in her pocket. When she opened her eyes, bright blue and piercing, she focused them on Ares. Her voice assumed a commanding tone.
"I have the ambrosia, Ares. Come and get it from me, why don't you?"
Ares, still holding Jan by the throat, looked over at Mel. "Give it to me, and I won't break her neck." To emphasize his point, he squeezed a little harder. Jan's mouth opened and her tongue lolled out slightly. Mel stepped forward and drove a fist into Ares' face with a resounding smack, and he uttered a cry of pain, holding his nose with his free hand.
"Man, that hurt. Okay, good-lookin', you've got yourself a match." He drove a fist into Jan's ribs, then dropped her. She lay on the ground at his feet, coughing and holding her side, as Ares turned to face Mel. "That'll keep your little buddy occupied while we dance. Now give me the ambrosia."
In answer, Mel hit him again with her right fist, followed by a sharp left. He staggered back a few paces, then looked at her with disbelief. "Damn, you can hit. How...?" A glimmer of recognition crossed his face and he smiled. "There's only one mortal I ever knew who could hit like that."
Mel grinned, her taunting voice low and sultry. "Come and get some more."
Ares nodded slowly, his eyes squinting. "Hello, Xena."
Mel shed her parka and the rucksack, dropping it on the ground next to Jan, and resumed her boxing stance. "I'm waiting."
"Oh, this is just too good." He swung. Mel ducked, thumping a fist into his abdomen. He wheezed, then swung again. She dodged it easily, dancing around him, and caught his mouth with a sharp right. He shook his head, then backed up warily, keeping his fists in front of his face. "You can't win, you know. I'm an immortal."
"Me, too. How do you know that I didn't eat some of that stuff while I was in there?"
Ares considered the comment, then shook his head as he swung at her. "Nah. The Xena I know wouldn't have done that."
She grinned as she danced out of the way of the punch. "Xena wasn't in there. Melinda was."
Ares swung again, and Mel hit him hard in the face. He staggered backwards, then stared at her. "All right, let's find out if you're immortal. Let's see if you bleed." He extended an arm, and a sword materialized in his hand. He swung the weapon and it whispered past her face, narrowly missing her. She ducked, rolled under his swing, and rose to her feet behind him. As he turned to face her, she felt Harmonia's hand on her arm. A sword materialized in her own hand, and she grasped it tightly, relishing the old, familiar feel of the weapon.
They fell into a deadly martial dance, swords' blades clanging one upon the other, sparks occasionally flying, as the spirit of the warrior faced the ancient immortal. Mel's face was tight with concentration, a feral smile showing, as the two old enemies thrust, parried, and circled each other, Harmonia watching in horrified silence.
Jan slowly crawled over to her father, placing a hand on his face. "Dad?"
He opened his eyes and looked at her, then squinted. "You're hurt?"
"Bastard broke a couple of ribs, I think."
"I'm sorry I got you into this."
"Shh. Quiet. Just hang on, Dad. We'll get you out of this."
She placed a hand behind his head and lifted it from the ground. He looked at the combat raging just a few feet from them and wheezed, "Jeez, Mel's damned good with a sword."
Jan smiled. "I don't think that's Mel, Dad."
"Long story. Look, just stay with us, will ya?"
"Difficult..." He closed his eyes, and his head went limp in her hands.
"Dad?" Jan pulled off a glove and held her fingers to his throat. She could feel a pulse under her fingertips. "Stay with me, Dad." With that whispered plea, she turned her eyes back toward the combat.
Mel and Ares seemed equally matched as they clashed, neither one gaining an advantage. Mel groaned, though, as the tip of Ares' sword opened a rip in her shirt over her left shoulder. She winced, retreated slightly, and looked. The cloth around the rip reddened, and dots of blood darkened the snow at her feet. Ares was exuberant.
"So much for the immortality theory, Xena. I've got you. You could never beat me, you know."
"Ares, I beat you every time we matched wits."
"Maybe so, but not blades." He swung again, hard, and Mel stepped back. The sword's tip whistled near her ear, but she avoided it. She waited, favoring her injured arm and gauging his next move, when he attacked with a renewed fury. Swords clanged, she felt herself slipping, and she lost her footing in the slick snow. Mel fell to one knee, holding her sword above her head to ward off the downswing which she knew was imminent. It never came.
She looked up to see a large fireball strike Ares in the side of the head, knocking him from his feet. He fell to the ground hard, the sword clattering across the nearby rocks, and rolled. When he came to rest, he was unconscious. Mel slowly turned and stared in the direction from which the fireball came. Harmonia was standing, her feet apart, her expression set in determination, her arm still extended.
The immortal helped Mel stand. "Xena, I have never done that before, but this combat must end. We have little time left. My mother is dying." She considered the bright blue eyes before her, and continued, "You killed many of the gods, my family. For centuries, I hated you. I swore that I would never help you."
"Why did you now?"
"Because it is right. Now let us go. We have much to accomplish yet." She helped Mel stand, then led her over to the two figures lying on the snowy ground. "Hold hands, all of you. We leave now."
Mel, still grasping Harmonia's hand, reached down and took Jan's hand. Jan gathered the rucksack and parka in her free arm, then pressed herself against her father's body. Their vision disintegrated into a whirl of blinding colors. They felt themselves wrapped in a sensation of floating, of lightness, a marvelous feeling in which the numbing cold, the pain, left them and an emotion of well-being encompassed them. When their vision cleared, they were huddled together on the floor of Alais' spacious bed-chamber, bits of snow still decorating the fur collars of their parkas and their hair.
Harmonia rushed to Alais' bedside and leaned down over the slumbering immortal, her voice frantic. "Mother? Mother, wake up." Alais did not stir. The young woman touched her mother's forehead with the palm of her hand, stood quite still for a moment, then straightened up. "She is quite weak. Give me the nectar first. Quickly, please."
Jan groaned as she sat up, gasping at the streaks of pain which shot through her side as she tried to move. She pushed Mel's parka aside and attempted to open the rucksack, but had little luck with her hands still numb from cold. As she struggled with the fasteners, Mel sat slowly up, blinking owlishly and gazing around the room. Jan noticed her stir and asked, "Xena?"
Mel turned toward her, then squinted. "Huh? Jan, are you quite all right?"
Jan grinned through her pain. "Nope. Welcome back, Mel." She fumbled with the straps again, then hissed several colorful profanities under her breath. Harmonia bent down and picked up the rucksack, easily opening it and placing it on the foot of the bed.
"Where is the nectar?"
Jan coughed, then grimaced. Mel answered for her, "Canteen."
"Yes, I have it." She pulled the tin bottle from the rucksack and opened it, carefully pouring just a little on her mother's lips. Alais' eyelids fluttered slightly in reply, then opened and focused on her daughter's face. "Mother, drink. It's nectar." Alais mumbled an unintelligible reply, and Harmonia thrust an arm behind her shoulders and sat her up in bed. Alais' head tilted forward, her chin resting on her chest, and Harmonia pleaded with her to awaken. At that, Alais' eyes looked up and once again focused, and her head tilted up. Harmonia held the canteen to her mother's lips, and watched her drink deeply. She swallowed at first with difficulty, then again with slow relish, tilting her head back and uttering a soft moan of delight. Her hands, then her arms, began to move, and she sat up on her own strength. As both Jan and Mel watched in rapt fascination, they perceived the ancient goddess actually seem to glow, an aura of bright, golden light enveloping her and renewing her. She stretched luxuriously, beamed a brilliant smile, and gazed around the room. When her eyes beheld her ragged and beaten friends huddled on the floor, she swept her legs out from under the covers of her bedding and stood, padding over to them.
"Melinda! Janice! By all the gods, you're in a horrible way. What's wrong?"
Jan winced as she held her side. "Had a rough day." Her eyes, large and pleading, traveled up and fixed themselves on Alais' face. "Help him, please."
"Oh, dear. He appears quite close to death." Alais stepped over Jan, kneeling down beside Harry. She studied him intently for a long moment, then placed a hand on his face. His eyes opened in response, and he gasped weakly as he beheld an incredibly beautiful face peer down at him. "Can you hear me?" He nodded, his head barely moving. Alais looked over at Harmonia, gesturing for her to approach. "Bring the ambrosia, quickly." She rummaged in the rucksack, produced the tin and popped it open, kneeling down next to her mother. Alais pulled out a bit of the food with her fingers and held it near his mouth. "Can you eat this?" His eyes traveled down to her fingers and studied the bit of ambrosia. "Do you know what this is?" Again, he nodded weakly. "Then eat it, please. It will heal you." He opened his mouth, and she placed the stuff on his tongue.
Jan's voice urged him on. "Chew, Dad. Swallow it." Slowly, he did so, then closed his eyes. His entire body began to glow, and Jan snatched her hand from his chest. "He's hot."
Alais smiled. "It's working. He'll be fine in a moment. Watch."
The glow dissipated, and Harry opened his eyes, gazing around the room as if seeing it for the first time. Slowly, he sat up on the floor, then looked up into Alais' face. "You..."
"Time to talk later. I will explain then."
He pulled his parka open, shrugged it off, and looked down at his shirt. It was burned. Jan's hand reached over and pulled the shirt's front apart, studying his chest. There was no sign of injury. She laughed with relief, then winced again and cried in pain, a tear running down from the corner of one eye. "Damned ribs."
Mel unfolded her eyeglasses and placed them on her nose, kneeling next to Jan. She helped Jan shed her parka, then pulled her shirt open and tugged it off her, leaving Jan sitting in her long underwear top. It was bloody from the lacerations on her shoulder and the deep cut on her chin. Red marks lined her neck where Ares had choked her. "Oh Jan, honey. You're a mess. Where do you hurt?"
Jan winced. "All over. Ribs. Here." Mel pulled the tail of the thermal top from Jan's pants and lifted it to expose a deep bruise and a bloody scrape over her left ribs.
"You're badly hurt." Mel's eyes traveled to Alais, who nodded in understanding.
"Of course. Here, Janice, eat this. One bite only, you understand. Swallow it." She picked out a piece of ambrosia and handed it to Jan, who held it in her fingers and looked at it, then up at Alais. "It will be fine, Janice. Please, now. It will cure your wounds."
Jan raised an eyebrow, muttered, "Down the hatch," and chewed it, swallowing hard. In a moment, she too, was enveloped in an aura of light. She leaned back on her hands and closed her eyes, delighting in the sensations. Mel gasped as she watched the wounds on Jan's body slowly disappear, the skin fresh and pure where injury had been only a moment before. When the glow dissipated, Jan opened her eyes and looked at Alais. "That was the most incredible thing I've ever experienced."
She agreed, "Yes, it is the same for immortals." She stood, picked out a piece of the ambrosia, and chewed it thoughtfully as she studied her friends. When she swallowed it, she smiled a brilliant smile. "Thank you, my friends. You have brought life back to me, just when I found reason for living again."
Harry picked himself up off the floor, then extended a hand down to help Jan up. When she stood, they embraced for a long moment, then slowly eased apart. Harry looked down at his daughter, then over at Alais. "Jan, why don't you introduce me to your most charming friend?"
Jan nodded. "Sorry. Alais, this is my father, Harry Covington. Dad, this is our friend Alais, but she's also known as the Countess d'Agee." Jan watched her father's reaction as she added, "And once Aphrodite, goddess of love."
His eyes widened as he regarded her, then looked down at the ambrosia in her hand. "Well, I'll be damned. So that's how you knew about the ambrosia's power." He chuckled, then added, "Two gods in one day. Tiger, you hang out with some impressive folks." He extended his hand to Alais, who grasped it graciously.
"I'm deeply honored, Harry Covington. I had heard that you were dead."
"Yeah. Nasty rumor, that's all."
Jan interjected, "Long story. How's about we talk over dinner? I'm famished." She turned, asking, "How about you, Mel? Hungry?" Her smile turned to deep concern when she saw Mel sitting on the foot of the bed, her shirt off, the thermal underwear top at her shoulder lacerated and soaked with blood from the wound which Ares had inflicted with the tip of his sword, Harmonia examining the injury. "Damn, Mel. You're hurt. Why didn't you say something?" Jan was by her side in an instant, her fingers tearing the shirt open and studying the wound. "It's deep. That's nasty, Mel." Jan's eyes watered. "Oh, honey, why didn't you say something?"
Mel smiled, self-depreciating tone in her voice. "You two were hurt so much more badly than I am. I could wait."
"Hell, no. In my book, you always come first, Mel. Let's do something about that." Before she had a chance to ask, Alais was next to her, holding out a piece of ambrosia.
"One piece only, Melinda. That is enough."
Mel took the piece of ambrosia and popped it into her mouth, chewing it. "Mmm. Delicious. Whatever is in it?" she mumbled, her hand daintily held over her mouth.
Harmonia laughed. "Oh, water, honey, fruit, cheese, and some barley." As Mel leaned back, enveloped in a warm, light glow, the immortal looked over at Jan. "She is curious about the ingredients. Does she cook?"
Jan grinned from ear to ear as she watched Mel heal. "Does she cook? She's an artist in the kitchen."
Harry added, "Good thing. Jan can't boil water without burning it." He walked around to Harmonia, extending a hand. "We haven't been formally introduced. I'm..."
She accepted the hand. "Yes. Harry Covington. I am Harmonia, Alais' daughter."
His jaw dropped. "Harmonia? The Harmonia, the daughter of..." He looked over at Alais, then back at the young woman. "...Aphrodite and Ares?"
"Even so. I regret that your introduction to my father was so unpleasant."
He shook his head. "Jeez. I had no idea who he really was, you know." He studied her, then looked over at Alais. "The Greek gods, real and alive? This is incredible. I'm having a bit of difficulty with this. Perhaps..."
Alais laughed, a melodious, delightful laugh. "If you will be my guests for the next few days, then we'll have time to explain everything, Harry." Alais assumed an inquisitive expression and looked around the room. "Would you all stay for the holidays? I would be so delighted."
Mel's voice answered, "Thank you. I believe that I speak for both Jan and I when I say, 'yes.'"
"And you, Harry?"
Harry looped an arm around Jan's shoulders and hugged her to him. "I'd love to, if you can put up with me for a while. Besides, Jan and I have some catching up to do."
"Then we will all celebrate the holiday together. Good friends and family. I was not so rich even when I dwelt on Olympus." Alais beamed, "It will be the most marvelous Christmas I will have known in a long time, a very long time."
Harmonia joined her mother, clasping her hand. "Centuries?"
Alais rolled her eyes. "Don't remind me, Daughter. I have been feeling rather old lately."
Mel stood on the chateau's balcony, looking up at the night sky. The cold air made the stars sparkle; they seemed so clear and large that she felt that she could reach up and touch them. The full moon's light bathed her in silver tones, and she admired it even as she shivered slightly from the cold wind's touch upon her face.
As she peered down on the grounds surrounding the countess' home, she spied two figures walking in the night, strolling easily across the lawn. Mel smiled at the sight and mused, Jan needs this time with her father. They have a lot to talk about, Lord knows. She felt a strange pang of loss in her own heart, and a vision of her own father suddenly came to mind. How I envy that. It's a second chance with her father, almost as if he's back from the grave. How I wish that I had that with mine. There's still so many things I'd like to say to him. We always think that there's just a little more time, don't we? Then, one day, there's not. So much left unsaid. So many regrets, no matter how we hard we tried. She sniffed slightly, then thought, Daddy, I miss you.
She wiped a stray tear from her cheek as she watched Jan and Harry stroll in the distance, arms interlocked. An overwhelming feeling of solitude, of a loneliness which only the survivors of death can know swept over her, and she ached at it. She breathed deeply, attempting to dispel it, and thought, Mel, quit feeling sorry for yourself. You aren't alone at all. She pushed her glasses up on her nose and peered up at the full moon. A soft exclamation left her lips, almost a pleading question. "Xena?"
In answer, a gentle breeze touched her cheek, and she smiled at that. "Xena, may we talk?"
A comforting warmth enveloped her, and she turned her head to look to her right, perceiving a soft light filling the balcony. The light coalesced into a form and her ancient ancestor stood, leaning against the balcony's railing, gazing out over the chateau's grounds. After a moment, Xena spoke.
"It's a beautiful night, distant daughter."
Mel chuckled. "Gabrielle was right."
Xena looked up at her, raising an eyebrow in question. "Oh? She was right about many things. Which thing did you have in mind?"
"You have trouble with small talk."
The spirit grinned. "That's me. It used to frustrate the Hades out of her." She contemplated Mel's face for a moment, then asked, "What do you want to talk about?"
Mel faced her, moving closer to the form. "Thanks for being there for me today. For us."
"I am always there."
"I know. I suppose I just needed your company tonight, the company of a good friend.."
"Feeling lonely, are we?"
Mel smiled painfully. "I know it's silly. Jan is with her father, Alais has her daughter, and I just feel a third wheel. I know, it's quite selfish, isn't it?"
"And you miss your father?" Xena's perceptive gaze actually caused Mel to blush slightly.
"I really do."
"Be glad that you had him for the time you did. I never knew my father. My mother said that he was a bully and a drunk. Gabrielle was never close to hers."
Mel nodded. "And Jan has a new beginning. It's something that most of us don't get."
"A new beginning," Xena agreed. "I know about those, thanks to Gabrielle."
Mel gazed down at the night's shadows on the ground, silent for a while. When she looked up, Xena stood at her elbow, patiently awaiting her next thought. "Thank you."
The spirit of the ancient warrior studied her. "For what?"
"Being here tonight."
"It is my honor, my distant daughter."
"Can you give a message to my father for me? Is it possible?"
"Please tell him..." She hesitated, searching for the right words, then finally settled on a simple, poignant statement. "Tell him that I love him, and that I have all that I could ever hope for."
"Xena? Um, one more thing."
Mel hesitated, then slowly reached out and cupped her hand over the spirit's hand, resting on the railing. "I..."
Xena's face responded with a brilliant, lop-sided grin. "I know. I can feel it from you." The spirit began to shimmer, then fade. "I love you too, my distant daughter. Until next time?"
Mel repeated the words. "Next time." At that, the spirit disappeared, leaving her alone on the balcony. She sighed deeply, then cast a final glance down at the grounds, watching the two solitary figures slowly walking together. Softly, she whispered aloud, "Take your time, love. I'll be here." She studied them for a moment, then left the balcony, quietly closing the door behind her.
Jan walked with Harry in the moonlit grounds, bundled against the cold, their breaths coming in puffs as they talked. She looped a hand through his arm and leaned against him. "Dad?"
"I'm full of questions, you know that?"
He chuckled. "I know. Look, I owe you one hell of an apology. Let me start with that."
"No need, Dad. I'm sure that you did what you thought was best."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence. How about an explanation, then?"
Jan looked up at him. "Now that, I could use."
He sighed, then collected his thoughts, lighting a cigarette as he did so. After a moment, he began. "You know that I've always had a bit of an, um, unorthodox reputation as an archaeologist."
It was Jan's turn to chuckle. "That's the understatement of the year."
"Well, when you were in your first year of college, I was hired by some guys to retrieve an ancient legend, you might say. I led them on an expedition to do just that. It went badly."
"I found out that they were working for a guy named Adolf. I double-crossed 'em. Led 'em into a trap. They died as a result of it."
"I knew those guys. Nazis, full of zeal and pride. They don't forgive. They're ruthless. I knew that if they'd ever found out what happened, my life wasn't worth a nickel. They'd find me and kill me. I had to disappear from the face of the earth."
"And so you did?"
"Yep. I speak fluent Greek, so I made my way down to the Aegean and caught a boat for one of the islands, under an assumed name. I had money; they paid me in advance. So, I found an out-of-the-way place, bought a vineyard, and began producing grapes." He smiled at the next thought. "And a rather fine wine, if I say so myself. It won an award, you know. I prospered, but always slept with one eye open and a pistol under my pillow. As long as their boss Adolf existed, I knew that I was living on borrowed time if they ever discovered that I was still alive."
"Why couldn't you write me, Dad? Why couldn't you tell me about this?"
"That's the most painful part. I knew those guys, like I said. They would do anything to exact revenge, and they had agents everywhere. I felt that my silence was the only way that I could protect you."
"Sure. They knew who you were. They knew where you were going to school. They as much as told me that, if I didn't come through for them on this thing, you would pay for it. You were in danger from my deal with the devil. Hell, after things went to pot, they probably watched you to see if I would show up."
"But not even a letter, Dad?"
"Nope. Not even a letter. I couldn't risk it. It was best for both of us if the world thought that I was dead."
"I never stopped mourning your death."
Harry's eyes narrowed in pain. "I know. I'm just so sorry for it all, Jan. I missed you horribly, all these last years. I watched you blossom from afar, though. Your grandmother was kind enough to send me word of your studies and your life occasionally. I read your stuff and watched your progress, your triumphs in the archaeology journals. How proud I was of you and your accomplishments."
"But Grandma couldn't tell me that you were alive?"
"No. Don't blame her. It was at my insistence. I really feared for your safety."
Jan and Harry walked silently for some few minutes. Finally, Jan spoke. "Why didn't you seek me out after the war was over?"
"So much time had passed. I didn't know what your reaction to me would be. After all, your grandmother had said that you were quite angry with me for many reasons. I just felt, well..."
"What?" Jan's voice was exasperated.
Harry hesitated, then blurted, "I didn't know whether you would ever want to see me again."
Jan gripped her father's arm tightly. "Oh, Dad. You didn't have to worry about that. Yeah, I was angry. I was angry because you left me in that stinking boarding school. I was angry because you died on me. I was angry because Mom walked out on us. I was angry for a lot of things in those days."
"Yeah. I know that now. I'm just so sorry for it all, Tiger."
"Me, too. Most of all, I was stupid. I got my doctorate by the skin of my teeth. I had a chip on my shoulder a mile wide. I drank like a fish for a while."
"You're not like that now. What changed it all?"
"She's one great gal, I'll say that. I can see how much you love her. I can see why, too. When did you two get together?"
"She walked into my life in a dig in Macedonia back in '40, and never walked out." Jan laughed derisively. "Lord knows she should have, about twenty times over. I wasn't easy to be with, in those days. She changed it all for me. You know, Dad, you and she are about the only two people in the world who ever loved me for who I was."
"I'm sorry, Jan. Sounds like you had a right to be angry."
"But I had no right to be angry with you."
Harry laughed. "Baloney. You had every right. I know how you've had to live down the Covington name all your professional life, how much scorn you must have had to endure from your colleagues and professors because of me." He snorted sarcastically. "Harry 'Grave-Robber' Covington. I'm sure that your childhood wasn't easy for you, either. It was selfish of me, yanking you from your friends, pulling you all over the world, digging in god-forsaken spots, dealing with disreputable people, putting you in danger time and again...."
Jan halted, pulling on her father's arm, and turned to face him, her hazel eyes flashing. "Yeah, my childhood sucked, but it wasn't because of you, Dad. I was proud to be Harry Covington's kid. I was glad to be traveling the world with you. I saw and learned more by your side than most people do in a lifetime. What I hated was living at that school. It was like a prison to me. I wasn't like a lot of those girls, Dad. I was--- different. Even then, I knew it and they knew it. I was a tomboy. I didn't have hardly any friends. Those rich girls would make fun of me and I'd deck one of 'em, then get a whipping for it. Those nuns broke more sticks over me than I can count. The Mother Superior left welts on my ass for a week with one beating. I was always in trouble. Even Mom ran out on me when I was little. I figured that I must be a really bad person, for all that to happen. I cried myself to sleep at night, most nights. The only time that I ever felt good about myself was when I was with you. You were about the only person in the world who was good to me when I was a kid. I lived for those times when I could trot off to be with you, digging history out of the ground. I was alive then. I was happy then." The intense flame in her hazel eyes softened, and she added, "We had some great times together, didn't we, Dad?"
"We sure did, Tiger. We sure did." His eyes met hers, and they smiled a mutual, conspiratorial smile. He draped an arm around her shoulders and led her back toward the chateau. "Look, I'm sorry about the school. I really didn't know how awful it was for you there. I missed you desperately when you weren't with me, you know. You were the one sparkle in my life, Jan. I should never have sent you away to that school, but I thought that the least I could do for you is get you a good education. I'm just so sorry about it all now."
"Forget about it, Dad. It's the past. You're here, now. That's all I care about." Jan leaned in against him, her arm around his waist. "So, what were you looking for?"
"Back then. What did ol' Adolf want you to find for him?"
He laughed, then replied, "The legend of ambrosia."
Jan's eyes widened at the implication of the statement. "Holy crap, Dad. Those guys in the tunnel, those bodies....?"
"Yep. Those were the guys I took in there."
"So, what made you go back for it after all these years?"
Harry wrapped his arm more tightly around Jan's shoulders as they walked. "Last year, I started getting blinding headaches. They became more frequent. I went to the doctors in Athens, and they poked and prodded ghoulishly, then solemnly informed me of a brain tumor. They gave me six months to live."
Jan's face fell in an expression of horror. "Oh, Dad. I had no idea..."
"Oh, relax. I'm okay now, kiddo."
"What? You've got a cancer, Dad. You can't just be 'okay now'."
"Sure, I can. Remember, I found the ambrosia before you two did."
"You ate some while you were in there?"
Harry looked down at her. "Damned right I did. Wouldn't you?"
Jan breathed a deep sigh of relief, her knees becoming slightly weak. She clung to him a little more tightly, then asked, "Um, Dad? Have you had a headache since?"
"Do...do you think that it's gone?"
"I know it. I haven't felt so good in years." He looked down at the expression of relief on Jan's face and added, "Don't worry. I plan to be a problem to you for a long time yet."
Jan squeezed her eyes tightly shut, a small tear finding its way down her cheek. "Glad to hear it." They hiked up the steps to the chateau, reaching the door. Harry reached out to grasp the door's handle, but Jan laid a hand on his arm. "One more thing, Dad."
"Palo. Ares. What did he have to do with all this?"
"Oh. Well, he shows up at my place one day with an offer too good to pass up, just when I'm resigning myself to dying in a couple of months. Talks me into going after the ambrosia for him. Said it would cure me. Hell, I'd forgotten about the stuff. What I can't figure is why he just didn't go for it himself."
"He's an immortal, Dad. They can't remove it from Olympus. A mortal can, though."
"Like you two did for Alais?"
"You got it."
Harry grinned at that. "Hm. Well, I'm sure glad you did." He mused silently for a moment, then spoke. "So Alais is really Aphrodite, huh?"
"Been a while since I've had a good romance. The former goddess of love might be just the ticket."
Jan's expression grew cautious. "Now, Dad..."
Harry winked at her mischievously, then opened the door. As they entered the chateau, he gestured toward the stairs. "Hush, Tiger. Now, you'd better get up there to that marvelous gal of yours. I'll bet she's getting lonely. After all, you've been spending a lot of time with me."
"Are you going to be okay alone, Dad?"
Harry's expression was one of surprise. "Alone? Heck, I've got a date with a terrific blonde." He laughed softly as he joked, "A real goddess, you might say."
Jan's eyes nearly bugged out of her head. "You do?"
He snickered at his daughter's disbelieving expression. "Sure. Alais and I are going into Paris this evening. We both love opera. Maybe we'll catch a little late dinner afterward. Hey, don't wait up. We might be in late." He winked and added, "Or early."
"Damn, Dad. You don't waste any time, do you?"
"Alais and I have a lot in common."
Jan's mouth fell open. "Such as?"
"Well, we both have a lot of living to catch up on, and a new lease on life to do it with. See you at breakfast, Tiger. I love you." With that, he leaned forward, kissed Jan on the forehead, and turned toward his room with a bounce in his step and the whistling of a pleasant little tune. Jan watched him go, scratching her head in disbelief, and then entered the room which she shared with Mel.
She looked around, anticipating Mel's presence, but she was not to be seen. Dropping her coat, scarf and hat on a chair, she reached down and unlaced her boots, then kicked them off, watching them settle haphazardly against the ornate foot of the bed-post. She stretched, then muttered, "Damn. Shower sounds good."
From the bathroom, she heard Mel's voice hail her. "Jan, darlin', is that you?"
Jan stuck her head into the bathroom. "Hey, Mel. Sorry I...took.....so....long." Her words trailed off when she saw Mel reclining leisurely in the bath-tub, steam rising from the hot water and the copious bubbles. Mel's face had a slightly dreamy quality about it as she regarded the petite blonde peering around the door. As Jan's eyes slowly took in the scene, she noted the bottle of wine open on the floor next to the bathtub. It was definitely not full. "What's this, Mel? You hitting the bottle? You never have more than two drinks. Ever."
"Another famous Mel Pappas 'first' tonight. Doing a scientific study of grape-stomping." She waved her glass in the air as she spoke. "In or out, Jan. You're letting the warm air out."
"Oh. Sorry." Jan entered, closing the door behind her. She picked up the wine bottle, looked at the label, and then noted, "Good stuff." Mel's hand waved at her, holding out her glass. Jan refilled it, then, seeing no other glass, leaned back against the wall, drinking from the bottle and lost in watching Mel luxuriate in the bath. After a moment, she became aware that Mel was speaking to her.
"Jan? Jan? My goodness, you're off somewhere, aren't you?"
Jan shook her head, blinking. "Huh? What did you say, Mel?"
"I said, 'Quit gawking at me'."
"I'm not gawking."
"You most certainly are gawking, you perverted little cutie. One would think you'd never seen a naked lady before."
Mel allowed a little smile to tease the corners of her mouth at Jan's speechless state. "So, what's on your mind?"
"Um...my Dad has a date. With Alais."
"My idea, thank-you-very-much. I think that they make a delightful couple, don't you? She's a pensive beauty, and your father is one rakishly handsome devil."
"You set my dad and Alais up?"
"I didn't 'set them up', as you say. I merely suggested to Alais that they have quite a bit in common. A love of opera, for instance. She took it from there." Mel stifled a burp, then added, "She always was a smart girl."
Jan shook her head. "Mel, you never cease to amaze me."
She teased, "Why, yes. Especially when I'm naked, I suppose." To emphasize the point, a long leg rose leisurely from the bath water and draped itself over the side of the tub in an incredibly sexy, 'come-hither' gesture.
Jan swallowed heavily. Yeah. Naked and getting tanked, she thought. "Um, especially then."
Mel's voice was silken, alluring. "You must have come in here for something besides my wine, cutie. Now, whatever could it have been, I wonder?"
"Oh, right. Shower."
"I believe that the tub is presently occupied, Jan."
Jan raised an eyebrow and whistled appreciatively. "I'll say." She eyed the scene, then added, "Large tub, too."
Mel glanced down at the tub, then batted her eyelashes at Jan. "Why, yes it is."
Jan studied it thoughtfully, then raised an impish eyebrow. "Big enough for two, ya think?"
Mel giggled, then crooked a finger at Jan. "Let's find out." Jan took a step forward, halted by Mel's raised hand and theatrically astonished comment. "You're not coming in here with clothes on, are you?"
Jan looked down at herself. "Of course not."
"Well, then. Off with them."
"No, Jan. Slowly." Mel's voice was an enticing whisper. "Tease me. Let your hair loose first, cutie. You know how I love you with your hair loose."
Jan blinked in absolute surprise, then grinned and narrowed her eyes to slits as she pulled the clip from behind her head and shook her hair loose. "Okay, who are you and what have you done with Mel? You're not a Harpy in disguise, are you?"
"This is a day of 'firsts' for Mel Pappas. I just thought I'd discover another one."
"Yeah? What one is that, gorgeous?"
"That I'm a very... visual girl."
Jan laughed, a low, sultry laugh, as she replied, "Yeah. Slightly drunk, too."
Mel raised an eyebrow. "That, my dear, is beside the point. Now, Jan, I want to be entertained. Undress for me. Give me your finest performance."
As the shirt drifted to the floor, Mel sipped at her wine, her eyes wide and fixed on Jan. After a few seconds, socks followed, and the thump of pants was not far behind. What caused Mel to pause in mid-sip of her wine and push her glasses up on her nose, however, was when the thermal bottoms added themselves to the stack. "My goodness, Jan. No underpants? That's quite, um...arousing. You certainly are a blonde, aren't you? Turn around slowly. Oh, my. That's just the sexiest little bottom I've ever seen."
"One piece left, Mel."
"I'll say." She sipped at her wine, watching the thermal top slowly peeled off, and as it hit the floor, she gasped, then mumbled, "Darn. How disappointing."
Jan, suddenly finding herself embarrassed by Mel's unexpected exclamation at her nudity, not to mention the effect of the cool air, cupped her hands over her breasts, looked down at herself and said, "What? What's the matter, Mel?"
"The steam. My glasses have fogged up. I can't see you."
Mel heard Jan wheeze in laughter, then felt the water slosh slightly as the petite blonde slowly settled down in the tub, nestled between Mel's long legs. "Well, take 'em off."
"But I can't see you then, either."
"You're nearsighted, aren't you?"
"Then I'll just have to get closer." She felt Jan wiggle herself up next to her and press against her, snaking her arms around her waist. A blonde head nestled itself on her shoulder, and their legs intertwined comfortably. "There. Can you see me now?"
"I can feel you now. That's much nicer."
"Yeah, but can you see me?"
Mel took her glasses off and let them fall onto the pile of clothes by the tub. "No."
"Because, Janice, I always kiss with my eyes closed. Now, come here, cutie."
The last words spoken in the bath for some time were Jan's mumbled words, "Oh, yeah. Life is good."
The upscale restaurant was alive with pleasant conversation and well-dressed diners, but nowhere was the conversation more friendly or the company more companionable than at a table for four in a corner of the restaurant. At that table, Jan lifted a glass and offered a toast. "Happy New Year's eve. May the next year prove as adventurous as the last one has been."
Sallie's irrepressible giggle answered the toast, her large, dark eyes sparkling and the mop of unruly curls framing her face dancing as she lifted her own glass. Mack just smiled and nodded, and Mel rolled her eyes. "Janice Covington, if the next year is as crazy as this one has been, I'm not sure that I can survive it."
"Oh, you'll survive, Mel. You'll be loving it."
In answer, she offered a blazing grin. "I'm quite sure I will. To good friends and family, Jan."
The three other voices at the table echoed the sentiment, and when their glasses returned to the table, Mack picked up the bottle and refilled the glasses. When he finished, he studied the label on the bottle. "Hm. Never heard of that one before."
Sallie leaned over inquisitively and looked at the label. "What's that, Mack?"
"The wine. Good choice, Jan. Didn't know that you knew your Greek wines."
Jan laughed. "Hey, it is a Greek restaurant. That label is special to me, though."
Sallie squinted, studying the label. "Sorry, guys. My Greek sucks. Latin is my forte, you know. What's it called?"
Mel answered, "The label translates literally as 'Little Tiger'."
Sallie puzzled over that, her eyes lighting up at a good mystery. "What a fascinating name for a wine. I wonder how they came by it?"
Mack glanced over at Jan's face, and he perceived a deep twinkle in her eye. "Oh," he said, "I imagine there's quite a story to it." After a moment, he asked, "So, you two, how was your trip to visit Alais?"
Jan just sat back in her chair, but Mel chuckled and leaned forward slightly, her hand seeking out Jan's. "Do we have a story for you." She turned to Jan. "Shall I start, or would you like to?"
Jan grinned. "Take it away, Mel. I'll just listen tonight, if ya don't mind. You can always tell a story better than I can, anyway."
Mel's eyes warmed at the compliment, and then she turned toward Mack and Sallie. "Well, it began when..."
Two weeks later, Jan pulled the car into the garage and shut off the motor. She grasped her briefcase and hat and stepped out of the nondescript convertible, it's cloth top layered with a sprinkling of snow. As she clumped into the warm kitchen of their cottage and shut the door behind her, Mel rose from the table to greet her with a lingering kiss and a cup of hot coffee. Jan welcomed both, then shrugged off her jacket, scarf and boots. "It's snowing out there."
Mel nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. Isn't it lovely?"
"Bah. Can't ride my motorcycle." She sipped at her coffee, then brightened as she noted, "Even got a 'nail' in it, just like I like. Thanks, Mel."
"Anything for my grumpy little cutie. By the way, we got a letter today from Hawaii, of all places."
"Oh? Who do we know in Hawaii?"
"I don't know." Mel handed Jan the letter. "Do you recognize the handwriting, Jan?"
She studied the letter, then perked up. "Yeah. It's my dad's handwriting." Her face contorted into a scowl of question, and she asked, "Now what the hell is he doing in Hawaii?"
She placed her cup down on the kitchen table and carefully opened the letter. As she withdrew the paper inside, she noted the hotel stationery. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Honolulu. She shook the letter open and began to read, scanning the lines of blue scribbling. "He says that he's well, and that he'll see us in Stockholm in February, to watch us get our Nobel prize. Well, I'll be... Mel, he's on his honeymoon! That rat. He didn't even tell me that he was getting married. You think that he'd tell me something like that. I mean, what am I here? Chopped liver? I'm his only kid, for cryin' out loud." She sat heavily on a kitchen chair, quite taken aback at the news. "I wonder who the poor gal is."
Mel bent over and retrieved a picture from the floor, gazing at it. "This fell from the letter, Jan. Oh, my. You'll never believe it."
"Huh? Lemme see." Mel began laughing uproariously, then handed the snapshot over to Jan, watching her face register shocked surprise. The photograph was taken on the beach at Waikiki, the recognizable silhouette of Diamond Head in the background. The couple in the photograph were in swimsuits, tanned and fit, smiling and each holding a drink in their hands, their arms about each other's waists. Jan's jaw dropped. She stuttered a moment, then could only say, "Well, I'll be a son of a..."
"Don't be too hard on him. I imagine that it was quite a sudden thing. For both of them." Mel plucked the photo from Jan's limp fingers, gazing at it again. She mused over it for a moment, then observed, "Jan, they look so happy. They almost seem to glow. Look at your father, dear. He absolutely looks twenty years younger. He's no longer wearing glasses, either. My, what a handsome man. Why, his hair even looks darker than it did in France. The tropics agree with him, don't you think?" She giggled, then added, "Perhaps it's Alais that agrees with him. My goodness, she still has a magnificent figure. That statue didn't lie."
A gradual expression of understanding washed over Jan's face. "More like, a second helping of ambrosia and immortality agrees with him."
Mel looked up. "You don't think that...?"
Jan shrugged, a knowing smile crossing her face. "I sure do. He always wanted a romance that would last forever."
"Look, Mel. If you were an immortal when I fell in love with you, I'd have eaten the stuff in a heartbeat if it meant that I would live forever with you."
"Sure. It makes perfect sense. How would you like to stay young, seeing me grow old and infirm and eventually die? I wouldn't want to do that to you. I imagine that he didn't want to subject Alais to that, either."
"Would you eat ambrosia, Jan? Would you want to become immortal?"
Jan rose from her chair and seated herself on Mel's lap, draping her arms around the taller woman's neck. Their foreheads touched, and Jan replied, "Only if you did the same. We grow old together or we stay young together, one or the other. I really don't care which, as long as it's with you."
Mel's eyes blinked back a tear. "Darlin', I couldn't have said it better myself." After a pause, she added, "I know now why I love you so much, Jan."
"Why's that, Mel?"
"You're just one hell of a gal. I hope that, one day, I'll finally be worthy of you."
"Funny you should say that. I've spent these last years trying to be worthy of you."
"And that, for all we know, is what keeps love alive."