Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and suppressed a shiver. Her dreams had been like this more and more as the year had passed. Still, the foreboding surroundings did not frighten her as they had in the beginning. She knew what to expect.
"Xena!" She called through the echoing mist about her. Not so much mist as tendrils of shrouded existence. The entire universe seemed to be made of these pale blue shimmering ghosts, fluttering like ragged curtains suspended in eternity. She could hear her voice echo in that endless void. Still, something about this was definitely wrong. Even at the longest, it would only take Xena a few minutes to join her. On this instance, she had been in the place for what might be counted several hours, with no sign of her best friend. Her eyes scanned her surroundings and she suppressed another shiver. No, there was something distinctly different about it this time. An air of quiet dread seemed to permeate her surroundings.
"Gabrielle," A voice seemed to call from a great distance.
Gabrielle froze. Her head turned as she attempted to get a bearing on the voice. It echoed weakly all around her.
"I'm here!" she called in return. "Where are you?"
"Keep coming," Xena's voice responded, sounding distant and unlike herself.
"What's the matter?" Gabrielle shouted as she resumed walking. "I can barely hear you!"
She followed a rough path meandering through the curtains of mist until she entered a small open space.
"I'm here, Gabrielle," Xena's voice said, more clearly but still very weak.
Gabrielle turned in a complete circle, but she still did not see her friend.
"I can't see you!" she called.
"I'm here," Xena replied, and Gabrielle could see her, barely, as if she were merely flickering in and out of reality. Gabrielle frowned. This had never happened before. Usually, when they met in the Dreamscape, it was as if she were alive and real again.
"What's happening?" Gabrielle asked.
"Very weak," Xena said. "Listen Gabrielle, there's not much time. I need you to do something for me?"
"Of course," Gabrielle replied instantly.
"This could be very dangerous," Xena continued.
Gabrielle smiled knowingly. "Since when isn't it dangerous?"
"I'm serious!" Xena said, and her anxiety fed some of the energy allowing her to flicker into more definite view for a few seconds.
"Something big is about to happen, and I need your help to stop it!"
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena frowned, as if the effort to communicate was causing her pain.
"I need you to find the Chronos Stone," Xena said. Her voice was tight from exertion.
"Isn't that the stone that Autolocus found all those years ago?" Gabrielle asked. "I thought it was safely tucked away in a vault somewhere?"
"Just listen!" Xena hissed. "I don't have much time here. The Stone is gone. It must be returned. I need you to find it and bring it back to this time."
"This time?" Gabrielle frowned. "Xena, I don't understand?"
"Go to the Stygian Witches," Xena said, almost pleading now. "But be careful! They're old, but they're also very dangerous!"
Xena's voice was fading and her already faint form was dissolving like mist.
"Xena!" Gabrielle felt a cold lump of horror forming in her throat. "Xena! I can't hear you!"
"The Stygian Witches!" Xena's voice came again. "They can help you get to where you need to go! Just be careful! They'll try andů."
Xena's voice and form faded into nothing and Gabrielle was alone. Something like panic seized the young bard's heart.
"Xena!" she cried, suddenly afraid for the first time in her life. "Xena!"
Laughter seemed to echo all about her, a cruel and wicked laugh, filled with malevolence and hate. Then the universe seemed to blur into a brilliant white flash.
Gabrielle sat up as if someone had struck her. She rolled over onto her belly and looked about. The first rays of the sun were just beginning to glow behind the eastern hills. Her own little campfire had died to only a few glowing embers. The wind whistled a chill through the thick branches of the trees and brush surrounding her little campsite.
She shivered with the sudden chill and gazed about her, the words from the dream still fresh in her mind.
"Go to the Stygian Witches," Gabrielle repeated to herself. "Well, I guess I better get going."
Eight days later, she stood at the base of a craggy hill, looking up at the barely recognizable ruins of an ancient temple. She stared at the dizzying height and sighed.
"You never said anything about this," she muttered. She shrugged her pack off and let it fall to the ground. Then, gazing up at the white craggy wall before her, she began her long, slow ascent.
The climb was complex and treacherous. More than once, she lost her footing and nearly fell to her death, hanging by one hand like a dangling spider as she struggled to reestablish her hold. By the time she reached the summit, her muscles burned from the exertion and her body glistened with a sheen of perspiration. This was one time where she didn't miss her long hair. She clawed her way the last few yards and lay back on a long smooth slab of stone, breathing hard. The warm sunlight helped dry the sweat from her skin and kept her burning muscles from cramping. She took a long drink from her water skin and sat up, gazing out at the vast, desolate expanse of earth before her. The stone hills seemed more like broken teeth, glistening pale white or tan in the bright sun. Old brambles and the remains of ancient trees clawed up from between rocks, grasping for whatever sunlight and moisture they could absorb.
A rough path led up from her place, meandering between the dried out ruins of some ancient orchard towards a gaping maw that may have once been a decorative entry for the temple. The brilliance of the daylight seemed to stop at the threshold, making the place look like a hole in the world, dark and treacherous.
"She said I should be careful," Gabrielle muttered. "Somehow, I don't think she meant the climb."
She reached down and drew her sais from her boots, feeling more comfortable with her weapons in her hands. She stopped at the entrance, looking up at the ruined arch and it's long faded engravings. She could barely make out characters in the soft stone that might have once been words, but after only a few moments, she realized that they were indecipherable.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward and plunged into an unnatural blackness.
She had to pause once she was within the structure, the dark was so complete that she thought she had been struck truly blind. She turned back and couldn't even see the entrance, though she had progressed only a few cautious steps. Her hand reached out and touched the stone wall, cool and slimy. The substance sizzled and tingled at her touch, though it didn't burn. Instantly she withdrew her fingers.
Voices drifted through the darkness to her ears.
"What is that?" One dusty female voice said.
"Is someone here?" A second, high pitched, whiny voice asked.
"Who has the Eye?" the dusty voice asked again.
"I do!" A hoarse voice croaked harshly.
"What do you see?" the whiny voice asked.
"Yes, tell me sister, what do you see?" the dusty voice also pleaded.
The hoarse voice dropped a note in pitch and chuckled as it spoke. "A woman," it said.
"Let me see!" The dusty voice barked and the sound of rustling was heard for a moment. "Yes, a young woman."
"Is she plump?" asked the whiny voice.
"Not plump," Dusty Voice said cheerily. "But well put together."
"Give it to me!" Whiny Voice said forcefully, and the rustling sound was heard again, then Whiny Voice wheedled.
"Come in, my dear," she said. "Don't hang about the door. It's rude."
Gabrielle blinked and began to discern shapes in the feeble light. She could see several torches flickering in the room. The light was barely enough to illuminate the walls. The main source of light was the greenish blue fire burning beneath a slowly boiling cauldron of massive proportions. Behind it, Gabrielle could make out the shapes of three, bone thin, old women with matted, stringy hair and wide, toothless mouths leering in her general direction. She winced in disgust when she realized that there was only wrinkled skin where the eyes should have been. One of them, the tallest of the three, stood holding a crystal orb to her forehead. She stared at Gabrielle through the strange device.
"My, what a lovely young lady," she wheedled.
"You've had it long enough," Dusty Voice said. She reached blindly and wrested the crystal orb from her sister.
"Ah," she said in approval. "Yes, quite lovely."
Gabrielle looked about the chamber and tried to keep from breathing through her nose. There was a rancid stench of decay about the place. Scattered about the floor in various heaps and piles were bones, most, she noted with growing unease, were human, decayed and gleaming in the shallow light. Small feet could be heard scurrying about beneath or around them, and occasionally one of the skulls would shift and clunk with an ominous hollow thump.
"Uh," Gabrielle started warily. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I was sent here on an errand - an important errand."
"Disturb?" The hoarse one said. "Oh, please, my dear, you are not disturbing us."
"So few people come to visit these days," The whiny one wheedled.
"It seems that time has all but forgotten us," Dusty voice said dismally.
"If you wish to speak with us," Hoarse voice said suddenly. "Then you must come a bit closer. My sisters and I are a bit deaf, you see?"
Gabrielle smiled nervously. "I'm fine right here," she said loudly. "I'll just talk louder, okay?"
"She's shy," Whiny Voice wheedled. "How sweet."
"Perhaps we should go to her," Hoarse Voice suggested.
The two blind sisters placed an arm on Dusty Voice's moldering robes, and the three hags began shambling closer to Gabrielle. They reached half way across the room when the two blind ones released their hold on the central hag, and began wandering further apart. It didn't take a military genius to see that they were attempting to flank her.
"That's close enough!" Gabrielle barked, edging back to the entrance. She started when she backed against cold, slimy, unyielding stone.
The three hags paused and focused their eyeless faces on the sound.
Dusty Voice stared at Gabrielle through the crystal orb; her smile was more akin to a slavering dog than a genteel old woman. A hiss escaped her lips.
"She's armed," Dusty Voice said. She had obviously seen Gabrielle's sais.
"Ooo," Hoarse Voice croaked. "Does she have a sword, like the young fellow that was here two hundred years ago?"
Whiny Voice cackled in delight. "Or perhaps a spear, like that last Amazon woman?"
Dusty Voice spat. "They look like salad forks to me. You aren't a vegetarian, are you girl?"
As each of them spoke, they shuffled a few steps closer. Gabrielle could smell the rotting stench of their breath.
"Not another step!" she ordered.
The three hags froze.
"As you wish," Hoarse Voice said. Then the three of them launched themselves right at her.
Gabrielle dove clear, rolling through some thick viscous substance that she dare not consider. She came up, her weapons ready. The three hags cackled like ancient bats as they floated above the ground, circling. Dusty Voice saw her through the crystal and dove in.
An idea hit Gabrielle almost at the same time as the witch's attack, and she dove out of the way again. She swung with one of her weapons, heard a shriek of pain and then a soft clink as something landed amidst a pile of nearby bones.
Rolling over quickly, she grabbed the crystal orb and then retreated to a nearby corner.
"Where is it?" Dusty Voice wailed.
"The Eye! I've lost the Eye!"
Then all three of the hags were on their hands and knees, feeling through the piles of refuse, bones and the Gods knew what else. Fragments of once living creatures flew in all directions as they wailed and cursed one another in voices that set the stone roof trembling.
Gabrielle stared down at the clear crystal orb curiously. She let the three witches wail and gesticulate for a few more minutes, enjoying their angst, and then she tossed the orb into the air and caught it with a loud slap.
"Looking for something?" she asked.
Hoarse Voice turned to face her, her lips in an expression of terror mixed with rage.
"Do you have it?" she demanded.
"What if I do?" Gabrielle countered.
"Give it back to us!" Dusty Voice screamed.
"First thing's first," Gabrielle said evenly. "I need your advice."
"Anything! Anything!" Whiny Voice cried. "Just don't hurt the Eye!"
"Good." Gabrielle nodded, edging back towards the entrance. "Now, then. I was sent here to seek advice about the Chronos Stone?"
At those words, the three hags fell silent. They stood perfectly still, as if frozen in awe at her statement.
"What do you know of the stone?" Dusty Voice asked in a hush.
"Only that a friend of mine used it to move through time a long time ago," Gabrielle said. "And that another friend of mine asked me to find it."
"And your friend?" Hoarse Voice asked. "The one who requested that you find it?"
"Her name was Xena," Gabrielle replied, suddenly feeling that familiar twinge of sadness.
"Ah," Whiny Voice said, a single bony finger rising. "The mighty warrior."
"Isn't she dead?" Dusty Voice said coldly as she chuckled in her throat.
"Long dead," Hoarse Voice cackled.
"Hey!" Gabrielle shot, suddenly feeling wrath burn within her.
"Oh, my," Dusty Voice said. "I take it she was dear to you?"
"The stone?" Gabrielle pressed, forcing the three hags back on track.
"What of it?" Dusty Voice asked.
"Do you know where it is?" Gabrielle asked.
At that question, the three of them chuckled softly.
"It isn't so much a question of where," Whiny Voice said.
"But when," Hoarse Voice finished. "The Chronos Stone is not bound by the familiar. It transcends time itself."
"I don't understand," Gabrielle said.
"Of course you don't! How could you?" Dusty Voice shot back vehemently. "It is beyond your feeble intellect to understand!"
"The stone follows the currents of Time itself." Whiny Voice said in a reverent tone.
"Then how do I find it and return it?' Gabrielle asked.
"You have to follow it," Hoarse Voice replied as if she were instructing a small child. "In order to do that, you must transcend time yourself."
"And that isn't easy," Whiny Voice said with a sick grin.
Gabrielle tossed the Eye back into the air and caught it again with an even louder slap. All three witches started in fright and stayed perfectly still.
"More answer," Gabrielle said darkly. "Less art."
"In order to find the stone, you must follow it through time," Dusty Voice said quickly. She held her hand out in a staying gesture. "It is drawn to the supreme moment. The Joining of the Heavens calls to it. You must travel to the time when it shall be needed next and claim it for your own."
"Into the future," Hoarse Voice said.
"The distant future," Whiny Voice finished. "To a far off land where even the Gods have been forgotten or mostly abandoned."
"And where we no longer exist," Hoarse Voice added.
"And how do I do that?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly feeling like the task before her was impossible.
"The Eye," Hoarse Voice said earnestly. "Just as it has the power to transcend our blindness, so, too, can it send you on your journey."
"All you must do is gaze into the Eye and it will show you where to go," Dusty Voice added. "It will send your soul to that place, and your body will follow."
"Once there, you will have until the full moon to discover the stone, or remain trapped in that time for the rest of your life."
"Though you may not like the results if you fail," Whiny Voice said, her grin reasserting itself."
"Simply press the Eye to your forehead, as we do, and you shall see the place. You will see all you need to know.," Dusty Voice said, her nervousness building. "Then all you need do is step through the doorway behind you."
"Seek the Valkyrie," Hoarse Voice said in a suddenly subdued, almost melodic tone. "It carries the sword of the dispossessed one. He shall be your ally."
"More than an ally," Whiny Voice added with a sly grin.
"He will be the closed circle," Dusty Voice finished.
"Come," Hoarse Voice said, stretching out her claw like hand. "We've answered your questions. Indeed, we've given you more than we should!"
"Give us back the Eye!" Whiny Voice screamed at her.
"In a minute!" Gabrielle said sharply. She stared down at the orb and gazed into its smoky interior. The tiny clouds and fractures within seemed to move like clouds.
With a quick glance up at the three witches, she drew the Eye up against her forehead and closed her eyes.
The image flashed in her mind of a place, surrounded by tall trees, covered in leaves that were the color of gold or fiery orange. Others were the color of deep red at sunset. The shapes of the leaves and the trees were unknown to her, as was the terrain.
Then the image flashed before her again, showing the silhouette of a man, staring at her. She couldn't see the features of his face, only the deep thoughtful look in his dark brown eyes, as if he were staring right through her. She felt an indescribable thrill in that gaze for only a moment, and then the image faded and was replaced by another, familiar and more evil.
It was a woman, dressed in the animal skins of a shamaness, with thin features and wild, dark eyes that burned with a mad light. She grinned at her like a hungry cat.
"You set your feeble will against mine, child?" she asked in a mocking tone.
"Alti," Gabrielle gasped. Then the vision was gone. She drew the orb from her forehead and blinked. The previously hidden exit was now plain to see, off to her left, as was another doorway directly behind her.
The three hags had stayed perfectly still.
"There," Dusty Voice said with finality. "You have seen your object, your ally, and your enemy. We can do no more for you."
"The Eye!" Whiny Voice screamed again in desperation.
Gabrielle smiled. There was no way she was about to walk over and hand it to them. She looked down at the ground.
"Here," she said, and she rolled the crystal towards them on the mucky stone floor. "Thanks for everything."
Gabrielle turned and fled through the entrance, the howls of the three hags hot on her heels. Suddenly the screams and curses faded away and she felt herself being propelled ahead, faster than anything she had ever experienced before. It felt as though she were falling sideways through an open tunnel. Her feet left the ground and she was hurled out of the void into the cool night air. She saw the ground rush past beneath her and then she struck, rolling through the thick blanket of dead leaves, sending them scattering into the air. There was a sharp pain in her head and she remembered no more.
Shilah sat back from the small collapsible table and stared at the cards before her from a distance, as if the whole of the images might give her more than the individual cards themselves. She was a short, round woman with thick, long, dark hair and deep, happy dark eyes. She smiled as she pressed one finger against her mouth, pursing her lips in thought.
"Well?" her client asked with a mild air of impatience. Shilah looked up at him and gave him a knowing look. The man only brushed his long dark hair out of his eyes and smiled back somewhat mischievously.
He was tall, and solidly built. The build of an athlete, Shilah had often thought to herself. Lithe and powerful, but not bound.
"I'm thinking," Shilah said in a soft, firm voice.
"Yeah," her client responded smoothly. "But I though the closer we got to Samhain, the easier this was?"
"David," Shilah chided him. "You of all people know that reading for friends is particularly difficult. Preconceptions can easily become misconceptions."
David shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "Even for my High Priestess?"
"Only when reading for her favorite High Priest," Shilah replied. "Now be quiet and let me think."
This particular night, she sat across from him, the cards laid out in a circle. One by one, her delicate fingers turned the cards over.
"Something is coming," she said quietly. She studied the circular spread closely for several more minutes and sighed.
"Coming to you, David," She finished. She turned several more cards over in the spread and frowned as she read them.
The Fool, The Nine of Pentacles, The Ace of Pentacles, the Ace of Swords, the Six of Pentacles, The Two of Cups, The Sun, and Justice all encircled The Knave of Wands.
David leaned over the table, staring down at the cards, hoping he might glean more detailed information from them. He knew that to read for oneself was not the wisest thing to do. Reading cards, or any other form of divination for that matter, is best when done for another. There should always be a reader and a subject, preferably a reader who is unfamiliar with his or her subject. Very few masters, like Shilah, are able to do readings for close friends and associates while remaining completely neutral. David's attempt at levity was not helping the situation either. She noticed his prying eyes and frowned.
Shilah reached across the table and gently slapped his hand. He sat back quickly, looking up at her as she stared across the table into his eyes. She smiled and waggled her finger.
"No peeking," she chided.
He sat back more comfortably, accepting the rebuke, and waited.
"You will find success and happiness in your past?" she finished as if asking a question. "No, that's not right." Then she turned several more cards and placed them on the wheel.
The Lovers, The Chariot, The High Priestess, The Ten of Cups, and Death.
Shilah stared at these as well, gleaning information for several long moments, and then she sat back and stared at David kindly.
"Your future happiness will be found when you explore the past." She shrugged. She stood up and went to the small stove where a kettle had just begun to sing. Quickly and neatly, she prepared two steaming cups of strong tea and presented him with one of them.
He took the cup and looked at her skeptically.
"Even for you," he said. "That's pretty freaking cryptic."
Shilah only shrugged. "That's what it says, David. I don't know what it is. I only know what they say. You understand that." She looked at the cards again. "It is part of what is to come." She glanced back down at the spread and continued. "Maybe a major part of it? We know a lot is going to happen to the world in the next year, and the coming Harmonic Convergence is going to be a big part of it." She studied David for a long time.
"I think it will affect you more than anyone else I know." She smiled. "In any event, the ritual is set for that night. I just need to find the exact time."
David smiled. "What, you don't know when to hold the ritual yet? We only have ten days left." He couldn't resist teasing her just a little bit. "Your Spirit Guides' holding out on us, or what?"
Shilah rose and stepped over to the altar in a swirl of black cloth. The silver thread inlaid in the fabric twinkled like minute stars. She lit a few more sticks of incense and gave a shrug.
"Sometimes they talk and sometimes they don't." she said. "I'll know when the time is right for me to know." She settled back into her chair and began shuffling the cards back into the deck.
"What about you, David?" she asked. "How are you doing?"
The big man shrugged. "I still feel like the whole world is trying to get into my body. I'm feeling the energy of everything out there." He realized that his explanation was woefully inadequate. Leaning forward, he tried desperately to put what he felt into something more concrete.
"It's like, I don't know, like a battery sitting on a charger. The energy gets stored up and up until it's full. I feel like I'm being, overcharged, or something." He sighed, still not a very good analogy. Someone sympathetic to the vibrations of the world and all its energies can become overwhelmed by it if they don't attempt to maintain some control. The effort to suppress or block all that input can become quite a strain during certain peak moments in the year. At this particular time, one of those moments was rapidly approaching, and he felt it in every fiber of his being.
"And the headaches?" Shilah asked in motherly fashion.
"If I ground myself a couple of times a day, they don't get too bad." He admitted.
"Are you still meditating?" Shilah continued.
"Every night." David answered. "It's also getting much easier for me to float." He smiled. "I must admit, I enjoy it. I never know where I'll go, or what I'll see."
"That's good." Shilah smiled. "I think we've finally moved beyond that little plateau you've been stuck at this last year."
She studied him for a moment and her eyebrows rose in that ever so wonderful expression that told him she knew he was holding something back. "Is there something else?" she asked.
"I'm starting to see auras," He said after a long pause. "Nothing definite, but there's a haze around people and objects that I can perceive. I was never able to do that before."
"When did this start?" Shilah asked, trying to contain her excitement.
"Just in the last few weeks. I didn't mention it at the time, because I wasn't sure what it really was at first."
"That's wonderful," Shilah exclaimed. "You keep advancing like this and I'll have to start getting ready to give you the test for Third Degree."
"I don't know if I want that," David said. "After that it's High Priest, and I'm not ready for that yet."
Shilah smiled. "David, you can't stay the Coven Thug forever."
David chuckled quietly. The title was a result of a mix of words during one of the covens many gatherings over the last ten years.
His ability to harness and move energy had been one of his gifts. It had taken the better part of the last decade for Shilah to help him learn how to control that energy. During one of the rituals in the past, she had jokingly called David their Coven Thug because he had a tendency to wield the energy like an untrained brute might wield a club. After a good laugh among the entire inner circle, the title had stuck.
The two of them stayed up long into the night, talking about the coming darkness and trading theories on how it would affect the world. Those debates were the bread and butter of David's' classes. They were more like conversations intermingled with wisdom and forgotten knowledge. At times, he would gain more insight from those random conversations than from any structured lesson she might have planned, and he suspected that Shilah realized this as much as he did.
When the evening was done, Shilah embraced David fondly and sent him on his way.
Where Shilah lived in a suburban area, David's home was more rural, with long winding country roads, and an address posted as a Rural Route instead of being associated with any particular township. It felt like a place completely removed from the world.
David had inherited the property from his family and had taken three years to restore the old cabin for permanent residence. A new addition to the home for three bedrooms and a basement, as well as the plumbing, so that the bathroom wasn't a dinky shed out thirty feet from the structure.
The inheritance had also set him up well for the rest of his life. If he chose, he would never have to work again.
He had taken the last four years off, trying to determine if that was what he wanted to do. In that time, he had gone back to school, full time, and earned a degree in Philosophy as well as the classical education that he was quite proud of. He learned how to speak Latin, French and Greek reasonably well and had traveled to Europe as an upperclassman, seeing the ancient cities and the monuments from long ago.
David let the cool night air flow over him as his motorcycle rumbled down the expressway, heading back towards his own home. He made one diversion and stopped at a local bar to share a few drinks with friends. After several hours of socializing, the group of eight motorcycles thundered out of the parking lot and wound their way down the dark country roads. The headlights shone like brilliant beacons, illuminating the asphalt before them, or bouncing off the branches of trees, many of them still heavy with the colored leaves of a late autumn. Currents of wind caused by the passing machines sent leaves tumbling through the air only to flutter back down to the earth as the rumbling rolled on. At some point, one of the riders, a skinny young man called Dusty, reached over and slapped David on the shoulder.
"Tag!" he shouted. His bike shot off into the darkness. David grinned and twisted the throttle in pursuit. The six others also increased speed, hoping to see the outcome of the unusual competition.
The two motorcycles vied for position as David tried to get next to his friend and tag him back. A quick glance at the speedometer showed he was doing nearly seventy miles an hour. The big V-Twin roared with delight as he slid up next to Dusty and tagged him back before dropping down a gear and shooting away.
"Oh, I don't think so!" Dusty shouted after him. There was no way he was losing now. He matched David's maneuver and stayed on his tail, waiting for the right opportunity to strike, his mouth open wide in a determined grin.
"Come on, Hotshot!" David taunted over the rushing wind. "Whatcha got!"
Suddenly a silver gray blur shot up next to them and a hand reached out and slapped David in the back of the head.
David looked to the right and saw another friend, Derek coasting alongside on his low slung Hyabusa.
"Are you two whacked, or what?" his voice pierced the night. "Knock that shit out!"
At the same time, Dusty pulled up and tagged David again.
"Gotcha!" Dusty shouted triumphantly.
Derek's dark olive skin was all but invisible in the confines of his silver helmet, only his eyes shone in the faint light, dark with annoyance.
Gabrielle slowly rolled over, feeling the leaves crunch beneath her. The rough edges tickled and jabbed into the flesh of her back. The air was cool and dry, too cool for the clothing she had on. It felt downright cold compared to the heat of the cliff she had recently finished climbing. It was also filled with a deep woody scent. She put a hand to her head and felt the slight bump on the left side, just above her ear.
"Nice," she admonished herself. "Real graceful landing." She slowly rolled back over and got to her feet, surveying the surroundings. It was the same as the vision she had seen through the Eye. Tall trees with multicolored leaves stood silently over her, their limbs intertwining and creaking in the gentle wind. She looked down at the two sais in her hands and mentally admonished herself for not putting them back before her dash through the doorway. She was lucky she hadn't landed on one and killed herself.
After a few moments of consideration, she chose a direction and began picking her way through the trees. She walked for a good ten minutes before she could see the signs of a path or road ahead. The cold began to bite into her flesh and she shivered slightly as she rubbed her shoulders, trying to keep the blood flowing. She needed to find shelter soon, or the cold might be a problem. She had no gear, no food and no supplies. Those were all lying at the base of a cliff, the Gods knew where. At least her purse was still tightly tied to her belt. Once she found shelter, she would be able to pay for a room and re-supply for the next portion of her journey. She scrambled up the small embankment and stopped when she reached the road.
It was paved with a material she had never seen before. She knelt down and brushed some of the leaves away, staring down at the tightly packed gray mass of small pebbles, held in place by a substance that she could not identify. She ran her hand over the rough surface, her brows furrowing in confusion.
Something within the surface began to tremble slightly and she could hear a deep rumbling sound off in the distance. It was like thunder, but unlike it at the same time, and it changed pitch in a way that had nothing to do with the wind. It seemed more alive than natural. Gazing off in the direction of the sounds, she saw several glowing points of light, careening wildly down a distant part of the strange road towards her. They were moving fast. Faster than anything she had ever seen before in her life. There was no time to get into cover. She rose and drew her sais out, ready to meet the strange new threat head on.
The nearby hilltop began to glow with the approaching sound, and suddenly, with a deafening roar, three blinding sets of light burst into view, heading straight for her! The thunderous sound cut off suddenly and the three strange lights scattered to avoid her. The only thing she remembered hearing was a distinctly human voice shouting, "Whoaaaaaaaaaah!" and a sharp screeching sound on the pavement beneath her feet. Then the three things were past her. She turned to face them as they came to a halt. She saw each creature was not a creature, but some type of two wheeled conveyance. They were each similar, but also distinctly different in appearance and color. And they each carried a human passenger.
The three figures were looking down at their conveyances, as if checking to see if they were damaged, then three pairs of eyes turned towards her, dark with anger.
At the same time, five more of the things crested the hill behind her and also came to a quick halt.
One of the riders in the group behind her said something in a strange language. It was answered by an annoyed voice in front of her as a single figure removed a silver helmet. He was a stocky man, with dark skin and eyes. He said something in a quick excited tongue and then looked at his other companions.
Gabrielle stood her ground. If she had to fight, the three before her would offer less resistance. Then she could break out and run.
One man, of average height, with a lean slender build, dismounted his vehicle the same way she would dismount a horse. He took a few steps towards her and then stopped when he saw the sais in her hand. He said something, then repeated it, then shrugged and looked at the other two.
The one in the middle simply leaned forward, his arms resting on a pair of silver bars, his head lowered slightly, and his dark eyes staring at her in a mixture of curiosity and surprise.
The olive skinned man reached into a thick leather shirt or coat and drew out a small dark, L shaped object. He pointed it at her.
This provoked a response from the central figure. It turned its shaggy head and said something to the olive skinned man. The man replied but did not lower the object pointed at her.
"This is not good," Gabrielle whispered to herself, her eyes darting between the trio before her, and the five more behind her, all of them with eyes fixed on her, waiting for her to make a move.
The tall figure said something else to the olive skinned man and then stepped from his conveyance, interposing himself between his companion and Gabrielle. He held his hands up in a gesture of calm surrender and spoke to her. The words were unfamiliar. She couldn't understand what he was saying, try as she might. She thought she could catch various syllables of words she knew, but they sounded completely alien.
The man before her was dressed much like the others, with a black jacket of hide, dark blue pants, and sturdy black boots. He was moving slowly and inexorably closer to her, his hands now moving slowly up and down. He was gesturing for her to lower her weapons. She stared at him with fierce green eyes and shook her head defiantly.
The man fixed his dark eyes on hers, and she saw, for the first time, that same gaze she had beheld in the vision. Those dark, thoughtful eyes! He continued to approach. It would soon be at the point where she would either have to attack or surrender. She didn't understand what he was saying, didn't know what to make of this entire situation, and didn't know what to think. It was all overwhelming her in one moment.
"Don't come any closer!" She finally blurted out in a mixture of determination and panic.
The man stopped and stared at her in wonder.
David stood before the young woman, his eyes fixed on the two wicked looking weapons. She was dressed in a simple halter, skirt and sturdy boots; all dyed a deep reddish brown color and decorated with beads of varying hues. Her short hair was a golden blond and her eyes were deep, ferocious and green. She looked like a lioness, ready to spring.
David kept his hands up. "Just take it easy," he said calmly.
"Man," Derek said from behind him. "Just get out the way."
"Put the gun away," David said over his shoulder. Then he turned back to the girl before him. "We both know you won't use it."
"Hey man, she's throwing down on us first." Derek noted. "You better believe I'll pop a cap in her ass if she tries something!"
David took another slow step towards her. "My friend is getting nervous," he continued. "Just put the knives down."
Suddenly she blurted something in a foreign tongue. David's dark eyes fixed on her in wonder and surprise.
"What?" he asked excitedly. He stood still and gesticulated. "Speak again! Anything! What did you just say?"
"This is a waste of time, amigo," Derek put in. "Just leave her be and let's get out of here."
"Derek," David said harshly. "Just shut the hell up. She doesn't understand you!"
"What are you talking about?" Derek blurted.
The woman before him began speaking again, her eyes flicking to Derek and Dusty in turn as she spoke. David listened for a few moments, not certain of what he was hearing, and then a smile began to spread over his face. As it did, the young woman's voice lost some of its intensity and slowed to silence. A frown creased her brow. Then she spoke sharply, shaking her weapons at David emphatically.
David only chuckled out loud, in spite of the threat the girl presented.
He said something to her in her language. She replied and David turned back to Derek and laughed in surprise.
"Holy shit," he exclaimed. He gestured to his friend. "Put it away, Derek."
"What the hell was that?" Derek asked, still reluctant to put down his nine millimeter security blanket.
David turned back to the woman again and spoke haltingly. She replied, her posture easing slightly. David turned back.
"That is Greek," he said. "Mostly."
"How in the hell do you know that?" Dusty asked, folding his arms across his chest.
"Remember those four years I wasn't around?" David said.
"Classical education," David tapped his temple and smiled. Then he turned back and muttered to himself. "Now I just need to remember it all."
He looked back at Derek again. "Put the damned gun away, will you!" he barked.
Reluctantly, Derek did as instructed and David turned back to face the young woman.
He held up his hand, begging patience and then haltingly began to speak to her again.
The five other figures on the bikes behind her simply waited. They were tense and ready to fight, if it came to that.
The young woman listened carefully to David's halting speech. After several moments, her face began to break into an amused grin as David fumbled for the correct pronunciations. Finally she laughed out loud and lowered her weapons.
Behind her, Tommy, a man of massive proportions, cocked his head as he listened to the exchange. He could hear the easing of the tension between his friend and the stranger. Finally he could bear it no longer.
"Hey, Shakespeare," he said. "Ask her why she was standing in the middle of the damned road?"
David snapped out of his focus on the girl and looked over to his friend.
"I'm working on it," he replied. "I haven't spoken Greek for nearly two years.! I'm a little rusty!"
"Well," added Freddie, a thin, tan man with long straight dark hair and distinctive Native American features. (I don't know if it matters to you, but I think the politically correct term is "Native American".) "Can we work on it somewhere else?"
"Yeah," Another man, Brian added, slighter in build than Tommy, but still large in his own right. He rubbed his balding head. "It ain't getting no warmer out here."
"It's not like we're sitting in the middle of the road or anything," Steve added. He was a slim, middle sized man with a long gray ponytail and flinty gray eyes. In spite of the warning, he seemed aloof and unconcerned by the potential hazard of having a conference in the middle of the road.
Several of the others chuckled in response, also showing a complete lack of concern.
Gabrielle looked back and forth between the stranger and his companions as they spoke. She was feeling more relaxed, now that the language barrier had been bridged. Although she thought his dialect somewhat strange, at least the two of them could communicate.
Now the stranger was holding a quick conference with several others in his band. Then he turned back to the one holding the strange object in his hand and said something in a tone that conveyed annoyance. Reluctantly, the olive skinned man slid the strange object back into his coat.
The man turned back to her and held his hands out in gesture of apology.
"Uh, sorry," he said. "We're not accustomed to finding, uh, strangers, in the middle of the road at night. Not armed ones anyway?" he gestured to the sais in her hands. She glanced down at them and then back up into his eyes.
There was confusion there, and understandable curiosity, as well as a few other hints of emotion, but nothing malevolent or deceptive.
"Sorry," she said and she slid the two weapons back into her boots. Then she looked at him again. "Where am I?"
The stranger shrugged. "On Fairfield Road, in Northern Lake County, Illinois," he offered. It was immediately apparent that the names meant nothing to her.
"Where is that in relation to Athens?" Gabrielle asked.
"Athens? Georgia or Greece?" the man repeated in surprise. "No where near, in either case, I'm afraid."
"I'm in a different country?" she asked.
"Or different continent," the man responded, his own confusion growing as he spoke to her.
"Shakes! Tommy blurted again. "Road-cold, clubhouse - warm!"
"Beer!" Steve also added.
"Besides, you still owe me a bout from the other day," Dusty added, grinning.
"Okay, okay," David replied. "Look, you guys want to go ahead, then fine. I'll meet you there in a little while."
"Fine by me." Said Brian, or Oddball, as his friends called him. His black Buehl shone in the moonlight. He hit the start switched and the engine rumbled to life.
The woman jumped at the sound of the engine, her hand instinctively reaching for her weapon, but she stopped when she saw the relaxed look on the mans' face.
"I'll keep the beer cold for ya," Oddball said sarcastically, and then he put the bike in gear, coasted up past Derek and Dusty, stood the front end up with a roar of the engine, and rode a wheelie at least a quarter mile before letting it settle down again. The headlight flashed through the tree branches overhead.
One by one, the others followed suit with the exception of Tommy. He merely sat astride his maroon Yamaha. He folded his massive arms over his barrel chest and stared at the strange girl.
"What's the problem?" David asked.
"I don't like it," Tommy replied in his smooth southern drawl. "I don't care what you think; I've worked too many doors not to notice how someone carries themselves. I been watching the way she moves. Now, I'm not saying she could kick your ass or anything, but I know she could do some damage. I'll go when you do. If she wants to come along, that's fine." He shrugged.
David looked at the young lady again and back at Tommy, now duck walking his bike to the side of the road. Tommy then planted his feet, crossed his arms and resumed his pose of a moment before, his eyes never leaving her.
Gabrielle looked over at the massive man. He was easily twice her width at the shoulders and a head taller. His arms had to be as large around as her thighs.
"What's wrong with him?" she asked nervously, not liking the look this walking wall was giving her.
"He doesn't trust you," The man replied haltingly. Then he placed a hand over his heart and gave a small bow.
"My name is David," he said and then he gestured to the big man. "And this is Tommy."
The girl nodded. "Gabrielle," she said.
David turned to Tommy. "Her name's Gabrielle." He said.
"Pretty name for a pretty lady," Tommy acknowledged with a nod, but his eyes stayed fixed on her. "She coming with us, or not?"
"Right," David said. "I was getting to that part." He looked back at Gabrielle and smiled nervously.
"It's getting a bit cold out, and my friend would like to know if you would be interested in joining us for a drink?" David offered. He realized as soon as he had said it that the offer sounded terribly lame. "At least it would be somewhere warm?" he finished.
Gabrielle seemed a bit uncertain. She glanced over at Tommy, still motionless as a frozen Titan, watching her. She suddenly realized that he was merely gauging her to see if she represented a threat. He would not do anything unless she provoked him.
She looked back at David, his deep eyes filled with patience and expectation.
"Well?" he asked.
She shivered suddenly, as if noticing the cold for the first time. She considered the two men for a moment, realizing that she might very well be able to defeat them in a fight if it came down to that, but it would not be easy. Besides, the man before her, David, was the man she had seen in the vision. She knew that Alti was the enemy in the vision, so she assumed that meant this David might be her potential ally, or at the very least, one who could help her find this Valkyrie, or the mysterious sword.
"Alright," she finally said. "But I don't have my, um," she pointed at David's vehicle.
David shrugged out of his heavy jacket and handed it over to her.
"You can ride with me," he offered. "But you might want to put this on. As I said, it's a bit chilly."
Beneath the jacket, Gabrielle noted his lean athletic build. He wore a long sleeved thick shirt of some kind, and a dark hide vest clustered with gold and silver buttons.
She took the jacket from his outstretched hand and was shocked at the weight of it. It was of thick leather, lined in a quilted fabric that she had never seen before. She noticed the colorful artwork on the back as she turned it to pull it on. It was of a dark knight astride a midnight steed. The knight was galloping across a field, followed by a horde of skeletal mounted warriors. At the bottom corner was the image of a scroll, with various characters written on it in a language she couldn't decipher. The garment was also several sizes (at least) too large for her, and hung down past her hip.
David smiled genuinely and gestured to the vehicle.
"Come with me," he offered.
She followed him over to the conveyance and studied the gleaming silver shining from it. Whatever this thing was, it was beautifully and intricately crafted.
David straddled the vehicle, settling down on a black cushion. Then he reached behind him and flipped two small pegs down from the sides.
"Put your feet here and here," he instructed. "Just climb on."
Gabrielle followed his instruction and climbed aboard, settling down behind him.
He turned a small knob and pressed an orange button, and the vehicle rumbled to life. She stiffened in alarm. She did not know what the sound was, but it conveyed a feeling of power as it vibrated beneath her. She looked down and realized that her skirt was riding a bit higher than it should, and nervously attempted to adjust it.
David's hands reached behind and grasped hers gently. He pulled her forward against his back and pulled her hands together about his waist.
"Better hang on," he suggested. Then he squeezed a lever with his left hand and kicked another lever with his left foot. Gabrielle looked behind her at Tommy. His vehicle coasted forward just as David's began to move with a gentle lurch.
Suddenly, they were moving faster than anything she could ever remember seeing. The cold wind whipped through her hair and sent chills up her legs and spine.
The dark red vehicle ridden by Tommy coasted up alongside and the two of them rolled down the road into the deepening night.
Gabrielle gazed at the landscape flying by in the shadowy night, and she smiled suddenly.
"This is amazing," she said in spite of the frigid air.
"What?" David asked. "This? We're barely moving?"
She frowned nervously at that. They were travelling along at a pace that was faster than her horse ever could have maintained. She clasped her hands tighter about David's waist.
"Relax," David said, feeling the grip tighten about him. "We aren't going that fast! Haven't you ever ridden a motorcycle before?"
"A what?" Gabrielle asked, unsure of the new word.
"Christ, lady," David laughed. "Where the hell are you from?"
"Poditea," Gabrielle answered, thinking it was a legitimate question.
"Podi-what?" David replied. "I thought you were from Athens?"
"Near Athens, yes." Gabrielle replied. "My home is about two days' journey from there."
"Two days!" David said in surprise. He looked back at her in confusion. She shrugged.
David was suddenly concerned that he might have a crazy foreign woman on his bike.
"What's with your Greek, by the way?" He asked. "You have a strange way of speaking it."
"I speak just fine, thank you," Gabrielle retorted. "But yours could use some work."
Again David frowned. Granted, he had not had need to use the language since college, but he thought it had come back rather well, given the circumstances. His professors at University had been impressed with his ability to master Greek, Latin and some French in a relatively short time. They had said he was more fluent in them than most. Now this stranger said his Greek needed work?
"What's on your mind, Shakes?" Tommy shouted from beside him.
David smiled to himself.
"Nothing," He shouted back. "Just considering a theory."
"Want to share with the uneducated among us?" Tommy continued.
"The Law of Consonantal Shift," David replied.
"The law of what?" Tommy asked, and for the first time, Gabrielle actually saw levity touch the big man's face. "Never mind, tell me about it over a beer!"
The two motorcycles continued down the main road for several miles before turning off into a small narrow dirt road. They crunched and bounced deeper into the woods until they came to a large dark building.
David tapped a button with his left hand, and Gabrielle heard several short, loud beeps from the vehicle.
As if in answer, a large door slid to one side and the two motorcycles coasted within.
The garish white light flooding the room caused Gabrielle to blink, and the warm air caressed her frozen legs and fingers. The two vehicles coasted past several more motorcycles and a few other, larger vehicles covered by thick tarps. David backed his motorcycle into a small space between two others and killed the engine.
"Watch the pipe," David cautioned, gesturing down at the silver tube just beneath her right foot. She could feel the heat from it radiating through her boots.
Cautiously she swung her leg over and stepped off, looking about the place in wonder.
Many glowing rods hung from the ceiling, creating the pale light, and she could hear a quiet buzz coming from them. In the garish light, she got a better look at the vehicle that David had brought her on. It was a deep crimson, almost black color, and sparkled like a billion tiny metallic stars. As she listened, she could hear a ticking sound coming from within the thing.
"What's that?" she asked, indicating the sound.
"What's what?" David replied. Then he realized. "Oh, just the motor cooling down." Again he looked at her confused.
Off to one side, the other one - Dusty - was rummaging through a large metallic cabinet. When he emerged, he was holding a bundle of white cloth, a strange looking helmet and a long, narrow bladed sword. He shook his head at Tommy. "Don't park it there, big guy. Shakes and I have a score to settle." He grinned a wide toothy grin.
"I think I'll get something to drink first," David shot back.
Gabrielle stepped out into the middle of the room, hugging the heavy jacket to her. Her eyes passed over several of the 'motorcycles' some obviously in various states of disrepair. Her eyes fell on another of them, larger than the one she had arrived on. She caught her breath in surprise.
It was a gleaming thing of deep blue and white, accented with chrome, beautiful to behold, but that was not what had caught her attention. Hanging from a small trunk at the back of the thing was a sword hilt. It shone a dull gray against the silver. She saw the other end of the black leather scabbard protruding from the rear of the trunk, just behind it.
"Seek the Valkyrie. It carries the Sword of the Dispossessed One."
"What's that?" she asked, pointing at the machine.
"What?" David asked again, then he looked where she indicated. "Oh that. That's mine. Come on."
Gabrielle looked at David as he stepped away heading for a set of wooden stairs.
"Do you know the Valkyrie?" Gabrielle asked with a sudden earnest.
David and Tommy both turned to stare at her.
Though Tommy didn't speak her language, he recognized the word "Valkyrie."
Tommy looked at David, his eyebrows rose questioningly.
"I don't know The Valkyrie," David offered. "But I know of a Valkyrie."
"You do?" Gabrielle was getting excited by this.
Tommy said a few words to David and then shambled up the steps. They creaked under his immense weight. He vanished through the door.
"Which Valkyrie do you know?" Gabrielle asked quickly, her eyes gleaming with nervous energy.
David gestured to the big machine. "You're looking at it." He offered. "It's called a Valkyrie."
Gabrielle looked at the machine again, then back at David, then at the machine again.
"Hey," David said gently. "You look like you've seen a ghost or something? What's up?"
Gabrielle's heart was pounding in her chest. She stepped over to the massive blue motorcycle and let her hand fall gently on the hand grip.
David watched her, his entire face a question.
Gabrielle tried to calm her heart. She looked up at him.
"Where are your parents?" she asked suddenly.
She saw the reaction in his face. A sudden twinge of pain that was there and then gone just as quickly.
"You're getting a bit personal all of a sudden," he said. He saw the nearly desperate pleading in her fiery green eyes and sighed. "If you must know, they're both dead. They died a long time ago."
Gabrielle's hand rose to her mouth in shock. "You're the one," she gasped.
"The one?" David asked, suddenly becoming nervous in his own right. "The one what? What are you, some kind of nut?"
"I know this is going to sound strange," Gabrielle said. "But I think I was told you would be here when I arrived."
"Lady," David said, his mood beginning to darken. "Finding you on the side of the road was strange. Everything you've said since I met you has been strange. Now you're going to tell me that I'm someone special because my parents died and I have a bike called a Valkyrie? I don't know where your information comes from, but I suggest trying to get a refund." He turned and began to climb up towards the door. After a few steps, he paused.
"Come on up and get something to eat," he said without looking back. "There's a spare room for you to sleep, if you like. You can be on your way tomorrow." He looked past her at Dusty, who was organizing his gear. "I'll be down in a few minutes."
"I'll be waiting," Dusty grinned.
He finished the climb and vanished.
Gabrielle turned back to face the big motorcycle and stared at it. Her mind was still trying to absorb everything she had experienced in this past hour.
She was suddenly aware of a presence behind her. She turned and sighed in resignation, or perhaps disappointment.
Leaning against a gray metallic bench, his thumbs twiddling absently, wearing his characteristic black leather and wry smile, was Ares.
"My," he said in a sarcastic tone. "Things are going just perfect, aren't they?"
Gabrielle looked over at Dusty, seemingly frozen where he stood, his eyes unblinking, his hands stopped in mid motion as he unfolded a large coat. It was as if time itself had stopped. She folded her arms and returned his amused look with a contemptuous one of her own.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
Ares pushed himself from the bench and strode over, his fingers every now and again brushing over one of the parked machines. He seemed to be considering them.
"Despite what you might have thought about the Twilight, some of us are still around," he said. "Oh, sure, we aren't as busy as we used to be. Humanity has done a bit of growing up over the last two thousand years." He stopped and spread his arms out in a gesture of welcome. "But one thing these humans can still do is create a good war. And where there's a war, there's me."
"Swell," Gabrielle muttered.
"Oh, I know you're happy to see me," Ares said, his hand caressing her cheek. "At least on the inside."
Gabrielle lifted her face away, and stared defiantly into his dark eyes.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"Whether you believe it or not," Ares smiled. "I'm actually here to help you."
"Oh, that's a new one," Gabrielle shot back. "What's the price?"
Ares looked honestly hurt by that statement. "Gabrielle," he cooed. "That hurts. While I may have, on occasion, asked for something in return for my aid, I really only did it because it was in your best interest."
"On occasion?" Gabrielle repeated. "Best interest?"
Ares merely shrugged and smiled that interminable smile.
"Can we get to a point at some time?" Gabrielle asked, hoping to be rid of him as quickly as possible.
"Okay," Ares sighed and settled down on the Valkyrie. He drew out the sword and studied its weather beaten blade critically before sliding it back into its place.
"You've been sent here to reclaim the Chronos Stone and return it to your time where it will cause no further mischief." He explained. "Nice job handling the Stygian Witches by the way. Shows a lot of potential."
Gabrielle fixed him with a dark look.
Ares held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. He was clearly enjoying having the floor. "What you may not know is that someone else is also here, looking for the stone."
"Alti?" Gabrielle said.
"Alti," Ares replied with a nod. "Now, while I admire her thirst for power and conquest, let me just say that she doesn't really fit the mold for what I had in mind as a world leader. You need to get the stone before Alti's current incarnation does. If she gets it first, the current incarnation and the spirit of Alti from the past could come together into one body. Let's just say, that it would be a bad thing."
He rose from the motorcycle and stood before her again, looking down at her with unabashed desire.
"Now," he said. "I can't interfere directly, but I can help you along. First, by helping fix this little language barrier, and filling in a few historical points. After that, you're pretty much going to be on your own."
"And now we get to the part where you tell me what you want in return, right?" Gabrielle retorted.
Ares stepped away, as if considering, his thumb and forefinger stroking his goatee thoughtfully.
"Right now," Ares said. "I don't want anything. But I might need something earlier." He looked at her with a mischievous grin.
"Earlier?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yeah, when you get back to your time."
"And what would that be?"
Ares smiled and came back towards her. "We can discuss the finer points later. In the mean time," he raised his hand and pointed at her. "We'll just call this a little down payment." A soft reddish tendril of energy stretched from his hand and flowed over Gabrielle. She felt the energy tingle in her mind and body. When it ended, she breathed in sharply.
Ares looked at her and chuckled. "Have fun." He held his thumb and forefinger up, waggling it next to his ear. "Call me if you need anything."
There was a soft puff of smoke and he was gone.
Gabrielle let a sigh of relief flow from her as she began to take another look about.
"Hey," Dusty said. "you alright?"
"I'm fine," She replied automatically. Suddenly, she realized something extraordinary.
She stepped up to the Valkyrie and realized she could read the silver plate on the side of the bike. She looked around at the others. Names, like Harley Davidson, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Honda. Signs hanging on the walls read. Zombie Squad HQ, Snap-On, Craftsman, Vance and Hines.
She began flipping through several books on a shelf. They were all manuals of some kind. She didn't understand the concepts, but she could read the words. She had understood Dusty when he had spoken to her!
She let the heavy coat fall from her shoulders and looked at the back again. There was the dark knight, and the small painted scroll. She grinned in excitement as she read the words.
"I know no beast that has but some touch of pity, yet I have none, and therefore am no beast."
A short laugh escaped her lips. She folded the jacket over one arm and stared up at the closed door at the top of the stairs. Her sudden levity was replaced by anxiety.
Well, there was nothing to do but go up and try once again to speak with him.
Tentatively she mounted the steps. She paused when she heard voices on the other side, some laughing, others in hushed conversation. Taking a deep breath, and bracing herself for the unknown, she turned the knob and swung the door open.
At one time, all eight of the occupants in the room ceased their various activities and looked over at her.
The room was large and comfortably furnished, with a long row of padded chairs wrapping around a table in one corner. Several smaller tables and chairs were scattered about the open floor. A large, green table rested further back and two more sofas's sat opposite a second small table, just in front of a functional hearth.
The main feature of the room was a long bar, dominating the right wall. One large mirror covered the central mass of the back wall, flanked on either side by dark wooden shelves stocked with bottles of various sizes, shapes and colors. Strange music floated through the air and smoke wafted through the room from various smoking implements in the hands of some of the occupants.
Two men stood at the green table, holding long sticks. One of them was bent over the table, getting ready to strike a small white ceramic ball when she entered. His long brown hair draped over the stick as he turned his pale eyes on her. His companion was the dark haired Native American. His gray eyes also fixed on her intently.
Two more men sat at a small table, staring at her, obviously pausing in the middle of some conversation, while the remaining four were at the bar. David stood behind it, while Tommy and two others sat on stools.
David handed Tommy a brown bottle and wiped his hands, a smile fading from his lips when she entered.
Ignoring the sudden silence from everyone but a strange box in the nearby corner, she strode over and laid the coat on the bar.
"I think we should start over," Gabrielle said to David. She was mildly surprised when none of the men in the room reacted to her speaking in their language. Another tidbit from Ares, perhaps? She took it as a small blessing and looked down at the next empty stool.
"May I?" she asked. David nodded and gestured for her to sit. Then he turned and adjusted a knob on the wall. The strange music faded slightly in volume.
"Thirsty?" he asked.
Gabrielle looked at the bottle in Tommy's meaty hand.
"I'll have one of those," she replied.
David reached down and produced an identical bottle. She read the large silver letters, 'MGD' and smiled in spite of herself. Then she took a drink.
It was instantly apparent to the four men that the beverage was not to her liking. She winced and tried to force a pleasant expression, but to no avail.
"Perhaps you'd like something else?" Tommy offered.
"No, thanks," Gabrielle lied. "This is fine."
"Oookay," David turned back to the shelves behind him and drew down a different bottle, pouring a thick amber liquid into a short glass of ice. Then he leaned down on the bar, took a sip and gestured to the others.
"You already met Tommy," he introduced her. "The fine man beside him that pulled a gun on you tonight is Derek."
She nodded to the olive skinned man, not sure what a 'gun' was.
"And next is Jeff," David continued.
Jeff was a man of medium build and height with a handsome, if somewhat cherubic face. He smiled and raised a bottle in greeting.
"Guys," David finished. "This is Gabrielle. She was about to tell us what the hell she was doing in the middle of a deserted road at eleven thirty at night?" He looked at her expectantly.
"Yes," Gabrielle started, suddenly at a loss for words under David's inquisitive stare. "It's, uh, complicated."
When she looked up at David, she saw Ares' reflection in the mirror. He was obviously enjoying her discomfort. She started for just a moment, but composed herself quickly. At the same time, she noted that David's eyes flicked to one side, in Ares direction, and he momentarily went stiff. He also recovered quickly.
He turned with the bottle in his hand, ostensibly to put the bottle back, but his head paused, staring at Ares in the mirror before he finished his task.
"So," he asked. "Did someone ditch you out there, or something?"
"Uh," Gabrielle stammered uncomfortably. Her eyes looked quickly up at Ares again. He was rolling one hand forward, indicating that she should say something. "Something like that, yeah."
Tommy's gaze showed that he wasn't convinced.
"I've just had a really bad night," Gabrielle finished suddenly and choked down another swallow of the drink.
"It looks like someone tagged you," Tommy said, and he pointed to the spot above his left ear. Gabrielle instinctively put her hand to the bump on her head. "Got yourself walloped?" he finished.
Ares laughed silently from within the mirror and faded away.
"You could say that," Gabrielle answered. She knew she should say something, but she wasn't sure what she could say. She needed to speak with David alone. At least one on one she could open up a little bit more about what she was doing there. She doubted that any of them would believe her as a group. One unconvinced person would be enough to persuade the rest into thinking she was mentally ill.
She sighed and let her fingers wrap around the cool glass.
"Look," David said suddenly. His eyes glanced at her knowingly. "She obviously doesn't want to talk, so let's just leave it for now."
"Well," Derek said suddenly. "I wanna know why she threw down on us out there when we showed up?"
"Derek," David said. "Give it a rest for now. I'm sure she'll explain herself when she's good and ready."
The men beside her grumbled a bit but let the subject drop.
"So," Gabrielle fumbled to change the conversation. "Why don't you tell me who you are and what this place is all about?" She forced a smile in spite of a sudden weariness.
She remembered very little of the conversation from that point. She learned that this was something called a clubhouse, and it belonged to David, though it was open to everyone in the Zombie Squad. It was a place for them to gather whenever they wished. The Zombie Squad was a group of friends, all who rode motorcycles. The proper term was club, though they were more like a loose knit family than an organization. The motorcycles and other vehicles in the large garage below were the property of members. They stored the vehicles there during the winter months. It also doubled as a repair shop if one of the motorcycles, or 'bikes' as they referred to them, would break down.
After several hours of conversation, and more alcohol, the men in the place began to loosen up and relax. All except for Tommy and David, who watched everything with a keen eye.
Finally, the members of the Zombie Squad began filtering out, heading for their respective homes until only Tommy and David were left with a yawning Gabrielle.
David smiled understandingly. A quick glance and a nod from Tommy and David shrugged.
"I think you've had enough for one night," David offered. "Come on, I'll show you the guest room."
The door leading downstairs opened and Dusty stood there, wearing a thick white coat that covered his body from neck to waist. His hands were covered by a pair of sturdy gloves. "Yo! Shakes!" he blurted. "What's up?"
David held his hands up in honest apology. "Sorry man, I'll be right there! I promise!"
He led her to the opposite end of the room and down a short hall with three doors set in the wall. He opened the first one and hit the light switch. Instantly a small lamp next to a comfortable bed, lit up the room.
The space was simply furnished. A bed, night table, and short dresser stood in the tiny room.
On the wall was a picture of a silver gray motorcycle set against a backdrop of hundreds of multicolored lights forming a cityscape. A curtained window was on the opposite wall.
"It's not much, but you can sleep here." He pointed down the hall to another closed door. "Bathroom's right there."
He stepped back to the door. "Let me know if you need anything," he finished and he closed the door behind him.
The office lighting was dark, just the way she preferred it. The subdued lighting made it easier to subdue the consciousness of the person she inhabited. The only illumination was the feeble desk lamp. Its weak yellow glow barely covered the large desk surface.
Professor Bernadette Klause flipped through the latest batch of seismic surveys. They showed the rough outline of the outer walls of a small, fortified village. Fainter lines indicated small buildings beyond the outer wall. She smiled coldly as she studied the information, then she sat back and sighed. It was so liberating to be back in the real world, even one so far removed from hers. Time had passed; man had grown up, but it was still like a mass of sheep waiting for the slaughter.
There was a tremor of consciousness from the mind of the person she inhabited. She settled it easily and grimaced in mild disgust. Her latest incarnation had been a sniveling, weak minded, bleeding heart idiot. The woman known as Dr. Bernadette Klause was a mere glimmer of the power that she had possessed in the past. She grimaced at the thought of being so weak. Her introspection was interrupted by a soft knock on the office door.
"Yes?" she replied softly, still not used to the voice that emanated from her lips. She settled back and folded her hands under her chin.
The shadowy form of a man glided into the room. He was lean and slender with pale blond hair close cut on his pale head. In his thin fingers he held a small bundle of cloth.
"Ah, Mister Finch" Bernadette said calmly with a catlike grin. "You have it."
"Yes, madam," the man replied with a clear baritone voice. He fixed her with a gaze that was better suited to a reptile. "The dig team was quite excited when they discovered the tomb. The village itself was only recently discovered. No one suspected the family tomb would be where you indicated," he smiled. "Or rather, where I indicated."
"That's the beauty of it," Bernadette said. "How would anyone know about it?"
"Yes, Bernadette," Mr. Finch repeated with an unnatural politeness that would have sent a shiver up anyone else's spine. He handed the small bundle over to his employer and stepped over to the small bar and poured himself a glass of bourbon. "The thing I find interesting is that you knew where it was?"
Bernadette merely smiled a knowing smile so cold that only a like minded creature could gaze upon it unaffected or with appreciation. Mr. Finch was such a man.
He merely shrugged and seated himself with a flourish and gently shook the glass of alcohol, listening to the melodic tinkle of the ice against the glass. He watched his employer open the package with reptilian detachment.
The figure that was, in appearance, Doctor Bernadette Klause, gently unfolded the ancient oil cloth and exposed a beautifully crafted crystal medallion on a fine silver chain. It was shaped like a four pointed star. The points were each formed by a single, polished, clear crystal surrounding a simple, pale green one in the center. The whole was surrounded by intricate silver framework, covered with tiny, detailed letters.
Doctor Klause smiled greedily as she studied the artifact.
"So, Bernadette," Mr. Finch asked, leaning over to get a closer look. "What is this worth?"
Bernadette's dark eyes flashed up at him with such barely restrained animalistic hunger that even he sat back in surprise. Instead of retaliating as his conscience desired, he merely sat back and smiled coldly. His left hand fingered the closed straight razor in his coat pocket. "Not yet," he thought to himself. "Not just yet."
The good Doctor was out of her seat and hovering over a nearby globe that rested in an antique stand. She held the amulet up to the globe over the city of Athens, her present location.
"Now," she hissed in anticipation. "Show me where it will be."
The central crystal began to pulse faintly, as did the left most triangular piece, like an indicator.
Doctor Klause smiled eagerly as she slid the object in the direction the crystal indicated, crossing the Atlantic Ocean into America. The central crystals' glow intensified as it traveled and the Doctor's eyes lit up, demonic in its pale green glow.
Mr. Finch merely sat back patiently, waiting for his employer to complete her task.
When she finally did, she turned and grinned triumphantly.
"It will be somewhere in the vicinity of Chicago," she announced.
"That's wonderful, Bernadette," he said with complete neutrality. "Perhaps you would care to explain to me just what will be in the vicinity of Chicago?"
Bernadette simply settled back into the overstuffed chair behind her desk and stared at Mr. Finch intently.
"Not plotting anything untoward, are you?" she asked in a voice that sounded more like a tea kettle boiling over.
Mr. Finch merely smiled and settled back in his chair, sipping the bourbon and studying Bernadette with even, unreadable eyes.
"It is refreshing to know that a newcomer with a certain flair can suddenly burst into the business with such flourish and skill, and still not be taken unawares by the people she employs." He said in a kindly tone. A tone that might have appealed to a crocodile.
"I know "that despite the money I pay, you wouldn't hesitate to kill me if you thought it would benefit you."" Bernadette said evenly, her eyes locking on his with unnatural intensity. She tossed a thick envelope into his lap and smiled.
Mr. Finch smiled and opened the envelope, his thumb slowly moving the bills from side to side as he did a quick count.
Doctor Klause rose and stepped around the desk, seating herself against the edge, in front of the killer. She looked small and weak in the soft nightgown and robe she wore.
Mr. Finch, still smiling that reptilian smile, looked down at the envelope.
In a flash, the Doctor had him by the hair on top his head, yanking his face up and back.
Mr. Finch let the envelope fall as he reached into his coat pocket and drew out the razor. She intercepted the hand and disarmed him. He felt the cold steel against his own throat.
Bernadette's face was inches from his, and her eyes glared, bloodshot and rimmed in red, like a possessed being. Her leering grin was savage and bestial as she hissed in his ear.
"I know," she whispered. "That given the chance, you would have tried to kill me tonight, Mr. Finch. I know, despite your infernal courtesy, you have no sense of honor, and I know that you could never hope to defeat me, though you are just stupid enough to try."
She released her hold on his head and settled back against the desk, her finger testing the sharp edge of the blade thoughtfully. She folded it back into its handle and looked at Mr. Finch, seeing fear in his pale eyes for the first time. She smiled again, this time in a way a snake might seduce another of its own kind. She tossed the weapon into Mr. Finch's lap and turned away.
"Take your money and get out," she said coldly. "We need to create a reason for the good Doctor to travel to America." She leaned over the desk and grinned.
"I believe that Frank Weldon, a former colleague, lives in Chicago. I understand that the cities can be quite violent." She folded herself back into the seat like a snake coiling to strike. "Take two men with you and arrange an accident for the good man. That should motivate my alter ego into leaving the dig. I will contact you when I arrive. Do not try and contact me, understood?"
"Of course, Bernadette," Mr. Finch responded, showing that he had mastered his initial shock and fear. He stared at her for a moment, his own mind working to ascertain the level of this woman's duality and insanity. In the end, he merely accepted that her money was just as valuable as anyone else's. In the end, that was what really counted.
He could bide his time for a while and wait for the opportune moment. Whatever the little trinket was, it was merely a tool for something greater. To him, that translated into something more profitable. Profit was the only thing he was interested in. This newcomer with all that money could continue to pay him for his services until he knew everything he needed. She was ruthless, cold, calculating, but inexperienced in the ways of business.
Let her feel superior for the moment, and then squash her like the insect she was.
Mr. Finch smiled and rose, draining his glass in one long gulp. He set the empty container on the bar and gave the Doctor a polite nod.
"Good night, Bernadette," he said kindly. "Pleasant dreams." He backed out of the office, closing the door silently behind him.
Professor Bernadette Klause sat in silence for a long moment until she heard the sound of Finch's car crunching down the gravel drive and off the complex grounds. Then she simply laid her head back and closed her eyes.
A few moments later, Professor Klause's eyes fluttered open again and she breathed sharply in surprise. She looked around at her darkened office with a slight air of fear as she felt the shadows in the room close in about her.
"God," she breathed. "Not again."
She rose from the seat and stepped gingerly over to the light switch. The glaring yellow light blinded her for a moment as it flooded the room and chased the shadows away from her surroundings, if not from her mind.
Her eyes traveled the room, taking it all in before she began to cross back to her desk. A glint off to the side caught her attention and she paused.
A frown crossed her face as she noted the empty glass on the bar, the ice cubes still resting in the bottom.
"That's strange," she commented to herself. She took up the glass and sniffed cautiously, wincing at the odor of the bourbon. Then she frowned again in concern. No one she knew drank that stuff.
She went back to her desk and ran through a quick inventory of her information. The contents of the latest seismic survey lay there, spread out across the desk instead of neatly filed in the manila folder beneath them. There was also an ancient piece of oil cloth resting on her desk that she knew had not been there before she had left work earlier that evening. Someone had obviously been going through her things, but usually a thief would have taken something, not left it? She unfolded the cloth and stared in wonder at the contents. A beautifully wrought four pointed star medallion of clear and green crystal covered by engraved writing of a language she could not immediately identify.
She held it up to the light.
"Where on earth did you come from?" she asked it, half expecting an answer. The concern for the security of her latest archeological dig was slowly being overcome by her insatiable curiosity. In the end she concluded that she had sleep walked from her small apartment on the other side of the university to her office. It hadn't been the first time she had done this. There had been several digs in the past where her drive for answers had caused this type of behavior. Still, none of her walking dreams had ever yielded an artifact before, especially not one in her own office. As she stared at the green central crystal, an image flashed before her eyes. The face of a young woman, with short blonde hair and fierce emerald eyes. The image struck her with such force and surprise that she nearly dropped the amulet. She set the thing back down on the desk, re-wrapped it in the cloth and then tucked the bundle safely away in the locked drawer.
Whatever the artifact was, it certainly wasn't classical period. Perhaps Minoan or Sumarian, but not from the era of the Poditia dig site. A colleague must have brought it by to ask her to identify it. It wasn't unusual for Professors of one site to ask advice of another, and the act of dropping off unknown artifacts to a colleague had been something of a private joke for many of them. A test to make certain that each of them was on their toes, so to speak.
She smiled wearily, sat back down and removed the surveys of the Poditia dig site for another inspection. She discovered, at the bottom of the stack of papers and images, a large area satellite image that showed the outline of the current dig site, with the small blue tents of the team and the various pits dug in the surface of the lush green field. Then gazing at the image, she noted a small black X in permanent marker, drawn in a place about a mile from the site, at the base of a small, rocky hill. Again she frowned. She hadn't requested anything for that area. She checked the grid reference and confirmed that nothing had been scheduled for that site. As far as she knew, all the manpower and equipment was focused on the excavation of the village wall foundations and interior buildings.
Perhaps it was a site that she had planned on exploring at a later date? Her mind felt like clay and the weariness seemed to wash over her afresh. She slid the papers back together and filed the information back in her desk.
As she prepared to leave, a blank expression suddenly washed over her face and she quickly dipped her hand back in the drawer of the desk and removed the oil cloth package, slipping it into the pocket of her robe. Then she switched off the lights and departed.
The cool, humid night air seemed to lull her into a deeper state of weariness as she crossed the courtyard to her apartment when, suddenly, the image of the blonde haired girl flashed before her again. She wore a costume of deep red animal skins, adorned with beads that seemed to refer to the Amazon tribes of the region. In her hands she held two weapons not of Greco-Roman origin, but of Japanese. Two sais, which she seemed to wield with superior skill.
The image flashed out as the young woman seemed to leap right at her. She paused in her walking and breathed deeply of the cool scented night air.
Once in her apartment, she looked in the mirror above her small wash basin and studied the lines on her face. She looked tired and worn out. Though she was barely thirty-seven, she appeared to be older. It was as if her life's work were slowly sapping her of her vitality.
"What's wrong with me?" she asked the reflection. Then she dipped her hand into the cool water in the basin and splashed it on her face. When she looked up again, she almost screamed. In the mirror was her own reflection, but not her own. The same face, though seeming younger and more vibrant, stared back at her with deep, somewhat wild, dark eyes. Her face was framed by the skull and skins of a deer or elk, cut into a headdress, and her body was covered in the skins and bones of the same animal, some areas still red with the color of old blood.
"My God," Bernadette gasped.
"Please!" The image spoke back to her, smiling with undisguised contempt. "You repulse me! So weak, so full of ambition, but no direction! You've seen the one who threatens us, and yet you stand there fawning! Pull yourself together, damn you!"
"You," Bernadette said. "Who are you?"
"I?" the image replied and she chuckled with such an evil sound that Bernadette felt her skin crawl. "I am you! I am the greater part of you! The part that your soul is hungry for! I am the heart of the power you seek!"
"What power?" Bernadette asked. She feared that she might be going mad. "Who are you?"
"I am Alti," the image announced. "I am the original incarnation of you, more's the pity!"
The image scoffed in contempt. "Look how far we've fallen! Two thousand years to grow and perfect our craft, and what do you do? Dig in the dirt with worms! Two thousand years ago, you could call spirits from of the dead to serve you! You could hold the powers of the universe in the palm of your hand! Now you hold only a spade or quill. You drew energy from the earth, now you draw up pebbles and trinkets!"
"What are you doing here?" Bernadette asked, a lump of cold horror forming in her throat.
Alti smiled. "I am coming back to life," she said. "I had hoped to do this slowly and subtlely, but our combined enemy is here now, and she is too great a threat to go unchallenged! I must have your body, now!"
"NO!" Bernadette cried in horror, but then a fire raged through her brain, shoving her consciousness deep into the recesses of her mind. She felt her will slipping into a deep, endless void. She tried to scream, but she no longer had a voice.
In the mirror, the image of the frightened professor was replaced by the calculating, cold image of the ancient shamaness. The lines of stress and worry that had been on her face smoothed over and were replaced with the cunning look of a stalking cat.
"Gabrielle," Alti muttered. "You're like an insect that won't die!" She stepped away from the basin, knocking it to the floor with a crash and strode through the apartment.
Once she had found suitable garments, she picked up a cell phone and, ransacking the lamented Professors mind, gleaned the information she needed to use it. She tapped the small buttons and held the phone to her ear.
"Good evening?" a soft flowing voice responded at the other end.
"Finch!" Alti barked. "Change of plans! Get your men and meet me back here in one hour! We leave for America tonight!"
"Will we still be traveling to Chicago?" the educated voice cooed.
"Yes!" Alti barked. "One hour!"
She snapped the phone closed and slipped it into her jacket pocket. In the back of her mind, the Professor struggled to regain control for a moment.
"Sit down and be silent!" Alti growled, easily forcing the submissive mind back. "Pathetic," she finished and she began packing a small travel bag with her basic necessities.
Gabrielle slept fitfully for about an hour and then she sat upright in the small bed. Somewhere below her, she could hear the sounds of fighting and the clashing of steel.
She got up and grabbed her sais, moving quickly across the deserted main room to the door that led down into the "shop".
As she peered through the door, she witnessed two figures standing opposite each other, in ready stances, each holding a long, narrow bladed sword.
"Ready?" she heard David say.
The other, dressed in white, nodded and the two closed in a series of lightning quick moves.
"Atcha!" David's voice called and they parted. He tapped the upper left side of his chest and pointed at his opponent. "Got me. Good one, man."
"So," Dusty asked as he went back to his starting point, "what do you think of our house guest?"
David shrugged. "Don't know enough yet. I think someone kicked her out of a car, or something? No one in their right minds would be out there, in the cold, dressed like that."
They stepped apart, dropped into a ready stance again and charged.
"Ah shit!" Dusty's voice emanated from the opaque mask. The tip of David's blade had smacked loudly on the top of his face plate. "It's that damn gorilla reach of yours!"
"She seems friendly enough," David continued as they reset again. "Why? What's your impression?"
Where Dusty's equipment was more utilitarian, long sleeved white fencing jacket with white gloves and mask, David's was more stylized. He wore a loose fitting green shirt beneath a simple black chest protector and black opaque mask. The gloves on his hands were also black, trimmed in a green that matched his shirt.
The two of them closed again and each scored a hit. Laughing, they returned to the end of the strip and squared up again.
Gabrielle forced the adrenaline down and watched, quietly sliding her sais back into her boots. Her ears perked up at the subject of conversation.
"So?" David asked again as he crouched down, readying for the next exchange. "What are your impressions?"
"Ah man," Dusty replied. "You know me? My first impressions are always based on physical appearance. So, I think she's hot."
"Hot, huh?" David replied, smiling behind his mask. "That's pretty shallow, even for you."
"But honest," Dusty replied, and he charged in again. The blades crashed and then Dusty ducked low and whipped his weapon around, across David's chest.
David spun away from the hit, his left hand rising to his bruised side.
"Wow!" he cried in surprise. "That's gonna leave a mark!"
Dusty laughed fiercely. "Smoke that!" he challenged.
He strode back towards his end of the strip. "So, you don't think she's hot?" he asked.
David laughed. "That's not the point."
Gabrielle smiled at the evasion, her attention fixed on the two men below.
David spun his weapon in a flourish as he reset and then he dropped back into his guarded stance. He tapped the point of the blade on the ground, his left hand back behind him.
"So," Dusty teased him. "You do think she's hot."
"You know," David sighed. "I keep forgetting how much of a hound dog you are."
"Paid up, card carrying," Dusty replied cheerily. "So, hot or not?"
David sighed. "Fine. Yes, I think she's very attractive. Ready?"
Dusty also tapped his blade and nodded. "Bring it on, big guy!"
The two closed with reckless fury. Their blades clashed and struck back and forth, clanging in the large chamber for what seemed a long few seconds, then Dusty launched himself through the air and stabbed downward. There was a sound of tearing cloth and David recoiled with a frustrated cry.
Gabrielle almost cried out in alarm. Unlike David, she had seen where the point of the blade had gone.
He pulled the mask off and looked at his opponent with an incredulous smile. Sweat was streaming down his face. His long dark hair was tied back in a tail that fell down between his shoulders.
"What the hell was that?" he asked, laughing. "A kangaroo on acid?"
Dusty also removed his mask, his face shining with perspiration. He was grinning broadly. "It worked, didn't it?"
David grinned and went to replace his mask, moving his right arm experimentally.
"Uh, you might want to check that?" Dusty offered. He pointed with his weapon, indicating David's right arm.
Confused, David looked down and saw the small, spreading dark stain on his upper arm. Then he saw the hole in the fabric of his shirt.
"Ah man," he moaned. "This is my favorite fencing shirt!"
"What about the arm?" Dusty asked in concern. "You're bleeding?"
David lifted the torn flap and inspected the small cut. He shrugged. "It's nothing." He grinned mischievously. "But your ass is mine now!" He reset the helmet on his head and dropped into ready. "On guard!"
Dusty sighed with resignation. "This is going to be a long night. What's the score?"
He also replaced his helmet and got ready.
David pointed at Dusty and then at himself. "Ten to eight."
Dusty raised his weapon. "All right. Let's do it!"
Understanding it to be a competition, Gabrielle quietly edged out to the first step and sat down to watch. It was like watching a fast, precise dance. The exchanges lasted mere seconds before one of them or the other scored a point. The blades flashed, the feet would shuffle and then someone raised a hand and pointed, indicating where they had been struck.
On one exchange, David leapt straight in, mimicking Dusty's suicidal maneuver of a few rounds before. In this case, he brought the weapon whistling down, striking the collarbone with an audible whack.
Dusty recoiled with a cry of pain.
"What was that for?" he asked, rubbing his neck.
"That was for the arm," David replied, grinning behind his mask. "And the shirt."
Grumbling, Dusty reset himself and got ready for the next exchange.
When the score tied at fourteen, the two of them removed their helmets and stood erect, facing each other.
"La belle," David said. He raised his weapon in salute. Dusty repeated the gesture, and then the two of them replaced their masks and settled back down.
"So?" Dusty asked as he readied himself. "You gonna make a move, or not?"
"Make a move?" David replied, adjusting his mask and dropping into ready. "Christ man, we just met the girl! We don't know anything about her!"
He raised his weapon to ready.
"Make a move?" Gabrielle frowned. Then she smiled. Here were two men, engaged in combat and discussing whether or not they should approach her, after only one night? She had been in enough inns and taverns to understand the context of those questions. She shook her head and smiled again. Then she focused back on the match below.
"Good luck," David offered.
Dusty nodded and raised his weapon. "Ready?"
Gabrielle held her breath, though she didn't understand why.
Suddenly, Dusty stepped quickly in, while David launched himself forward with a cry. The blades clashed and then David was past him, his weapon smacking loudly on Dusty's head. At the same moment, Dusty stabbed upward.
David landed and turned tapping his chest and pointing at his friend. Simultaneously, Dusty turned and patted his mask before pointing at David. The two of them laughed aloud.
"Gods, that was fast," Gabrielle whispered quietly.
"Alright," David said with a cocky air. "Alright!" He went back to his starting point and dropped into on guard. "I'll get you this time."
Dusty grinned behind his mask.
"You'll try, Bullwinkle," he challenged. The two of them reset.
Gabrielle held her breath again.
Again, they closed and struck, and again they both hit at the same time.
Gabrielle let out a squeal of excitement in spite of herself.
Both of them removed their masks and looked up at her in surprise.
Gabrielle shrugged. "Sorry. I was just watching."
Both of them smiled and looked at each other.
"Think she heard us?" Dusty asked quietly.
David smiled. "Every word."
"Still La belle?" Dusty continued.
David smiled and nodded as he went back to his starting point. "Yeah, we both died on that one, too."
Dusty saluted David again and smiled. "I think you just want a chance to impress the House Mouse?"
"Dream on, buddy," David countered with a laugh. "Ready?"
The two of them charged again.
David tossed in his sleep, his mind wandering in an ancient field, somewhere he did not recognize. His eyes beheld the ancient trees, white with age and weathering. Not a single leaf lived upon them. Even the grasses beneath his feet seemed only a mockery of life. He stood in a small clearing, looking about him at the trees. On the ground about him was a series of small stone arrangements, signifying grave sites. And about him hung the decomposed bodies of several other people, most of them rotted away to mere bones, trussed together by the tattered remains of ligaments or old clothing.
"This is not where I was hoping to go," David said as he tried to focus his dream in another direction. It had become an art that he was quite proficient at. On this particular night, however, someone else was leading his dream walk.
He glanced down at his body, clothed in a simple black coat with blue jeans, boots, and a black hooded sweatshirt beneath his leather vest. His hands were covered in fingerless gloves, and he saw his bowie knife strapped to his right hip.
"All dressed up and no one to date," he smiled ruefully. Then he looked about him at the ancient carnage again, knowing without reason that this had been a real place. "All right then," he muttered. Then he stood up straight and stretched out his arms to either side, hands open in a gesture of welcome.
"Who has brought me here?" he called in a clear voice. The words echoed about him, bouncing through the dead trees into infinity.
Suddenly a small pile of wood burst into a merrily crackling camp fire.
The sound of slow deliberate clapping could be heard behind him. He turned and beheld a tall man with thick black hair and narrow goatee. He was tan and powerfully built, wearing a black vest, pants, boots and a pair of inlaid black bracers, covered in silver.
"That's new," the man said easily as he smiled. "Most people get nervous when their dreams don't go the way they want. You seemed to welcome it?"
"Not the first time I've been yanked off my usual dream walk," David responded coolly. He took one step back, wary of this apparition. "Who are you?"
"Yeah," the man said. "Introductions first. Been a while since I've had a mortal to talk to. Most of you don't even recognize me anymore." He held his hands out and gave a courteous bow that would have seemed genuine if not for the barely concealed wry smile on his lips. "Ares, God of War, at your service."
"Ares?" David replied, a smile touching his lips. "The Ares? That's rich. Okay, I'll bite. What is an abandoned God of War doing calling me from my dream walk?"
Ares gaze momentarily went dark, and then he smiled suddenly and chuckled. "That's what I love about you modern humans. You're so full of yourselves that you don't even fear a God anymore. So brave and yet so stupid." He shook his head. "You obviously have no idea who you're dealing with."
"No," David nodded. "Actually, I have a real good idea. I also know that you didn't just walk in and take over my Dream Walk. You were allowed."
"Allowed?" Ares laughed. "What makes you think I need permission to do this? Man, are you arrogant! You're worse than my late half brother!"
"The truth is seldom gentle," David said evenly. "I'm assuming that you had a point to make, right?"
Again, Ares stared at David with a dark look, hoping to intimidate him. When it became apparent that this would not happen, he shrugged and smiled again.
"Okay," he said. "You've recently met a young, very attractive, very irritating little blonde girl named Gabrielle. I guess I can assume you've noticed a few things odd about her?"
"A few," David conceded. "That point you were going to make?"
"She's going to want to talk to you in the morning," Ares said. "Now, some of what she says - okay, all of what she says is going to be strange to you, more strange or annoying than anything she has said so far. I'm here to tell you that it's all going to be true."
"I was kind of figuring that," David said knowingly. "One thing she doesn't seem to be is full of shit."
Ares caught the hidden rebuke and this time his temper began to take hold.
"Listen you little brat," he said, pointing a finger at him. "You don't want to make me angry. I'll fry you to a crisp!"
"No you won't," David chuckled. "You couldn't if you wanted to, and we both know it."
"Really?" Ares asked, and then a blast of fire shot from his hand and exploded just before impacting into David's chest. He fired another and a third, all with the same result. David merely crossed his arms and waited, a confident smile on his lips.
Ares looked down at his hand and back up at David with a look of total perplexity.
David merely crouched down and held his hands out to the flames.
"You can't touch me here," David said. "Or anywhere, for that matter." He looked up at Ares and nodded. "My Goddess protects me here and in all things."
Ares looked as if he could skewer David with his eyes alone.
"And my Goddess has been around for a hell of a lot longer than you have. Hell, she was probably your great-great-grandmother." He shrugged. "So what about this talk that Gabrielle and I are going to have? And why were you hiding in the mirror behind the bar tonight?" David looked up at Ares knowingly.
Ares eyes widened in surprise. "How did you know I was there?"
"Hey, Retired War God," David said with a touch of injured pride. "I just look like biker trash on the outside. I've been a temple High Priest for nearly ten years now. We just aren't as open about it as we were back before the Burning Time." He seemed retrospective for a moment. "Come to think about it, you didn't do much to help us back then, did you?"
"Call it an oversight," Ares growled.
"And not knowing your opponent?" David asked. "Just another 'oversight' for the God of War? Come on, Ares, Patton never would have approved."
"Well," David continued before Ares could say anything, "let's get down to it, shall we? What do you want?" He gestured to a nearby log, offering for Ares to sit.
Ares stared at him for a moment, and then he laughed out loud, truly laughed.
"I like you!" he admitted. "You've got heart, you know that?"
He sat down on the proffered log and looked around.
"Look around," he said. "This was the work of another person a lot like you could be."
"Really?" David gazed about him. "I never got into the Vlad the Impaler thing, myself."
"I had a woman once," Ares boasted. "Her name was Xena. With a little prodding in the right direction, she accomplished this long before I was finished with her."
"You must have been proud," David muttered. "The point?"
"Okay," Ares said. "If you decide to help Gabrielle out in this upcoming endeavor, you're going to need a few things from me."
"Like?" David asked.
"Better reflexes, strength, accuracy, and brains," Ares ticked off. "I can give them to you, temporarily of course."
"Of course," David said. "Kind of like letting Gabrielle speak my language?"
Ares mouth dropped open for a moment, and then he smiled again. "Well, you don't miss much, do you?"
"Try not to," David replied easily. "Now I have a question. What will it cost me?"
Ares shrugged. "What is it with you mortals and debt?" he asked. "No one can give you anything for free? Why is that?"
David shrugged. "Ever since I started reading philosophy, I've become inherently suspicious. I especially like the passage that states, 'If something looks too good to be true, then it probably isn't true.' Your little offer sounds too good to be true, unless there are strings attached."
"That's a terribly outdated frame of mind," Ares replied as he waggled a finger at him.
David smiled sarcastically. "Well, I'm talking to an outdated God."
Ares was struck again by the sheer impudence of the man before him. In all his thousands of years, he couldn't remember anyone, besides Xena and Gabrielle, who had spoken to him so casually, so rudely. He stood up and towered over David, trying to be as menacing as he could.
"I may not be able to hurt you," he said in a growl, "but that doesn't mean I can't get to you. You have friends, loved ones, even that irritating blonde might start growing on you."
David nodded and rose, looking Ares in the eye, unflinching. "True," he agreed. "I'm sure you could mess with everyone I've ever known or will know. But, if you do, that would just prove something else."
"What's that?" Ares asked.
"That Ares, the Great God of War in the Greek Pantheon, was actually a coward at heart. He's a bully who would torment the people that can't defend themselves, because the real players were too damn good for him to measure up."
David's eyebrows rose in question. "So," he asked. "What's the truth, Ares? Are you a badass or a bitch?"
Ares' eyes were two black pits, filled with impotent wrath. His chest heaved with breath as his rage swelled within him. He knew that this one was protected by a power greater than his. The man's faith in that power only strengthened it. He turned and began to stalk away.
"Hang on a second," David called after him in a truly apologetic tone. Ares turned back to face him.
David's demeanor changed in that moment. "Okay. We're done with all the posturing and bullshit, right? Now, let's talk. What do you want from me?"
Ares looked at him darkly for a moment, and then a realization began to dawn on his face. "You were playing me?" he asked, totally astonished.
"No more than you were trying to play me," David replied with a grin. "My teacher always told me, if I wanted to know someone, I should make them angry, and that way I see the true person. I made you angry. I know now that Gabrielle wouldn't be here if something wasn't serious. I know now that she is not exactly from this neck of the woods, and that you have a vested interest in her. The rest, I'll let you fill in."
Ares stared at him and then his grin reasserted itself and he chuckled. "You're good," he said, waggling a finger at him again. "You're very, very good. Okay, let's parlay, shall we?"
Gabrielle moved slowly through the misty haze about her. In her mind, she knew she was sleeping in the small room David had provided, but that realization did little to comfort her in this place. Vague shapes could be seen at the edge of her vision. They would be there for one moment and then scoot out of sight before she could recognize them. She continued through this place for what seemed an eternity, then the mist faded away and she beheld a small valley. She was at the crest of a high rocky hill, looking down at various blue dwellings, with people moving to and fro between a large, dug out area. With a sudden wrench of her heart, she recognized it as the valley of Poditia, her home. The village was gone, reduced to a large pit in the midst of a field. The sadness of it washed over her like a cold wave.
Voices caught her attention and she gazed down to her right at a closer group of people, working in a small cave below her.
She crept stealthily down to a spot just above the opening and looked down at some of the artifacts already being removed from the place. With a shock, she saw several large rolls of ancient parchment, just like the ones she always used. She crouched lower, her hands coming to rest on the ancient stone, and seemed to feel the breathing current of life in her fingers. Suddenly, the activity began to slow until it came to a complete stop. The figures of people ceased moving. She stared at the scene in wonder and amazement as she saw everything before her frozen in a single moment. Just above her head, a small bird hovered, just shy of its tiny foot touching the branch on which it would land. A small squirrel stared up at her, seemingly lifeless, in mid panic as it prepared to scamper off, the hairs of its bushy tail rigid like wire.
Then, slowly, the figures began to move in reverse. The people and artifacts moved back to their original positions as time reversed itself.
Gabrielle knew this sensation only by repute. Autolocus, the King of Thieves had described his experience with the Chronos Stone, and she remembered it well.
Her fingers gripped a little tighter as the universe spun in reverse, faster and faster until the movement of the seasons were like small flashes of light. She had a sudden sense of falling as the world regressed back to something more familiar.
Just as inexplicably, the images and seasons began to slow back down. The months and years slowed to a gradual reverse progression of days. She witnessed activity at the mouth of the tomb again, this time it was individuals dressed more in line with the time she was familiar with. A small cluster of people emerged from the tomb bearing a litter, upon which a body rested. It did not stop moving until it was a good distance away. Then, as if the universe paused to catch its breath, the people beneath her began to move forward again.
Gabrielle watched the grim procession as it approached the tomb. She saw the bearers, four young men, strong and lithe, bearing the litter of a person who had been rather tall in stature. The thin veil covering the body obscured the details of the face, but she could see that the dead man had been an elderly one. That was some small comfort at least. The man had lived a full measure of years. Behind him came the other mourners, obviously family. Something about the way they moved sent a chill up her spine. She saw the central figure of a woman, about the same advanced age as the dead man. It wasn't the age of the woman that caught her attention. It was the way she was moving and the look in her pale green eyes. Her eyes!
Gabrielle's breath caught as she realized she was watching a funeral for someone she would know in her future. In the back of her mind, she inspected the way she looked at advanced age. She had to admit that she would age well, if this was accurate. A grim smile touched her face. Then she noted the two figures following behind the older her.
One was a man, tall and strong, in his late twenties or early thirties, with long golden hair and deep, fiery green eyes. He wore a close shaven beard and moustache that leant his features a rather roguish appearance. Gabrielle recognized the stance and bearing of that man. The other was a woman, also tall and proud, with dark brown chestnut hair and deep dark eyes. Both were dressed in simple traveling attire. Gabrielle realized with a start that she was looking at the faces of her own grown children. The resemblance between her and the dark haired young woman left little doubt, though she had obviously inherited her height from the father.
Both young people were fit and strong, each with a hand resting on the elder Gabrielle's shoulder, attempting to comfort her while at the same time dealing with their own sense of loss.
Gabrielle looked down from the place and saw the fierce attempt of her elderly counterpart to keep her emotions in check. She could imagine the last time she felt that much emotion in one moment. Her heart ached to behold the sight. Without understanding why, she rose up from concealment and moved to go down to them. The three figures looked up and their eyes went wide.
Gabrielle froze, suddenly uncertain as she saw them looking up at her, and past her.
She realized in that eerie moment, that they could not perceive her, but they did perceive something else.
Gabrielle's older counterpart slowly covered her mouth in wonder, her eyes alight. The two children behind her stood tense and amazed, the man's hand slowly traveling to his sword hilt.
Gabrielle gulped in sudden fear and slowly turned her eyes to look over her shoulder.
She discerned a large black shape, and then she was falling through a tunnel, faster and faster, as the universe vanished suddenly beneath her feet. She screamed in fear - and sat bolt upright in the small bed, covered in a sheen of cold sweat, her breath coming in ragged gasps and a sob on her lips. It was the palpable memory of something that would come. The loss of yet another loved one. She huddled against the cool wall and hugged a pillow to her chest, weeping quietly.
Gabrielle didn't know how long she had slept the second time around. The last thing she remembered was watching two of her strange benefactors charging at each other, armed with swords. The next, she was curled up on the bed, clutching the pillow.
She looked out the window at the fading fiery light of the setting sun and stretched. Had she slept through an entire day? Two days?
From outside she could hear the sound of many people socializing in the main hall of the place. The music was playing and she felt it reverberate in the floor beneath her feet.
She did her best to fix her appearance and opened the door. She could make out several people by the large green table and a thin haze of smoke hovered several feet above the floor. A thick tobacco scent overpowered everything in the hallway. She sniffed and sneezed quietly before walking slowly out into the open.
There was the massive bulk of Tommy sitting on a stool at the corner of the hall. He turned and looked at her in surprise.
"Well," he grinned. "Look who finally woke up." Then he turned and bellowed into another back room. "Shakespeare! The House Mouse is alive!"
Apparently, the large man had heard the impromptu nickname bestowed upon her by Dusty.
David emerged, wearing jeans, tee shirt, sneakers, and a red and white checkered apron. His long dark hair was tied into a thick tail that hung down between his shoulders. He wiped his hands on the apron and grinned.
"Hey there, Mouse. Bout time," he said. "You hungry?"
She smelled the preparations of a meal coming from the kitchen and suddenly her belly growled with hunger she hadn't even realized she felt. She nodded.
"Good," David said. "Get in here."
Confused for a moment, she hesitated.
"You know how to cook, don't you?" David asked.
She nodded. "A little. Nothing fancy."
"Alright, Nothing Fancy," he said with a grin. "Get in here, unless you'd rather be part of the cleanup crew?"
Gabrielle ducked under the bar and followed David into a large, modern kitchen.
The smells flooded her nostrils, spicy and rich, making her stomach protest even more.
On a massive stove were several steaming pots or flat pans, and an illuminated oven showed two large silver covered dishes within.
At least a dozen steaks sizzled on a broiler and David was moving from one station to the next, here flipping over a steak, and adding spices to a large boiling pot.
He gestured to a small pile of ground and partially cooked meat.
"Start by making the meatballs and dropping them in the crock pot," he ordered as he moved over to a large flat frying griddle.
Still uncertain, she stepped over and smelled the rich tangy scent of the sauce slowly bubbling in the pot before her. Again, her belly cried out in anticipation.
As it did, she watched David with growing fascination. He seemed tireless as he moved from one place to the next. The kitchen was easily large enough to support a staff of several cooks.
Gabrielle smiled as she recalled Joxer's tiny tavern. She and Xena had wandered in after their long sleep and found their old friend and his wife, bustling about like a dog with its tail on fire.
There was a sudden pang of regret as she remembered yet another friend she had lost.
She paused in her preparations for a moment.
"Look out!" David said cheerfully as he squeezed between her and a standing rack holding various cooking utensils. "Ingredients, coming through!" He held two small clear bowls in his hands, passing them over her head as he moved. Stopping at another large pot, he tossed the mixed contents of one bowl in and stirred them gently with a large wooden spoon, then he turned to a second, equally large pot and dumped the contents of the second bowl. That pot contained boiling water. He stirred that pot a few moments and then turned away, ducking beneath the hanging pans and setting them to clattering against one another. He opened a large door and withdrew a box, lined in plastic and steaming from the contact with the warm air. He spun theatrically and ducked back underneath, drawing long spindly crab legs from the box and placing them into the boiling water. Then he looked into the box and upended it over the pot. Shrimp fell in by the dozen.
"That works," he said, tossing the box into a corner and wiping his hands on his apron again. He grinned and stepped back to the first pot, stirring it carefully.
Looking back past her again, he saw the amused smile spreading on her face. He slipped behind her again, stopping at a large flat pan containing more ground meat, simmering within.
Reaching up, he took a small bottle of reddish liquid and poured copious amounts into the skillet. A large burst of brilliant orange fire leapt up from the pan with a sizzle and he grabbed the pan in one hand and shook it, expertly tossing the flaming meat around.
Gabrielle almost dove for cover when the minor explosion occurred.
"Rupee!" David shouted as he worked, as she laughed out loud.
"You're out of your mind!" She exclaimed.
David only grinned more broadly and tossed the meat until the flames died, then he spun back around and circumnavigated Gabrielle and the utensil rack, returning to the first massive pot. He spooned the meat into the pot and set the skillet into a large steel sink, then he stirred the pot again. He was whistling as he worked, loving every minute.
Gabrielle finished her appointed task and looked over at her host expectantly.
David glanced over and nodded. "Check this out," he said.
He drew the spoon out, covered in a thick red sauce. He tasted it and then offered it to Gabrielle.
"What do you think?" he asked.
She tasted it and her eyes widened in surprise.
"That's good," she said. "What is it?"
"What is it?" David repeated in shock. "What is it? Good God lady. You're tasting Shakespeare's magic venison pasta sauce!"
"Pasta?" Gabrielle asked.
"Christ, lady," David exclaimed. "You're from Greece. Italy's only a short swim away!"
"I've been to Italy," Gabrielle replied. "And I've never seen them prepare anything like this."
David stopped stirring the pot and looked at her quizzically. Then he shrugged. "Well, you're in for a treat."
He pointed at a large cabinet next to the refrigerator. "Grab the little green boxes that say Angel Hair on them and dump the contents into that other pot over there." He pointed to another pot of boiling water on a second burner. Then he tasted the sauce again and frowned critically. "Needs more garlic," he said as he took down a small clear container, opening the end and pouring the granulated contents in. After several seconds, he ceased and resumed stirring, then he tasted it again and nodded in satisfaction.
Gabrielle found the requested boxes. She pointed at them for confirmation. David nodded and she took them down, ripping the ends open and dumping the stiff contents into the boiling pot.
At the same time, David placed a thick mitten over one hand, and drew a large, silver covered dish from the oven. He removed the covering and spooned a generous amount of his sauce across the top of the contents, then he set the dish back in the oven.
He tossed the mitt on the counter and poked his head out into the main room.
"Twenty minutes people!" He announced. "Set the table!"
Derek called from a corner.
"Hey! Where's your brain pot and cell?"
"On the entertainment center!" David replied. "You get em?"
"You betcha!" Derek replied with a grin and returned to fiddling with a different helmet.
David ducked back in and went over to the large flat griddle. He pulled two small metallic dishes from the top shelf and set them on the hot surface, then he reached behind him and took a long sharp knife and onion.
"How's the sauce look?" He asked.
Gabrielle looked down at the pot she was stirring. The sauce was thick, red, and well - sauce?
"I think it's okay," she offered.
"Cool. Grab eight eggs and the veggies in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Bring them over here, please."
Gabrielle stepped over and opened the refrigerator, surprised to feel the cold air within the box. She opened the drawer and took out a huge bundle of mixed vegetables, all skinned and prepared for cooking. She brought them over to David who promptly tossed them all onto the griddle, dousing them with oil.
"Eggs, please," he said as he drew out his knife.
Gabrielle ducked back and quickly retrieved the eggs, holding them patiently as David worked. She watched the razor sharp blade sliced through the mixed vegetables with a swiftness that surprised her.
David held a spatula in the other hand and he quickly and neatly scooped and sliced veggies at blinding speed. Then he set the two implements down and grabbed two eggs, expertly cracking them over one of the bowls. He repeated this until all the eggs were in the bowl and, taking a whisk, he mixed them furiously for a few moments before dumping them on the griddle as well.
"Now," he continued as he worked. "I need you to grab that strainer there," he pointed to the thing hanging on the rack. "Fish me out a bunch of that shrimp in the seafood pot and bring them here, too."
"Okay," Gabrielle replied. She did as instructed and returned. David nodded to the griddle and she poured the small shellfish on there as well.
"Where'd you learn to cook?" she asked as David quickly lined the small creatures up and neatly cut off the tails in one easy stroke.
"Two more like that should be good," he said. Then he smiled. "I've been cooking since I was a kid. Went to school for it after I saw the guys at Benihana in action." Gabrielle returned two more times and then sat back to watch.
David moved with speed and fluidity that she had never beheld before, at least in a kitchen. The tails were stripped and scrapped off the cooking surface before she even realized they had been severed, then the eggs were diced into tiny fragments and mixed in with a large pile of brown rice that seemed to have magically appeared from nowhere.
Suddenly, the spatula caught one of the shrimp and launched it into the air. David expertly caught the morsel in his mouth and continued.
"Want one?" David asked, looking over at her, his hands never slackening speed.
"Sure," Gabrielle replied, and another morsel flew up in the air right at her. She caught it neatly and popped it into her mouth.
"Ah, what the hell was that?" David asked. "If you're going to do it, do it right." And another shrimp went skyward. Gabrielle didn't even have to adjust her position. It landed in her open mouth and she grinned as she chewed.
"You are," she said. "You are crazy. One minute you're beating the stuffing out of someone and the next?" She gestured at him, smiling.
David scooped the eggs and some of the vegetables into the rice and tossed them expertly.
"Girlfriend," David said. "If enjoying life is crazy, then I'm certifiably insane." He consumed another shrimp in the same airborne manner and scooped the rice into the large waiting bowl.
"Table ready?" He shouted out the door.
"Bring it on!" Someone called impatiently from without.
"Come and get it!" David replied grinning like a madman as he scooped the rest of the veggies into another bowl.
Four women entered the kitchen. The first one was a tall, rail thin woman of forty years or so, with long pale blonde hair and deep blue eyes behind thick glasses. She had an air of authority about her as she stepped in. Her name was Debbie, though most of the Squad simply referred to her as the Queen.
"Whatcha got for us Shakey?" she asked with a slight southern drawl that augmented her husky voice.
"Lasagna's in the oven," he pointed. "Rice, veggies, sauce, and the dinner rolls," David replied. He looked over at his guest. "Could you give them a hand?" he asked.
Smiling, Gabrielle moved to assist.
The next girl was shorter and a bit heavier in build, with thick dark brown hair and hazel eyes. She wore black, skin tight jeans and a deep red tank top beneath a black leather vest trimmed in a red of the same color. Her fingers were covered in rings and she wore a thick silver chain about her waist as a belt.
"Michelle," Debbie ordered. "Grab the stuff in the oven, would you?"
Michelle grabbed the oven mitt and a matching one from a drawer and drew out the casserole dish.
She sniffed and sighed in anticipation.
"Shakespeare," she said. "You have got to give me the recipe for this."
"No way," David replied. "I do that and we'd never see you. Or we'd see a helluva lot more of you."
"Ha, ha," Michelle countered and she whisked the dish out into the other room.
The next girl to come in had long thick auburn hair that reached down below her waist. She was young, about twenty, with thoughtful green eyes. She wore a violet leather halter and a pair of blue jeans over her curvaceous figure. She quickly stepped up and gave David a friendly kiss on the cheek.
"Thanks for cooking again tonight, Shakes," she said.
She grabbed the two bowls of vegetables and rice, and then looked over at Gabrielle as she backed away.
"Did he do the flying shrimp trick?" she asked.
"Hey, Katrina," David barked, and another of the small shellfish sailed across the room into her waiting mouth.
"Food - table - now."
Katrina smiled as she chewed and departed.
The final girl was small and thin. It was immediately apparent that she was related to Debbie. Same hair and eyes. Same build, and same infectious grin.
"Hey, Jesse," David ordered. "Get a couple of towels and grab the sauce pot, would you?"
"Sure," Jesse retorted in a confident melodic tone. "Give me the heavy shit."
She also received a shrimp in the mouth for her comment as she went grinning to her appointed task.
Through the entire operation, Debbie had simply sat back and watched David work.
"Is the serving platter behind you, Deb?" David asked.
Debbie reached up into another cabinet and drew out a large flat dish.
"Gabrielle," David asked. "Can you grab the steaks off the broiler and take them out, please?"
"Sure." Gabrielle took the dish and a pair of metal tongs. She quickly stacked the steaming steaks on the platter and headed for the door.
David smiled as he heard the cheers when the steaks emerged from the kitchen.
"You did that on purpose," Debbie said knowingly from behind him.
"Yup," David smiled as he cleaned the griddle and moved to the boiling seafood pot.
Using the strainer, he scooped the remaining shrimp from the water and then dumped the pot over into the adjoining sink. The steaming crab legs fell in with a clatter.
"So," Debbie asked casually. "Who is she? And why does she have such a wild aura about her?"
David smiled knowingly. "Aside from her name," David said. "I don't know, but I have my ideas."
"Oh?" Debbie stepped up next to him, her eyes looking at him expectantly. She smiled a wide toothy grin.
"Not those kinds of ideas," David corrected her, recognizing that look. "I think it might have something to do with Samhain?"
"Ah, those kinds of ideas." She leaned against the end of the rack. "Is this the one Shilah called me about?"
"She called you?" David dropped the pot on the floor with a clatter.
Gabrielle stopped short at the doorway when the massive utensil hit the floor. Several other faces peered in over her shoulders, curious about the noise.
"Damn, Shakespeare," Debbie smiled, easily moving off subject to avoid the awkward moment. "That's the first fumble I've seen you make in three years. You're slipping."
David bent to retrieve the pot and looked up at Gabrielle. She stood there with an alarmed look on her face.
David saw the genuine concern on her face, as did Debbie, and she began to smile again.
Michelle's dark head poked around the corner.
"Everything okay?" she asked in surprise.
"Yeah," David said, snapping out of his stare at Gabrielle. He suddenly felt incredibly awkward. He picked the pot up and set that one inside the other, within the sink. "Got the wine out?" he asked quickly.
"Yup," Michelle responded with a frown.
David turned around to find Debbie holding another large platter and bowl. Quickly David set the crab legs on the platter, then he strained the noodles in the final pot, added a little olive oil to keep them from sticking and poured them into the bowl.
"We'll talk later," Debbie nodded and winked mischievously. Then she lifted the platter and swept out of the room.
"Bullit!" She shouted. "Get yer paws out of the lasagna!"
Derek stopped with his finger a fraction of an inch over the steaming casserole.
"Damn, girl!" he countered. "You're cruel."
David followed out of the kitchen, bearing the bowl of noodles, preceded by Gabrielle.
Everyone was standing behind a chair around a long table, waiting.
The table was covered with food and several bottles of red and white wine. All was set, and yet, still, no one moved.
David took a plate and moved around the table, selecting a small portion from each prepared dish. When he finished, he filled a glass of red wine and stood at the head. He bowed his head and muttered something. Then he looked up and said aloud.
"That we should never hunger."
Some of the others repeated those words, while most simply replied "Amen" or said nothing. Then David took the plate and vanished through the side door.
When he returned, he resumed his place at the head of the table and looked around. Then he lifted his wine glass. The others all followed suit with their selected beverage.
With an overblown, bombastic tone. David nodded to one of the men further down the table.
"I think a toast is in order." He raised his glass. "To Mister Zynda. Our thanks for bringing down that beautiful stag last week, allowing us to enjoy such a wonderful repast together in the spirit of friendship and family as we have always -"
Derek couldn't stand it any longer.
"Man," he interrupted. "Talk like a white boy, will ya!" David paused, a blank expression on his face for a moment. Then he sighed.
"Hey, Marty," he said simply. "Thanks for killing the deer. Let's eat."
Cheers broke out and everyone settled into a chair and began to pass the plates around.
Still somewhat curious about the plate of food left outside, Gabrielle settled into a seat between two other women. Katrina and Jesse were both open and friendly, and soon Gabrielle was doing one of the things she did best. She was talking. The talking turned to joking, and the joking turned to stories. Before long, she had most of the table enraptured as she spun tales from her life, though she made them sound like regular stories.
As the night progressed, she discovered a sense of community that she had forgotten since leaving her childhood home. These people, as different as they each were from one another, had formed a family of sorts. Their individual differences made them a stronger whole, each one contributing to the security of the others.
Gabrielle also heard stories from them. Stories that centered around brotherhood, respect, and shared adventure in the open wild.
There were several people at the table that night that she formed the beginnings of a strong friendship with.
The first one was the massive and suspicious Tommy. By the time the second helping was making the rounds, both he and Derek, by David's estimation, had been won over.
It went without saying that Debbie and the other girls in the party found Gabrielle's company pleasant.
By the time the bottles and plates were empty, Gabrielle, Michelle, Katrina and Jesse were deep in their own conversation. Suddenly Michelle looked up at Debbie.
"Hey," she said, a little drunkenly. "Gabby, here, has never been downtown! Can we take her this weekend?"
A sudden twinge of angst flared in David's gut. But he shrugged.
"She's a big girl," he said. "She don't need my permission. Just don't get her too lit." He smiled. "I doubt she could handle it."
Gabrielle met his stare with a challenging one of her own.
"Oh, man," Dusty leaned over. "That looks like a challenge to me."
David smiled. "Yeah, whatever." He took his wineglass, averting his eyes, and took a long drink.
"You gonna take that," Dusty grinned mischievously. "She's just a girl."
Opposite Gabrielle, Tommy closed his eyes and shook his head, smiling. "Dusty, man, you do not want to go there."
"What?" Dusty looked over at Tommy and in the process saw Gabrielle staring at him now.
"Just trust me," Tommy said knowingly, looking at Gabrielle and smiling. "She will hand your ass to you and make you like it."
Dusty slammed down the rest of his Jack Daniels and sighed. "Yeah, right." He grabbed the bottle and refilled his glass. Then his eyes met Gabrielle's and he paused.
She simply looked at him, and her eyebrow rose up slightly in question.
Katrina looked between the two of them and a smile began to spread across her youthful features.
"Dusty," she said knowingly. "This would be another really dumb move on your part."
Dusty simply held Gabrielle's stare evenly, a sly smile beginning to spread across his thin features. Gabrielle only mimicked that look as her own mind began to turn. Her hands rose and fell on the table as if to ask.
Katrina looked down towards the other end of the table.
"Dad!" She called. "Dusty's picking a fight again!"
At the opposite end of the table, a slender, middle aged man named Gary sat up straighter and looked down at them. He had long pale hair and wore a dark flannel shirt under his leather vest, a cigarette dangled easily in between his fingers. He looked at the two of them and smiled.
"I got ten bucks on the lady," he said, eliciting a chorus of laughter.
David simply put his head in his hand and shook it slowly. "Oh to be in the warm fuzzy glow of all this liquid courage," he muttered. Then he looked up at Dusty.
Dusty merely smiled wider, never taking his eyes of Gabrielle. "Why not?"
Then he looked up at David. "Just a friendly sparring contest, come on?"
Gabrielle also looked at David questioningly.
David only shrugged.
"Don't break him, is all I ask," he said. "I might have cracked that thick skull of his last night."
Gabrielle's smile grew as she realized that this, like the swordplay of the night before, was nothing serious. She stood up and drew the sais out of her boots.
"Whoa!" Dusty exclaimed as he saw the two weapons.
Gabrielle set the two weapons on the table and rose, stepping out away from the table a few paces
Tommy just held his hand up and waived Dusty away as his massive frame shook with internal laughter. "Man, I tried to warn you."
Dusty rose from his place and stepped into a small open space, away from the table. She stood waiting, her hands at her sides.
"Well," Dusty said with as much bravado as he could. "I'll be gentle."
Gary called out from the opposite end. "I hope she will be!"
Dusty stood before Gabrielle. The two of them were about the same height, though Gabrielle was a bit larger in build than her slim opponent.
Debbie called out from her place at the table.
"Dusty! You behave yourself, now!"
Dusty dropped into a fighting stance and shuffled in, throwing several slow experimental punches that Gabrielle deflected easily. It was clear that this contest was not about hurting anyone.
Dusty shuffled in again and tried a little more speed. Again, Gabrielle deflected them easily, matching his movements.
Dusty stepped back and smiled.
"You're pretty good," he acknowledged. Then he came in again at full speed, though he did not try to strike her directly. Again Gabrielle blocked his attacks, and this time managed to sneak a couple of taps on his body in the process.
Several of the people at the table clapped, especially the girls.
"Easy there, Gabby!" Michelle called out. "You're going to hurt his feelings!"
Gabrielle smiled and looked over at Dusty. He simply nodded and then shuffled in, quick as lightning, trying to wrap Gabrielle up in some kind of hold. Instead, Gabrielle expertly reversed it and brought the stunned man down to his knees, one arm held behind him in a wicked arm bar.
Dusty turned his shaggy head and looked up at Gabrielle, an enchanted smile on his face.
"Now that was cool," he said. "Marry me?"
Gabrielle released her hold and her mouth dropped in surprise. She laughed out loud.
"Dusty got beat by a girl!" Katrina taunted him.
"Yeah," Dusty said, rising to his feet. "But I think I liked it."
"Oh Lord," Michelle moaned. "Gabby, he's gonna follow you around like a little lost puppy for weeks now."
Gabrielle laughed and extended her hand to Dusty. Instead of grasping her forearm, he took her hand and kissed it chivalrously, bowing. Then he saw Debbie holding his bottle of Jack Daniels and he sighed.
"On second thought," he said apologetically. "It would never have worked." He ran over and sat down on Debbie's knee, eyeing his bottle.
"Marry me?" he asked again.
She shoved the bottle into his arms and pushed him off. "I already got me a man," she replied. "Behave yourself!"
As the laughter died, Gabrielle decided that she would go into 'downtown' with the girls that coming weekend. When she informed Katrina of this, the young lady looked at her critically for a moment.
"Well," she said. "Then we need to get you some new clothes." She looked up at David. "Hey, Shakespeare. Can I borrow your bank card? I wanna take Gabby, here, shopping."
David looked quickly down at Debbie, who gave a subtle nod.
David slowly withdrew the card and passed it over to Debbie. "Fine, but you get parental supervision."
"My parents are in Phoenix," Katrina retorted. Then she saw Debbie take the card from David. She perked up immediately. "Okay, no problem!"
David looked at Debbie, eyes pleading. "Be gentle, please?"
"Define gentle," Debbie asked, grinning.
"She doesn't get her own bike," David retorted.
As the 747 jetliner circled over the city of Chicago on its final approach to O'Hare International Airport, it immediately became apparent to Alti that she had a tiny flaw in her plans.
The Chicagoland area was a sprawling metropolis in its own right, filled with several million residents, never mind that her nemesis might have ended up somewhere outside the limits of the city. A soft hiss escaped her lips and her eyes went a shade darker. In a day and age when everyone was part of a networked system, how do you find that one person who has not been included? Gabrielle was out of time and off the grid. She would have no address, no identification, no social security number, nothing. It would be like searching for a needle in a very large haystack.
She glanced back at Mr. Finch's associates. One of them, Carlos, a stocky man with Spanish features was working on his laptop computer with manic intensity. He had programmed physical parameters of Gabrielle and conducted a search on the federal database. During the flight, there had been several dozen hits, all of which Alti, or Professor Klaus, had immediately dismissed.
"Got another one," Carlos said unenthusiastically. He turned the laptop to face his employer. Alti stared at the image and hissed again, this time in surprise.
On the screen was the image of a driver's license. The image on the license was a perfect duplicate of Gabrielle, except that this person had slightly darker and much longer blonde hair. She scanned the information quickly, her eyes alight.
Heidi Willis, age twenty-seven, it was all there. Name, height, weight, birth date, she sighed when she realized where the person was from.
"This is a Texas driver's license," she said softly. Then she had an idea.
"Take that person's image and add it to the parameters I gave you, then search for any unidentified individuals that may appear in the system."
"Unidentified?" Carlos frowned, looking over at Mister Finch. "Isn't this her?"
Alti smiled. "It's as close as you'll get, but no. She's not the one I want."
Carlos sighed. This bounty was one of the more difficult ones he had ever taken part in. Still, always do as the employer wishes. He saved the data in the computer and added them, then he keyed in several more commands.
"All right," he said. "If anyone matching this description comes up in the local network, we'll know about it."
"Excellent, Charles," Mister Finch said calmly.
The group passed easily through customs and claimed their luggage. Out in one of the remote lots, they found their transportation. Two plain, black, unmarked Chevrolet sedans sat, waiting patiently.
Carlos took the nearest vehicle, while his counterpart, Alex, a large, meaty man dressed in an impeccable three piece suit, went with Finch to the other.
Alti slid into the passenger seat of Carlos' car and waited.
Carlos slid in beside her, adjusted his leather coat and turned the key. The engine hummed to life.
"Are these vehicles untraceable?" Alti asked expectantly.
"Absolutely," Carlos replied, his slight Spanish accent touching his words. "If the plates are run, it will randomly pull up another vehicle of the same make and model. He smiled and tapped his portable computer affectionately. "The wonders of modern technology."
Alti looked over at the other vehicle. The two occupants stared at her expectantly.
"Drive," she said, reaching into her coat and drawing out the star shaped crystal amulet.
One of the corners glowed with a faint white radiance. She pointed in the same direction.
The two black sedans eased out of the parking lot and turned south, heading away from the city. They were just about to enter the expressway when Carlos' computer beeped a quiet chime.
"We just got a hit," Carlos said. He looked expectantly at his passenger who simply nodded. The two vehicles slid off to the side of the road and stopped.
Mr. Finch got out of the trailing car and strolled forward as Carlos opened his computer and hit a key. Instantly the screen flashed back to life.
"Well, well," Carlos muttered as he scanned the information. He smiled as he looked up at Alti.
"Chicago Police at the twenty-first precinct have arrested a young woman involved in a bar fight? The suspect is refusing to give her name and has no identification.
Alti literally began to salivate with anticipation. Something in her belly told her that this was the one.
"Do they have a picture?" she asked.
Carlos smiled as the mug shots downloaded to his computer. When the image appeared, Alti let a savage laugh burst from her. There on the screen was the image of a slightly confused and very irritated Gabrielle, listed as Jane Doe.
"That is the one we want!" Alti growled. She smiled a reptilian smile. "Where is this precinct?"
"Excuse me, Bernadette," Mr. Finch put in. "We cannot simply go down to a police station and walk in with the intention of killing her."
"We won't have to," Alti replied. "If I know the brat, she's already enlisted the aid of some locals. We just need to see who comes to her rescue."
"And if no one does?" Mr. Finch asked.
"Then we will secure her release," Alti said hungrily. "And when she's far enough away, in a secluded place and helpless," she looked at Carlos and Alex, "then we kill her."
All four of them smiled coldly.
David held the thick stack of receipts in his hand and groaned. He tallied them up for the fourth time and let his head sink into his waiting palms.
"Sixteen hundred bucks," he muttered. "They spent sixteen hundred bucks on a shopping spree?"
The door to the club house opened and Derek came walking in, cell phone in hand and a grim look on his face.
"Buddy," David said, "I am now firmly convinced that there is no animal more dangerous than a female in a shopping mall." He held up the cluster of receipts as if it was evidence being presented at a trial. "This is a freaking nightmare!"
"Yeah," Derek said soberly. He offered the cell phone to David. "And it ain't over yet."
Confused, David took the phone.
The voice on the other end prattled, and David's eyes rolled towards the ceiling in exasperation.
"Well, did you explain to her that he was harmless?" he blurted angrily. The voice continued and David stood up.
"She what? How bad? Wait a minute, Jerry said he'd do - where? Ah, God dammit all to Hell! I knew this was a bad idea! How much? No, no don't do a damned thing!!!! Yeah, tell Jerry I'm on my way! Ask him if he'll take payment for damages in exchange for not pressing charges! Well, who in the hell else is gonna pay it?" He snapped the phone closed with a furious click and slammed it into his pocket. He looked at Derek and began walking towards the door grabbing his jacket and helmet on the way out.
"You coming?" he called over his shoulder.
"If only to see you chew her out," Derek replied, racing after him.
"Hey!" Carlos said from the passenger seat. "They're dropping the charges!"
Finch, now driving, smiled. "That means she has a benefactor of some kind."
"Which means she'll be out of there pretty soon," Carlos added. "We need to get moving!"
"Relax, Charles," Finch replied. "It will take them some time to process her out, regardless. We have time." Still, he pressed the accelerator forward just a bit more, in case he was wrong.
The gray Hyabusa and the big blue Valkyrie slid back into the parking stall before the massive precinct building. David removed his helmet and smiled, looking over at Derek.
He inspected the thin wire running from the helmet into his cell phone and nodded.
"That works nice." He said. "Now we can keep in touch."
"I thought about it when they came out with the voice activated feature for the handicapped." Derek replied proudly.
David disconnected the new cell phone from the helmet and set the helmet atop his handlebars.
"Now," he said, his smile fading to something colder than the night air. "Let's go bitch out the bitches."
The two leather clad men descended the steps into the police dispatch office. Sitting in front of the seargant's desk was a tall, willow reed of a man, with long blondish brown hair tied back in a short tail, and a dirty polo shirt and pants. He stood up, taller than David and nearly half as thick.
"Hey, Jerry," David said grimly, extending his hand. "Sorry about all the bullshit."
"No," Jerry's normally jovial face was set in granite. "No, this broad goes well beyond bullshit!" He was still seething with frustration. "She completely tore my place up! Now I know that things can get rough sometimes, but I have never, in twenty years of owning a bar, seen anything like the jujitsu crap she pulled in my place tonight! It was like a god damned Hong Kong fightfest in there! Half my stools, most of my tables, the mirror behind the bar, shelves, God damned near everything!"
"Jerry," David said darkly. "I can't do any more than I am now. I'll cover the damages, just send me the bill, and don't be stingy. Just don't prosecute, okay?"
Jerry looked at David for a long time, and then he looked off to the side as two uniformed police officers led a cuffed Gabrielle out of the holding area.
David did his best to keep his temper seething, despite the truly pathetic and apologetic look on Gabrielle's face.
She wore a pair of blue denim pants, pale blue denim shirt with vest and a thick black riding jacket.
She fixed the officers a frosty look as they released her bonds, and then she stepped over to David, rubbing her wrists. When she saw Jerry, she paused.
"I'm really, really sorry," She began. Jerry held up his hand and cut her off with a loud bark.
"I don't want to hear it!" He said. He turned back to David. "Thanks for being such a gentleman about this, Shakespeare. You can come by any time." Then he glared angrily at Gabrielle. "But I never want to see you in my place again, ever! You understand me? You don't even set foot on my parking lot!"
Gabrielle looked down, ashamed. "I understand," she said.
Jerry shook David's hand and departed. As he passed out the doors, Katrina and Michelle entered from having cigarettes somewhere outside. David began walking towards the door - stalking was a more appropriate term. He was furious at the entire situation.
"Shakes," Michelle started.
David held up his hand.
"Your car here?" he growled.
The girls nodded.
"Go home," David finished, then he looked at Gabrielle, still hovering uneasily in the lobby. "You!" David called. He gestured with his finger. "You come with me! We need to have a little chat." There was something so menacing in that voice that the two girls took their opportunity to depart, leaving Gabrielle to David's mercy.
Gabrielle followed after David, bracing herself for the anticipated verbal assault.
The clear glass door had barely closed behind them when David wheeled around and began walking backwards towards the two bikes.
"What the hell is with you?" he asked angrily. "Not even here for a whole week, and you land in shit like this!"
Behind him, Gabrielle saw Derek wince in sympathy.
David was a level headed man. It took a great deal to get him to this level of frustration. The frivolous spending of the previous two days had not helped his temper to begin with, but this episode on top of the shopping spree had been the final straw.
"You see," Gabrielle began to explain nervously. "We were sitting there, minding our own business, when these two men came up and began giving us a hard time."
"So, you never thought to leave?" David asked.
"Well," Gabrielle started, but David cut her off.
"If not you, then one of the others should have had the brain capacity to get out of the situation!" He blurted. "Instead, you go 'Jackie Chan' or whatever it is you do, and tear up my friend's place!"
Gabrielle paused and looked at him questioningly.
"Who's Jackie Chan?"
It was an attempt to lighten the situation and it failed miserably.
David raised his hands and let out a loud burst of sound in complete frustration.
"I'm sorry, alright?" Gabrielle offered. "We were just talking when these guys came over and started giving us trouble. One of them made a move, I shoved him back. He crashed into another guy, and after that it just went crazy?"
When he looked down at her again, her eyes were not fixed on him. They were looking down the concrete walk at something else.
"It can't be?" she asked in sudden horror.
David's angry face slowly switched to confusion and he turned and looked down the street. He immediately saw the two figures walking towards them, the thin man in the nice suit had his right hand in the left side of his jacket. Beside him the tall, thin, dark haired woman stared at them hungrily, like a tiger, eyeing prey.
"What the hell is this?" David asked.
"Alti," Gabrielle breathed. "That's Alti! I can't believe it!"
At the same time, the two figures adjusted their course, heading straight toward them.
"Who the hell is Alti?" he asked.
David saw the butt of a pistol extend from behind the folds of the man's coat.
"In front of a cop shop?" David thought. "No one could be that ballsy, could they?"
He looked at Gabrielle. "Unless they had no concept of modern law enforcement?" He looked down at Gabrielle again and a fragment of understanding came to fruition. Dread formed like a knot in his belly.
"Get on the bike," David said, backing slowly towards the Valkyrie. "Derek, fire it up."
"What's up?" Derek asked, then he saw the two figures approaching. "Ah man, this sucks." He pulled his helmet on and started his bike.
Gabrielle and David both turned and ran towards his bike. David leapt aboard and yanked the helmet over his head. The man and woman saw the sudden sprint and began pushing their way through a crowd of pedestrians, attempting to catch them before they escaped.
"Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go!" David said quickly as the Valkyrie roared to life.
Gabrielle jumped onto the seat behind him.
"Go, Bullit! Go!" David shouted, and the two bikes shot away from the curb, into traffic.
David looked in the mirror and saw the two figures jump into two black sedans and pull out after them.
"Ah, shit!" David muttered. He released his grip on the handlebars and quickly plugged his cell phone into the helmet intercom. The soft click echoed in his ear.
"Call Bullit," David said. Instantly the phone clicked, rang and Derek's voice came over the speaker.
"What's going on, amigo?" Derek asked.
"I don't know," David replied. "But they're in two unmarked squads behind us." He thought for a moment. "Make for the tollway! We'll loose them in the open!"
"You got it, brother," Derek said. "Just follow me!"
Derek's low slung, silver crotch rocket shot between two cars as the front wheel bounced off the ground.
David followed and watched as the two sedans executed a dangerous maneuver of their own to push through traffic. Two other cars slammed into one another as the black Chevy's forced their way forward.
"They're bound and determined," David announced. He rolled his throttle back and followed Derek's path in between cars as they zig zagged towards the on ramp.
Derek's Hyabusa leaned low as he turned onto the ramp, while David simply locked his rear tire and skidded around the corner.
Gabrielle hugged the back of David's body like a shield, her eyes fixed behind her. She saw the two black shapes careen down the ramp and leap after them.
"They're still coming!" she shouted, her eyes watering in the wind.
David looked down at his speedometer. The red temp light began to flicker. He cursed out loud. They were approaching another small cluster of vehicles.
"Bullit!" he announced. "I got a little problem here! The engine heat light just came to life!"
"Well," Derek replied. "That's what you get for bringing an untested bike into the city!"
"I wasn't expecting to be chased, Bullit!" David shot back angrily. "Head for 94 North. Once we get on that interstate, get next to me!"
"What you got in mind, amigo?" Derek asked as he dipped the bike in between two more cars.
David smiled behind his helmet. "I want to ruin their day." His eyes flicked down to the decorative sword hanging behind Gabrielle's left knee.
Gabrielle peeked over David's shoulder and saw the approaching rear ends of various vehicles, large and small. Ahead of them, Derek's nimble bike could be seen, flitting in between them with reckless determination as the two of them fought clear of the latest congestion.
"Junction 94 coming up!" Derek announced. "Break right!" His bike shot across four lanes of traffic towards the ramp. David followed, zipping just in front of a massive eighteen wheel tanker truck. The air horn blasted at them in anger as the rear trailer tires momentarily locked.
Derek and David took the ramp at a wild speed. As David leaned his bike over, he felt the pavement rip into the steel of the floor board beneath his feet. Sparks erupted from the contact of metal with pavement, moving at eighty miles an hour.
A quick check behind showed the two black sedans in hot pursuit, and they were gaining!
"Those got to be Interceptors," David said angrily. "But I know they aren't cops! Derek, get back here!"
Instantly, the Hyabusa was riding formation next to David.
"What you got in mind?" Derek asked.
Alti looked over at Carlos, white knuckles on the wheel as his dark eyes focused on his target.
"Don't lose her," she said, fingering the amulet in anticipation. "Just run them off the road."
"With pleasure," Carlos replied, smiling.
Then the two of them began to frown in confusion. A soft howling noise seemed to be coming from somewhere behind them. It was like a loud in-rush of air, but not like it at the same time. Suddenly a brilliantly painted yellow shape shot past the two cars with an unbelievably loud roar.
Alti saw small blue flames jetting from the large pipes at the back.
Carlos was rubbing his ear. "What the hell was that?" he asked.
The bike that pulled up next to the two of them was long, low, and so brightly painted that it seemed to glow in the flashing of the street lights. Suddenly another voice, low and monotonous added to the connection.
"Hey guys," it said. "What's up?"
"Johnny?" David smiled. "Where the hell did you come from?"
"Long story," John's voice came back. Then David saw the helmeted head turn over his shoulder. "Piss someone off?"
David smiled. "Another long story!"
John, or Crazy Johnny as he was better known, sat in a bike that seemed molded to his own body. It was a modified four cylinder Suzuki cruiser with two large air intake scoops blended into the fuel tank, and massive three inch wide exhaust pipes stretched out past the rear tire. The bike had been designed for one thing; straight roads.
"Well," John's voice came back. "Since we both have long stories to tell, I say we ditch the party crashers so we can talk?"
"Johnny," David grinned. "Work your magic. Derek get up next to me!"
"Oh, man," Derek said nervously. "Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"
David looked down at his gauge, the red light glowing brightly and flashing.
"Fraid so," he admitted. "Time for my passenger to get off."
"Ah, shit!" Derek moaned, and he sidled his bike up as close as he could to David's without hitting him.
David flipped open his visor.
"Gabrielle!" he shouted over the wind. "You're going to finish this little trip with Bullit, there!"
Gabrielle looked down at the rear wheel spinning next to her left leg, and her eyes went wide.
"I'm going to what?" she cried in panic.
Johnny's bike fell in behind them and held relative to the others as the two Chevy sedans closed on them with bloodthirsty speed.
Johnny glanced over his shoulder and then flipped two small toggle switches on his tank. Immediately, two amber lights began flashing next to his red taillight. He waited until the first Chevy was almost upon him, and then he depressed a small red button on his hand grip and twisted the throttle.
A blast of brilliant orange flame, twenty feet long engulfed the front of the encroaching Chevy. The driver swerved away from the threat and dropped back, fire still licking the front grille. It careened wildly off the road and plowed into a ditch.
"Now!" David shouted as the red light on his gauge flashed insistently.
"I can't do this!" Gabrielle shouted in fear.
There was another brilliant orange blast of flame as Johnny held off the second car.
"Dammit, Gabrielle!" David shouted angrily. "Get off my fucking bike!"
David and Derek crossed their hands and grasped each others handlebars. This gave David throttle control over both bikes while at the same time, allowed Derek to maintain the stability of the ride.
Gabrielle placed her hands down behind David's butt. Another fiery blast behind them startled her.
"Uh," John's voice came over the speaker, calm as always. "I can't keep this up forever?"
"Gabrielle!" David roared. "Go!"
Gabrielle eyed the narrow foot pegs behind Derek's calves. She pushed up on her hands and launched herself across the narrow gap, landing neatly on Derek's narrow seat pad, her feet landing solidly on both pegs. The two bikes wobbled violently for a moment, and the two drivers released their holds on each others bikes.
"Johnny!" David called. "Bug out!"
"Right," John replied dryly. "See ya!" There was a loud howl, and the yellow monstrosity rocketed past them.
Gabrielle looked back over at David. He slapped the visor of his helmet down and reached his left hand back onto the hilt of the sword.
He looked over at her and nodded. She saw the hand on the weapon. Her eyes flicked back to the closing vehicle and she suddenly realized what he was about to do. "David!" she cried out.
"Derek," David said simply. "Get the young lady home before curfew."
"All right, brother," Derek said gleefully. "Y'all stay black now! I'm outta here like last year!"
Derek kicked the Hyabusa down two gears and cranked the throttle all the way back. The engine screamed in delight, and he and Gabrielle shot away from David.
"Go, baby, go!" David cheered. "Hang up." The phone went dead.
He looked down at the pavement whizzing past his feet, and then back at the temp gauge. "Any second now."
"Forget him!" Alti cried in dismay. "I want her!"
"Damn lady!" Carlos shot back. "This is a Chevy, not a Lamborghini!"
They both watched as the silver motorcycle pulled easily away from them. Alti let out a cry of rage.
There was a soft ping, and then a sudden thud as the Valkyrie finally succumbed to the massive buildup of heat within its engine.
David managed to shift the bike to the left just before the rear wheel locked. The black Chevy still in pursuit came roaring up behind and to his right like an infuriated juggernaut. Time seemed to slow into one long terrifying series of moments.
David pulled the sword from its sheath and leapt as the front end of the car connected with his rear tire. He flipped over and threw the weapon at the windshield. The blade punched through the glass on the driver's side a split second before his body bounced off the hood and was launched skyward.
Carlos felt the point of the blade shoot through his chest. His body convulsed and the car slid sideways, sailing off the road and flipping over into the ditch, rolling with a series of sickening crunches.
David's body seemed to writhe and twist as it flew through the air, moving like a cat. He managed to get his legs beneath him. When he impacted with the ground, his boots blasted through the asphalt on the shoulder with a loud whump. His hand also hit the ground and he paused, looking down at his feet and the large series of spiderweb cracks beneath them.
Then he looked up and back toward the wreckage of the car behind him.
"Holy shit!" he exclaimed. Off to his other side, there came the slow deliberate sound of clapping. He rose, slowly feeling giddy in the rush of adrenaline, and removed his helmet, breathing deeply the cool night air.
Ares stood with that self satisfying smirk on his face.
"Nicely done," he said. "I told you I could help you out. So, what do you think of your new gifts?"
David pulled his feet out of the small craters and stumbled backward a couple of paces before falling squarely on his rear. He sat there for a moment, trying to comprehend the fact that he was not a greasy stain on the pavement.
Ares stepped over to him and looked at him appraisingly for a moment.
"Hey!" he said suddenly. "Snap out of it! You're alive!"
"Yeah," David replied distantly. "Yeah, I know. I think. That was - was," he shook his head, trying to clear the endorphin induced haze. "Wow! What a rush!"
Ares knelt down before him. "Hey! Hey! Focus here!"
David's eyes turned to the war God's gaze. Ares held a finger up in front of him.
"Come on back down now," he said. "Lots to do yet."
He pulled David to his feet. "Alti has something in that car that you're going to need. Get moving!"
David turned, still wobbly and stared at the wreckage. He could see a large stain of blood on the shattered windshield where his sword had penetrated.
"Alti?" he repeated.
"Yeah," Ares said. "You know, the bad person here?"
"Right," David said. "Right." He stumbled over to the car and looked inside. Alti lay stretched out across the seat, while the other man, not the same one that he had seen before, sat pinned in place, the hilt of his sword protruding from his chest, and half his skull smashed beyond recognition from the impact.
In the unconscious woman's fingers was a small crystal amulet.
"Take that and get out of here," Ares said behind him. "Come on now. No time to lose."
Numbly, David reached into the carnage and removed the small item, absently shoving it into the inside pocket of his coat. Somewhere through the fog in his mind, he could hear the sound of sirens approaching.
Ares smiled at him. "I think you better get out of here," he suggested, as he vanished
Still lost in the haze, he half walked, half crawled drunkenly up the embankment, crossed the narrow parallel street, and stumbled into a dark alley between two large buildings. Each step was an eternity, his limbs leaden from the stress and strain. He managed to get behind a rusted old trash dumpster and let himself slide down the wall. His head lolled back against the rough brick and his eyes closed. Blessed darkness swallowed his mind and he knew no more. The helmet fell from his unconscious fingers.
Down below, on the road. The second black sedan pulled up and two men quickly removed the unconscious Alti, sliding her into the back seat before it continued down the highway and vanished. But David never saw that.
"...Unit thirty-two, dispatch. We have the suspect. Requesting an ambulance to the corner of Bryn Mawr and Frontage."
David saw the red glare through his eyelids. His eyes fluttered open.
"Easy, big guy," a voice said calmly. "You look like you've been through a lot."
The image of a police officer with a tan uniform and a wide, flat brimmed hat slowly faded into view as the flashlight beam moved out of his face.
"Stew?" David mumbled groggily. "What's up?"
Stewart's dark eyes assessed David quickly and expertly. He shook his head.
He was a younger man, about David's age and at least a head shorter. He knelt before David, his police uniform perfectly pressed and neat. His deep, dark blue eyes stared critically at him.
"I can't believe you're conscious," Stewart said. "What the hell happened?"
A second officer, standing several feet back looked at the big man nervously. "Shouldn't we be taking him into custody?" he asked. His right hand was hovering near the butt of his pistol.
"Relax Frankie," Stewart snapped back. "I know this guy." He looked apologetically at David. "Rookie."
David smiled weakly and tried to sit up. "I won't hold it against him," he mumbled as he rolled forward in an attempt to rise and almost fell over.
"Easy, easy," Stewart caught him. "Just wait for the ambulance, man. You aren't going anywhere."
"Just get me back on my feet," David whispered. "Just get me back on my feet."
"Come on, Dave," Stewart protested.
David ignored him, reaching up to grab the rusty edge of the dumpster. He slowly, and unsteadily, hauled his body vertical, leaning against the wall. Half way up, he felt Stewart's arms wrap around his waist and assist him.
"Thanks," David said, his head against the rough brick.
Stewart looked up at him. "Can you remember what happened?" he asked.
David fought through the haze in his mind, trying desperately to think clearly. He shook his head to try and clear the cobwebs. This only initiated a piercing pain in his skull. Of all the times to get a migraine.
"No," he said drunkenly. "I remember the engine on the Valk running hot. I slowed down, then something popped." David frowned. "I think someone hit me?"
"Clobbered you's more like it," Stewart said. "The IDOT boys are shoveling what's left of your bike into a bucket."
"How'd you wind up out here?" The rookie asked suspiciously.
David looked at him, still riding high. "I-" he managed to mutter as he saw the flashing red lights that indicated the ambulance arriving. "I don't know."
He looked down at Stewart, completely confused. "Did anyone get hurt?" he asked.
Stewart's gaze went neutral. "Get checked out first," he said. "We'll talk later."
"Stew!" David said sharply, though the sound of his own voice made him wince in pain. "Did anyone get hurt?" he finished more quietly.
Stewart placed David's arm over his shoulder and helped him out to the ambulance.
"One person is dead," he said grimly.
The EMTs stepped out of the ambulance, foregoing the gurney when they saw the leather clad man being assisted to the back of their vehicle by the police officer.
David let himself be lowered gently onto the rear bumper of the vehicle. The EMT's carefully helped him out of his thick leather jacket and began going over him.
He winced when the young lady held a pen light up to his eyes.
"Christ!" He muttered. "How bright do those things get?"
"Just relax," she said softly. "You might have a concussion. Did you lose consciousness at any time?"
"He was unconscious when we found him," Stewart offered. "He also seems disoriented."
"Thanks for not saying drunk," David mumbled.
Stewart smiled. "Hey, man. I know you. You don't drink and ride. You never have."
The woman checking him over nodded and took David's helmet from him. She inspected the surface for scratches or cracks. Frowning, she then examined David's head carefully.
"Wait a second," She said curiously. "There's no sign of impact."
"I don't think I hit my head." David offered.
The EMT looked at David carefully, feeling his arms and checking his legs for any indication of discomfort. When she found none, she looked at David again, this time with surprise.
"Can you describe exactly how you're feeling right now?" she asked.
David thought for a few seconds and realized his mind was slowly clearing. The second EMT placed a small cup in his hand. "Drink this," he instructed.
David sipped the contents, discovering it to be only water.
"I'm a bit hazy," he confessed. "Like coming down off a heavy buzz. Kind of like feeling like my whole body is tingling, but heavy at the same time, like my weight doubled or something?"
The young EMT nodded and stood back. She looked at the two uniformed officers and shrugged.
"He's not drunk, or under the influence of narcotics," she said finally. "He's coming down off of an adrenaline surge."
"He's what?" Stewart asked.
"It's the crash after a 'fight or flight' response," the EMT explained. "Situations of extreme stress can cause it."
"I think having a car run up my ass would qualify," David said, sipping at the water and feeling the haze finally begin to clear. He felt tired. More tired than he could ever remember feeling in his life. His whole body still seemed to be moving in slow motion.
"Or being thrown from a vehicle," The EMT finished for him. She looked down at him critically for a moment. "We'll take you to the hospital and get you checked out, but I think they'll just send you home and tell you to get some rest."
"Well," Stewart said regretfully. "After the hospital, I'm afraid I need to take you in to the station for questioning."
"Why?" David asked.
"You know that sword you had mounted on the side of your bike?" Stewart replied.
"Well, its sticking out of the chest of the guy who was driving that car," Stewart finished.
David looked down at the pavement and then nodded his head. "Okay."
Alti paced about the room in a rage.
"How could you have left it behind?" she screamed. Her eyes bulged and her fingers curled into talons as she looked at the two of them.
"It was all we could do to get you out of there before the police arrived," Mr. Finch protested with his usual calm tone. He sat composed, one knee folded carefully over the other, his fingers tented before him, eyes cold and calculating. "Bernadette. You really must learn to control yourself. You accomplish nothing this way."
"Shut up!" Alti roared. She stood over him, her gaze wild, breath heaving. "You and your infernal courtesy! You are useless to me!"
"Bernadette," Mr. Finch began, but Alti grabbed him by the throat and bodily lifted him, pinning him against the wall.
"Stop calling me that!" she screamed. "I am Alti! Do you hear me? Bernadette is gone!"
She let him drop to the floor as small tracers of energy flickered between her fingers.
"Both of you get out!" She hissed. "I have work to do!"
The two men quickly withdrew, leaving Alti alone in the room.
The Shamaness paced back and forth for a few minutes, just letting her anger simmer beneath the surface. Her patience with the way the modern world seemed to function had been completely exhausted. She needed results and she needed them quickly.
Her only opportunity to become permanently housed in this pathetic reincarnation would arrive in just over five days and she needed to find the Chronos Stone in order to guarantee that. With the loss of the amulet, she had no viable way to secure her destiny.
She needed something that tied her to the strange man on the motorcycle, or, better yet, to Gabrielle.
She stopped pacing as a plan began to formulate.
"Of course!" she sighed, and a cold smile crept across her face. Gabrielle was the key. She was out of time. Out of place in this world, just like Alti, only she was not a reincarnation. She was real. She was displaced in time and that would make her different from the modern swarms of people in this world.
Granted, she had no idea if her plan would work, but if it did, she could home in on that irritating little bard like a homing pigeon, and none of these diversions that her benefactor could produce would stop her.
She stopped again, remembering the recent encounter with the strange figure. There had been something about him as well. Something in the strange aura of energy that surrounded him. It was more a feeling than anything concrete, but she knew that he, also, was different in some way. This unknown man was tied to her errand.
She settled down on the floor, sitting cross legged and closed her eyes, forcing her mind to delve into the unknown. The memory of that failed chase slowly coalesced in the back of her mind, and she played the entire sequence of events, searching for any detail to aid her.
It was an old trick, one of the first she had learned. Being able to recall a memory and examine it from different perspectives. The memory became a solid reality again, one that she could move about and control at will.
She saw his face, chiseled and rugged, with long hair and short scruff around his lips. His dark eyes turned to look at her as he realized that Gabrielle had spied them. The apparent anger in his eyes changed to something more subdued.
The three of them had mounted their vehicles and shot away from them when they understood that Alti had been present.
Alti zoomed through the next few minutes of the chase until she found the spot she wanted.
"Christ lady," Carlos had said. "This is a Chevy, not a Lamborghini."
She then watched with impotent fury as the large yellow machine shot another burst of flame at her car and sped easily away from her.
The silver one, now carrying Gabrielle also followed suit moments later. She saw her quarry move swiftly and inexorably away with effortless ease. She heard her own cry of rage.
All that remained was the last man on his motorcycle. His head moved up and down, then back to look at them, and back down again. His left hand dipped down and drew out something. She caught a subtle metallic shimmer as the street torches whisked by overhead.
Again she froze the images and moved to stand beside the man on his machine. It was a blue and white conveyance, slightly larger than the previous two. As she studied it, she noted the small red light glowing on the central console. She smiled.
"So," she said, crossing her arms. "This one's engine was not healthy." She kept her position, relative to him and continued the events, watching as he drew a sword from beside his saddlebag and hugged it next to the left side of the motorcycle, waiting.
Then his vehicle seemed to stop, and the car roared up behind him, impacting the left front end with the bike. The man was thrown. No! Not thrown! He had leapt into the air, spinning like an acrobat. His left hand wheeled around and she watched the sword! The image froze, and she studied this image carefully.
The man's aura had changed, subtly, but distinctly. He was filled with an energy that should not have been possible for these modern men. It was an energy that he had tapped into. The energy of the universe around him. He also was a shaman of some religious faction, though she knew not which deity he followed. His deity was actively protecting him in this moment, giving him the unnatural strength to accomplish this task.
She let the memory play forward slowly, watching as her opponent finished his maneuver, releasing the weapon with uncanny accuracy. She saw the blade punch through the clear glass windscreen and stab into Carlos' chest and watched his body convulse as the car careened towards the side of the road. She turned her head and looked out the back window in time to see the man accomplish something that should not have been possible.
He landed squarely with a force that should have pulverized the bones of his body into powder. Again she stopped the image and studied him.
He knelt on one knee, just as he had landed. One arm was touching the ground to steady him. She could see the back of his leather coat. The design upon the smooth surface. The image of a dark knight on horseback, charging through a mist with a host of skeletal servants behind him. Above and beneath the image were two words.
Zombie Squad. And much smaller, on a painted scroll were two lines of verse.
"I know no beast that has but some touch of pity.
Yet I have none and therefore am no beast."
The helmeted head turned slowly, deliberately, to look through her and she saw his eyes, dark and filled with unnatural ferocity, then the image went black as consciousness had left her.
That was it! She had her link to this man! She may not know what order this "Zombie Squad" was, or which deity it followed, but she could discover that, given time.
No. The time was too short. She needed something else. Something more defined. Something she could send her spirits to home in on. She played the memory back a second time, watching for anything else she might use. And this time, she found it.
She focused her attention on Gabrielle, astride as she had moved from his machine to the second one. She wore a simple, unadorned black leather coat, modern denim pants, and sturdy black boots, but her aura was different. It shone white about her.
If she were conscious, she would have cackled with delight. Her aura was completely different from the other forms around her. It was a beacon in the darkness. That last candle in the window of hope. A candle that she could now extinguish.
She saw something else as well. The back of the jacket on the other figure, with the words "Zombie Squad" also painted upon it in a different way. The image of a tiger's face, half bare of flesh stared at her with one green eye before it was obscured by Gabrielle's body.
She slowly returned to consciousness, feeling the inept Professor within her clawing for consciousness.
"Sit down and watch!" she taunted. "See the potential that you've wasted!"
Alti blinked and stood up, breathing deeply as she became corporeal again.
In retrospect, she realized that this simple meditation would not have worked a few days ago. Nor would the energy she used to wield so freely been evident as it was in her burst of rage with Finch. The closer she got to the supreme moment, the more her power grew.
She smiled again, and the smile grew to a slavering grin and then a loud cackle.
She stepped out of the room and moved to the next door.
"Finch!" She barked, pounding on the closed door with her fist. "Get moving, we have work to do!"
The door opened and Mr. Finch stepped out, his clear eyes showing no sign of fatigue.
"Yes?" he asked coolly.
"Where's Alex?" Alti demanded.
"Alex has chosen not to continue his association with us any longer," Mr. Finch said easily. "As that was his emphatic position on the matter, I was forced to terminate his employment."
"I see," Alti nodded, and she recognized the slightly sated look of a satisfied killer in Finch's icy gaze. "Pity."
"Yes, I was most disheartened," he shrugged casually. "Ah, well."
"I need to find out everything I can about something called 'Zombie Squad'." Alti ordered.
"Very well, Bern," he stopped and smiled coldly. "Alti," he finished.
He opened the door for her to enter and then settled down in front of Carlos' laptop.
He logged on and typed in the search parameters. The tiny image at the top right corner began to animate, indicating an active search.
The computer beeped a response after only a few seconds and Finch looked down at the screen.
He scrolled down the long list of possible sites and frowned.
"There are many references to a group of Zombie Hunters, whatever that means," he said as his eyes scanned the information. "A comic book site, several music sites, something about a paintball training camp." He continued scanning the dozens of references. Then his eyes lit up as he opened a web page designed for a motorcycle club. The page had everything he needed. Names, dates, images, events, everything they needed except an address.
One of the smaller options showed "Custom Bike Awards." He clicked that and read aloud.
"As is his style, Crazy Johnny came up with another show stopper at the Midnight Tour Custom Bike Show, and nearly got arrested for it. His modified Suzuki GS1000, dubbed the Motorpsycho, took first place in people's choice, and also nearly took the hair off the closest judges when he fired up his latest modification. A fuel fed flame-thrower and sparkplug apparatus that he had installed in the oversized tailpipes. It almost caused a stampede when the flames reached a length of over twenty feet, and set one of the concession stands on fire. Way to go Johnny!"
Beneath the lines was the image of the offending vehicle. Alti grinned broadly as she looked down at the same garish yellow monstrosity that had nearly immolated them earlier that evening.
"That's the one," she said. "Find out where they are! I want names and places of residence. Where they like to go, How many of them are in the order? Everything!"
"Of course," Finch replied. He was also smiling as he clicked on the small box beneath the "Sign Our Guestbook" flag.
He typed a few characters in and then pulled up the IP information about where the computer that held the site was located.
It was done in a matter of a few minutes and the two of them were on their way.
Gabrielle paced back and forth down in the main garage of the clubhouse, her mind lost in thought. She looked about her at all the strange and wonderful items that lay or hung within the place. The thirty, or so, motorcycles resting patiently, waiting for the owners to return. Her eyes fell on one of those machines, dark red and sitting quiet in the corner.
David's other motorcycle.
She walked over to it slowly, watching as the reflection of light moved across the smooth surfaces. Her heart was heavy with regret as she recalled the previous days. In the short time that she had been in this place, she had become rather fond of all the members of the Zombie Squad, and David in particular. They had made her feel at ease, well as much at ease as she could feel, given the circumstances, and David seemed to go out of his way in an effort to make the entire transition as painless as possible, including her as much as he could in everything that was going on. They had accepted her in the end and hadn't asked too many questions. They had respected her privacy in the matter she was sent here for, and indeed, none of them seemed to know about it or care.
Her mind drifted again to David. The image of those deep thoughtful eyes flashed in her memory, recollecting the vision before she arrived in this place. The words of the Stygian Witches suddenly rang in her mind with more relevance than she had given them credit for. Words that, at the time, had seemed a simple taunt now carried a new and more powerful weight.
"Seek the Valkyrie. It carries the sword of the dispossessed one. He shall be your ally."
"More than an ally."
"He will be the closed circle."
Gabrielle contemplated those words for a long time, her hand slowly caressing the mirror smooth magenta surface of the motorcycle. The mood of the building was dark and subdued. Not like when she first arrived. Even the buzz of the strange-lighted tubes seemed more dismal, like a low groan instead of a melodic hum. She suddenly felt as if she were being watched. Her eyes turned about the room, seeing the various headlights of the motorcycles all seemingly turned towards her, half expecting, half filled with grim determination or hope. It seemed that, if the human element could grieve for the missing member of their family, this collection of machines was doing the same for one of their own. Man and machine alike, all part of one large family. She thought back to the time when she and Xena, along with Argo, would travel the land. Argo, tall and majestic in her pale beauty had been as much a mode of transport for Xena as she had been a friend. Two thousand years into the future and beings like Argo had been replaced by beings like these.
It was the type of company that reminded her of her life with Xena, now so far away. She felt a tear roll down her cheek and it surprised her. Glancing up at the closed door to the main room, she noted the silence. There was no laughter, no strange music, and no sounds of joy to be heard. Her mind reached out to try and touch something of the energy in these strange machines. She was startled when she felt a response.
"It's usually only the coven that speaks with us," a soft echoing female voice seemed to say.
Gabrielle turned and saw a single figure standing near a workbench, where David's motorcycle had been sitting a moment before. Gabrielle was suddenly aware that she had inadvertently placed herself into a trance state. This surprised her, since the last time she did this, she had been trying to face Alti in the dream world. That had taken a full-blown ritual and all the necessary accoutrements. She suddenly remembered the taste of the stag's blood. It was palpable, as if she had just done it again.
She opened her eyes again and beheld the stranger. She was slender in build, with long, fiery red hair and a deep red tint to her skin. She wore a simple black leather vest and coat and rich black leather pants covered her long, athletic legs. She stood poised with her hands on her hips, appraising Gabrielle with pale yellow eyes, like crystals.
"What are you?" Gabrielle asked, hearing her voice echo around her.
The other woman smiled and leaned back against the workbench.
"I'm Rose," she said. "And you are Gabrielle, aren't you?"
Rose smiled and nodded. "Yeah, David and I were talking about you last night."
Gabrielle frowned. "He spoke with you?"
Rose nodded. "He always speaks to me while we're riding. He had a lot on his mind, so I take him for a spin, maybe an hour or two, and I help him work through whatever it is. We've covered over sixty-five thousand miles, and God knows how many issues, in the last ten years."
She smiled smugly and then nodded. "Oh, I never got to introduce myself last weekend," she said apologetically. "Nice to finally meet you."
Gabrielle was unsure of this spirit. "I don't remember seeing you before?"
Rose laughed, genuinely amused. "David and I brought you here, sweetie."
Dawning appeared on Gabrielle's face. "You're," she stammered, not sure how to put it.
"Think of me as his guardian angel, if that makes it easier for you," Rose said easily. "Just like Bullit, there is Derek's."
Gabrielle turned and saw a slender olive skinned woman in a silver bodysuit lounging patiently on the lift where Derek's silver Hyabusa had been resting. She rolled over, catlike and stared at Gabrielle with clear crystal eyes. She smiled hungrily.
"Hey there," she said in a soft melodic voice similar to the sound the machine made when Derek twisted the throttle. "I hope I didn't frighten you too much tonight? My man loves to go fast with me." She let out a satisfied sound that might have been a purr if it didn't sound so metallic and mechanical.
"What are you?" Gabrielle asked, turning back to Rose.
Rose smiled. "Call us Spirits of the Open Road, if you like?"
"We like it," Bullitt agreed, now lying on her back and looking up at Gabrielle with a smile.
The door opened with a soft squeak, and Debbie emerged. She looked down at Gabrielle and smiled comfortingly as she came down the steps. Gabrielle blinked, and when she looked back, the silver Hyabusa and the magenta Honda were back where they had been. In the crystal orbs of the headlights, though, she suddenly felt them looking at her.
"How you doing?" she asked.
Gabrielle only suppressed a shudder and turned away from the bike. "I'm alright," she muttered. A grim smile played on her face. "You'd think I'd get used to this by now."
Debbie came up beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "We don't know he's gone," Debbie said. "Believe me, Shakespeare can take care of himself. I've seen him get thrown from Rosie, here, and laugh about it when he landed."
"Why do you call him that?" Gabrielle asked. "Shakespeare?"
Debbie smiled and sat herself down on a large black motorcycle parked nearby.
"Cause that's who he is to us," she said. "All of us get nicknames here, the bikes too. They're a part of who we are."
She gestured to several bikes and smiled as she reminisced.
"Over there is the Motorpsycho," she said and she gestured to the large yellow beast now sitting quietly in front of an even larger tool box. "We call her owner "Crazy Johnny" because he is. He's just out of his mind sometimes." Then she pointed out a beaten old Yamaha covered in dust. "That there is Slut," she smiled. "Because that bike has been ridden hard by everyone in this crew at least once, and dumped just as often. That was my old man's ride until recently." She patted the handlebar of the bike she now sat on. "This is the Mistress," she finished. "Steve's new bike."
"Mistress?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yup," Debbie grinned a little wider. "Cause she's the only other lady that my husband gets to ride."
Gabrielle looked at Debbie for a moment and then the laugh burst from her, washing the sadness away for a moment.
"And of course," Debbie gestured over to the silver Hyabusa and the red Honda. "You've already met Bullit and Rosie."
"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "I never knew anyone could go that fast."
"Like a bullet," Debbie said. "Her owner's got the same name, because that's what he likes to drink."
"Bullet?" Gabrielle asked.
"Coors," Debbie corrected, then she whispered. "It's a black thing, or at least, that's what Derek says."
"But aren't these only machines?" Gabrielle asked. She looked back at "Rose" as if fearing she may have just insulted someone.
"Oh no," Debbie replied. "These are much more than that." She pointed over to another large bike, similar to the Mistress, but a deep magenta color.
"That, is The Lady," Debbie said. "Gary's bike, or 'Dad' as we like to call him. That bike has kept him alive for a few years. Even brought him home safe when he was too drunk to stand up. No one knows how, but it happened. He just stumbled over to her, got on, and she brought him home."
Gabrielle turned back to David's bike. "This one is very special to David, isn't it?" she asked, beginning to understand.
"Ah," Debbie said proudly. "Rosie. Absolutely."
Gabrielle let her hand fall tentatively on the hand grip. She could feel the energy within the machine, like a living essence, and suddenly her encounter of a moment before began to make sense.
"Spirits of the Open Road," she whispered in understanding.
"It's short for "Rose at night, or something," Debbie said, uncertain for the first time.
"Her name is Rosylinda Illuminos Nocturna," a weary voice said from behind them. "It means, 'Rose of the Moonless Night'. I named her as a sort of sister to Ophelia, the Rose of May, in Hamlet."
Debbie only nodded her head and smiled a knowing smile, while Gabrielle turned and saw David standing beside another man dressed in a light jacket and dark brown slacks.
Gabrielle ran over to him and hugged him fiercely. David let out a tired grunt when she impacted him and then wrapped an arm around her.
"What's this?" he asked with a tired smile. "You miss me, or something?"
She looked up at him and opened her mouth to speak, but David quickly and subtly shook his head. Then he turned to the newcomer. "Gabrielle," he introduced, "this is Stewart. He was kind enough to give me a lift back."
"Least I could do after the twenty questions session," Stewart smiled. He shifted , and Gabrielle caught the glint of metal on his shirt beneath the jacket. She may not have been familiar with much in this time, but she knew an emblem or crest when she saw one.
Then she looked up at David, and suddenly punched him hard on the shoulder.
"Don't ever scare me like that again!" she said angrily.
David looked down at her in surprise and suddenly saw the look in her eyes. They were big and bright, filled with a sudden longing. It seemed in that moment that a sudden attraction became palpable to everyone in the room. Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something, her eyes wet around the rim, as if she were recovering from some ancient nightmare. She lifted her hand towards his face, but stopped. Her mouth opened to speak, but no words came out. She glanced around at all the faces in the room. Even the myriad of motorcycles seemed to be watching her with expectant, glass eyes.
Then, suddenly awkward, she turned and quickly excused herself.
Debbie watched her retreat and smiled, leaning back on the Mistress. She looked at David knowingly.
"Well, Shakespeare," she said. "I think she likes you."
David winced and rubbed his sore shoulder. "Really? What gives you that idea?" He also felt a sudden and overwhelming urge to follow after her. He forced his eager feet to stay put.
Debbie's grin widened. "How hard did she hit you?"
David feigned laughter and turned back to Stewart. "Thanks for the ride," he said.
"No problem," Stewart shrugged. "Just call me if you remember anything. They'll need to keep the bike impounded for a while, until the investigation's done."
"Not a problem," David nodded. "I understand."
Stewart nodded and smiled, looking at David carefully for a moment and then he nodded to Debbie and departed.
Once he was gone, David turned to Debbie and sighed. "I think everything needs to come out on the table now. Don't you?" He settled down on Rosie and patted the tank lovingly. "I'm glad you weren't out there with me tonight, baby. It wasn't pretty."
Debbie nodded. "I think they're ready, and I know Gabrielle's been dying to tell someone who she really is."
"Even though you already know?" David asked.
"I have a few ideas," Debbie nodded. "Shilah and I have talked, and we are in agreement. We'll wait till the rest of the regulars leave, and then we'll talk. In the meantime, you need to make an appearance and get a drink. You look like you could use it."
David smiled and trudged towards the steps. "You have no idea."
Debbie watched him go before she drew out her cell phone and dialed a number. The other end clicked.
"Shilah?" she asked.
"Hey Debbie, how are you?"
"Fine, fine," Debbie replied. "I think you might want to come out here tonight. It's all coming out."
"Okay," Shilah replied. "I'll tidy up a few things here and see you all later."
Once the initial enthusiasm and relief died away, the rest of the Squad slowly filtered out, each heading for their respective homes. It suddenly occurred to David that he had not been to his own home in over a week, having spent every hour at the clubhouse, or on the road with his new found friend.
He leaned wearily against the bar, cradling his glass of Southern Comfort between his fingers. The pungent smoke from his lit cigar rose and writhed in the gentle breeze from his breathing. His mind wandered back over everything that he had experienced over those past six days and a smile began to play at his features.
"Whatever she is," he thought, "she's not a boring guest." He took a puff off the cigar and relished the taste. "Nope, not boring by far."
He glanced over towards Gabrielle, deep in discussion with Debbie. Occasionally, Gabrielle or Debbie would look his way and Debbie smiled that annoying "I know what you're thinking" smile.
What was he thinking? He pondered that for a long while. She had suddenly burst out of nowhere and basically attached herself to him and his extended family in rapid succession. She had done this by being - what? Genuine? Yes, genuine would be a good word. Though she had said very little about who she was and where she had come from, she had managed to quell suspicions while still not saying anything of import to any of them.
What was it that she had said that first night? That she suspected she had been placed in that particular place at that particular time because she was supposed to meet him.
"Well," he mused. "That's a might bit convenient." Perhaps too convenient? Something else to ponder later.
His thoughts turned inward, more self searching as he began to evaluate his own feelings. Again his eyes turned towards Gabrielle and that stupid smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Yes, he was fast becoming fond of her, if "fond" could be considered the right word. Of course there were, as always, the baser issues. Gabrielle was young and attractive. She had a way about her that was naturally mysterious and very alluring. It had been that initial allure that he had struggled to ignore, simply out of respect for the circumstances. Initially, he thought she might have been some poor girl who had been abandoned on that road, or maybe fleeing from an abusive relationship. Now, there was something else entirely at work, though he didn't understand what it was. Over the last couple of days, he had begun to notice that he was also preoccupied with thoughts of her. And then the incident at the bar. His initial reaction had not been one of anger, or frustration. No, he had been concerned for her well being. Had she been injured? Killed? Had he lost someone that he barely knew, but was already quite comfortable around? Then his thoughts just before the chase. He wanted her out of that situation, and it didn't matter what the cost to himself could have been. He had been overcome with a need to protect her from whatever that crazy lady had wanted. All he knew about that was: it could not have been good. There had been a genuine fear in Gabrielle's eyes when she spied Alti coming up the sidewalk.
David had seen the woman as well, lean and savagely attractive in her own way, but her eyes had been nothing more than dark, lifeless pits. Alti. Who was she and what was her connection to Gabrielle? They were obviously familiar with one another?
He suddenly remembered the amulet in his jacket. He fished it out and studied it. It seemed like nothing more than a gaudy crystal necklace. It was old, and the metal work, though exceedingly intricate and pleasing to behold, was tarnished with the passing of years, maybe even centuries. Still, it didn't seem like anything important. For all he knew, it was worthless to him. However, Ares had insisted that he take it from the unconscious woman after the crash - why? What was it for? What did it have to do with Gabrielle? For that matter, what did Ares have to do with Gabrielle? There was another little variable in the equation, and all of it was centering around this mysterious young woman that he hardly knew. He remembered their conversation in his dream walk. Ares had said very little about her after his initial council about what she would say, but everything in his demeanor and manner had suggested that he was intensely interested in her. Yet another why?
And what was that with the hug and then the punch in the shoulder back down in the garage? He had seen the look in her eyes. There had been genuine concern about his well being, that was plain enough. Any half hearted moron would have been concerned for anyone given the circumstances of those events. But there had been something more to it. Something deeper in her eyes which she quickly covered before bolting up the stairs and back into the safe anonymity of the rest of the squad. Now, instead of pelting him with questions about what had happened, as she usually did about a myriad of other things that they all took for granted, she was keeping a discreet - no, more than discreet - distance from him.
He looked back over at the two of them, sitting across a low table from one another. Debbie's bemused expression had been replaced by one that was more serious. It was a sympathetic and understanding expression. She was listening to Gabrielle speak and hovering on every word, like a doctor sifting through information in order to arrive at a particular diagnosis.
He also noted Gabrielle's expression. She was nervous, even worried. There was a hint of sadness and resignation in her expression, and an almost pleading in her eyes as she spoke. Her body language was one of quiet, internal torment. She looked over at him again as she spoke and saw him staring at her. She saw the genuine concern, as well as curiosity, in his gentle gaze.
She merely smiled softly and turned back to Debbie.
Debbie placed her hands over Gabrielle's and leaned closer, whispering something to her in a matter-of-fact way that had made her a popular mother of confession for so many of them.
Gabrielle listened and then shook her head, only to have Debbie press her hands gently but firmly on hers again. She said a few more things and David could see the emotion touching Gabrielle's face. There was suddenly a deep sadness about her that seemed to dim the lights in the room slightly. He could feel a heartbreaking sense of loss emanating from her in that moment.
He began to feel like he was prying into matters that did not concern him, and he turned back into his own contemplation. Suddenly, the amulet glowed faintly. One of the four clear pointed crystals shone briefly with a faint radiance that would have been missed if it were not for the dark color of the bar's surface. At the same moment, the green central crystal pulsed slightly with its own internal fire.
The rear door of the club house opened and in walked Shilah, her long dark hair fluttering in the cool breeze that rushed in with her.
David smiled in surprise as he quickly slipped his little trophy back into his jacket.
"Hey," he smiled. "What are you doing here?"
"Debbie called me," Shilah answered easily as she slid her rotund frame onto the stool next to him. "She said that she had some things to discuss with us tonight?" She shrugged, but David already knew that Shilah was holding back.
Shilah looked over at Gabrielle and Debbie, rising from their private conference and approaching them. Gabrielle had a nervous look in her eyes as she stared at him.
"I think our new found friend here, will need to tell us most of it." She smiled.
Shilah rose from the stool and stepped up to meet Gabrielle. She extended a hand.
"Hello," she said.
"Shilah?" Gabrielle asked. When the other woman nodded, Gabrielle continued.
"You're the Shamaness that Debbie said was coming here tonight?"
"One of them," Shilah replied evenly. "Though, at the moment, you seem to be surrounded by them."
Gabrielle looked back at Debbie in surprise. The thin woman only shrugged and smiled warmly.
Then Gabrielle looked at David, sitting there with his drink in one hand and smoldering cigar in the other.
"You?" she asked him, eyebrows arched.
"For the last ten years," David replied. He raised his glass in salute and drained it. "Though I'm not as proficient at some things as Shilah and Debbie here."
"David's strengths are in other areas," Shilah said, smoothing over the self recrimination. "He has a natural ability to Dream Walk, and is very good at absorbing and controlling energy."
"Along with being an exceptional seer," Debbie added. "Considering that he was not born into this practice."
Gabrielle looked at the two women and then back to David with wonder and a new respect in her eyes.
"Is that how you survived the crash?" She asked.
"Crash?" Shilah asked suddenly. She looked at Debbie. "You never said anything about a crash."
"It wasn't anything big," David said, hoping to get out of this subject.
"Wasn't anything big?" Gabrielle repeated. Then she looked squarely at Shilah.
"The last I saw of him, he was sailing through the air as Derek whisked me away." She looked at David again. "Almost got himself killed because of me," she finished, her voice softening with a touch of sadness, or perhaps regret.
David casually let a wry smile pull at his lips.
"Well," he said, puffing his cigar again. "I can think of worse reasons."
"You can fit what's left of his new Valkyrie in a shoe box," Debbie continued. She fixed her eyes on David. "From what Derek and Gabrielle described to me, you should be dead, Shakespeare. Or, at the very least, in the hospital."
Shilah's eyes fixed on David intensely, and she seemed to be reading him.
Finally David threw up his hands in surrender. "Fine! Fine! I had a little help!" He stepped around the bar and refilled his glass.
"From whom?" Shilah asked suspiciously.
"Wait a moment," Gabrielle said suddenly. "I think it would be better if I started this. After all, I was the one that ended up getting all of you involved in the first place."
Gabs, baby," Debbie said kindly. "We were already involved in this long before you showed up."
"What we're missing, is what I suspect you've brought with you," Shilah nodded. "Shall we sit down and talk?"
Gabrielle looked up at David, who merely nodded and reached behind him, grabbing the half empty bottle and following the three women around to the overstuffed sofa.
At that moment, three more individuals stepped into the room.
Katrina, Jesse, and Tommy.
"Downstairs is all set," Tommy said easily. He sidled up to the bar and reached over, helping himself to a beer from the cooler. "Whenever everyone's ready."
"You too?" Gabrielle said, her jaw dropping.
Tommy slapped the top of the beer bottle against the edge of the bar and caught the small cap as it flipped up in front of him. He smiled.
"Kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
"There have always been men in the arts of Shamanism," Shilah said easily, "though women were by far the majority."
"I still prefer the term 'witch'," Tommy interjected. "When I think of a shaman, I picture a skinny, bald, little old man living in a cave and dressed in a loincloth." He looked down at his massive frame. "Not a pretty image."
David smiled as he settled into a seat. Much to his surprise and relief, Gabrielle sat down next to him and waited while the others situated themselves.
After everyone was settled, an uncomfortable silence fell as all eyes fixed on Gabrielle.
She, in turn, seemed to study them for some time as if deciding if they were worthy of her confidence. Finally, she took a deep breath and began.
Once she began, she did not stop. They all talked for what seemed like many hours as she related her life tale concerning her and Xena's adventures. She had encountered this strange and wonderful companion in the summer of her seventeenth year and had journied with her faithfully over the next five years. It was a tale of high adventures, filled with growth, humanity, and the entire scope of human experience. The two friends had shared life and death together in a way that most people never even dream. Her tale stretched across the ancient world, filled with men and creatures of history and legend. It seems that the majority of the myths and legends of the classical era were actually true.
Gabrielle described in great detail how she and Xena both had regular interaction with the Gods of the Greek pantheon. Ares, in particular, seemed to have an almost obsessive desire for Gabrielle's friend and mentor. Later, he began to develop a fixation on Gabrielle herself. The young bard poured out her heart. She left out nothing and the gathered coven became more entranced with who and what she had been, and was.
When she reached the end of her first five years and spoke of being lost in the ice for twenty-five more, however, Jesse had to stop her.
"Let me understand this," she said suddenly. "Both of you slept in the mountain for over twenty years?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Twenty-five," she said. "By the time we awoke, Eve had grown up to become Livia, the Champion of Rome, and one of the most dangerous women in the known world. She was the adopted daughter of Ceasar Augustus."
"Look," David said, thinking he might have finally caught her in an elaborate hoax. "I've studied ancient history. Now, I am by no means a scholar, but I think someone with a past like this Livia would have warranted some mention, other than your scrolls."
Gabrielle shrugged. "The Roman society frowned on women in positions of power to begin with. When Eve chose to abandon her way as a soldier, the Roman Senate probably had all record of her removed from their history, much in the same way Xena was never mentioned in the goings on around the world at the time. We were always in the background, but the two of us never really got any credit." She shrugged. "Didn't matter, though."
"I think it does," Shilah said. "The two of you lived at a time when history was being made. Legends walked around, larger than life and just as powerful. If you had a part in shaping those events, then it's only fair that you be mentioned."
She paused and stared at David for a long time. A smile spread across her face and suddenly, she gave a short laugh.
"I don't think anyone has ever said anything that nice to me," she said. "Thank you."
"Seriously," Tommy added. "The two of you spent the better part of your lives travelling in a world that makes Detroit look like Candyland."
David seemed more philosophical. "It's no exaggeration to say that your actions framed the world we live in today. You two were - are remarkable."
"For a long time," Gabrielle said, looking down at the mirror smooth finish on the table thoughtfully, "I thought that my life had been meaningless. As much as Xena taught me, I could never be as great as she was. When she died, I thought that was the end of it. Then her spirit stayed with me all the way up until," she stopped.
David could see a fresh pain reawakening in her eyes.
"Please?" Shilah asked. "It's alright."
"Even after Xena passed, her spirit stayed with me," Gabrielle started. "I don't know if she chose not to go to the Elysian Fields, or maybe she was simply waiting for me to join her before she went?" She shrugged.
"About a month ago," Gabrielle continued, "she came to me in a dream."
It seemed that even her face paled at the memory.
"It was terrible," she said. "She looked so sad. She told me that something was coming and I was needed to help stop it. She said that I was going to go somewhere that neither of us had ever been, and that she wouldn't be able to follow me."
"I've never really been on my own," Gabrielle shuddered. "Even after Xena died, she was always with me, until now."
"I can understand how that might be tough," Katrina said.
Shilah leaned forward intently. "Did Xena say what was going to happen?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Not really. She didn't have a lot of information. All she said was that I had to go to a New World and stop Alti from returning."
"You mean that shaman woman that messed with Xena's head long before you met her, right?"
"Gabrielle," David said. "You told me that Alti was dead. You said Xena killed her about the same time she found out you were still alive after that whole lava pit thing?" He was careful not to mention Hope by name. "And then, tonight, you said you saw her here, in this time?"
"I know," Gabrielle nodded. She held her hands up in a helpless gesture. "Alti's somehow found a way to use the Chronos Stone to regain her physical form."
"Chronos Stone?" Jesse asked. "What's that?"
"A friend of mine, Autolicus, found it a long time ago." Gabrielle explained. "He said that it allowed him to move through time."
"So, Alti used this Chronos Stone to jump ahead, before she got killed the first time and, what, try and pick up where she left off?" Tommy asked.
"That's what I thought, at first," Gabrielle nodded. "But that's not quite it."
"Oh?" David leaned on his knees. "Do tell?"
"The Chronos Stone has other properties," Gabrielle explained. "During certain times, it can actually reverse time for an individual, or individual souls. A certain conjunction that occurs every couple of thousand years, or so. During that time, a soul might be able to use the Chronos Stone to return to the land of the living."
"But you recognized Alti when she showed up outside the police station tonight?" David asked. "That tells me that she's already achieved what she wanted."
"Not precisely," Shilah said thoughtfully. "In effect, this whole situation proves the theory of reincarnation. Everything lives and dies, only to return as something else in a new life. Alti may not be completely flesh and blood, but she could have possessed her most recent incarnation."
"It makes sense," Debbie nodded. "The energies between Alti's spirit and her current incarnation would be enough alike for her to take control, maybe even wrest it from the current incarnation permanently."
David looked at the two of them and then sidelong at Gabrielle. "See? The experts."
"Wait a second," Jesse piped up. "That doesn't make any sense. This spirit of Alti is from the past. That same spirit would also be inside her current incarnation, right?" She was fumbling for a word, her hand rolling in front of her.
"Wouldn't that be a, um, a, oh what's the word?"
"Paradox?" David offered.
"Yeah!" Jesse nodded. "Wouldn't that create a paradox, or something?"
"I would think so," Katrina nodded. "You can't have the same spirit twice over."
"Unless you have a tool that makes it possible lying about." Shilah said knowingly.
David nodded, and then the realization hit him. "The Harmonic Convergence!"
Gabrielle frowned. "What?"
"It's a solar event that last took place around twenty five hundred years ago, give or take," David explained as his excitement began to build. "It's an event when all nine of the main planets in the solar system come into a specific alignment."
Gabrielle nodded. "Where I came from, they called it the Joining of the Heavens!"
She stood up and began pacing back and forth. "Alti must be planning to use the stone to return to life, here, during your Convergence!"
"How would she do that?" asked Tommy.
"She would need to blend both incarnations together into one complete being. One with the ancient knowledge that's been lost, and the modern knowledge of her current incarnation. She would need the stone and an open portal to draw energy from. She would be drawing on the very essence of the universe to make the transition."
"Portal," Tommy mused as he sipped his beer. Then he remembered. "Portal." He exclaimed with a knowing grin. "A ritual to seal the breach!" He looked over at Shilah. "That's what you meant!"
"You've been saying for weeks that you have everything ready, but you didn't know exactly when to set it up!"
"What are you talking about?" Gabrielle asked.
"For the last few years," Shilah said, "we've been waiting for it to arrive. We know something bad is going to come as a result of this Harmonic Convergence, and we were planning on doing a ritual to try and minimize the damage! If we know when that portal is going to open, then we can seal it before Alti makes it into this world!"
Gabrielle was looking at her and the first glimmer of hope kindled in her eyes.
"How did you find out about all this?" David asked. "Who told you?"
"The Stygian Witches," Gabrielle said. "They said they would put me in the right place, with plenty of time to prepare for Alti and reclaim the Stone. They also said I would meet someone with knowledge that would help me."
Everyone's mouths dropped open in surprise.
"Stygian Witches?" David asked. "You consulted the Stygian Witches?"
"Yes," Gabrielle nodded.
"Three blind old women who share a crystal eye, Stygian Witches?" David continued. "The ones that told Perseus how to kill Medusa, and then tried to eat him because they like the taste of human flesh, Stygian Witches?"
"How do you know about them?" Gabrielle asked in surprise.
David smiled and looked around the table at the others. "Remind me to rent the movie, Clash of the Titans before the end of this week." This elicited soft chuckles from the assembled crowd. Then he looked back at her. "How did you get out of there, once they told you what you needed to know?"
"It wasn't easy," Gabrielle replied, but she refused to elaborate.
"So," David said. "We need to deprive Alti of the energy she needs to make the change. If we do that, what happens to her? Here and then?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I don't know."
"When is the event supposed to happen?" Shilah asked.
"The Witches said I would have until the full moon," Gabrielle replied.
"This coming Saturday," Katrina added. "Halloween night."
"Well, sounds like Halloween's on steroids this year," Tommy sighed. He leaned back and looked at her. "So, You think we could do it?"
"Do what?" Gabrielle asked.
"Shut Alti down before she gets into this world?" Tommy said.
"I don't know," Gabrielle shrugged. "It would take a shaman of great power to do what you're suggesting. I know I couldn't do it on my own."
"But you aren't on your own anymore," Debbie said with a smile.
Shilah nodded. "Gabrielle. Covens all over the world are going to be performing rituals similar to mine this full moon. Even if they don't know exactly when to do it, we'll still be able to draw on all that energy to stop it."
"Which reminds me," David said suddenly as he fished inside his jacket. "I think this might be handy."
He fished the amulet out of his pocket and held it up. Gabrielle and the others all gasped in astonishment.
"David," Shilah asked as she reached out and took the amulet from him. "Where did you get this?"
All eyes turned to him and he suddenly felt the desire to jump on Rosie and ride off into the darkness for a few hours. He shrugged nervously.
"Ares suggested I take it," he finally said uncomfortably.
"Ares!" Gabrielle stood up and looked down at him. "What do you have to do with him?"
"Whoa!" David blurted, his hands rising in surrender. "Nothing! I got nothing to do with him! He just sort of started popping up right after you arrived." He looked at Gabrielle. "In fact, it was right after you became fluent in English."
Tommy, seated across from them smiled and chuckled under his breath.
Gabrielle looked at him in surprise. "What?"
"I'm sorry," Tommy said, still grinning. "But when you're as into this as we are, you tend to notice otherworldly intervention when it hits you broadside like that. I just figured that the others didn't notice anything, so I kept my mouth shut."
"We've all known he's been following you around since you got here." Shilah said. "Even though I haven't been involved directly, I could feel the energy of his movements where my students are concerned." Then she looked sternly at David. "Even though I didn't expect one of them to confront him directly, I can't really say I'm surprised."
"For the record," David said, now feeling a bit defensive. "He confronted me. I didn't go looking for him."
"That's not the point," Shilah chided. "He got to you. Somehow he found a way."
"What did he give you?" Debbie asked.
"My ass," David said, now really defensive. He got up and took the bottle, walking toward the bar. "If we hadn't come to an understanding, they would have brought my carcass home in a body bag tonight!"
"Is that what you really believe?" Shilah asked evenly.
"You weren't there, Shilah!" David shot back. "That car rammed up my ass and would have spread me like a cheap coat of paint all over that road if Ares hadn't helped me! That's what saved my ass tonight! Not anything I did!"
"But why you?" Tommy asked. He shifted his bulky frame to look back at David.
David refilled his glass, placed the bottle of whiskey back on the shelf, turned and shrugged.
"I have no idea," David replied. "All I know is that he popped up one night, told me that Gabby, here, isn't exactly from this neck of the woods - duh - and we should all listen to what she has to say. After that, we had a little discussion about my survivability." He stopped suddenly.
Shilah looked at Gabrielle. "Well, we already know that Gabrielle is special, here. Did he give you anything useful?"
"You mean, besides Buns of Steel?" David asked, fishing for a beer bottle before he returned to the table. He set that bottle in front of Tommy and stood behind the sofa.
"Look," he continued, regaining his composure. "I don't know why he picked me out of everyone here, or what that thing is," he pointed at the amulet, sitting on the table. "Or how that thing works. I have no idea what Ares wants with me or what's going on."
"Um," Gabrielle said quietly. "That's probably my fault."
Jesse grinned. "Which part?"
Gabrielle looked over at her and smiled grimly.
"Ares has been a problem for me since long before Xena died." She said. "He seems to think he can use me for some end or other, though I've never been able to figure out what."
"What did he offer you?" Shilah asked her.
Gabrielle held her hands out helplessly. "He didn't say. He only said that he might want something earlier. When I get back home, but I don't know what that could be?"
"That's interesting," David added, seating himself again. "He told me to leave you alone when it came down to it." David shrugged again. "He said that you were the only one who could stop Alti, which was why you had been sent here."
"Well that just sounds lovely," Katrina said. "She drops into our laps and we can't help her."
"Alti was one of the most powerful shaman's I've ever seen," Gabrielle admitted. "If I'm the only one who's supposed to face her, I can't imagine that I'll win."
"So we're supposed to keep you alive long enough to get killed by this Alti character?" Jesse blurted out, clearly offended by the implications. "Here you are, help her out until it's time for her to take one for the team? That's a crock!"
"We can't just sit here and do nothing!" Katrina added.
David listened as the argument grew. His own thoughts pulled him inward and the voices faded into the background as his own conscience began to roar. He looked over at Gabrielle, sitting like a condemned person, resigned to her apparent fate. He could feel something building up within him. It felt like a wave of fire, only it wasn't rage or fury, though the expression of it was very much like rage. He sat and stewed as he watched the others speaking aloud, but he never heard a thing.
His gaze settled back on Gabrielle, sitting quietly, completely still, lost in her own thoughts. Or perhaps just plain lost?
He stood up with a suddenness that brought the whole table to startled silence and he headed towards the door to the garage.
"Hey!" Tommy called after him. "Where are you going?"
"I need some air," David said hoarsely.
"Well, you ain't getting it on two wheels," Tommy ordered. "Keys." He held out his hand expectantly.
David opened his mouth to argue. Instead, he reached into his pocket and drew out the keys to his bike, tossing them onto the table with a clatter. It was a deliberate snub at Tommy, one that he took gracefully.
"I'll walk," David growled, and he stomped out of the room.
Shilah watched him depart and felt the waves of energy wafting from him like an actual breeze.
"Excuse me," she said firmly. Everyone fell silent. She looked at Gabrielle. "Wait a few minutes and then follow me out in front of the barn."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked.
"Just trust me," Shilah said with a smug smile. "I know that look." She rose and followed after David.
"Ares always says that," Gabrielle commented doubtfully.
Shilah found David pacing up and down alongside the front of the barn, his cigar clenched tightly between his teeth. He paused when Shilah emerged.
"What are you doing?" Shilah asked.
David sighed. "Contemplating fresh meanings for the statement 'helpless as a baby', why?"
"You seem a bit distracted, that's all," Shilah answered smoothly. "Want to tell me about it?"
David's intense stare fixed on Shilah for a moment, and then he shrugged.
"It seems that I'm destined to watch people I care about be taken from me," he finally said.
Shilah leaned back against the wall and folded her arms across her chest.
"This isn't about Gabrielle," she said. "This about Lizzy, and about you."
"So what if it is?" David shot back. He resumed his pacing. "Nine years, Shilah! Nine! And then the cancer hits and I have to sit there and watch her just - wither away to nothing! She weighed seventy pounds when she finally went! Seventy! I could lift her off the damn bed with one arm!"
David slumped back against the wall and sighed. "And there wasn't shit I could do about it."
"It wasn't from lack of trying," Shilah said gently. "It simply wasn't meant to be. I thought you understood that?"
"Understood, yes," David retorted. "Accepted, no. At least, not gracefully."
He waved his hand up towards the interior of the building. "And now, this!"
"Gabrielle," Shilah said.
"Yeah," David replied. "Another person that I'm fond of, and she's about to get whacked!" He drew a vehement hand across his throat. "And I'm not supposed to do anything about it? It's bullshit, Shilah. Total bullshit!"
He smiled grimly. "I've got enough money to live the rest of my life any way I want to, but it's cost me everyone I loved. What the hell kind of trade off is that?"
He took a long drag off the cigar and sighed. "I must be the only son of a bitch that can have this much dumb luck in one lifetime." Then he looked at Shilah and there was a hint of desperation in his eyes.
"You aren't lost," Shilah replied. "But I think it's time for you to stop hiding how you truly feel."
"About?" David asked.
"Gabrielle," Shilah said in motherly fashion.
"Oh Christ," David exclaimed. "Between you and Debbie. What the hell are you two doing?"
"David," Shilah said gently. "I love you to death. You're like another son to me, but Lizzy's been gone for six years now. You need to move on. Perhaps that's the reason Gabrielle was sent to us, here, in this moment. Have you ever considered that?"
"Look," David continued. "As a full blooded, card carrying, paid up Hound Dog, I have, but as much as it would be nice, I doubt if anything could ever happen between us. I accept that."
"But a part of you still wants it to," Shilah fixed him with a stern stare.
"Not anymore," David said automatically and then he saw the expression on Shilah's face. It was the one she always had when she knew he was trying to lie.
"Well, fine," he finally admitted. "Yes, I think it would be nice, and yes I am curious, and yes, I have thought about it. And YES, I do like her, and YES I find her incredibly attractive, and YES, I AM A MALE! I AM LOW BY NATURE AND GENETICALLY PROGRAMMED TO THINK THIS WAY!" He shouted the last bit at the top of his lungs, hearing his voice echo in the nearby trees and then he looked back at Shilah, his annoyance spent.
"Is there anything else you'd like to know?" He finished with feigned civility.
"So," Shilah said quietly. "If she were to offer herself to you, you would accept?"
"Yes!" He said and then quickly. "I mean, no. I mean, I don't know. It depends on the circumstances! Ah dammit Shilah, what does this have to do with anything?"
"You have to be completely focused if this is to work. You cannot be distracted by anything." Shilah said seriously. "Right now, you are distracted. VERY distracted."
"Oh, come on," David replied. "It's kind of hard not to be 'distracted', Shilah. I like talking with her. I like the sound of her voice or the sound of her laugh. She's got a great smile." A realization began to set in and his voice dropped in astonishment. "I've gotten used to having her around." He finished quietly, as if that final admission had made everything jumbled in his heart and mind fall right into place.
"Go on," Shilah said. "Tell me why you haven't said anything to her?"
"Oh, give me a break," David groaned. "I just met the girl for crying out loud! I don't want to come off like a lovesick puppy, or worse, like I'm trying to take advantage -" He stopped when Gabrielle stepped out into the cool evening moonlight.
David closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. "Shit. How long have you been standing there?" He asked Gabrielle.
"Long enough," Gabrielle said softly.
David's whole face turned a brilliant crimson color. He had never been so embarrassed in his life. He fixed Shilah with a dark stare.
"This was never going to be about the Convergence, was it?" he asked his mentor. She merely smiled and shook her head. "This was a setup."
"Yes," she said. "This was about dealing with distractions and getting everything out in the open. Just the way you like to handle everything else in your life. Up front, no bullshit."
Shilah smiled as she moved towards the open barn door. "Well, it's all on the table now?" She arched her eyebrows and smiled.
"That was wrong on so many levels," David said angrily. "You know that?"
Shilah merely shrugged. "I'll leave the two of you alone now. I think you have a few things to discuss."
David looked at Gabrielle. She, in turn, stared back at him. Neither one of them said anything for a long awkward moment.
Then they opened their mouths and spoke at the same time, stopped, started again, stopped again, and laughed nervously.
"Christ," David rubbed his head. "I feel like I'm back in High School, asking a girl to the prom."
Gabrielle smiled. "What's a prom?"
"Its kind of a dinner and dancing session for wannabe grownups," David replied.
Gabrielle smiled and nodded. Then her face sobered. "Thank you." She said.
That statement surprised David.
"A lot of things," Gabrielle said. "For not leaving me on the road that night. For saving my life tonight. For not trying to take advantage of me when you found me. It means a lot."
David shrugged the compliment away. "It was nothing."
Gabrielle saw the pain in his eyes for the first time. "You loved her very much," she said knowingly.
David smiled grimly. "Yes I did. I still do. We met, fell in love real fast, and never fell out of it again. No one in the whole bunch of us was more surprised than I was when it didn't end."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked.
"We were so different," David said. "I was this big, leather bound biker, working the door at a local bar, and she was this little well-to-do girl from a fine upstanding family. We were worlds apart." He held his hands up helplessly. "Somehow, we just - " he brought his hands together, lacing his fingers. "I don't know how it happened. It could have been that first night; it could have been a month into it? All I know is that we loved each other's company."
David slid down to the ground and stared out into the mass of tangled trees. "I can't remember having a conversation like those for years," he looked up at her suddenly. "Until you showed up."
David suddenly looked away. "I just don't want to get so wrapped up in you, and then discover I was only looking for a ghost. Does that make any sense?"
Gabrielle settled down next to him, leaning her head against his shoulder.
"Yes, it does," she said. "I don't want to get attached either, just because I'm on my own for the first time in my life."
"Scary, isn't it?" David mused.
"Gives me the woodies," Gabrielle replied.
David paused for a moment, and then laughed out loud.
"Willies," he corrected her. "It gives you the willies."
Gabrielle frowned in confusion and looked up at him.
"Then what's a woody?"
David laughed again, feeling the tension ease in waves. "I'll tell you some other time."
Continued in Part 2