Disclaimer: MCA and Renaissance Picture owns Xena, Gabrielle, and anybody else you recognize. I'm using them without permission, but will return them in hopefully semi-working order when I'm done. This is a kinda-sorta Uber piece of alternative fiction from Katrina's "Blood and Roses" altverse. The bacchae bard and Ares' little girl are here, and they aren’t alone. There is scenes of violence, suggestions of societal collapse and mass death, and heavy hints of a loving relationship between two women *well* over the age of consent...to say nothing of a few surprises I thunk up along the way. If any of this bothers you, go read something safer.
Remember: FEEDBACK = MORE FANFIC. Any questions?
By Joseph Connell <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Let this begin at the end. The end of what was, that is, not what has come since.
The world didn't end with the dawn of the new millennium, though many who were left quietly wished it had.
First came the collapse of technology. Though truth be told it was more a severe stumble than an actual collapse. The dire predictions of the Millennium Bug were proven, at least in part, as power grids failed and vehicles ceased to move. Brief moments of chaos gripped the world while stock exchanges from New York to Hong Kong to Vladivostok to Pretoria to New Dehli went dark or spewed nonsensical numbers and totals. Civilization teetered at the cliffs edge only in its collective mind, righting itself as much by instinct as by will, Hobbes' Leviathan proving to have both its great feet firmly planted on the ground and unshakable in its strength. Or so seemed for too short a time.
Then came what some called "The Judgement", others "Gaia's Revenge". Out of nowhere, the unsuspecting population was stuck time and again by the worst nature could offer. Whether this was retribution against those who abused the planet's bounty, or simply the natural cycle of all things, would be a matter of debate for later generations. Those who endured these deprivations had little time and still less inclination for such high-minded pondering.
The old order didn't completely collapsed from the combination of epidemic and disaster. Cities still stood, though the streets seemed to become a little less crowded and a bit more dangerous, and religions still preached their respective gospels, more often inciting riots than repentance and reconciliation. Capitalism remained king, the information superhighway widened and advanced, and the unknown of space still beckoned earth-bound explorers.
But fully two and a half billion had died in a series of epidemics the decade before. They were nothing exotic from the rainforests, merely a resurgence of tuberculosis, leprosy, and influenza, all coming in quick succession and killing millions. Neighborhoods and towns became mass graves, scavengers thriving in the wake of it. The elderly were wiped away, as were many of the young. It seemed for a time that Malthus would have the last laugh.
Even so, human civilization endured.
Then came the rains and the droughts. The rising seas consumed islands and coasts, while lands once fertile dried and became dust. Famine and still more disease picked at the already frayed nerves of society. Riots erupted frequently, governments decayed and were replaced, armies roamed far afield and soon took orders only from themselves. Billions died, becoming nourishment for the earth...and, in some cases, their own children. The full numbers would likely never be known.
Humanity endured, adapting to these upheavals and moving on with the daily business of life. Children were still born every day. Families came together and were torn apart. There was still hope to be found.
In time, the world calmed and quieted, a new order to the things coming to pass. Memories of the old remained, but this was nostalgia for the survivors. They had enough to deal with.
Each other, among other things.
The caravan had been on the road for several moons, and the Timberline Freestate seemed no closer. The fact they now had to traverse the wide Utah territories only made them all the more jumpy. Utah was Zionist country, and there was little love to be lost between the Zionists and Freestate pilgrims. The California Bay made taking this route a necessity, the untamed coastline unfit for travel and its choppy waters too treacherous to attempt crossing.
And so, Utah it was. For this reason, every member of the caravan kept their rifles in easy reach, each hoping they wouldn't need them. The mountain passes and valleys of the region were all the more treacherous given the rubble and unstable walls they had to navigate. Add to that the territory was controlled by a gun-totting, trigger-happy, isolationist military theocracy and it was small wonder everyone was sweating hard.
They rode in three large land-rovers, eight people per vehicle, three of them not yet in their sixth summer. They'd actually made good time, having gone from the Freestate to the Southern Nations in only two moons, not encountered a single patrol or militia outpost. This was quite the blessing actually, given the animosity involved between the nations and Zionists. While this Zionist movement was actually Mormon in origin as opposed to Hebrew, it was every bit as aggressive as its forebears had been in settling the region. The caravan actually traveled through Nevada territory, since reclaimed by several native western nations who defended their territory with a fierceness equally only to that of the Zionists who sought to expel them. Still, it was close enough to the border to worry.
There was plenty to worry about.
The leader of the group told the driver "Stop." No explanation, no alarm or note in the order, just "Stop." He carefully applied the breaks, the rover coming to a slow halt from there. The two behind them did likewise, the break lights of each illuminating the evening's twilight. Within the cab of each, driver and passenger moved for their weapons: an automatic for the driver, normally worn in a shoulder holster, and a 12-gauge shotgun for the 'shotgun' seat. The ones in the back had the more intensive hardware.
The leader popped her door and left the cab. The driver, Perry Alocard, was both relieved and alarmed by this. Alarmed that the blasted woman was putting herself directly in harm's way (again!), and relieved that this time she'd taken her sidearm with her. She and her family were funny like that.
The sun had already set over the hills and bathed the landscape in burnished gold. The leader called out to it. "All right. Show yourselves."
The echo of her voice died away, and a dozen dark shapes melted out of the lengthening shadows. Several red dots appeared out of the dark and tracked over her still form, a few straying over the caravan, only to quickly return to the leader.
She remained stock still, hands in pockets and wearing a patient expression that only fooled the ones in front of her, not behind. She let them examine her at their leisure. From her short, dark hair to her well-formed curves to her more than ample bosom, not to mention the tight jeans and sweat-patched shirt, the Zionists were doubtlessly salivating at the visual feast she offered. She'd happily do a strip-tease if it meant getting her people through this.
Damn it all, she hadn't wanted to travel with these pilgrims. Loyal as she was to family and legacy, she really had little use for the more religious aspects of the nation her parents had help found, not that it didn't have its uses. This particular group provided her (and the bodyguard her father and aunt had insisted come with her) with a convenient cover for travelling to the Southern Nation. Pity the trip hadn't accomplished what they'd hoped it might. It'd be a perfect capstone to a pointless series of meeting with the Nation's elders... to get her ass blown away out here in this wilderness by a pack of wild animals who just happen to walk on two legs.
When the leader of the shadows threw up an arm, the universal signal to his team to hold their position, the leader let herself relax enough to speak. The red dots disappeared (the members of the caravan letting out a collective sigh of relief) and a single cone of light stabbed out, catching the leader square in the spotlight so to speak. She didn't so much as blink, merely stared straight ahead into the unseen eyes of her opposite number and said "We have permission to travel here."
That brought a fart of laughter among the Zionist patrol. Their leader made no effort to quiet them, instead demanding "Permission from who? The Advocacy Council? Bishop Albreicht?"
Mentally filing this away as confirmation of some of the rumors of discord in the supposed religious paradise, she replied calmly "By the grace and permission of the First Assembly of Zion, in accordance with the terms of the Peace of Blackwood." She paused and added for good measure "And by the leave of His Holiness, The Prophet Jacob Mormon."
The laughter stopped dead, and the silence stretched into gathering darkness of night. "You have documentation?" She produced a carefully folded sheet of paper from her breast pocket and handed it over, clasping her hands behind her back while she waited.
The paper was soon handed back to her, and the Zionist officer asked "Just who in the good Lord's name are you?"
"Leah Margareeth Covington."
The Covington name was a respected one, even here. It had been, after all, General Melissa Covington who had beaten back the Zionist expeditions into the Freestate time and again, her forces always out-numbered but never out-classed. But it had been her brother (and Leah's father, who would doubtlessly have a fit when he found out about this) Simon who forged an actual treaty between the two sides. The militiamen glared, but none moved to heft or aim their own weapons. Covington turned back to the caravan, walking the short distance with a stride which said nothing of the way her lungs were aching for fresh air.
Covington let out a quiet, if shaky and rattled breath once she was back in the cab. "Sonovabitch," she managed, equally quietly, before saying "Get us outta here."
Her eyes hadn't strayed from the indistinct shaped ahead of them, hand positively itching to grab at her sidearm. Only the story of the fields of Camlan, where a knight suddenly drawing his sword to strike at an adder had unintentionally touched off a pointless bloodbath, kept her hands still. Goddess, these unofficial border guards were getting worse by the day. She could understand old Jacob's reasoning, putting these self-styled fundamentalists out here were they might do the least harm...but these were the sort of fanatics who take pot-shots at little kids just for the hell of it.
To say nothing of a certain high-placed someone undertaking secret meetings with leaders of the opposing side for reasons known only to a few.
The caravan inched forward slowly, the militiamen parting to let them pass.
Their sneers could be clearly seen in the darkness, even long after they themselves were out of sight.
Like so much else of "the Ruin" (or "the Fall" or "The Judgement", depending on who you talked to), the re-formation of North America happened largely on its own. While the three pandemics which ravaged Europe, Asia, and Africa had left much of the western half of the continent untouched (though you probably couldn't sell the mass graveyard the east coast had become for a proverbial song), generations of pessimistic geologists and doomsday prophets were vindicated when an eight-point-nine scale earthquake shook the Los Angeles basin. The crust beneath the city cracked and sent over five hundred square miles of plunging into the ocean. There would never be a accurate count of the dead.
This was not the end, however. The same earthquake give birth to a volcano, who's submerged eruption easily rivaled Krocatoa's in 1883. The tsunami which resulted created new lakes and riverways as far north as the Sacramento foothills and spewed up enough magma to create a chain of islands stretching far out in to the ocean. In a decade, life would take root there. In another, birds would nest their eggs and amphibians would make their homes on the shores.
And the cycle of life from death would continue.
Further north, the newborn volcano's much older cousin, St. Helens, destroyed itself in a rage of lava and pent-up forces that by rights should have been released through its open cone...rather than bursting out its walls and leaving nothing but ruined land in its wake. Yet that same earthquake that had birthed its cousin had managed to seal its cone, dislodging enough rock to seal the orifice tight. The forces beneath the cap simply built and built and built, and finally burst out in all their primal and destructive glory.
It was as though the land were covered in cool twilight for years to come. The fires lit by hate and hope kept the people beneath this shroud of dust warm enough, as did the fear of things which dwelt there with them.
The militia were all proud men (and only men, as defense of home and hearth is not work fit for women), and so were naturally galled at being made to step aside for these heathens. Led by a woman, for Jehovah's sake!
They'd all heard of the Covington family and its scandalous history. From Henry the Grave Robber, to his corrupt and heathen daughter Janice, to all their demon-possessed decedents, the good men of Zion held the name in contempt, even as they granted it a grudging respect. There was little doubt among them which side of the Great Argument the Covingtons served, but they did so with such bravery and determination it was impossible not to respect them for it.
Still, it had taken a writ from the hand of Jacob Mormon himself to stay their hand. That and only that had kept them from meting out justice. Why The Prophet deemed them fit to travel through their lands without harassment was beyond their ken, but such is the mysterious way the Lord does his good work.
Their leader, a rough-hewn man named William Matthews and a veteran of the eastern border, was not one to take his duties lightly. He proven himself time and again in the east, defending the border against the often-suicidal attacks by the self-styled "Defenders of the Faith" operating out of old Missouri and Iowa territories. Yet not once had his application to the Civic Militia been considered, not once had his service been recognized by the Prophet or his Bishops. Rather, Matthews found himself out here, again in the wilderness, prowling the border for signs of incursion with only a band of thugs and fools at his back.
Not that this assignment was any less tolerable, what with the red heathans resurrecting their primative rites but a few miles away. Stories circulated (most of them lies, he was certain) of their attacking and scalping some of the more outlying settlements. True, something was attacking their borders here, but Matthews doubted it was the redskins. Judging by the way the bodies were literally torn apart, to the point where identifying the unfortunate was simply impossible, it was more likely they were looking at a pack of blood-mad wolves. Nothing human could do such damage. This stoked the already smoldering lump of resentment towards the Prophet he served so loyally. It was nearly enough to...
The tumbling of rocks against the sheer walls around them shook Matthews' attention back to the present. He and his men had chosen to bivouac on one of the smaller plateaus which studded the valley walls. It provided shelter enough from the elements, yet was positioned well enough to see anything coming down the trail at them. That the silvery moon hung above in a cloudless sky overhead was a definite bonus.
Rifle in hand, Matthews breezed out of his tent and looked across towards those of his men. Only the wind could be heard, pulling at the tent flaps and the dust at his feet. There was nothing out of place to be seen, though his every instinct screamed that something was wrong.
More rocks tumbled, this time closer and just beyond the expanse that hid them from sight.
That was when Matthews realized what was out of place. The two sentries he'd stationed at the edge of the camp...in their place was empty air.
Now there was a shuffling sound to be heard now, echoing off every surface it became impossible to tell from which direction. In his heart of hearts, William Matthews knew he had no time to even cry out. Desperate prayers to the Almighty scrolled through his panicked thoughts, begging forgiveness for his sins and...there was simply no time.
When these predators came, not even a full second later, he had not chance to even raise his weapon before they silently fell on him as one.
They fed well of him, their feast ending too soon. Little matter, as there was still plenty of meat to be had.
The pack broke apart, each member stalking ever so quietly towards their next meal. Again, each ate and drank deeply of the meat, with only the cold moon and stars overhead bearing witness.
It was impossible to know exactly when or why the pandemics had started. Some believed it to the work of those impatient for doomsday. Others saw it as simply the result of humanity's arrogance. The sudden spread of TB and influenza alone, both proving gleefully immune to antibiotics, had been enough to tear human society apart. The reappearance and spread of Hanson's disease, mere months after the last influenza patient had died, set brother against sister against parent against neighbor against stranger. The merest cut to the skin became a death sentence. The merest wrinkle or flaw to the skin, a mark of the sickness...whether it actually was or not.
Violence became commonplace, self-appointed 'protectors' roamed the streets with whatever weapon they could find. Rarely would they have guns or batons, as one would expect. Rather, it was baseball bats and crude wooden planks and chains and broken bottles. They 'protected' by searching out those cowering in the rubble, or wandering and searching for food, or simply those wearing a shirt none of them liked, and beating them bloody...or, more mercifully, to death.
Too many died because of this. Too many doctors, who might have found a cure, but who worked themselves to exhaustion and simply began to look their age. Too many innocents, who's only crime was poor but intact health, found themselves beaten and outcast.
Ironically, this blood-madness that gripped humanity may well in fact have saved it. For all the innocent and healthy blood spilled, the disease's spread was slowed and eventually stopped by this, isolating those unfortunates who suffered from it, and by isolating those who might have contracted it. Without victims to feed it, the disease died out.
By then, however, a brave new world waited those who ventured out from behind their barricades and locked doors. One where predators walked on two legs as well as four, and whose hunger was for more than simply flesh.
They'd ridden in silence a good hour past the patrol when Alocard spoke up. Even then, doing so only with good reason, his eyes picking out the details in the darkness before them. "Chief?"
"I see it," Covington nodded. "Slow down." Alocard obeyed without question, Covington disembarking the instant the vehicle slowed sufficiently. Alocard's silent curse-but the latest in a long, long series of expletives he'd been uttering since volunteering for this little assignment-went unnoticed by its familiar target. He counted his blessings all the same, blessing in the form of taking her sidearm and one of the stronger torches they had.
Covington hit the switch to the flashlight and bathed the area before them in its comforting light. The moon hadn't quite cleared the horizon, and so lit the canyon floor with only the faintest glow. Even so, the harsh terrain was all too visible. Where the rocks weren't piled into little mounds were pits and holes that went from shallow to treacherous. To even think of navigating this stretch (and quite a stretch it was, she could see, easily going several hundred yard beyond them) at night was something between grotesque stupidity and outright suicide with or without full moonlight.
If she'd been on her own, Covington might have risked it. Might, depending on how drunk she was and how much she preferred a broken neck to her parent's inevitable diatribes about her safety.
As it was, the only option open to them was the absolute last one she wanted to risk out here. One look at the trail ahead, however, convinced her. Better a day lost than loosing one of the caravan to a broken axial, or worse, one of the children to a broken neck.
With a sigh she turned back and let out a shrill whistle. This brought every driver and his or her shotgun, Alocard included, running before the first echo resounded. Covington gave an irritated sigh and informed them "We're going to have to stop here for the night." Groans were quick in coming, though not as many as she'd feared. Good to know not everyone present was the impatient or foolhardy sort, as had been her initial impression. Then again, it took one to know one, didn't it?
"I want three guards on rotation. One at the front, one at the rear, and a floater." Covington snapped out the orders automatically, almost unconsciously, as though it was the most normal thing in the world for her...the fact she'd hardly spoken a single word to them since first leaving the Freestate notwithstanding. Everyone, even Alocard, couldn't help but stare for a moment, then broke up as ordered. Alocard was among the first watch, taking time away only to escort her back to the cab of the lead rover.
On her way, Covington considered praying to...someone...for a single quiet night, but just as quickly dismissed the idea. She had little enough use for the gods; no point in making herself into as much a hypocrite as the idiots they'd passed an hour ago by turning to them now.
Covington settled back into her seat, glancing behind her that the rest of her passengers (a young mother named Cellene, her brother Jerrald, and her two children Luke and Maria) were still fast asleep before letting herself drift off. Damn but she was tired, and not by the journey or her mission alone.
The epidemics did not attack all places equally, nor all with equal force. The western half of North America, for years prior drifting further and further away from its crowded and busy neighbor across the Mississippi, was spared the worst through a combination of luck and culture. The old ways had never fully disappeared from the aired lands in the south or the wet forests of the north, old medicines and the contrasting climates producing their own barriers to the diseases, as did the frontier spirit that unconsciously isolated communities from one another.
There were deaths, true, but not the ravaging that the east saw. That only came later, after the droughts again reduced Oklahoma to dust and half of California fell into the ocean, after still more death, when new communities formed out of the ruins.
The new Zionist movement, growing out of the confusion that had consumed the old Mormon Church and tossing away its heritage of tolerance, laid claim to much of the Rocky Mountain range and territory. They claimed land from the valley Rio Grande to the fields of Saskatchewan to the outskirts of St. Louis to the dusty flats of Nevada. In doing so they earned the ire of the many tribes composing the Southern Nation, who found their homes in Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona under threat, and of the fast-spreading Baptist community out of the Missouri region. Old angers were lit anew, and undeclared war quickly became a daily fact of life.
The Zionists responded to this by searching for land further to the west, only to be stopped dead by those who had made the forests and plains there their home. The Timberline Freestate, they called themselves, and followed a curious mix of the old ways and new. They welcomed the first pilgrims, but refused to hear any of the Holy Scripture or allow separate churches to be built within their lands. Their efforts at explaining their confusing yet accepting culture fell upon deaf ears. Yet when it came to blows, the men and women of the Freestate sent the hardened Zionists into full and humiliating retreat.
The lands within the Freestate were too rich and bountiful to be left unclaimed, and so the Zionists committed expedition after expedition into those forests, only to be turned back time and again. No matter how many men were sent, no matter how many weapons or how hardened their commanders, each time saw their expeditions sent into retreat.
This went on for decades, nearly a full generation passing before a peace was finally reached.
Even then, it was only a tentative one, created more out of necessity than an admission of futility. The Baptists in the east, their blood now aflame for Crusade, had begun to push across the borders and thereby force resources to be committed there than guarding the western borders. To the dismay of some, on both sides, the peace endured.
Soon, there were other, still darker and more dangerous things to occupy the attention of those who lived in the daylight.
The moon had traced half its silvery arc across the sky by the time Alocard felt the hours finally start pressing down on him. He was a hardened fighter and more than capable of long duty...but gods above even he had his limits! Four full moons, that's how long he'd been by Leah's side and watching her back. Four full moons, and it was all catching up to him in one go.
There was no-one to blame for this, save himself. He'd volunteered for the duty, as had a few others, and had been chosen due to his longer record of service. Full disclosure had been made from the start, which really didn't make him feel any better. Guarding the only child of Simon Magus Covington was pressure enough; doing so while traveling with a pack of air-headed spiritualists whose only business with the Southern Nations was smoking drags of peyote and chanting their beads for a few weeks strained his all his reserves to the breaking point.
He bit down on the wide yawn that made his jaw itch, refusing to give his fatigue even that small victory. Rather, Alocard busied himself walking the oval perimeter around the caravan, concentrating all his energy on keeping his ears sharp and his step light.
Not to mention a really firm grip on his Remington rifle.
He'd completed half a circuit, passing the middle rover on his left, when the hair on neck stood at silent attention. This had happened quite often of late, both here and in the Nation. Too often to be taken all that seriously anymore. Caution after so long a stretch, even when perfectly justified, is little more than paranoia.
Not to say paranoia didn't have its place or its use. It had in fact saved his hide more than a few times. But out here, it was the last thing he could afford to indulge in, and so ignored it and simply concentrated on walking a straight circuit around the caravan.
Still...he could have sworn something was amiss out here. Nothing in sight, no noise to speak of whatsoever. It was just himself, the vehicles, the guards, and the crickets doing their nightly symphony.
He gave the rear guard, a heavy-set (not in a healthy way) man named Mikel, a good-natured slap on the shoulder that immediately perked him up and gave eyes at the sheer valley walls surrounding them. The moonlight gave illumination enough to make any sneak attacks or ambushes difficulty in the extreme. Or rather, it did...until a few puffs of clouds slid over the disk and darkened the area for only a moment.
Alocard went stock still at this, every nerve suddenly screaming. His eyes torn apart every shadow that suddenly surrounded them, trigger-finger itching. All for good reason, as his hearing told him mere seconds later.
The crickets had gone silent.
Desperately, Alocard tried to swallow past the lump that had developed in his throat, just as he tried to pry his legs from the paralysis that gripped them. It was too late to raise the alarm. Too late, he knew in the depths of his soul, for anything.
When the moon emerged but moments later, he and his fellows could see the predators of this place surrounding them. Their eyes lit with balefire, they made no move in either attack or defense, even as Alocard and his fellows raised their weapons and took aim. Then again, why should they have? They easily outnumbered all those within the caravan, whether asleep or awake.
Breaking his paralysis, Alocard turned enough glance towards the lead vehicle, knowing all the while it was a mistake. Doing so brought him face-to-face with the pack's leader, who's barely-seen eyes scorched his very soul.
No alarm was raised by what came next, no sound disturbed the sleepers as their guardians fell.
Nor was their sleep the least bit disturbed as inhuman hands fell upon them all. Even the children, who normally were such light sleepers, knew nothing of befell them.
The territory claimed by the Zionists proved of such size and stretch that there was simply no way to patrol its length effectively. Fortunately for them the New Baptist out of Missouri, the Freestate and the Southern Nations had no real territorial ambitions. The former only wanted Mormon blood while the latter two simply wanted to be left in peace. Consequently any conflicts between the two sides were either bloody bits of genocide (as tends to happen when religion and righteousness are mixed with heavy artillery) or simple thrust-and-counterattacks (as tends to happen when one side decides it really doesn't want to give up land it just lost).
This was equally fortunate for the Nations and the Freestate, as travel and commerce between the two went pretty much unimpeded. The Peace of Blackwood granted some protection for such things, and neither side really wanted an all-out war over the issue, so "safe corridors" were established and that was pretty much that.
Not to say there weren't hardy souls who'd ignore such well-worn paths and insist on finding their own ways across the land. The Zionists took these incidents for what they were and left these rugged individuals to their own devices. They had enough to concern themselves with as it was.
One such traveler, mounted atop a butter-colored mare, knew all this as she knew every twist and turn of these same canyons. She'd made it her business to know such things in recent years, having made the region her home and not wishing to miss a thing.
She had no name that either the pilgrims from the north or the Zionist patrols would know her by, for they never saw her. The Nations to the south believed her a wandering medicine woman, a healer who came and went with the wind. Those who encountered her would not speak of what they saw. Only the rarity of such incidents, and the fact wounds and ailments that by rights should have been untreatable were put right, confirmed her existence. The Nation honored her work by leaving her be, as (they correctly interpreted) was her wish.
She'd drifted about the area the past few weeks, letting Nutbread take her where she willed. The mare was every bit as prone to wanderlust as herself, and had little trouble seeking out new paths to explore whether it be day or night. They both preferred night travel, and could go days on end without stopping.
But tonight, the mare and rider found themselves inexplicably nervous. Even when passing a dozen paces beside a Zionist patrol, never had they gotten this nervous. Nutbread was nearly shaking on her legs. And her rider...her rider dearly wished she had more than a simple Bowie knife to defend them with.
Just as she knew every crevice and niche in these walls, so too did she know the secret places where the predators of this land made their homes. Unlike their wilder (and wiser) cousins, who kept to their own patch of land and food stock, the ones she was most wary of roamed and foraged where they willed. This made them all the more dangerous, this unpredictability of theirs. Bad enough they were able to think beyond simple hunger...some of the time, anyway...
She unsheathed the knife and held loosely in her palm, tightening her grip on Nutbread's reigns. The mare read the signs as well, and was ready to take flight.
Truth be told, the nomad wasn't at all surprised by their...increased activity. The collapse of the old order had given them ample feeding for a time. Longer than she'd expected, or could have even hoped for. Time enough for a new order to emerge, giving humanity a chance against its less restrained cousins.
But by now pickings must have become slim in the towns and cities, or simply become too dangerous for them, leaving them to migrate out and revert to their oldest instincts. It would have been so much easier if they simple regressed all the way back to being feral scavengers. Instead all indications spoke of the worst of all possible worlds: intelligent organization and sentient cunning coupled with raw blood-lust. The remains of fully three dozen families, all well armed and of rugged stock, here in the frontier was all the evidence she needed.
What worried her most was the frequency and breadth of these incidents. Too many, occurring too quickly, and entirely too far apart for the number she'd once estimated living (if such a term even applied to such as they) in this part of the world. It could only mean their numbers were growing, and growing quickly.
She'd have to turn north, to the Timberline. They'd have need of her there soon. The Zionists would no doubt try to burn her at the stake were she to offer her skills there. Those people were funny like that, she reflected, so let them take their chances.
Nudging her mare on, albeit more cautiously now, the nomad made her way into the canyons linking the north with the south. The silver crescent of the moon looked down upon them, its light dim and cold comfort.
Humanity was not the only one to seek and find opportunity from The Ruin. There have always existed peoples and beings, both strange and wonderful, alongside the vast humanity. They populated the secret places within the trees and beneath the rocks, behind the waterfall and high atop the mountain. But because they were so few in this day and age, and because humanity instinctively fears that which is different, and because these same peoples and beings had terrorized them, humanity had chosen to disbelieve their existence.
These strange and wonderful peoples passed into myth, became legend and bedtime stories, and vanished from the daylight. But their numbers flourished in secret, and children kept alive their memory.
They watched with dismay as the world and air was poisoned by the appetites of humanity, and with silent glee as nature extracted just payment for it. But when the cities were filled with death and the land changed beneath them all, it was then that they decided to emerge and roam in the daylight once more.
True, there were those who had never truly left. The tribes of shy Sasquach and the solitary Yeti, for example, though they kept to themselves and had little to do with the wider world. The former found itself under siege by the newly-awakened Wendigo, who seemed to prefer Sasquach flesh to its traditional human fare. The centaurs, the satyrs, and Changelings were the first to emerge, their numbers the largest and hardiest. They quickly moved into the deserted towns and villages, or established their own.
Human gawked for a short time, then shrugged and moved on. Even when drakes and the occasional elder dragon would take to the sky, or when wild unicorns stampeded through the forests, humanity still paid it only enough mind to stay out of their way. Perhaps it was the shock of seeing all that had been collapse so quickly. Perhaps they had never truly stopped believing. In the end, it mattered little why so little attention was paid these developments. The world had changed, and that was that.
Some of the awakened could not help but cause chaos in their wake. In China, the Earth Dragon reared up and took to wandering here and there, at least until confronted by a group of architects and wisemen. They politely reminded it that every building in China rested upon its back so could it please go back to sleep so they could do their jobs and people could return to their homes? The Earth Dragon was suitably chastised and profuse in its apologies. "Just stretching my legs, you understand," All in vintage Mandarin, of course.
Across the frozen tundra of northern Asia and Scandinavia, great dragon-like beasts roamed. These were not malicious beings, but merely too large for the world they had awoken into. Fortunately they kept to the cold north, finding the frosty air much to their liking, and generally tried to respect the small Inuit and Scandi settlements they came across.
The Mothmen and Devils, none of whom had a malicious bone in their bodies, of the Jersey Pine Barrens came out and danced their strange dances, much to the delight of the chipmunks and birds.
By and large, their return went without violence. True, there would ever be those who would fear and attack them, but such incidents were far fewer than the number of positive exchanges which took place daily. Humanity, by and large, accepted their long-lost cousins once more.
Would that all those who emerged were so accepting.
The signs had all been there for her to read. She'd had a fair idea what had happened when first coming across the tracks, hours earlier. A small caravan, she was sure, moving northwards at a steady clip. The pace couldn't last long, given the way the canyon trail quickly degenerated into nothing but stones and pits. There had been signs of an encampment some miles back, though as many signs of having been savaged by...she really didn't want to think about by who exactly, knowing full well the parties responsible.
She found the caravan rather easily, which worried her no end. Freestate pilgrims were hardly the sort to simply sit themselves out in the open like this, particularly in hostile territory. Granted, the path ahead was nothing to risked lightly, any more than she herself would dare with Nutbread save in full daylight. Looking into the back of the middle vehicle, she saw the reason for their risking stopping out here.
A child's rag doll. It spoke volumes of these pilgrims.
So, too, did the small dark pools dotting the area around the vehicles. There were trails linking them, thin and thick, each ending abruptly. She dipped her fingertip into the nearest pool. A single taste, cooper and salt stinging her tongue.
The only signs of any life once in this place.
She didn't count those still hiding in the shadows, not having the time or inclination to play the prey game.
"You can come out now."
She'd counted three cowering among the rocks behind her, each of whom bravely leapt into sight. Why shouldn't they? She was simply one woman with a knife and medicine satchel...and her horse.
An easy meal, they thought.
She could see them clearly in the moon's light. They'd been human, once. They still had two arms and two legs...at least, what once had been arms and legs. On one the arms were as misshapen as the wind-twisted tree branches. On another, they were as more multi-jointed than those of an insect's. The third crouched on feral legs and claws.
Their eyes glowed with cold fire, and their teeth were so many razors glinting in the silver light.
The shine of her Bowie, capturing the same moonlight, burned into their eyes. As did her clear, cold grin.
These were primitive and brutal scavengers, for all their form and cunning. They knew now their meal, unlike the last, would not be an easy catch. This excited them as nothing else. Even the wild mating of their pack paled to it.
What could there be here for them to fear?
They leapt forward as one, their target waiting patiently.
Six sightless eyes, a few pulled partially, even fully, from their native sockets, started all about as the crescent moon fell below the western horizon. Had they sight, a vista of torn flesh and body parts would have been all that might be seen.
Their moans of pain and despair drowned out the steady stacco of departing hoof-beats on the hard ground, the departure of the one who had bested them so easily the furthest thing from their minds. They were simple members of their pack, hungry for life.
They sensed the approach of dawn, knowing the daylight would leave them nothing but ashes.
Their moans became full-bodied cries as the morning's first light began flooding the canyon. Those cries sounded out for a short time.
The echos died as quickly as the cries themselves, leaving only silence behind.
There is no way to describe the course of the collapse of what was. No words are big enough, nor any description adequate to the scale of it all.
Rather, look to your family. Walk down a crowded street. Look at the faces you pass by, or those you sit at dinner with. Stop and watch a crowd for a moment.
Now, imagine: one in three of those faces, of all those people...
...lying on the street...
...their skin bloated...
...or peeling off the bone...
...bold scavengers, large and small, feasting on the corpses, unafraid of any who might see them...
Imagine, all those bodies, on the streets, piled on doorsteps and in alleyways.
Whole families, parents and children gathered to hide from the death outside...finding no escape in the end. Norman Rockwell, made grotesque.
Imagine towns and villages made forever silent, save for the wind which quietly howled in lament.
Imagine long roads and highways, empty of all traffic, the concrete and steel weathered by the raw elements. Some reduced down to their girders and foundations. Others partially collapsed upon themselves.
Ships, their captains and crews all struck dead, did occasionally run aground, creating novel habitats for both sea- and land-dwellers.
The cities proved the most stable and secure communities, as much by their sheer size as by their wealth of medicinal resources. Small, remote communities were much the same way, though their knowledge of herbs and old healing countered the sickness as effectively as modern science could have.
The cities survived, some better than others. And while the survivors had their homes and dry walls, their streets soon fell to the animals (both four and two-legged) who grew bold and could satisfy their hunger on the many fallen. Night was their time, the time of hunters and prey, whether within city walls or without.
Not to say the hunt was always easy, or that the hunters didn't occasionally become prey.
Leah awoke to a body screaming in distress. Her mind, unfortunately, was so full of tight-packed cotton she couldn't focus enough to do more than slide through the sensory haze which greeted her. Sight, hearing, taste, touch all melded into a mass of sensory data so thick as to be impenetrable. There was no context or sense of direction to either the sensation which bombarded her or the disorganized thoughts bouncing between her two ears.
For a moment, Leah suspected she was dead and floating in Limbo...until the floor came sharply into focus mere feet beyond her nose.
Looking up, she found her feet disappeared into solid rock. She instantly assessed her situation, panic nipping at her mental heels all the while. A fair response when one finds oneself hung upside down in a cavern, not unlike a side beef in an old-fashioned slaughterhouse. The analogy, unpleasant in implication, is only fortified by the sight of over a dozen more individuals in the exact same state.
Seeing her fellow pilgrims was not what drove Leah nearly into screaming panic. Rather it was what she did not see which taxed her control beyond all measure.
She did not see any of the children. Anywhere.
Getting her joints to work was impeded for the same reason she could barely put two coherent thoughts together...hanging upside down, for hours on end it felt like, was not conducive to either mobility or clear thinking. Still, the Covington's were hardy stock, and Leah was not one to shrink from hardship.
Granted, she'd never put herself through contortions like this, wrestling with numb limbs and cramped muscles so she might grab the backs of her knees and curl herself upwards. This allowed the blood pooling within her head and arms to drain away, diminishing her headache and rudely awaking both arms to the joys of pins-and-needles raping her nerves. The pain was a welcome goad all the same.
Able to get her thoughts clear once again, Leah concentrated on her surroundings and what memories managed to bubble to the surface. The former proved far more solid than the latter, though she struggled to salvage them all the same.
Her orders to the sentries, the brief argument with Allocard over who takes the first watch, a crick in her shoulder from leaning against the door and trying to sleep, sounds of creaking metal, the scent of dust and cooper...
No-one stirred at this outburst. Leah diligently refused to let herself wonder about this. Because if her suspicions were right...no, don't think about. If she thought about it, she'd freeze...forever.
Unfortunately, there wasn't that much else to do. Even in the dim light, she could see her feet were sunk deep into the stone. There was no indication of how this had been done. It looked for all the world as though the rock had literally melted around them. Just the thought of this, one she ruthlessly squashed, cause sweat to break out. Gods, she felt herself start to shake as much from this as from the exertion of grasping her knees and doing a mid-air tummy tuck.
"Shit!" she panted, which clearly echoed off the walls. Again, no-one stirred.
"Argh," Leah grunted in true Covington manner, finally having to surrender her grip and let herself uncurl. She desperately tried to think past the renewed pounding in her ears, to focus on ways to escape this place, to find some way to protect her people from...from...
Leah didn't think the name. Wouldn't let herself think the name. Because to just think about them, about their name, was to call them. So long as she didn't call them, she could...could...could what?
Panic started well in her stomach, and move its way inexonerably up into her throat.
She couldn't do anything! She was trapped! Helpless! They'd hung her out like a piece of meat for dinner!
Muscles started clenching and twitching of their accord, while her lips pressed together into a tight line. She refused to scream, however much her throat ached from unvoiced emotions...she would not scream!
The human form can endure only so much stress, whether inflicted from without or bubbling within, before succumbing to simple fatigue. Fighting oneself is no less tiring than battling an external foe. Perhaps moreso. And if there is anything a Covington instinctively knows, it is how to fight.
Leah Margareeth Covington, a Major in the Timberline Army, fought her panic as she did the stone covering her feet. Fought with both, applying all her strength to both conflicts, not fully succeeding against the one, and making no progress against the other.
In the end, there was only surrender to the darkness. Again, in true Covington fashion, Leah did so with a curse on her lips.
There were only the dust and shadows to hear it.
Covington had only just stilled when a pair of points of red balefire lit the darkness beyond. It was joined by another.
The darkness moved, creeping towards the hapless bodies. One could almost feel the hunger swelling there, demanding sustenance.
Hunger which would not be long denied.
There were those who had always called the darkness home, and even the utter collapse of what was willing not fully draws them out. The light of day was deadly to them, and so they remained deep in the shadows, venturing out only to satisfy the very hunger and thirst which led them into those same shadows.
These were not animals by any means, however brutal their feeding. Theirs was a culture every bit as old as their cousins the Satyrs, Centaurs, and Minotaurs, though in truth they had more in common with the Changelings. Their powers were far darker, far greater, than all the rest. The blood of the Olympians flowed strong in their veins, each a direct blood-child of one in particular.
The children of Bacchus, God of Wine and Revelry, each having drunk of his Bloodwine, found circumstancesvery much to their liking.
Oh, they wouldn't dream of giving up their dark ways and communities. Rather they let slip their oldest instincts and drives, feasting as never before, their hunger shifting from drink...to meat.
They flourished, these dark cousins, and their numbers grew fast and wide. Those falling to the plagues as often awaking in non-death as finding their final rest.
These newborns knew little of their heritage. Just as the collapse of what was all but wiped away social forms and restraints in the daylight, if only for a time, so to did it rot away the hierarchies which ruled in the shadows. The once-weakest of the blood-kin became as princes. Fancying themselves such, many chose to rule rather than teach, and presiding over courts of slavering dogs. The few who clung to the old ways did so more out of fear of their father...and his daughter...than out of reverence of the gifts his blood imparted.
They would emerge only at night, these arrogant, ignorant youths, and take as they wished and as they were able. It proved easy at first, meat being plentiful and their strength greater than most. In time, however, the meat learned to fight back, learned what made these hunters afraid and made full use of herbs, fire, and even faith. The number of bacchae however proved too numerous for these weapons to eliminate them all, and the nightly sport continued, albeit often with mixed results and eternal confusion over who was the prey.
Not that there weren't still a few elders here and there who clung to the old forms and rites. They were of powerful stature, or weak and ineffectual, depending upon their followers and their own wits. Those of the latter were derided and ignored. But the former were looked upon with awe, as one might a king, their aura all the more overwhelming for the power in their blood.
Yet, odd stories circulated of one acknowledged asthe most powerful of all the blood-kin. The daughter of Bacchus himself, so it was said, known to travel without either court or retinue, seeking no followers and never feeding off the plentiful meat found in the cities. One who could and did stand and travel in the daylight without either scar or burn.
Most believed the stories to be just that: fancy myths, spun by impotent ancients, in the hopes of frightening their rebellious offspring into remaining by their sides. Stories of the The Death One, who ruled the vast wilderness near the California Bay, who was neither male nor female and who was corruption incarnate, were believed because their subject was occasionally seen and its vast power feared.
But to believe in an ancient who might walk in the daylight and would not kill? Such things could only be myth.
Never mind there were a few who claimed to have met this Ancient, marked by their newfound unwillingness to kill for sustenance.
Stories of the Ancient, whispered with both venom and hope, circulated far and wide throughout these realms of shadow and blood. Those deriding them as scare-tales for the newborns were half-right, for many an elder invoked the stories to bolster their weak positions amongst their respective courts. The few who knew better kept their peace, and were careful to uphold the old ways, lest they draw the Ancient's attention.
The wanderer had followed their trail to a narrow opening in the rocky earth. Like the abandoned caravan, the signs were so clear only the dead could miss them. The thought brought a smirk to her lips, so appropriate for those cowering within.
It died on her lips at her next thought, that it might be only the dead waiting her within. She had seen much in her life, equal parts pleasant and profane, most often of the latter. Among her greatest fears was having been left too hardened to continue as a healer.
Thinking back to the caravan, and the rag doll she'd secreted in her medicine pouch, was all it took to prove her otherwise. The emotions which played across her unlined and beautiful face, a dizzying sequence of horror to rage to grief to rage again to something bordering on despair to clear heartbreak to all-out-irresistible determination, spoke of a heart very much alive and beating...after a fashion, anyway.
Taking the rag doll had been strictly for tracking purposes. The child's connection to this hunk of cloth and cotton every bit as strong as mother to child. It practically sang of laughter and innocence, singing in tandem with the child's own soul. A simple enough matter of following the child's echo to its new source.
For that, this doll was worth more than a dragon's horde.
She left Nutbread several paces back, with firm instructions to run to safer lands and find herself a nice stretch of plains should the worst happen. Only their proximity to the lair kept the mare from nickering in argument. Her eyes spoke a good deal clearer, anyway.
The wandering woman spared her rebellious friend little mind. This wasn't because of indifference, but simple practicality. There was a battle to be fought here, after all, and arguing with an obstinate mare was a waste of energy. Better save it on battles she knew she could win.
Drawing her Bowie knife once more and making a final adjustment to the pouch hanging from her shoulders, she eased her way into cavern's inky darkness. Some small, silent voice cursed her for a fool, knowing full well who dwelled in this place and what was likely to come of this. It was met by an equally insistent and silent voice which reminded the first exactly whom it was talking to.
Nutbread kept her distance, her eyes still raging in argument. She tapped her hooves, but not too loudly, and kept to glaring at the back of her friend.
Oh, she understood the decision. Perhaps too well. She knew her friend's nature, having been her companion for as long as memory could stretch.
Her friend could not turn away from even the smallest hurt on another. Nutbread herself had benefited from those same talents, almost spoiled by them in fact. New shoes every moon, long rest every night, fresh grass and oats most days...and never suffering the smallest scratch or sore for more than an hour.
This didn't make the separation any easier to swallow, and certainly didn't improve her mood any. Nickering was out of the question, of course, which really didn't help her mood. Stomping her hooves was all that she dared, and quietly at that.
Still, it proved enough to drown out the approach of the figures behind her.
Leah awoke later, her joints aching like mad and head pounding. She could see more detail now, as a few torches had been placed and lit around them. They cast a minimal glow, not particularly warm or comforting, but one strong enough to illuminate the cavern better than the indirect moonlight she'd relied on earlier.
All the same, Leah immediately wished it was pitch black again.
There were fewer bodies hanging beside her than before, and still no sign of the children. What she could see clearly looked pale, too pale for it be just shadows drawn on them by the poor lighting. Leah was gripped by the urge to simultaneously strangle every one of them she could find and flee to the deep, darkest pit available and wall herself in so nothing could ever, ever touch her.
She settled for simply hanging there, imitating the dead who surrounded her.
Then came a second realization: they were no longer alone here. The low light provided no detail or features. It was little more than a shape against one of the walls. In this place it was so damn hard to tell one wall from another, particularly given the many paths leading out of this natural meatlocker. Half the time she imagined It appearing in four different corners, the other half she imagined she only imagined it.
'Oh, the joys of all the blood settling within one's head.' Leah went limp, somehow able to think past the pounding in her ears and realize It was...snoring. Snoring meant sleep, and sleep meant they...she ...no, dammit, they!...might have a chance to get out here.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see It lurking like a lump of darkness. It could have easily been within arms length, or hundreds of yards distant. She had no sense of perspective here, making any escape attempt problematic. Her training with the Irregulars back in Portland was taking over, not that Leah really minded, as being a sneaky, ruthless bitch was likely the only way she...they!...were ever going to see daylight again.
Her mind was already breaking escape down in phases to be worked through, deconstructing the entire situation into steps requiring only the exercise of the proper amount of will and strength and cunning to pass from one to the next.
Of course, it would help if she could first scrape herself off the ceiling.
Looking up, Leah had a better view of the surface she was suspended from. The sight of which gave her reason to smile, though she didn't indulge its full length.
The light had abandoned her the instant she entered the caverns, with only the soul-singing of the doll to guide her.
This was both a good and bad thing. Good, in that the normally reflective nature of the Bowie (so perfect was its shine it could catch the smallest glimmer of moon or hint of sun) was muted to nearly nothing.
Bad, in that she was blind as the proverbial bat. Her eyes were at least as sharp as the Bowie's shine, and given it was some much dull metal right then...well..
That little voice, the one with the nasty language and poor self-image, was back and in full swing. It called her every nasty name which could be imagined, taunting her and demanding she turn tail and run for the most distant mountaintop.
She paid it no more mind than she had any other time it screeched in her mental ear.
The cavern itself was a wide one, and led downwards at a clear angle. The walls, judging by the feel, were still their natural rough selves. But the floor...it was too smooth for it be naturally formed. Hundreds of thousands of feet had tread this path smooth, all over a long period of time. Who could tell exactly how many lived here.
Gods help them all.
The wanderer appreciated the irony here. She continued her wandering, merely exchanging the open skies for choking darkness. No clear destination, no idea what lay before her.
That little voice was back in full force and annoying the daylights out of her, just like old times.
Even the dreams were visiting her again. Dreams of blood, and screams, and the cries of newborns. Endless vistas of wilderness, and vast armies marching and meeting across them, armies both human and otherwise. The moon becomes as blood. The forests grow and spread and grow more from one sunrise to the next. In her own hands a herb branch in one and knife-becoming-sword in the other. Her back is pressed against another, the one whom she has sought and who has sought her in all lifetimes, and together they prepare for the armies surrounding them. Pity the armies, for they know not whom they oppose...
Only long experience with them, an uncomfortable familiarity with their sights and tastes, let Nutbread have a peaceful night's rest. She had long ago stopped trying to divine exact meaning from them, taking them as signs of things to come, as they had happened long before the fall and would continue to happen again and again. It was enough to know that life would continue, whether she continued on or not.
Which made that little voice very happy, giving reason enough to call this mission nothing more than a glorious and exotic effort at suicide. The wanderer was hard-pressed to argue the point.
Rather than waste herself trying so, she pressed ahead, all senses alert for the smallest clue to her goal. And her senses were very sharp, indeed, which proved a mixed blessing. Sight, taste, touch were all assaulted with contradictory signals at every step: the air was slowly becoming fresher, but her course continued downward. The walls she felt her way along were oddly warm, while her skin was left chilled. She moved through a dense, heavy atmosphere, rich in its emptiness of either scent or essence.
Her grip tightened involuntarily on the Bowie, wishing for something a bit more...substantive. Like an old-fashioned flame-thrower. Or an atomic bomb.
The floor suddenly disappeared beneath her feet, leaving her to tumble head-first into the darkness and silence there, that damned little voice laughing all the way.
It turned out her feet weren't really buried into the native rock of the ceiling. Rather, she was up to her ankles in something...coating that rock. Something feeling solid as rock, yet looking...organic. It...whatever "it" was...looked...looked like...she had no idea what it looked like...except very red...and put her in mind of...of...exposed muscle tissue...
Ah, geez. This place just got better and better.
Whatshe was held by was significantly less important than the fact it was something other than solid rock. And because it was something other than solid rock, her chances of escaping this place went up quite a bit.
The fact she could work her feet a little within...whatever it was...was an added bonus, making her next actions actually seem logical.
Curling herself upwards once more, curling one arm behind her knees so to keep in that position, Leah reached up with her free hand and began, very carefully and very deliberately, to undo the laces of her boots. Not the easiest thing to do under such circumstances, between having only four fingers and a thumb, all clumsy from messed-up circulation, and all hurting like mad from it. Hunger from gods knew how long, anxiety over the missing children, and a healthy dose of self-preservation-induced fear all making the job quite a bit harder.
Difficult as it might have been, the task was eventually accomplished. Next came the even more interesting task of getting to the floor without breaking her skull. Loosening her laces freed her feet up enough that she could wiggle them out of this coating on the ceiling. The danger there was her simply falling out of them and meet the floor head-first. Not much point in trying to escape if one immediately ends up dead from it.
Rather, Leah managed to grab the laces and tongues of both boots, her fingers having gone from numb to the delightful agony of pins-and-needles. Again, the pain was goad enough to focus her thoughts upon the work.
She fought for a firm grip upon her boots, then, with great care and still greater caution, Leah managed to wiggle both feet out at the same time. Even so, she still could not avoid landing in a crumpled heap once both were free, and tasted blood on her tongue from biting her lip to stifle the her own cries. She could only lay there for a short time, long enough for her limbs to remember their function and wake enough to get themselves moving.
None of this, fortunately, was sufficient to rouse their watch-whatever it was. Neither was her painful intake of breath as she struggled to her feet. Hurt like hell, of course, but it was a hell of an improvement over the ceiling.
Wincing with each step, Leah crept over to her fellows, heart pounding at what she knew she would find there. Pebbles cut into her feet as she paced herself across the floor, slowly, fighting to keep her muscles from knotting with the tension.
The first one she reached was one of the men. Eriksson, if she remembered correctly. A cleric and father of two, both children safely back in the Freestate. His skin was cold to her touch, as the pale tone of his skin warned of, and no pulse to be felt at his neck.
Leah closed her eyes to take this in, rage boiling within her at this, the anger leaving her momentarily exhausted. It was crowning stupidity to let her emotions run away like this, knowing full well she had neither the strength nor the time to indulge them.
She swung back, eyes stabbing at the hulking shadow across the chamber. Her teeth flashed in a feral grin, and one could be forgiven thinking she might attack it, so fierce was her manner.
Rather, Leah Margareeth Covington turned back to her fellows, intent on confirming her fears. She had to take a lip between her teeth, stifling the cries that were certain to spiral out, while reaching out to each body, her fingers always coming into contact with dry and dead flesh.
She didn't try to stop the tears that came, added by each new body. Each name was seared into her mind, their final expressions forever burned into her mind's eye.
Knowing there was nothing more she could do here, Leah gathered herself and began moving towards the opposite end of the cavern. It could just as easily lead deeper underground as towards the surface, but Hobscom's choice reigned. She secretly hoped it led down instead of up.
She had children to find and lead home.
Consciousness returned slowly, as did memory. This was good, as it gave the healer time to reign in what could have been unchecked panic; something tantamount to a death sentence in this place.
Contrary to her initial fears, the medicine woman found (much to her chagrin) she'd managed to stumble over a small crevice marring the floor's otherwise smooth surface, not the reclining bacchae her imagination had immediately envisioned. The embarrassment and relief of it all was nearly enough to make her laugh aloud.
That same image, with its leering grin, full of razor teeth, and narrow eyes of balefire, was quite enough to strangle the laugh before another breath could be drawn.
The healer reached out with shaking hands and searched for the Bowie. A futile effort, or so it seemed, until her fingertips brushed the blade's sharp edge. She winced from the painful contact, and couldn't help but jerk her hand away, ear's catching the quick-fading echo of metal scraping rock. Her stomach sank with the realization of what this meant.
Emotions close to boiling over as it was, she lay there for some moments, whole body shaking from the forces warring within. The instinct to flee in melee with the determination to resist. 'This was a mistake,' that damned annoying little voice informed her smugly. 'Everything's going wrong. Those travelers from the Freestate are probably already dead. To go on is suicide. You don't owe them anything. You don't even know them, dumbbunny. Why even bother?'
It might as well have been trying to shout down a thunderstorm. The medicine woman had ears for the soul-song of the rag doll alone. That song, that innocent and off-key melody only a child might manage, was all the strength she needed to gather herself and rise once more.
Only when that song was strangled silent, only then would she stop...stop forever. Damned if she'd lie there and succumb.
Purpose renewed, the healer crept forward at a cautious pace, eyes as feral and clear as any hunter seeking prey. Let them mistake her for prey; her weapons were a thousand times sharper than any mere knife or blade.
So focused was she upon what lie ahead, the healer felt nothing of the eyes which tracked her, from the smallest tremble of her hands to the exactness of each step one after the other. They watched with fascination, mixing with admiration and calm patience, though one pair did narrow ever so slightly with well-contained impatience.
The passage took a clear turn downwards, the touch of her hands telling her of the jagged stalactites and vicious outcroppings. A clear enough warning sign, one she'd actually been looking for. The mentality of these predators was simple and brutal, a defensive one that would seek and utilize perfectly natural advantages to guard themselves with. Hence the more difficult the terrain encountered, the closer their lair was likely to be.
Worse, a soft, unnatural glow began to build in strength. There was no phosphorus to be seen within the surrounding rock, nor any other source of illumination to be readily found. No moss or Madjan bugs, no torches, nothing to explain it. She refused to be distracted by this, turning her attentions ahead.
The passage soon terminated at a vaulted opening, one too precisely curved and smooth to be wholly natural. The first step to their main lair, no doubt. Any other would have doubtlessly backed away, uncertainty of what lay beyond naturally shaking even the strongest resolve, particularly knowing these predators the way the healer did. Rather, this certain knowledge *hardened* her resolve, all while giving a lightness to her step. The consequences of discovery all too clear to even the densest of characters. She herself might be many things, but a dense fool was not among them.
Though, certainly, stepping across that threshold should have proven otherwise. Her lack of hesitation doing so was no less contrary to such conceits.
Her tripping over something mere paces into the darkness beyond renewed her embarrassment...until the nudge of her boot toe told her it was not a crevice this time.
Leah slipped here and there as she went, the floor proving exceptional smooth to her stocking feet.
Exactly why she'd chosen this route was somewhat beyond her. Well, that wasn't exactly true. While the whatever-it-was hadn't been roused by her bumbling all about back there among the hanging bodies, and so was unlikely to have been disturbed by her carefully easing past it, there was always the chance its sense of smell was sharper than its hearing. Absolutely no point in going to all the trouble safely getting herself down from the ceiling if her smelly socks gave her away, right?
It was weak justification to her ears, but it sounded a hell of a lot better than 'simply running'. 'Slipping scared', if you wanted to get technical about her progress. Besides, there was still the children needing to be found.
After what must have been the twentieth spill, Leah found an unexpected boon. The heel of her foot encountered something small and pointed. Biting down a yelp of pain from the sharp prick, Leah carefully grouped towards the object, her mind calling forth all its experience with every weapon she had handled since the crib. Caution made her fingers hyper-sensitive, encountering the smooth blade moments before actual contact.
She identified it easily: a Bowie knife. A well-cared for one to boot. There was no rust or nick to be found on it, a small fact utterly at odds with the environment. To the best of her knowledge, none of her pilgrims had come carrying such a weapon, despite it being in vogue within the Freestate. Its pommel was worn soft by constant handling, and the fine shine of the blade itself caught the sparkle of the cavern walls. Leah found herself taken with the crystal-clear reflection of the metal, her eyes staring back at her with mute fascination. Bright eyes became dark and hooded in the metal, changing color and shape. Blue becoming something darker...not brown or black...eyes brows thickening...oval eyes becoming rounder...wider...no longer her's...
She quickly shook herself out of the trance, her own eyes meeting her once more. There was nothing enchanted about the knife, of that she was certain. The stress must've been catching up to her again, letting the mind play its little tricks on her. Better find the children fast, before completely keeling over from it all.
The Bowie secure in one hand, the other used to steady herself against the wall as she went, Leah progressed more cautiously. A Bowie knife, simply lying in the middle of an underground tunnel, in pristine condition? Greater caution was the only logical response.
After only a few steps her hand encountered what felt like a carved archway. It was difficult to make out any detail in the gloom, save tall pillars hewn from the native rock, curving upwards and terminating in an apex obscured by the distant shadows. The elaborate carvings and designs she could make out were...disturbing in their depiction, her mind shying away from the sight for some reason.
Instead, Leah focused herself on debating whether or not to cross past this arch and into the vague darkness beyond, or return the route she came and risk waking the slumbering whatever-it-was. There wasn't a third option, as she'd not found one side turned or passage in *any* direction. It had been somewhat unnerving, the way these smooth, unbroken walls led continuously forward, twisting and turning downwards.
Well, there really wasn't any choice was there? Nope, no choice whatever.
Leah knew nothing of the eyes that detached themselves from the darkness behind her. Nor sensed anything of the shapes that mirrored her steps beneath the archway.
It was as they wished, having watched one, then the next cross into darkness. Their presence would be felt soon enough.
For now, patience would suffice.
Amazingly, no catastrophe fell upon her after the first step. Nor after the second. Or the third. Or even the fourth. There was a haze of light just ahead by then, a light fog of illumination hanging before her. She slowed her advance to let her eyes adjust to this new development...and froze in her tracks at the sight that greeted her.
She found herself in a vaulted chamber, not unlike the one she'd awakened in, though much, much bigger. At least that's what it felt like. The dim shafts of light that leaked down from the shaded skylight far above gave away few details; what little there was proved sufficient to both awe and rob her of all breath and color.
There were great pillars and arches to be seen, infinitely larger and more elaborate than the one immediately behind her. A raised dais was the only other sign of construction or habitation. But these few things were not what gave her pause.
What did it for her was the literal sea of bodies which covered the floor.
Bodies clearly, even in the cold dimness here, not wholly human.
Leah caught only glimpses of limbs belonging to species she recognized, and ones so deformed and bizarre as to be unrecognizable. The bodies were vaguely human, at least in shape, and ran the gamut of shapes and forms. Tall to short, grotesquely obese to rail thin, dark-skinned to paper white to shades not rationally possible.
This 'sea' erupted here and there in ripples of movement, bodies tossing and turning. Many actually... snuggled... close together, the...strangeness...of their limbs and bodies belaying any tenderness that might have been attached to the movement.
One near to where she stood (more human-looking than most despite its being naked of all hair and indeterminate gender) rolled unto its back, its wide mouth falling open and displaying rows of pearl-white fangs.
Leah fought down the urge to scream at the realization of this place. The bodies of her fellows alone should have told her all she needed. But then again, she'd stubbornly refused to believe the stories that had filtered in from the wilderness. Stories of blood-drinkers and wild scavengers belonging to no other race. Stories easily mirroring those of her aunt and the elder scribes. Centaurs and wild Satyrs were real enough, many having been her playmates in younger days, but the Bacchae were nothing more than campfire thrills and bedtime stories for misbehaving children. Even the Changelings, ethereal and mercurial as they were, had more substance.
Or so she'd arrogantly maintained, with a stubborn bull-headedness only a Covington (or Minotaur, depending on whether you cared to differentiate or not; most didn't) might manage.
Now, in this place...it was all Leah Margareeth Covington could do not to screech or turn and flee. Rather, she backed away, slowly, intent on returning the way she'd come and searching out a different route. One not involving sleeping bacchae of any shape or size.
She made it back only two steps when powerful hands reached out and engulfed her. One wrapped over her nose and mouth while the other caught her wrist, immobilizing the knife in that hand. Shock overtook her for less than a second, by which time a very human voice was hissing into her ear.
No, she realized. Not hissing. Whispering. Whispering so softly as to inaudible, "Shhhh!"
Despite the urgency it communicated, Leah found herself immediately calming, her shoulders and arms unbunching at the voice behind the whisper. She knew it immediately, recognizing it from the innumerable dreams of her life, both from sleeping and waking.
Slowly turning around, carefully of sudden moves that might disturb the many sleepers scant feet away, Leah found herself regarded by a pair of wide, dark eyes. Where had she seen those eyes before?
Neither of them dared speak a word. The demand in those eyes was obvious, to which Leah nodded her acquiescence. The hands released her, the skin tingling from the loss of contact. Not an unpleasant sensation, akin to having just taken off a favorite shirt.
Leah quickly pushed those thoughts aside, knowing them too dangerous to be entertained here.
Damned if they weren't going to have words later!
Tearing her attention away from those damned eyes, her entire body vibrating from the energy exchanged by their contact, had been an effort nearly beyond the healer's will. She'd had to jam her tongue between her teeth to keep them from rattling.
Of all the godsbedamned places to find...
Shaking her head, as though to clear it of such dangerous thoughts, the healer looked once more into those too-blue eyes that had haunted her for so very long. She was perversely pleased to see a coldness there now, a brittle flatness speaking of volcanic emotions repressed only a Herculean effort of will. Was there hate mixed there as well? Perhaps, but just enough to keep tongues from making statements neither could walk away from. She knew she could not survive seeing more.
They spoke with their eyes, a clear if unsatisfying mode of communication if ever there was. Satisfaction would have to wait in any case, so it was just as well to depend on such silent modes. To have to hear her voice now, in this place, was courting disaster.
The healer concentrated on the directions of the soul-song she'd followed thus far, attentive to changes in tone or pitch. It gave her the excuse to turn away, her will too weak now to manage it otherwise. The melody clearly led across and out of the chamber, which was certainly logical. She'd been stuck in this overpopulated nest of misshapen predators long enough to see there were no children here. The arrival of the Amazon (with her Bowie yet!) had been fortuitous to say the least, her own nerves were unlikely to support such a journey alone.
Not daring to so much as glance back over her shoulder, she pointed across to the opposite end of the chamber, reaching back as she did, half-expecting the invitation to be refused.
Their hands met exactly half-way, clasping smoothly and without hesitation. She had no doubt the Amazon wasn't even looking.
The woman's hand was warm within her's, but Leah didn't let herself think about that. Nor did she think about the way such a strong, callused hand could cradle another's so gently, or how its rough surface could seem so smooth.
She didn't think about those things, otherwise she would be unable to think of anything else.
So instead it was one step after another, over rocks and bodies and other things, eyes for the distant wall alone...not for the well-toned shoulders she had to focus past...damn those shoulders...damn her for being so distracting...
Not that getting her distracted was all that hard, right now. If it wasn't her guide, it was the newest twist to basic physiology she stepped over. Only the steadying presence in front of her kept it all from sinking in so deeply as to leave her frozen solid, the warmth to her entire body found in her hand alone.
So Leah Margareeth Covington kept her eyes up and forward, studiously ignored the bodies at her feet and the one leading the way, their presence filling every avenue of her awareness. Her grip on the pommel of the Bowie tightened with each cautious step, as though this offered protection from all dangers surrounding them. Chalk it up to wishful thinking, or just blind instinct...not unlike keeping such a perfect pace with this newcomer, their legs marching in perfect tandem.
So intense was Leah's concentration that she literally walked into the newcomer's back, the latter suddenly stopping in midstride. Fortunately they'd stopped in a clear area of the floor, free of any sleepers or rubble, else another tumble was sure to have resulted. Confused, Leah looked at her guide, seeing her staring rather intently to their right.
Following the path her eyes traced, finding where they were, Leah quickly understood the reason for her stopping dead, her own muscles locking still as solid stone.
They stood before the dais now, its surface still smooth and polished, but no longer unoccupied. Atop it was a figure staring down upon them. No features could be seen of it, and not simply because of the dim lighting existing here, wrapped as it was from crone to toe in what looked like an assortment of rags and filth-encrusted linen. Height was impossible to properly judge, the figure standing far enough away so to be partially obscured by the dimness, their own position at such an angle as to further distort perception.
The perfect stillness with which the rag-clad figure regarded them was unnerving to say the least. "Bone-chilling" would be more accurate. Leah winced as she felt the grip tighten on her hand, returning the pressure herself with equal strength, the same as she did on the Bowie.
The hairs on her neck suddenly stood on edge. She snapped her head in the opposite direction, her guide doing so as well at the sound of her involuntary gasp.
Before them stood dozens upon dozens of bacchae, no longer slumbering and now standing before them, one and all having silently risen from their sleep. Their eyes all lighting the darkness, so numerous as to add a soft red glow to the half-darkness, while the cold blue light from above highlighting their wide, sharp-fanged smiles. Those eyes spoke of hunger, and a readiness to feed.
Leah quickly positioned herself between them and her guide, the Bowie knife held out like a small saber before her. She began backing them both slowly away, and towards the dias, knowing there could be no escape for either of them.
At the very least, she would give them a good scar to remember them by.
The bacchae advanced, one step at a time, with each step the two of them retreated. They watched her moves with predatory eyes, their smiles widening at though tasting the panic building within her.
Too soon their backs met the stone of the dais. Nowhere left to flee.
The baachae pressed forward from all sides, each salivating at the thought of their fresh-awakened hunger being sated.
Leah know only the feel of leather-covered metal in one hand, the tight clasp of another's hand in the other, the press of a strong body against her back, her own snarl of rage against the implacable darkness gathering about them, another heating the back of her neck.
For a moment, time froze for them all, the universe shrinking to their interlaced fingers. 'How fitting,' was her only thought, no fear to her anymore. They would die here, yes; but now it would be death together, not apart. Fitting.
Her only regret was that the children would be left to the mercy of these creatures. Her only prayer was that their suffering would be brief.
All the rest of her focus was centered on the connection with the one behind her. Every brush of skin, every inch pressed together, the presence which warmed her back; these were the only things occupying Leah's awareness in the these final moments.
Her name was Nicolia, and for the first time in her life's memory she was afraid. And that fear stopped all things, all time, and presented the world to her in all its vivid clarity.
Oh, she'd known fear before. Her teacher's periodic rages (all well-intentioned and each ensuring no mistake was repeated) were horrors to behold and never failed to leave her shaken. Being cast out of his house, tears in his eyes and fire on his tongue ("Go!" he ordered, voice horse with emotion. "There is nothing I can teach you do not already know. Go, daughter, and leave an old man his illusions of worth!"), and setting sail across the great sea to this land had torn away any sense of security she had ever known. Her earliest days in this new land, fraught with uncertainty of both its peoples and her place here, often robbed her of sleep and not a little peace of mind.
For all that, she had carved out a life for herself, one of her own terms and worthy of respect. She owed no one a thing. Not even the old teacher. She could leave this world free of obligation.
If so, why then did she tremble so as bacchae advanced? Could it be she did not want to leave this life yet? That she might wish to live another twenty-eight years and more beyond?
The death-grip crushing her hand, the close, protective press of Amazon against her, were all the answers Nicolia would ever need.
'Unfair!' she raged silently. To have had to wait for so long, to be only allowed these few moments...
A single tear formed. In it, condemnation enough to leave all the Fates, Furies, and gods there ever were taken to task for this.
Whatever curses she might wished to deliver, Nicolia kept silent, not willing to risk distracting her Amazon. Better they savor their first moments together this way. A silent oath was sent to the rulers of the Afterlife, promising all manner of retribution should they not be together there.(This was heard by those it was intended for, who knew the medicine woman too well not to take this oath seriously; hence the frantic manipulations undertaken to forestall that particular scenario from coming about. Even the normally recalcitrant Charon was cooperative.)
Her free hand groped the smooth wall behind then, searching desperately for a loose stone or shard to use as a weapon. Nothing came to hand, however, and her vision was taken up by the advance of pale-glowing eyes.
There were other eyes, watching, not so far away.
They had followed the caravan north for a full moon, never coming too close nor losing sight of them, knowing full well the consequences of either happening. The Oracle that had sent them on this journey had been unnaturally specific on that count. Her mad grandson, "Corn-something or other", had been a bit of distraction wandering all around prophesizing a great flood and constantly demanding "TP". It was a wonder they'd heard anything the old woman said, though the smaller of them had taken it all in stride. The taller had occupied herself with thoughts of cutting the boy's tongue out, slowly.
The directions had been sufficient to lead them to the caravan, yes, but so too had it led them into the path of the wandering healing woman. They fled to the nearest cover whenever within her vicinity, again as the Oracle had directed. She'd been less specific on reasoning behind this point. Neither had thought to question this at the time, the need to be on their way paramount. As consequence, they had little choice but to hide themselves, so hadn't seen the capture of the pilgrims, nor what befell those who lurked behind in the aftermath.
Then came the trail of signs: an empty camp here, tire tracks there, a pile of bones so malformed as to be anything save living animal. It spoke to them clear as though screamed from the mountaintops, though certainly the last proved a puzzle. The bones spoke of a least a trio of strong predators. What could have bested them so quickly and quietly? There was clear sign of a struggle, however brief, yet no sign of the victor save the tracks of burdened mount. They'd followed the trail to its terminus. The stink alone was sufficient to lead them to where they needed to go. What else could they have done?
Choice had never entered into it.
Seeing the medicine woman's mare, whose shoes matched those of the trail they followed, at the cavern's entrance was certainly a surprise. She'd been skittish enough, and their arrival had nearly tipped the poor thing over the edge. Had she panicked and bolted, as the chestnut-coat mare looked ready to, it would have been certain disaster, not the least because it would have left the medicine woman on foot. Fortunately the mare calmed quickly, it taking only a few gentle strokes of her mane to quiet her. Their new friend hadn't been too happy about being left there all on her lonesome, and their leaving only moments later did nothing to improve her mood. She did find adequate companions in their own horses, however, and so quieted upon their departure.
Finding their way within those caverns had proved simplicity itself. If they weren't led by the strength of the stench, it was the uncorrupted stench of both pilgrims and others that steered them true. The abattoir, with its spent and abandoned bodies, had set their blood to boil. It had been all the elder could do to keep the younger from tearing off into shadows. She'd not left enough of the watch-beast there for it to be ever recognized as once living.
The trail of at least one survivor of this led them deeper into the lair. This suited both fine, the younger wanting blood, the nominal elder recognizing a particular scent to the surrounding stench.
They'd come to the critical juncture, just in time to see the medicine woman enter the main cavern, the too-familiar Amazon following only moments later. They waited in the shadows, willing to let events take their course, as the aged Oracle had decreed they should. But that had been seasons ago, and the younger had never liked nor trust prophecy particularly when it involved family. The bloodline might have been weak, but it shone clear and strong in the Amazon.
Their hands joined between them, respective weapons at the ready, they followed their kin's footsteps and entered the cavern.
Time started again.
The bacchae advanced, arms rising, outstretched, hands-claws-talons-whatever open and ready.
The Bowie glinted in the light.
Their joined fingers and knuckles going white, already tight grip growing tighter.
The silence screaming all about them.
Until the screaming broke out, coming from neither the Amazon nor the medicine woman.
It came from behind, startling all who heard it, and left none time to defend themselves against the onslaught it heralded. Even the specter towering over them on the dias seemed startled, backing up a fraction of a step from the sudden din.
With it, the sound of metal and rent flesh.
Bacchus’ daughter was not the only one to whispered of among the shadows. There was her companion, The DarkFire, so she was called. Equally feared and equally envied as the Ancient Bard herself, and not merely for her actions. Where the Bard would speak of peace, the DarkFire acted to realize it…by slaying those who failed to heed this call. Within the shadows, those deaf to the Ancient’s message, whether spoken by her own or other's lips, were legion. One and all fell to the DarkFire’s fury.
Her beauty was as legend as her weapon's skill and the sharpness of her wits. The onyx of midnight crowned her head, the precision and perfection of her face shaming the collective work all the sculptors of all the races and times there ever were upon the Earth. Her eyes alone, sapphire hued and cold as that precious stone itself, could ignite the flames of passion and fear were they to settle upon one, so many said.
None dared doubt this, even though evidence was rare and often developed the Ancient's way, provided they might survive the encounter to begin with.
She, too, was recognized as spawn of Olympia's seed, there being no doubt which of the Storm Master's first children was her sire. Who else, save brutal and impartial War, might create such a fury? Many was the kin who had threatened their children, knowingly or not, and learned the bitter lesson that their power was but the smallest sliver compared to what the DarkFire wielded. She did so with every bit as much skill as she might with a simple sword, and no less passion.
The children of the Bloodwine trembled as much in fear of her as they did the attention of the Ancient Bard, ancestral memories running deep how she had defeated their common father not once, but thrice, and had often hunted their wildest number to death. Not even their ashes remained. The other returned races held like stories of her, though to most she was the Lioness of the Plains, the Unbreakable Blade, and the Walking Storm.
But, it was sometimes debated among the kin, would she be equally feared by onealready dead?
The first few, the slowest to wake and most slovenly, who hung to edges of their fellows and fed only on scraps left by the savager ones, those ones died quickly. Further in, where surprise quick gave way to panic and self-preservation, the bacchae moved to defend themselves. It did them little good, most quickly cut down and left helpless.
The larger of the newcomers did all the work while the smaller one held back, willing to allow her partner her fun. To a point, at least. Right then, the Ancient was content to gather her long, strawberry-blond hair back into a simply ponytail and lean against her staff, watching the scene unfold. Perhaps she would record it for posterity. Make a fun story for the next tavern they stopped at.
Her attention drifted further ahead, towards the dais. As hoped, the commotion here drew all attention away from their intended meal. They still cowered there at the foot of the central dais. Good, as they were safely away from the chaos on this end. All that was required was fighting a path to them and giving them adequate lead time. To devil with being seen. This was family here. So long as they stayed safe...
Unbidden, her eyes drifted upwards, spying the one standing upon the dais. Lips curled into a familiar sneer at the sight. Her feet carried her forward without conscious thought, mindless of the carnage her other half had left in her wake. The flopping of severed limbs and wailing heads underfoot was a very small thing. Getting their children away, far far away from that abomination was the Ancient's only concern.
Her warrior was simply too busy hacking away at the bodies attempting to press down upon them to notice. It wasn't nearly as effortless as it looked, though the most difficult bit was balancing the heavy sword in one hand and an ornate three-edged dagger in the other, all while making herself look open just enough to keep their interest focused.
It barely registered when the ranks against her thinning, lost as warriors are wont to in the haze of the battle. Equally noticeable was the growing scent of ash and smoke; also a small thing, but familiar enough to penetrate through to conscious thought.
Sword buried in one torso and dagger slicing through another, the warrior looked across the chamber, across the corpses burnt to black stone, and saw the slow advance of the Ancient bard. Her hands continued about their work automatically, fending off those who thought her distraction to their advantage, even as her brilliant blue eyes narrowed to a dangerous focus. Even when she turned fully away from them, so to better see what her bard was about, would-be opportunists were unconsciously swatted away.
It wasn't that the smaller woman was helpless. Far from it. Those who set upon the bard fewer than against herself but still no small number, each literally burst into momentary flame at the merest contact with her. So brilliant and consuming were the flames that all were left charred husks in mere seconds.
Even seeing this did not dissuade those who beset them; most, yes, but not all those who's hunger, whether for blood or simply the excitement of the chase, overrode whatever good sense they possessed and pressed on. Those few who menaced the Ancient proved too far to be easily reached. She didn't dare throwing either sword or dagger to ward them off, not so much out of worry for her aim as giving the enemy a weapon. It would have been a wasted effort in any case, knowing the Ancient's power as intimately as any might.
More worrisome was the handful who stalked her step from behind. Trained eyes catching the dull glint of metallic edges; sharp ones from the look of them. Not enough to kill her all by themselves. No weapon forged by mortal or immortal hands in all creation could accomplish that. But if used in unison? The warrior clearly saw the glimmer of intelligence and cunning in those eyes, reading their plans as if they'd spoken them aloud.
They were fools, doomed from the start. Oh, they might manage to surprise the Ancient, manage even to get in a lick or two before she reduced them to ash. But that would take time, and time was something they were running short on. There were still too many bacchae between them and the women, some of whom were certain to remember what a tasty meal the latter presented. Getting their kin far from this place was paramount.
For this reason, she reached into her greatcoat and exchanged the golden dagger for the more familiar curved edges of her preferred weapon. She'd dared not use it before, at least not in view of so many. Word would pass between those who held court here in the shadows now, and they would know no peace.
The consequences meant little to her right then, and certainly present no obstacle, never mind a decent argument, against doing this.
Their children were endangered. Nothing else mattered.
Hence what came next.
The Chakrum flew from her hand, sailing across the chamber and neatly rebounding off the distant wall, its tell-tale shriek filling the air and freezing all. The first rebound, oddly, was nowhere near the targets, which was intentional as the warrior wanted everybody's attention rather than to do any damage (yet). The second, which caught the edges of the dias, took it even further afield. The next, however, sent it directly towards the Ancient's fair head, missing her by a hair and doing no more than ruffling her straight golden locks as it passed.
Those immediately behind her, the very ones at whom it was first aimed, had only a fraction of a second to realize their fate. A couple even managed raise their own weapons in a vain effort to deflect their doom. All fell beneath the spinning blade, each one cleanly decapitated.
The warrior plucked the Chakrum out of the air on its final rebound, pleased that her skills had not dulled despite nearly a millennia's lack of practice. Gods knew it had take enough time simply to forge a replacement, the original proving key to the entombment of her damned sire, only to be shattered by his escape. Her skills with a forge and hammer, thankfully, were adequate enough to produce a reasonable copy of the original.
All eyes were once again upon her alone. Even the Dead One's attention was focused her direction. This drawing a grim smile out of her. Their eyes, all their eyes, were ones where fear and rage battled one an other, the former often coming out ahead while the latter simply stayed their ground... barely. They milled about her in a cautious circle, ignoring all others.
This was both a good and bad thing. By keeping all focus on herself, the Ancient was afforded sufficient time and space to gather the women and flee while she kept the local animal life amused. This plan, unfortunately, ran aground on two points: the Ancient was actually moving away from the women, and the bacchae were carefully blocking the only visible exit from this place, which happened to be right behind them.
So much for the easy way out. The warrior didn't even have time to curse for it before they again moved in, en masse, as if eager to meet her waiting blades.
Ravenous as they all were, the bacchae for her blood and the warrior for their's, the screech that echoed out moments later stopped all movement and all thought.
It was an inhuman sound, originating not from them, but from atop the great dais.
From the instant it had all begun to the moment it all ended, Leah had felt removed from these events, as though watching them unfold from a distance.
She didn't react, save for the instinctive flinch, at the abrupt sounding of the war-cry, and watched as bacchae after bacchae either burned or fell to their second death, none of it really penetrating her consciousness. She even found the sight of several bacchae simply exploding , without fire or least noise, into their constituent body parts somewhat amusing. The walking buzzsaw responsible for most of this (absurd as it sounded, this was the only way her mind could wrap itself about the sight this figure presented) appeared less interested in the carnage it wrought, and was clearly advancing on them. Even this failed to breed the mildest panic from her.
Leah knew herself to be in shock, her earlier calm in the face of their impending death was that of numb realization rather than acceptance of the inevitable. And now? Now her heart and mind sang out in fright so blinding all though shrank away, the fingers lacing through her's alone keeping her anchored, giving strength enough to remain standing.
Some thought as to escape nonetheless filtered through, but the rest of her was frozen by the horror approaching. She wondered if the Bowie was still in hand, or if it had already fallen from her nerveless fingers. Idle thoughts were all she could manage coherently. That, and to wonder what the one pressed behind her thought of her obvious cowardice.
She wasn't even able to so much as squeak when they were seized from behind and carried aloft. Only the inhuman wail and accompanying rain of heat and light that come next broke through the mental fog, her own cry of shock joining it.
Nicolia had felt her Amazon stiffen and tense at the war-cry, a mirror to her own reaction. She recognized it, and wasn't sure if she should be relieved...or try and flee to the shadows. The latter, while tempting, proved impossible, knowing there was simply no way she could carry her dark-haired giant from here, and the very thought of leaving her was too laughable to be taken seriously.
And so, like her Amazon, she stood her ground...and watch in disbelief as the ranks before them were decimated by a blur of blades advancing on them. The periodic explosions of flesh and flame across the chamber proved even more nerve-racking, each proving too sudden and sharp to be taken in.
Yet she resisted retreating internally, unwilling to abandon her Amazon to the animals and demons surrounding them. Oddly, she'd made no move to maneuver them away from the growing carnage, even though the way behind them was clear. Too interested in the tableau playing out before them, perhaps? Or did she know these two furies advancing on them? Nicolia didn't know what to make of this, and wasted no time contemplating it, choosing instead to act for them both.
The Amazon proved resistant to her efforts to pull them both away. Nicolia didn't puzzle over this either, and simply put more strength behind her tugs on both hand and shoulder. She had to try a third time before it penetrated and they were moving. It was only a half-pace, yet held all the relief of thousand leagues.
Their feet had not fully settled when something grasped them both by shoulders and pulled them upwards. It proved so sudden there was no time for either of them to so much as gasp. Even when they were both flung a short distance, ending up in a tangle of numb limbs, neither of them uttered a sound. The blade of the Bowie scrapping across the smooth stone surface was the nearest sound Nicolia was immediately aware of, the din of the battle still in the background. Even these things quickly receded into the distance of irrelevance, the sight of what awaited them there.
The silent tower of rags and filth stood before them, its arms outstretched, and pale red eyes aglow with hunger.
The sight robbed Nicolia lost all rational thought, who began clawing her way from beneath her Amazon in hopes of fleeing, companion or no. The robed creature had begun floating across the dias towards them, not quickly but inexorably, no barrier conceivable to imagination capable of halting it. This made the healer's struggles all the more frantic, and consequently all the more ineffectual. The Amazon was so much deadweight atop her, and her efforts were clearly making no headway at disentangling them from each other.
Panic was no longer nipping at her mental heels; it had latched on and sunk its teeth deep into her. Whether it was some burst of strength from an untaped reserve within her, or simply out of blind desperation, Nicolia suddenly managed to pry herself from the Amazon's dead limbs (practically throwing the latter off of her) and crawl to the dais' edge, nearly collapsing off it in her haste.
The robed one apparently preferred the chase to simply partaking of the still-unmoving dark-haired woman at its feet, bypassing her and closing slowly on the one seemingly determined to escape. For this Nicolia unconsciously grateful, though she could practically feel the leer hidden within that hood, the razor teeth filling that leer equally hidden and equally present. It sent her blindly grouping the edges, pulling herself away from the omnipresent stench of mildew and rot, eyes unable to tear away from the approaching figure.
At some point, her hands came upon the Bowie, grasping its pommel with both hands and swinging it about. She brandished it as though it were a broadsword, presenting a rather ridiculous sight as she was on her back and barely balanced on one shoulder.
The robed figure nonetheless paused in its pursuit, looking no longer at her, but slightly beyond her. Confused, Nicolia risked a glance to her side, surprised to see a pair of boots a mere handslength from her shoulder. Her eyes traveled up virtually of their own accord, past toned legs and sleek muscles only half-hidden by well-traveled denim and shirt. Long hair of burnished honey locks was gathered back into a messy ponytail, and a quarterstaff was held loose in one hand.
But it was the eyes that looked down upon her, eyes aglow with the purest gold to be imagined, that held her transfixed. Deus ex machina was all Nicolia could think of this newcomer, those eyes leaving her to focus upon the towering figure in filthy robes, their departure leaving her cold and shaken once more.
"Gaunt!" the slight blond hissed in a voice that was more felt in the bones than heard aloud, though Nicolia caught the blonde's lips move slightly, forming the words. The air both froze and crackled about her with raw energy. Deus, indeed.
This time, no words were spoken, issuing instead from the soul itself. It was a command that could not be denied. Nor was it within the power of any other, alive or dead, to resist its power.
Smoke began to leak from within the robes, every tear and tatter issuing dirty tendrils of reeking gray vapor. The first licks of flame sparked only a second later, catching first the edges of fabric, spreading quickly from there. With a speed that defied belief, the figure was fully alight, soon becoming a pillar of consuming flame.
The robed one took a single step back, raising its arms not in supplication, but as if in rapture. A sound issued from within the flames, something resembling a screech of razor nails across glass. There was no pain to be heard in it, nor fear. In later days, Nicolia would realize what it was, and would suffer nightmares from it.
It was a laugh. The laughter of madness and abandon, so hollow it might as well have drifted up from the bottom of an empty well. The creature's laughter only rose as the flames took more and more of its form...becoming fever pitch...
...until its form literally exploded in a blaze of blistering heat and fiery ash. Nicolia was forced to look away, bringing both arms up to cover her face from the small shower of still-flaming rags drifted down from above, her ears ringing from the din created by the body's unexpected detonation. Even this failed to drown out the still-audible screech of the creature's laughter.
Eyes wide, Nicolia looked back to the woman towering over her, only to be greeted by an enraged scowl marring her radiant features. "Every damn time..." was the muttered curse before she looked down upon the unnerved healer as though seeing her for the first time, immediately catching the fear in those dark and expressive eyes. Her own features quickly softened at the sight, and she squatted down so to speak to her on a more even level. "We have to get out of here. Do you understand?" Nicolia could only nod, slowly, the blonds voice calming her as if by magic.
She was helped to her feet by an arm too strong to be so slight, the thought promptly reminding her of another. She pulled herself from the gentle-strong grasp of the (surprisingly) smaller woman and covered the distance to her Amazon, who was gazing saucer-eyed at place where the robed one had met its end, now a smoking patch of stone. "Hey," she murmured, going to one knee. Seeing no response, she tried a little louder, adding a firm grip on one shoulder for emphasis. "Hey!" Dark hazel met deep grey, at once familiar and new, awareness now in the latter. "We have to go. Now." Urgency pushed aside any tolerance for delay, and she all but dragged the dark-haired woman to her feet.
Nicolia noticed, somewhat distractedly, her Amazon had caught sight of the blond. Was staring at her, actually, and rather intensely as well. A twinge of jealousy hit her, and led her to pull the taller woman along with perhaps more force than necessary. This earned her a glare, which Nicolia endured with some satisfaction. 'At least she's looking at me again.'
The small blond didn't even seem to notice, instead turning to lead them down the narrow flight of steps carved into the dais' back end. Nicolia kept a firm grip on her Amazon's shirt, unwilling to surrender the contact or even ease it slightly. They descended the stairs quickly and made to round the dias's corner, only to be stopped their guide's staff blocking further advance. Nicolia was about to open her mouth in protest when three bodies, only one of them recognizable as human, literally sailed across the air and fell into a heap of broken and battered flesh at their feet.
Nicolia closed her mouth with an audible 'clack'.
"There's a small opening off to the left," the blond threw quietly over her shoulder. "When I say 'now', run for it." She glanced around the corner before either of them could offer any protest and hissed "Now!" She herself promptly rejoined the fray, not looking back to see if they did as bade. Nicolia was actually grateful, certain those eyes had once again taken a fierce aspect.
Her Amazon by her side, their hands once again joined, the medicine woman led the way. They crossed the way to the opening in only a few strides, neither looking at the chaos still surrounding them. They moved as one (thought this realization would only hit later, both being rather busy at that moment), and disappeared into the darkness beyond the threshold as one.
The warrior had held her own for some time, and was starting to get bored with the whole thing. So she made no protest when her partner rejoined her, the latter's staff discouraging a few overly brave stalkers from blind siding her.
"They gone?" the warrior hissed, sword cleanly decapitating a brawny-looking bacchae.
"Yup," the Ancient nodded, staff snapping the head of another back, its body quickly following.
"Is...it...gone?" Another decapitation, with a shoulder and arm joining the head for good measure.
"For the moment." Four solid hits in rapid succession and a pale-skinned seductress was immobilized.
"The let's get outta here!"
They turned and ran as one, several bacchae in pursuit. The small blond crossed into darkness first, while the warrior paused and suddenly spun just crossing the threshold. A feral grin to her lips, she waved a single finger at their pursuers. "Ah-uh-ah," she said in a tone one reserved for scolding misbehaving children, sword suddenly flashing out and connecting with the walls of the entrance, one strike each.
She was gone only seconds before the threshold collapsed in on itself, sealing them away from any pursuit.
The collective cry of the bacchae filled the great chamber, its rage filtering upwards, and out into the night beyond.
The short blonde had been quick to overtake Leah and Nicolia (the latter having managed to whisper her name into Leah's ear, not certain if the information penetrated nor entirely sure why it was so desperately important the Amazon know this), hands still joined between them She was quicker still to urge them "Follow me," and lead them even deeper into the dark. Each gave some thought to objecting. The taller one, the one with the sword, bearing down on them from behind however was sufficient incentive to follow the blonde's lead, even if they had no real idea where they were going.
Neither wanted to think about what they were all running from.
The tunnel actually proved easier to navigate than the ones they'd first followed into the central chamber, its walls naturally smooth and lit with phosphorescent dust while the ground underfoot was unworked. The latter proved a mixed blessing for Leah, as it gave her sufficient traction to keep up with the others, while managing to slowly but surely tear her soles of her socks to shreds. Like so many other things surrounding them, she chose not to think about that. Her universe had contracted down to the warm hand clutching her's, the dim path before them...the eventual rescue of the children was firmly lodged in the back of her mind... somewhere...and nothing else.
So she kept running, pounding down that dark corridor, hand-in-hand with a stranger she could not let go of, in the company of the absolute last person who should be there, all but mindless of the dull pains starting to wear at her feet. Leah paid it all no mind...at least until the dull pain raking her feet turned to very sharp pain stabbing into the underside of her left foot. She couldn't stop her voice from automatically crying out in shock. It was actually little more than a yelp of surprise, and being a Covington that meant it was a very quiet one at that.
It nonetheless proved sufficient to command everyone else's attention. The small blonde skidded to a halt, eyes suddenly on her with such intensity it made her very nervous. The dusky-skinned one beside her raked her up and down with those dark, expressive eyes, now wide as saucers. Leah didn't dare look behind her to see what expression the sword-wielder was wearing. Leah gave them a strained grin meant as apology, though wisely offered no resistance to their quickly leading her to sit on the ground. Once settled, the blonde and her cinnamon-skinned running mate knelt to either side of her, while the giant with the sword once again showed them her back and hefted the sword up to the ready.
The blonde pulled the shredded socks off both her feet, while Nicolia carefully felt her way along the sensitive skin of both appendages. Leah managed not to so much as giggle, despite the fact her feet were...well...a tad ticklish. Okay, very ticklish, particularly when naked to the air. It was her single greatest weakness, and one she carefully guarded against any discovery. That she kept silent throughout this was a testament to her willpower... though certainly having someone else to focus on helped enormously.
A very specific someone, actually.
In fact, Leah felt what nervousness the tall one engendered in her, as well as the calm her companion (yes, there was no question of her remaining by her side whatever may come) gave her, all giving way to unexpected anger towards the one who should not be here. This made her bold enough to pull away from her companion's ministrations, reach out, and forcibly grab that one by the leg. In the harshest, most intimidating manner she could manage, which being a Covington was considerable, Leah fairly hissed "What the hell are you doing here, Aunt Mel?!"
It certainly proved an attention getter. Nicolia backed away a hair, eyebrows raised at the outburst, uncertain if she should try reaching back through that tangle of limbs to reach the wounded foot or just sit back and enjoy the show. The dark one quickly looked down at the Amazon, at those fierce eyes of hazel-blue that held seeds of familiarity and glared with just indignation directed at their target alone, then cast her eyes to her honey-haired companion of the ages, who looked between her and their distant off-spring with obvious confusion. She felt her mouth quirk with the laughter she fought down, though there was no evidence of it when she spoke.
Catching her companion's eye, keeping one on the strong hand encircling the small blonde's booted ankle, she said, "I think she means you, Gabrielle."
True enough, the daughter of Bacchus (long may he reign over his empty legions, long may his own blood be boiled in the lowest pits of the Underworld) stood amongst her distant kin as the most powerful and upright of their number. Should she ever wish it, a legion of converts would prostrate at her feet. Such things were an anathema to her soul, which unlike the rest, she held tight and refused to further stain. And so she walked with only the daughter of War as company.
But the Sunwalker was hardly without peer.
For example, it is rumored she and the DarkFire have often found and held the means to end the lives of all scavenging bacchae, everywhere. It is equally rumored they have tossed away those means the instant of their discovery, disposing of them so completely no trace remained. Why this was done was a riddle few had the time or wit to challenge, most without success. For the rest, such rumors were as quickly discarded as scraps of rodent meat following a feeding. The notion of the Sunwalker alone was laughable enough. But that she might threaten their extinction, time and again, was beyond credence.
But the few who grasped the consequences of such an act, however, found themselves further humbled by the realization. Just as the shadow is nothing without the light to give it boundary, so too would they be nothing without the Ancient Bard. They might exist, feed and grow, but to what end? Even their shattered and desolate souls hungered for something…more. And the Sunwalker was the beacon for such needs, drawing them to her, whether to redemption or damnation.
The reverse held true as well, and left them emboldened. The light is blinding and useless without shade, and so the Sunwalker would forever need her dark kin to lend definition to her and her’s.
One of these scattered Elders held particular sway in this respect, its every move, as if by design, the perfect counterpoint to the Sunwalker’s. Disciples gathered at its feet, their numbers swelling to a great army, their appetites encouraged and their corruption made complete. Their master answered to no name, at least none any human tongue might pronounce. It was a true immortal, as unchanging as it was unyielding to the ravages of time or violence. It has seen much of both, and was unimpressed. Even the periodic assaults mounted against it by the Sunwalker availed little for either side.
The Death One would simple re-form itself from its own debris, brush itself down, and prepare for the next assault. It was a game they had played, and would continue to play, for millennia.
It was appropriately titled, this nameless Elder, for even the Underworld’s most twisted denizens feared its power. The Sunwalker might redeem them, no matter their corruption, but The Death One would destroy them utterly were they to refuse it. Even Lord Hades and his equals, from Anubis of Egypt to Wan-chi-koo of the hidden Tcho-li peoples, quietly feared its presence.
Other, more mundane titles had been attached to it. "The Walking Rot", "Gaunt", and "King of Flees" were among the more common ones heard. Whether it took offense at such unflattering descriptives was impossible to know, its actions and motives often as shrouded as its inscrutable features, hidden as they were within behind veils of filthy linens. It was a solitary one, this Elder, though all knew when it's hand guided events.
And perhaps, it was whispered among its kin, its purposes were so well hidden as to be a mystery even from itself.
The bacchae fugitively clawed and dug the blockage preventing them from pursuing their escaped prey. They made little actual headway, as much because those who were digging were by far the most feral and devolved of the community (and consequently hadn't fully grasped just how dangerous the prey was, never mind who it was) as because there were so few of them and so much barring their way.
Those choosing not to partake of this comic-futile efforts stood back and allowed the animals their fun, not interfering and making no move to dissuade them. A few had scars born of such interference in the past, and so were not anxious to repeat such mistakes. Others kept to the side out of distraction, not conscious choice.
The fine mist that leaked out of fissures and crevices in the walls and floor at the chamber's far end, initially only a few wisps but quickly adding mass and becoming a thick fog, did not go unnoticed. Nor how this 'fog' actually began rolling across the chamber at a fair clip, neither unnaturally fast or inconspicuously slow, visibly weaving among the bacchae there. It slowed somewhat as it approached the collapsed entryway. Slowed, and coalesced into a growing column of whirling, reeking smoke.
Instinctively knowing that their heralded, the bacchae all backed away, save for the most regressed and slavering of the lot. These few utterly ignored these developments in favor of their continued (and pointless) digging and clawing at the fallen rock. The appearance of twin ember points, suddenly alight and burning within the column's head, led those who saw them to back away even further, causing many to stumble into each other and tempers to flare. Claws and fangs were soon bared as private debts were prepared to be settled.
No one had the chance to draw first blood, for out of the smoky column before them strode the familiar filthy and tattered robes of the Death One. Those who had snarled only moments before now cowered and shook in blind fear, though their Master made no move against them.
The Death One had eyes only for the fallen rocks barring it from pursuing and punishing the one who had hurt it so. Its eyes glowed fierce at the thought.
It raising both arms and threw them wide, the stone and rocks blocking their way rising and flinging themselves aside in tandem. The few bacchae who had still been digging there were likewise sent flying and dashed against the far walls, crushed beneath the debris.
No one noticed or cared.
The Death One raised its arm, out of who's sleeve extended at withered claw more akin to an eagle's talon than a human's. A single finger, malformed and ending in a sharp, tapered point where claw and flesh became one, extended and directed all eyes into the darkness beyond the narrow threshold. Even the densest among the bacchae understood the command, and were the ones who smiled the widest at the offering.
With a "whoop" of delight, first one, then many of the community leap through the opening. They entered a few at a time, and even then not a few of them ended up with scratches and cuts from brushing too quickly against the rough edges of the collapsed threshold. The coppery scent of their own blood upon the rocks inflamed them, perking their thirst for more.
Their calls soon echoed off the narrow walls of the cavern, a din every bit as unnerving as the animals themselves.
Gabrielle, pureblood daughter of Bacchus, Ancient Bard revered by Amazon and feared by bacchae, "Patron Goddess of the Babbling Mouth" according to her eternal mate, sat there and couldn't for the life of her think of a thing to say. Fortunately, her partner (who endured many a night of teasing torture, some of it quite painfully erotic, for the "patron goddess" crack) was not nearly so shocked. "I think you've got the wrong idea here, girl."
Normally, anyone referring to her as such would have earned a Covington four-knuckle sandwich to the nose. Leah, having far more pressing concerns on her mind right then, ignored this and instead pulled on the leg once more, nearly snarling "I'm waiting, Mel. What are you doing in this goddess-be-damned place, huh?!" She tried to stand, intent on using her height to its natural advantage, only to be defeated by the same wound that stopped their flight in the first place. She managed to plop back to her rear with at least a modicum of dignity, continuing to glare at the small blonde all the while. After a moment or two of further silence, she hissed "Well?"
The dark one, who did tower over everyone, appeared to take some offense at her tone, and automatically hefted her sword in a way that communicated both displeasure and warning. She immediately realized it was a wasted effort, as the woman had eyes only for the kneeling bard before her.
Gabrielle met her descendent's glare full on, calmly saying "Please let go my leg." There was no threat, no frost, no danger lurking in that voice at all, yet to Leah it felt as though the air had been leeched from her lungs. She managed to pry her fingers off the slim thigh, her muscles having gone rigid with something a good bit stronger than anger.
"You…aren't Mel, are you?"
The blonde's eyebrows knit together, the obvious question in her eyes. It was mirrored by her dark partner, while Nicolia scooted back a hair, looking with new eyes at her Amazon. The small blonde asked it aloud all the same. "Mel…Pappas?"
"General Melissa Covington?" Leah couldn't help the grimace at the blonde's shaking her head, the grin beginning to form there irritating her further. Okay, so the woman was pint-sized, temperamental bitch-and-a-half who desperately needed to get laid more often. She was still her aunt, for Goddess' sake, and damned if she'd take an insult to her however innocent-looking.
She offered a familiar opening. "Got a problem with the name?" Respected as the Covingtons might be, there were always those who convinced themselves it was their duty to take the family down a peg or two. Leah had developed quite the repertoire of counter-taunts and digs to get her opponent's swinging first.
"No, no," the blonde was quick to reassure her, hands raised and palms out. "Far from it. I've just never heard of…her…in particular." It was close enough to the truth that the lie didn't readily show. Certainly they'd heard of the military genius who had kept the borders of the Freestate secure almost since its founding, though most descriptions they'd come across put her as a fire-breathing cross between a Gorgon, a giant squid, and a lump of ground beef.
Leah found herself derailed by this. Not knowing what to say, she sat back and grunted "Well…good." Her scowl deepened when she caught the smaller woman's amused smirk, though she couldn't quite bring herself to meet those shinning emerald eyes of her's.
Nicolia watched the exchange with interest, though it was the cut on her Amazon's foot which received the most attention. "So," she joined the conversation, her tone off-handed and distant, "If you aren't 'The Fourth Fury', who are you?" This earned her a glare from Leah and a pair of rolled eyes from the dark one.
The blonde, however, looked thoughtful, as though she were mentally filing away the title for future use. It would eventually find its way into a series of stories the bard would write, which in turn would become the basis of a comprehensive history of the Freestate and its successor nation…much to the consternation of Leah's great-great-granddaughter, who was rather shy and until then had managed to avoid the limelight despite her own notable accomplishments, political as well as martial, but that is another story altogether.
The ancient gathered her staff and stood before answering, with her typically understated bardic flourish. "I'm called…Gabrielle."
If it was meant to be a world-shattering revelation, she should have been disappointed at receiving only a grunt from Nicolia and another glare from Leah, the latter more a mask against the pain shooting up through her foot than actual emotion. A chuckle of laughter came from the dark warrior near them, having seen this lack of reaction and was actually somewhat gratified by it, long ago having had her fill of looks of awe and admiration once their names were known. The bard gave her a brief glare of her own, then refocused her attention on the two at their feet.
"I think we should talk," she began, when the warrior audibly stiffened and brandished her sword in the direction they'd just come.
"Gabrielle, help her up." It was an order whose urgency, rather than the tone, prompted the bard to action. The warrior might have commanded armies once with such a tone, but never her sworn Queen. If she spoke so now…
Gabrielle's sharp hearing picked out the reason, only moments before the scent of bloodthirst filled her nostrils. This caused her fangs to extend unconsciously, though she kept them hidden from easy view behind a tight frown and covering herself by half-yanking the dark-haired one to her feet and all but throwing her over her shoulder.
"Hey!" Leah yelped, too surprised and disorientated to offer more physical protest. Nicolia was similarly dumbstruck, though dfor far different reasons. She followed the bard's lead as she carried her Amazon further into the darkness, eyes not leaving either.
The warrior lingered for a moment more, sword still held at the ready, but only for a moment. She, too, turned and fled into the darkness, the sounds of hungry animals at her heels.
It ceased being a simple tunnel they ran through, but more the twisting caverns of a monster's innards, turning and circling back on itself…or so it seemed to Leah from her less-than-dignified position over the blonde's shoulder. She wasn't sure what was stranger: being carried so (which put her clearly in mind of how she'd awakened only an hour ago, thoughts which she promptly squashed lest she freeze up again), her new upside-down perspective coming from it, or the fact the smaller woman didn't seem burdened in the slightest by her weight.
They were making good time, better even than Nicolia, which she had no problem with. Though to be honest she could have gone without being jostled and tossed all about. The smaller woman's shoulder might have been strong and solid, appearances to the contrary, but having it constantly press into one's stomach was only good for a sore gastrointestinal cavity and an unpleasant ache in one's pelvis.
"I'm not crippled, you know," Leah hissed, trying to relax herself enough to minimize the pain her position caused.
Gabrielle heard this, a low growl (well, more of a sniff and snort than a growl) of "Stubborn!" being her only answer.
They could hear the scratching and bat-like whistles of the bacchae behind them. Quick as they were, the slow growing din bespoke of both numbers and speed that, in as confining a space as this, could only overwhelm them.
Gabrielle chanced a glance behind her, past Nicolia and focusing on her dark partner, the question clear in her eyes. The onyx-haired woman, her eyes bright with her birthright fire and forehead shinning with cooling sweat, met her gaze with one of her own. Tactics and stratagems had already conceived and discarded. They were trying to out-race the inevitable here, and what little lead they had was fast narrowing.
Gabrielle swallowed the hard lump that developed with this realization. Were it just them, they might well have turned and fought their way back to the great chamber and have it done with the Death One. There was every chance they might not walk away from such a contest, the numbers against them being that great and backed by a power nearly unmatched in the shadow worlds, but only nearly.
But they weren't alone there, and they were here for reasons other than settling old debts. Battle had already been given, and the measure of the enemy taken. Formidable odds, yes, though Gabrielle herself roughly balanced the scales; she'd give her all here, her motives right then setting her resolve in so much bedrock.
Her partner on the other hand would be the true deciding factor, both knowing this and both determined to avoid placing her into such a situation. The past hours had already taken their toll on her, and neither had any wish to see how closely they skirted the limits this time…lest Gabrielle be left to walk the world alone for yet another century or more.
The resurrection of the Xena of Amphipolis, the DarkFire, the Daughter of Olympia's Fire, had proven a far from perfect thing.
True, her sire's strength still suffused her limbs, and her will was as indomitable as ever. But noticeable differences between her youth and now had appeared of late. She healed as quickly as ever, though the scars now remained with the worst wounds. More worrisome was the gray strands, which had begun to lighten her hair, and the exhaustion which would occasionally set in after hours of battle or travel. Even their once-wild lovemaking (much to their mutual dismay) had been forced to take a softer tone. Gabrielle's ecstatic feeding on Xena proving dangerously draining on the warrior now.
Neither would speak of the fear both held deep within their hearts, as though denial of the very possibility of her natural death would keep it from becoming real, but were far more cautious in their travels now. Hence their having kept themselves so low the past several decades, ever since the outset of the first pandemic, and hence their flight now where their every nerve screamed to turn and face the approaching rabble.
Plus there were the children to consider.
Gabrielle felt her pace increase, a light tingle seeping into her legs as her unconscious desperation tapping into reserves of energy at once more, and less, than purely human.
Nicolia felt the burn in her lungs as she tried, 'tried' being the operative word, to keep up with Gabrielle and her Amazon. It was rather exhilarating, actually, this breathless flight from danger, in the presence of legends. She knew plain shock had set in, keeping her from thinking about just how narrow their escape had been.
Rather, she concentrated on simpler things. Keeping her Amazon in sight was a marvelous focus. As if having six-plus-feet of dark muscle and purpose close behind wasn't motivation enough to keep moving. Even the pursuing horde beyond was less a terror than knowing…she…was at her back.
Nicolia found her mind wandering a bit the further they moved on, lingering particularly on her Amazon. Exactly why she'd come to think of the woman in the possessive went unexamined; she would not be parted from the woman, and that was that. The why and wherefores could wait until they were safely away from this place, though she doubted she would last long once they had a few quiet moments together. It had been too long since she'd been with another, and the Amazon's natural scent was a well-aged wine for her deprived palate.
Then there was that annoying voice whispering in her ear, alternately calling up all manner of erotic scenario that had no place in the here and now and cursing her out as it always did. This too was distracting, though more because it painted such vivid pictures of her raven-haired Amazon than because she actually listened to any of it. One, after all, tends to tune out monotonous noise after a time. Hearing what a fool she was for chasing after children she didn't eve know, lusting after a woman she'd only just met, and how she'd die a horrible death for all this, all for the umpteenth time, proved easy to ignore.
Rather, the healer put one foot before the other in rapid pace, unwilling to let her Amazon or the Ancient slip from sight.
She'd managed to ignore the stitch that crept up her side for some time. It had actually been with her since they'd started running, concern over their safety providing sufficient distraction. That she'd managed to avoid tripping over her own feet so far was a minor miracle, though this couldn't last.
Eventually, Nicolia felt herself begin to stumble, the ache gripping her right side and running from heel to ribs. Her breath burned with each exhale, leaving her throat raw and pained.
The warrior, closer behind her than thought, must have seen this. One moment Nicolia felt her feet begin to fold underneath her, the next a powerful arm wrapped about her midsection, supporting and righting her without the least visible effort. She was quickly running again, as much to get herself and her Amazon away from the one supporting her as keep a step ahead of the giggling and hooting death behind them. One wants to feel warmth from a fire, after all, but not actually have it reach out and touch one!
And so she ran, new strength in stride for which she'd happily pay the price for later, and renewed purpose.
She'd not forgotten about the rag doll, who's soul song remained a calm chorus throughout the past hour's madness, and who had been a comforting weight in the inner pocket of her hide jacket. Indeed, in past minutes the song had grown noticeably stronger, her own heart joining in the refrain in perfect counterpoint.
Nicolia found herself disbelieving what this all told her. This didn't stop her from calling out and pointing to a narrow passageway just ahead of them. "Wait!" she panted, urgently pointing to the opening. "That…that way!"
The ancient skidded to a quick halt and fixed her with eyes now turned burnished gold. Her Amazon couldn't see this, for which Nicolia was silently grateful, though the former did manage to twist herself about sufficiently for their own eyes to join once more. This gave the wanderer strength enough to brave the ancient's questioning gaze.
"You're sure?" the small ancient asked only once, those same eyes communicating what consequences awaited them all should this only lead them to be cornered and caught. For herself and her partner they had no fears, but for herself and her Amazon…
Nicolia merely swallowed in a futile effort to wet her parched throat and nodded, still panting. "I'm…I'm sure." She unconsciously reached into her jacket and pulled out the rag doll, unsure whether to show as evidence or hold as a compass or simply as a comfort for herself. Her Amazon's eyes went wide in recognition of the toy, Nicolia risking meeting those eyes once more, finding herself under careful scrutiny.
She consequently missed the surprise in the ancient's eye at the sight, and the decision in the warrior's own beside her.
Gabrielle, to her eternal shame, found she had quite forgotten that there were simply more than their descendent and her other at stake here. They'd found the caravan, seen the evidence, read all the signs clearly. They'd known from the outset there were innocents at stake, yet the first sight of the Covington woman and the healer left their entire focus changed.
This was actually happening with greater frequency, their minds sometimes wandering off unexpectedly. Until now, it hadn’t proven a detriment. Another thing they never spoke about, though she knew it worried Xena no end. Gabrielle herself simply took it as a sign they were getting on in years, or so she joked to herself.
If true, she had no wish to ponder the consequences of it right then…or ever.
Rather, she looked upon the healer, letting the merest shade of her godling heritage to be seen. The children were still paramount, all of them, but the time for foolish risks with them was past. The approaching pack would be trouble enough.
A glance at Xena, those icy sapphire eyes aglow, ended any debate she might have offered. They would follow the healer’s lead from here on. End of story.
While Gabrielle had no objection to this (she’d reached the same decision only a heartbeat before looking up), nor did she consider it ill advised or desperate (though the noise of the Death One’s pack was closing uncomfortably fast). She’d have to have been deaf not to hear the song emanating off the doll in the healer’s hand, directing them to this narrow-looking passage. And why didn’t we think of that? Gabrielle wondered for a moment before squeezing herself into the passage. No easy feat, given she had two metres of impatient Covington still thrown over her shoulder, her descendant’s descendent not squirming or even shifting all that much.
Gabrielle counted her blessings and made their way into the narrow passage. The healer followed close behind eyes alternating between the doll in hand, her Amazon ahead of her, and the claustrophobically narrow walls they now passed between. Xena herself waited several counts before squeezing herself in with deliberate care, seemingly oblivious to the hoots and screeches emanating from just around the nearby corner.
She had eyes and ears for the back of the dusky-skinned woman ahead of her alone.
The warrior had only just passed across the rough threshold when, for no visible cause, the walls of entrance collapsed in upon themselves. There was no quake or tremor or even undue noise as stone loosened and became so much rubble, falling in upon itself and sealing the passage behind them. It took only moments for any sign of their escape to be buried from easy sight.
The bacchae, who whooped and clawed their way over one another as they rounded the corner, were beyond making the effort needed to have discovered this. The chase had become their sole focus, and the spore of the prey still strong enough that any other thought could only fall to the wayside. Even when the spore weakened and faded, sheer momentum carried them on, leaving their prey far and safely behind.
Such is the difference between true predators and mere animals.
The passageway was amazingly easy to navigate, even for the over-burdened Gabrielle and Xena, who kept her blade at the ready. Another bit of luck for them, though neither paid it much mind. Nor, for that matter, did Leah or Nicolia. The former feeling increasingly too ill in the stomach to appreciate their changed circumstances, and the latter engaged in protracted argument with her personal devil's advocate over the virtues of continuing this little venture.
There was little actually argument going on on that score, 'arguments' as a rule requiring that at least two established positions be debated in opposition. Nicolia's only response to the annoying-little-voice's diatribes against following the ancient, keeping her back turned to the warrior, letting her mind wander over her Amazon's fine (if slightly paled) features, and risking herself for reasons still unclear was quite simple: she ignored it all. Rather, she resolved to follow the ancient wherever she led, trust the warrior with their lives, and keep all thoughts about her Amazon firmly under control until they were well away from this place.
Not, mind, that she wasn't above appreciating that ample bosom or well-filled jean.
Needless to say, the effort to actively ignore all this…particularly 'controlling' particular thoughts…was sufficiently distracting that the healer was virtually unaware when they emerged at the corridor's opposite end. Nicolia's attention was snapped back to her surroundings by Gabrielle's startled breath. Some details were quickly to leak through than others.
They were standing now in another chamber, though one far smaller than the cathedral they'd just fled from and lacking both the ornate pillars and distant skylight. There were a few lit torches here, which illuminated several small daises arrayed in a circular pattern at its center. Those same torches cast all manner of shadowy shapes throughout the place, lending an air of unreality to the place.
Some of those shapes were not shadows, and infinitely too real.
Nicolia glanced over her shoulder at the warrior, who in turn was gazing directly at her with less than friendly eyes. Her own eyes dropped instinctively, catching the sight of the length of polished steel in one hand, and the shorter on of burnished gold in the other.
To her eyes, that short length of gold was raised in a calm, almost lazy arc. The hand holding it coming back, the three-edged blade catching the light from both without and within. It brought the healer's eyes to the warrior's once more, the intention there and undisguised. The world had slowed to crawl for them.
For any other who might have witnessed it, the golden dagger became a blur of motion, raised and thrown with such speed and accuracy there was no time for anyone, least of all the healer, to so much as scream as it buried its length deep within its intended target.
The screams came only a second later, and were deafening in that small chamber.
"ARGGGH!" was the high-pitched wail that so startled the silence. It was actually a cry more of shock and outrage than of pain. Though judging by the next exclamation, the pride of the singular target of the warrior's sudden attack had suffered a mortal blow.
"Yew BITCH! D'you have any idea how much this STINGS?!"
Which would have been good and well, if there was anything to see. Beyond, that is, the golden dagger being buried a fair way into the stone of the wall immediately behind the dusty-skinned healing woman…who stood there, gazing at Xena, wide-eyed and mouth slightly agape.
Leah and Gabrielle did likewise, though in slightly different ways. Leah's eyes were locked upon the warrior, horror and outrage mixing there, while Gabrielle looked more surprised by her partner's choice of targets than the action itself. Rather, she settled Leah on one of the daisies and resumed her examination of the younger woman's injured foot. She quickly took firm hold of it (and several strategically placed nerves, which painlessly froze the attached leg) to keep her tall descendent from standing and charging Xena, which she looked entirely too willing to do.
Nicolia managed to begin breathing again, taking rather deep breaths and slowly turning to look at the dagger that had sailed past her left ear only seconds before. Her mind was still trying to catch up to the fact she'd come close to loosing that ear, and so was too distracted to fully comprehend what unfolded before her eyes.
The dagger no longer buried in stone alone.
The form materialized slowly, like a picture brought out in developer solution. Unlike such still life, this one was in constant motion, wiggling and twisting in a vain effort to escape the metal shot through its middle. A constant stream of expletives issued from its wide mouth, not all in human tongue.
Fully seen, it wasn't a terribly pleasant sight. It was humanoid in shape, though its skin had a sickening greenish tinge to it and looked no smoother than sandpaper. The creature's head was an oval set on its side, with coarse whiskers jutting out from the corners of the lipless slit it called a mouth. Pearly white teeth shown within there, flashing like perfectly cut diamonds and looking twice as sharp. Its eyes were narrow and lacked lids, the whole of the socket seemingly taken up by huge pupils. A whipcord of a tail flailed all about between its goat-like legs, the hooves of which braced and pushed ineffectively against the wall behind it. The creature could not have stood more than two feet tall, and was at once repellent and pathetic to look at.
"I swear, godling," it was screaming, a Yiddish accent lacing its words, "Ven I get this out of me…ARGH!" And off it went again, cursing in many a colorful if incomprehensible dialect.
Xena merely smirked at the nominal threat, turning instead to Nicolia and saying "I don't think you need worry about him again."
"Him?!" the healer squeaked, eyes still wide and going between the warrior and the…whatever it was pinned to the wall. "Just what in the name of all that's holy is…'him'?!"
The creature decided to put it two cents in. "I told you we should have left here! But noooo, you hav' to go and play hero!"
Nicolia's went wider still at this declaration, her mouth working though the words sounded strangled. "You mean…you…you're that voice…?" A glare was her only answer, which alone spoke volumes.
Leah was quicker to recover, though her own voice was less than steady. Even the finger she pointed with shook slightly. "What is that thing?"
"It's called a 'djinn'," Gabrielle answered without looking up from her ministrations, concentrating instead on the gentle glow that emanated from her fingertips and traced the length of the cut. "A breed of small folk who attach themselves to a particular person and basically annoy the daylights out of them without revealing themselves. We've encountered them before, though not for…well, some time."
Xena nodded, her eyes not leaving the wiggling form as she spoke to the healer. "He's probably been whispering all sorts of advice and lies to you for years. Its what he and his kind do."
"Yah! An' there ain't nothing yew can do about, warrior!" The imp then thumbed its 'nose' (which was really just two slits in the flesh above its mouth) and stuck its tongue out with a mighty "THUPPPPT!" It crossed its skeletal arms and did its best to look smug; no easy thing with length of golden metal lodged in its middle. Its voice showed the strain.
"I've been with 'er family for generations, see? Got the order from the Master himself! 'Drive 'em all to murder and madness,' he ordered." The djinn fixed a baleful glare on Nicolia, dropping its tone to one of both envy and loathing. "Powerful, they are. Would've changed the world over. Couldn't have that, nope."
"You were one of the ones who twisted Na…the Crusader, weren't you?" Xena's grip on her sword tightened dangerously as she spoke. Even now, so very long afterwards, she still couldn't speak the name. The shame of it ran deep, nearly as deep as over Hope, though for different reasons.
The djinn simply put three fingers under its sharp chin and flicked them towards the warrior. Fungole, as the Italians would say.
"Give me a reason, imp, just one reason why I shouldn't cut you up into tiny, tiny pieces and leave you for the bacchae out there." Xena said this in a quiet, calm tone which left no doubt as to her preference.
Unable to continue watching this, Nicolia turned away and wandered over to where her Amazon and the ancient were, still in something of a daze. She barely noticed the gentle glow encompassing the ancient's hand that held her Amazon's wounded foot, save the random thought "Hmm, interesting technique." Confident her skills would be of absolutely no use there, she wandered over to the other diases, hands automatically reaching to feel the necks of the small bodies laid out on each. She did this unconsciously, automatically, mind not fully realizing what lay before it.
Awareness returned abruptly when, instead of cold, lifeless flesh, her fingers came into contact with the warm pulse of life!
She couldn't stop her loud gasp of surprise. "Its them!" The others looked towards first her, then the dias she stood beside. The figure laid there, small and fragile looking, ensured no further explanation was offered or needed.
Gabrielle looked up now, eyes moving quickly over the three still forms, mouth pressed into a hard line. "Wondered when she'd notice," she muttered and let go of her descendant's foot, moving quickly to the nearest child. Leah shifted to do the same, only to be stopped by the ancient's off-handed admonishing "Stay off the foot for a few minutes, eh?" The tall woman felt unexpectedly small and nodded as a child might before their parent's intimidating height. She contented herself, for the moment, to watching her fellows like a hawk, mindful of the least sign of danger to the children.
Xena gave the imp a quelling glare advising it to remain where it was before standing and turning. In reply, the tiny creature settled into as comfortable a position as possible and proceeded to drum its blunt fingers loudly on the hilt. Everyone paid it the worst insult imaginable, and ignored it.
Because the room was bathed in an ethereal glow, the shafts of light from above clear in the visible swirls of dust and airborne grit, no-one noticed the fog-like mist which leaked from the darkest corner of the chamber. Even as it settled and rolled across the ground, hanging there, it still went unnoticed.
Everyone had eyes alone for the bodies laid out on the cold stone. To the warrior's god-endowed senses, the children were beacons against the night, signal fires lit in the darkness. Gabrielle's descendent and the healer were similarly, though she could see their innocence had been lost a time ago. This made them more like the beacon of a lighthouse to the children's celebratory bonfires in this place; made them less…interesting. The Amazon and healer would only be a meal for the ancient's kin. The children?
They would be a feast of the rarest delicacy.
Reason enough to get them, all of them, out of this place. A even more pressing one could be seen in the ancient, in the form of eyes suddenly become golden and skin paled to the consistency of marble. After millennia of iron control, the bard had found herself more and more of late letting her sire’s heritage show in all its malign and lethal glory. Fortunately the bard’s back was to her descendant, and so spared the girl unnecessary discomfort.
The healer evidently did catch sight of the bard's new coloring, judging by the sudden set to her shoulders and rock-solid stance. She was apparently as set to avoid calling attention to this as Xena herself was, saying nothing and letting nothing show, though the nonverbal cues were rather hard to miss. Gabrielle saw this, and struggled hard to reign in her hot rage before their descendant saw its result, all while moving between the children and checking them (using her more subtle senses) for the least sign of bacchae touch upon them.
Xena left them to this and concentrated on finding a way for them to escape. The way they'd come was out of the question, of course. Even if it weren't blocked at the opposite end, there was no way on this holy earth she'd risk it now. This meant finding a different way. Gods knew where she'd find it, the chamber small and illuminated enough that little could be hidden from even the most casual search. The light which filtered down from above, indistinct as it was, spoke of a possible route of escape. The only problem with this was the walls themselves, were rough hewn and arching, making the place more a dome than cave and offering little in the way of adequate hand- and foot-holds. Gabrielle's ability to fly had waned significantly of late, whether due to age or some other reason they were not sure. She could do little better than glide on the winds, and with no better control than a well-tethered kite, so that particular option was out as well.
Those same walls offered the protection of shadows and niches to hide in, the usefulness of which were questionable to Xena. If they ended up cornered in this place, they'd quick be up to their necks in body parts that hiding would be a moot point. Still, something about the play of shadows towards the back drew Xena's attention there. More accurately, the lack of play there, as her sharp sight discerned after a moment inky darkness which neither flickered nor shifted with the light.
Drawing her chakrum and taking a defensive stance with the sword, Xena edged over to this area, clearing her mind of all expectations and leaving her prepared for anything which might leap out from the darkness.
She was left utterly surprised when literally nothing leapt out to attack her. Her blade penetrated the darkness, finding no obstruction. A quick wave of it from side-to-side gave her a good idea of the tunnel's dimensions; it would be a tight fit for them all, particularly if they couldn't rouse the children, and there was no telling just where this would lead them…
This last thought turned growing hope into dark suspicion. No doubt these caverns were honeycombed with such tunnels, large and small. This nest of bacchae had been down there for years from the looks of it all, and so would likely know every chute and funnel. Even if they didn't, a tunnel so near to where they would keep their treasures - a single infant's pure innocence was a soul's ransom in gold and jewels to these animals - was something they could not have simply missed or ignored in their lust.
Xena stood, only to notice a second opening near the first, equally still in the light. She repeated the procedure of using the sword first to check for obstructions in the darkness, then to measure its width and height with the same. Both had the same results, and left her even more discomforted. One unblocked, beckoning path of escape could be chalked up to incredibly good luck. But two? There wasn’t enough luck in all creation to account for it, even if Fortune herself were flipping a double-headed coin.
Turning back to the others, Xena threw a warning glance at the djinn (who returned it with a grotesque smirk) and met her eternal partner’s eyes, now fortunately returned to their normal hues of hazel. Everything discovered and decided passed between them without an audible sound. Even so, both Leah and Nicolia looked up, ears suddenly alert and eyes alight with interest. Realizing they were under scrutiny, the two looked over to their descendents, saying not a word.
None were needed, the healer immediately picking up the smallest child while Leah, wincing at the pressure put once more on her tender soles but remained silent, cradled the largest in her brawny arms. This left the middle one, who shifted uneasily as she was picked up, for Gabrielle. The child, no more than five years old, opened her eyes regarded the ancient with uncertainty. Looking around for something familiar, she saw and immediately reached out for Leah, mumbling as her eyes began to fill with tears.
Wishing to forestall the coming outcry, Gabrielle and Leah quickly switched their burdens, the latter actually appearing more burdened than the former. Nicolia caught this, and fought to keep her face straight. Xena motioned them towards the twin entrances of the tunnels, her eyes combing the cavern walls, suddenly alert for…something. What was impossible to say, save that the cavern seemed to become at lighter, the indistinct light overhead strengthening and cast longer shadows across the walls, while taking on a more claustrophobic air. The children were no less effected, shifting uneasily as their sleep was disturbed from within.
This was no surprise, as children are naturally the most sensitive to the passage and presence of evil, adults being too busy in their spirits to notice such things.
This instance was no exception, their nominal guardians here being equal measures aware and unaware of these things, distracted as their attention was right then. Gabrielle nevertheless must have felt it as well, given the way she clutched the child closer to her. Even Leah and Nicolia, preoccupied as they were, did not fail to pick up on this. They could hardly avoid it, the tension among them all being palpable enough to taste, though they quickly rationalized it simply as delayed nerves. Leah in particular was anxious to avoid…freezing up as she had before that tower of dirty laundry, and so did a perfectly Covington thing: she simply told herself she had not done such a thing and would not do such a thing ever again. She actually managed to convince herself on that score for about an entire minute.
The warrior and ancient knew better, and steeled themselves for wherever it might spring out at them.
Xena had already waved them towards the twin entrances, still trying to decide which to direct them through while keeping a clear eye on every possible angle of attack and arguing over the whether to pause to grab up the dagger or simply leave it and the djinn there. Certainly no one, the one who had forged it least among them, would object to it being abandoned to such a function. Still the warrior was loath to leave any weapon of such potency within the enemy's stronghold.
Her attention so divided, she completely missed the scene unfolding at the chamber's opposite end until it was nearly too late.
The others were not so fortunate.
Gabrielle had led the way towards escape, knowing she was the most capable of the three of them. There was no pride in this thought, merely an acknowledgement of the obvious. The others had given no argument, though both followed close and watched with eyes holding a comforting level of suspicion. The healer's in particular, having seen the ancient's lineage in full if brief display watched her for the least sign of its return.
Just what exactly she could do if it were to rear its ugly head was beyond her.
These ruminations came to an abrupt halt, as did her progress towards the tunnels, when Gabrielle's small form became an impassable barrier for both herself and her Amazon. The reason quickly became obvious, and put paid to not only her bravado but her Amazon's stoicism.
Before them, a column of foul smelling mist was rising slowly from the ground, bleeding from a thousand points out of the walls and collecting itself into a towering wall. It spread itself outwards and still further upwards, as though mimicking a great shroud about to descend upon them all. This movement stopped with Gabrielle's soft, almost inviting threat.
"Don't even think about it."
The mist actually seemed to draw away from her words, its width shrinking and condensing, quickly becoming a swirling column of smoke and grit. A pulling breath of wind accompanied this change, though it proved only strong enough to pick at the dirt and tiny stones underfoot. Two slits of pale crimson opened within the twister, pulsing with a hate so pure and alive it was nearly hypnotic. A hulking form soon took form behind those eyes, its shape only vaguely human. Strange limbs and…other things…could be seen flexing and moving there, a shell of light gray slowly coalescing around it.
Leah fought a trembling battle against the paralysis that once more gripped her, the child she held quite disquieted now, shifting and twisting in her dead-locked arms. Nicolia's tiny burden proved equally difficult, though Gabrielle's slept on, as though shielded whatever nightmare gripped the others by her presence alone.
The winds died down slowly, the miniature twister dissipating in tandem. Just as their had been no cause for either, so there was soon no trace, save the settling of a few tiny stones back onto the cold rocky floor. Silence again reigned, though they were no longer alone in this place.
Framed in the overhead shafts of cold and distant light, replete in robes and linens stained and blackened by every filth and sin imaginable, stood the master of this place. It swung its arms wide, at once beckoning and repelling.
The hollow echo that drifted from the hidden depths of the Death One's shambling form broke the silence.Greetings…sister.
You doubtlessly wonder who I am, that know all these things, and how I speak of them with such familiarity. Am I survivor of the plagues and floods? Or a child born and bred amid the ruins? Do I read all these from scrolls and books telling these tales, or have are they simply the idle dreams of my resting mind?
The answer is simple enough: yes to all, and no to all.
I have lived through the plagues and earthquakes and wars and famines, ones occurring long before the third millennium, as mortals measure time. Some even caused my demise. I have died and been reborn into this strange and savage world.
I have read from scrolls and accounts telling of kings and gods, some written in the time of Alexander of Macedonia. Others penned by Bulfinch, Yeats, McCaffery, and Llachlan. Still others once housed in the obsidian archives of Atland, before that great city-continent sank beneath the waves. In some cases it my own hand, when it was a hand and possessed only five fingers, which scripted those tales my imagination conceived.
This was all long ago, before I became as I have been since the building of the pyramids. Even my own name is lost to me, but little matter. I have taken others, ones more fitting to my new stature and existence.
Why, you ask, do I tell you all this? What purpose does this narrative serve? A fright tale, to cajole you youngsters into behaving? Or a fantastic telling, to excite your thin blood and whip you into frenzy? I would laugh, had I still the apparatus for it.
I tell you these things so you may understand the reasons behind what comes next, and why even now, centuries afterwards, we of the shadows fear the light even as we reach towards it with such longing. Who better to know or explain these things than I?
I am the adopted child of Bacchus, having tasted the wine that is his blood, and found its nectar sweet.
I am the Walking Rot, the King of Flees, and That Which Is Death.
You may call me Gaunt, as my blood-sister does.
The figure before them all was easily eight feet tall, taller given it hovered some length off the ground below. Its rag-robes fluttered about, swaying gently to the breeze emerging from within them. The stench it brought was, at least momentarily, overpowering, reminding all of things better left buried. Even the warrior, who had crawled through the muck and human debris of thousand battlefields without flinching, couldn't help but wrinkle her nose at this.
It soon dissipated, but not before accomplishing its intended task. The children were further disquieted, and their guardians unnerved. Well, one of them, at any rate, the other three only looking several shades more furious.
Leah instinctively drew back, some part of her mind was screaming incoherently in terror at the sight hovering over them, the rest cowering in the darkest corner of her consciousness. Her body, however, was kept from such retreat by encountering Nicolia's rigid form directly behind her. The healer quickly reached out, eyes still on the Death One, her hand unerringly finding and wrapping itself around her Amazon's upper arm, steadying her against what was to come.
Xena maneuvered herself to the far left, to where she'd pinned the djinn against the wall. She knew instinctively her sword was useless here, as was the chakrum. The former hadn't a prayer of doing enough damage quickly enough against this Elder, and throwing the latter in these confined quarters was a death sentence to everyone else in sight. Hence her reaching for the one truly blessed weapon at hand. If she could reach it quickly enough…if she could hit just the right spot…
Though she saw none of this directly, nor catching even the slightest glimpse of it in the periphery, Gabrielle knew what her partner planned. She did what she could to assure success. "Snacking on little children, Gaunt?" the ancient sniffed in disdain, taking a bold step forward. "I thought you didn't partake of such sport."
Hardly sport, dear sssssister, came the Elder's reply, spoken with something other than lips and voice. It drifted to 'stand' immediately before her, a limb resembling a hand reaching out towards the sleeping child she held. Merely ssssustainance. The 'hand' had only three fingers, each possessing so many joints it seemed more like a tentacle, no noticeable thumb, and covered with rough looking skin whose deep wrinkles had tufts of coarse hair sprouting out of them. This sight alone, so completely alien, nearly undid Nicolia, as betrayed by her grip tightening desperately on Leah's arm.
Gabrielle had no such qualms, a delicate looking hand snapping out and snatching the Death's One's multi-jointed wrist in an iron-still grip. "I warned you," she murmured. "Do not even think about it." Tendrils of smoke issued form beneath her fingers as her complexion paled, her eyes became golden, and her fingers sharpened to wicked claws.
The Death One shook loose from her grip, though not easily. It withdrew a pace in acknowledgement of the threat, clearly turning its attention to the two mortals and equally precious burdens.
You can protect your own, little ssssister, it taunted. But can you save your own? The threat was clear as it opened its arms wide and advanced another pace before stopping. The Elder could easily pounce upon them before either the ancient or warrior could intercept, holding back only so to gauge their reaction.
Restrained anger from the warrior, her hand ready to reach out for the dagger, totally ignoring the baleful glare the djinn gave her. The dark fury had eyes, fierce and threatening, for the Elder alone.
The bard was equally retrained, though her own reaction was, if anything, even more extreme. Her complexion paled to pure marble, while her eyes shone as liquid gold. Her fangs extended wholly of their own volition, filling her snarl with sharp ivory and her claws glittered in the weak light.
The air went still, and waited.
The Death One turned its head so to better view those it considered the greatest threats. It had decided almost immediately the two mortals were of no threat whatsoever, holding its menacing position over them to dissuade any effort at escape but otherwise wholly ignoring them; this quickly proved a grievous mistake.
No quicker had the Elder turned to look upon the bard than the healer, who had long prepared for a confrontation such as this (though admittedly not with this particular creature) burst into action. Her free hand left its perch on Leah's arm and reached behind her, grasping the hilt of the trusted bowie and flinging it at the distracted Elder. From the instant she'd grabbed it to the moment it found its target, the small blade became aglow with St. Elmo's Fire, illuminating runes carved into the metal that had previously been invisible.
The flash of movement brought the Death One's attention back to its would-be victims, Its head swinging back just in time for the bowie to bury itself into the cowl and whatever form lurked within. The knife connected with a wet-sounding THUCK, the force of the throw rocking its head back slightly as the entire weapon glowed and pulsed as if with life itself. This pulsing light flared after a moment or two, erupting in a flash of heat and force that left all blinded for an instant.
The air was suddenly thick with the smell of burning earth and screams more resembling iron nails dragged across a chalkboard as the Elder staggered away, though this was more out of shock and disorientation than actual pain. The warrior threw the dusky-skinned woman a look of momentary surprise before acting herself, racing forward and snatching the golden dagger out of the wall.
"Heyyyyy!" the djinn cried out, the blade buried so deep into its midsection there was no way it could simply slide off. Xena completely ignored its continued shouts of outrage as she sent the dagger sailing across the chamber and dead-center into the still disorientated Elder.
Another scream, one of real pain this time, issued from the tattered apparition. It was knocked further back this time, the force behind the throw like a runaway train compared to the healer's own, sending the Elder careening back to impact with the far wall.
"Geth…this…thin'…off…meeeee!" the djinn's muffled voice slurred and hissed from within the creature's ragged folds. It was lost amid the ragged gasps and howls The Elder's entire form shook with.
No-one present bothered responding to these entreaties or paid them the least attention. Nicolia in fact found herself being shoved, hard, into Leah by the warrior. As they passed the ancient, her fangs fully bared and eyes alight, the third child was passed to her without the warrior diminishing the pressure in the slightest. "Go! Get them out of here!" she urged, an uncharacteristic note of desperation to her words.
Quickly arranging both children so each was draped over a shoulder, Nicolia oh so carefully prodded her still semi-petrified Amazon forward, not daring to look back. Judging by her raspy breathing and the diminishing cries of the bacchae Elder, they had but moments to make good an escape.
"Move, damn you! Get in there. That's it. C'mon, move!" Her pushing both physically and vocally produced the desired results, and the taller woman bent down and crawled into the narrow shaft, taking care to protect the small form in her arms. Against all good sense, Nicolia looked back and called out "Warrior?" The longing in her voice was almost a magnetic in its depth.
The DarkFire, to that moment only a myth to her, didn't spare her glance. There was no time for whatever words could or might have been said, save for only one. "GO!" The ancient, as was her way, was more merciful. Her golden eyes fixed the healer with a look of pure compassion and what might have been maternal care.
"Go, cousin," she said quietly, the words carrying directly to her ears. "This isn't for your eyes."
Nicolia felt her jaw clench, hard, as her heart became ice. She turned and eased herself into the small passageway, managing to contort herself so both her charges slept on without disturbance. Both remained so far gone, in fact, even the animalistic roar that erupted behind her as she crawled forward. It prompted her to navigate growing incline of the tunnel all the quicker. Her progress soon brought her within sight of her Amazon's backside as it inched ahead.
Leah, who'd frozen the instant she heard the scrapping behind her and looked fearfully behind her, was reassuring as an exhausted grin met her. Her relief at seeing Nicolia looking up towards her was so complete, the tall Amazon was half convinced she'd burst into tears that instant. Right then might have been the perfect time, but it was hardly the place. The healer must have come to the same conclusion, as she summoned her best commanding tone and barked "Keep moving, Captain. I'm right behind you."
Leah allowed herself a calming breath before resuming her climb. "That's 'Major', to you," she corrected, eyes straight ahead, never wavering from the distant patch of light at the tunnel's opposite end.
"Yes, ma'am." Nicolia couldn't help but mutter in reply, a silly grin catching her and holding tight.
The Death One, robes and cowl charred in places but otherwise intact, rose to Its naturally formidable height and surveyed its opponents. The warrior of course still clutched her sword, all of them knowing how useless it was, and the bard stood only paces away, her…their…sire's heritage fully exposed. She was the most radiant, most beautiful of predators like this, moving even its jaded soul to pause in admiration.
Its blood-sister displayed only impatience with this. "Well," she questioned. "What next, Gaunt?"
Drawing a pseudo-hand into the depths of Its robes, the Death One plucked the golden dagger with its wiggling and unwilling passenger from there, a slurping sound accompanying it. Vicious black bile dripped from the three-edged blade and from the impaled imp. Wiping its eyes clean and spitting out the thick icor, the djinn glared up at the Elder and hissed with all the venom at its command "Don't yew evor vash yewself, neh?!"
The Death One's only reply was to grab the imp by the neck and remove it from the dagger with a mighty yank. "Ghaack!" the small creature yelped, its ability to breathe sudden interrupted (not that it really needed to, but it was a hard habit nevertheless to break) and found itself dangled at the end of a raptor-like claw. This led to more squirming and pig-like squealing, which the Elder endured for only a moment before flinging the djinn over its shoulder before turning its attention wholly upon the weapon in its other hand.
The imp suffered several broken bones and twisted neck from hitting the wall with such force and landing without the least control upon its head, all of which healed a few minutes later as it came to. Seeing all present were otherwise occupied, the imp quickly got to it tiny goat-feet and stalked over to the two tunnel entrances, a small leer to its wide mouth, its tiny mind already concocting new poisons for its appointed's ear.
These plans were nipped in the bud when the warrior's sword descended directly in its path, blocking its progress. The imp looked up, both fearful and furious, and met the warrior's eye. The DarkFire didn't give more than a momentary glance its way, a slight sneer curling her lips as she whispered down to it. "Go near either of them, or their descendents, and you'll answer to me." She withdrew the sword and that was that, the Elder whose unsavory innards it had recently and so intimately visited her focus once more. Normally, the imp's monolithic pride would have demanded immediate revenge for so obvious a slight to it.
Right then, all it could do was slunk away into the tunnel shaft not taken by the appointed one and her woman. The twisted cogs of its twisted little brain, however, were already hard turning for a way around the edict now upon it.
No one present paid the least mind to its departure.
Nice blade.Gaunt's serpentine voice drifted in the silence, holding up the dagger as if in admiration.
"Remember that when I use it cut your heart out," Gabrielle rejoined, maneuvering around ahead of it, trying to keep its attention upon her alone. Her threat was so blatant and uncharacteristic, it brought the Elder up short for a moment, providing the warrior the opening they needed. Xena had kept to the back, keeping watch over their descendents escape, her every muscle coiled and ready to spring. No signal passed between them, none being needed. No more than an instant passed between the ancient's words and the warrior becoming a blur, her blade becoming a silver arch reaching towards the Death One's torso.
Her attack was interrupted by Gaunt itself, who was evidently less distracted than they'd hoped. Nothing fancy or showing its true power, simply It sweeping an arm towards the leaping warrior, deflecting her path and sending her careening back the way she'd come.
Gabrielle held her ground, prepared to launch her own assault, but equally unwilling to risk a useless effort. They needed to keep this one busy long enough for the children to make it to safety, and that meant keeping Its attention focused upon them exclusively. This in turn presented the challenge of staying alive long enough to do so, the weapon It now held more potent than could be easily imagined.
You should feed your bitch better, ssssister. Her edge is sssssliping. Again Gabrielle held her peace, giving her kin a small smile and visibly relaxing her stance. This disturbed the Elder for some reason, causing It to back up a single pace and heft the heavy dagger in her direction, holding more like a talisman than an actual weapon.
There came a whisper of metal against leather from behind. The Death One could clearly see, even as It kept Its many eyes straight ahead, the warrior rising to her feet and drawing the chakrum from her belt. She wielded both weapons as hand-blades rather than projectiles, which was unexpected. Surely she knew metal wielded by hand was all but useless against it?
This distracting thought lasted only a moment. When the Death One returned total attention to the small, honeyblonde kin, It realized its mistake. Looking upon her, It was faced with a truth that only monumental arrogance had long hidden.
Old and powerful as It was…It was but a reflection of Its kin…and not the only one to embody the power of life and death.
Gaunt, the Death One, drew Itself once more to its full height, a malicious grin hidden within the folds of its flesh. The thrill that shot through It was nothing short of exhilarating. Its fate…their fate…would be decided here…decided by force of arms, fought by tooth and claw! It had been centuries since partaking in such a contest, the battle always proving so very easy back then.
It took the dagger in a more practical grip, and prepared itself.
Xena crouched in readiness, the sword and chakrum at the ready.
Gabrielle held her ground, calm and waiting.
Darkness, shade, and light stood facing each other in eternal balance, each waiting the first move of the other.
It proved a short enough wait.
They had nearly reached the end of the tunnel, the clear sky above them, when the first sounds of clashing metal drifted up to them. Both Leah and Nicolia paused and looked down, their eyes meeting before resuming their climb as quickly as safety and their burning muscles allowed. It had proved exhausting, though fortunately not nearly as arduous as it looked, just getting as far as they had. That the children were starting to stir hadn't helped matters any.
The abundance of hand- and foot-holds was an obvious bonus and ensured they wouldn't fall too far were either of them to slip. Neither had to that point, both equally determined to avoid doing so…if only to keep from giving the other gloating material. This same gritty determination to impress each other kept them from speaking or even grunting from the exertion.
Needless to say, this didn't make either the time or distance seem to pass any quicker.
Leah had just come within reaching distance of the opening when a shrill cry from far below reached up to them. There was no way to tell if it had been man or woman who'd screamed out, the sound being so indistinct and echoing. It nonetheless prompted both women to forget their mutual exhaustion and move.
Leah braced herself as securely as possible against the opposing sides and shook her small passenger awake, doing so not very gently. She'd already had to shift the child between arms several times just to free up a replacement for which ever arm had been doing the grasping and pulling to that point. Both arms ached like mad by that point, which was reflected, however unintentionally, in her voice.
"C'mon, up," she nearly barked at the girl, a small four year old who regarded first Leah, then the sky-lit hole with wary eyes. "Up. Move!" Leah urged again, prompting the child to reach up and find a grip on the rocks. Pulling herself up and out, of course, would have been an impossible save for the strong hand pushing her on the posterior. Sharp rocks dug into Leah's feet as she braced against them to push first the girl, then heft herself upwards.
"Don't wander off, hon," she panted as she pressed herself through the opening, resting only a moment before reaching back down into it. Nicolia wisely didn't try pulling herself out while still burdened on both shoulders. The hole simply wasn't large enough for the three of them. Rather, she climbed as close to it as possible and, bracing herself as Leah had, lifted one of the children off first one shoulder, then the other, delivering each into Leah's waiting hands. Both sniffled and looked miserable, but fortunately didn't put up any struggle. Neither woman had the strength right then for even the smallest argument with them.
The children safely out, once again warned with a stern "Stay there!", Leah leaned back down into the hole and extended a hand to Nicolia. The dusky-skinned woman reached up and grasped it…
…precisely as her footing gave way underneath her.
Both of them cried out in surprise, Leah finding herself jerked halfway down into the opening, her free hand pushing desperately to the edge even as it dug painfully into stomach. Nicolia instinctively wrapped both hands around Leah's, her feet kicking around for a purchase on the walls. This only served to unbalance Leah further, causing her to nearly tumble fully down the shaft. "Go limp!" she screamed, pushing with all her might on the edge.
Nicolia quickly realized the danger her thrashing presented and promptly did as instructed, stilling herself and going limp. She looked up and saw the exertion writ plainly across her Amazon's sweating face. "Let me go…" she began, only to be savagely cut off.
"Shut…up!" Leah hissed, arms and back straining to hold them there. Breathing hard, she ordered "Find a foot-hold!"
The healer carefully kicked out with both feet, searching but finding nothing of use. The rocks gave way too quickly beneath her, and the shaft was angled too sharply to try landing upon it from a fall, however short. "I…I can't…" she panted, fear starting to overtake her. Not fear for herself, but for what would likely happen if she didn't let go quickly. She even tried to loosen her grip, only to have her Amazon's larger hand wrap that much tighter about her wrist, virtually cutting off the circulation and turning her fingertips blue.
"Find…a…fucking…foot-hold!" The order was delivered both with unmistakable authority, and a clear and unspoken warning of 'you go, I go'. It was all the incentive Nicolia needed, leading her to swing herself back to the shaft wall and kick both feet hard as possible into the wall, dislodging loose rock but managing to find purchase there. She fully released one hand and found a hand-hold as well, though her Amazon refused to slacken her grip in the least.
Confident now they were safe, Leah ordered "Now climb." as she redoubled pushing with her free hand. Her palm slipped slightly on the sandy soil as the healer made her painfully slow ascent. If this was felt, the healer gave no mention, though it contributed no small amount of sweat to Leah's brow.
Eventually, Nicolia reached the opening's edge, successfully bracing herself against the narrowed walls and wrestling herself up and through it. Leah had not let go of her hand, even when she'd was halfway out, the warning still in her eyes. With a mighty yank, one Nicolia was sure would pull her arm from the socket, Leah pulled her clear and they landed in tangle. Struggling to her knees, Nicolia received perhaps the greatest shock yet as Leah Margareeth Covington did something utterly alien to her.
She burst into tears, reaching out and literally crushing the healer to her, the tears and sobs coming in a torrent. She'd never cried so hard, even when she'd broken her arm at six in a climbing accident.
Nicolia would have reciprocated, were her arms not effectively pinned against her sides and the force of her Amazon's sobs shaking them both. She could only cry her own quiet tears of relief and lay her head on Leah's strong shoulder, crooning all the while as to a frightened child. "Shhh, love. I'm here. Shhh."
At one point she seemed to calm and pull back. Looking Nicolia in the eye, she growled as she bunched her shirt in both hands "Don't you ever tell to let you go…" Her voice promptly broke and a new wave a tears came. Nicolia was able to free her arms this time and tenderly wrapped them about the taller woman's shoulders, rocking her and murmuring reassuring noises in her ear with a calm that she had no right feeling.
Eventually the tears subsided enough that they remembered the children. Pulling back from each other, though keeping hands linked, the two of them looked about the empty plain unto which they'd emerged. The canyon walls could be seen in the near distance, but there was otherwise nothing to see save dusty plains and the gathering twilight in the sky. A small fact which promptly caused their hearts to palpitate wildly.
The children were nowhere in sight.
Both stood, panic tightening its hold on their hearts as they looked all around. "Kids?!" Leah called out, fighting to steady her voice. Nicolia didn't trust herself even that far, and so instead visually scoured the area, keen eyes looking for the smallest track or sign. There were an abundance of hoof- and boot-prints around, both large and small. She was given no time, however, to either examine nor analyze their meaning.
"Freeze!" was shouted out from behind them, delivered with enough shock and vehemence they normally might have obeyed. Right then, it simply prompted them to spin on the voice, unmasked rage across both their faces and promising to rip whoever threatened them apart with only their bare hands. Their eyes narrowed, expecting more Zionist Militia or some hardy band of nomads.
They were greeted by the disbelieving looks of a brace of Freetstate horse cavalry, all of whom immediately recognized Leah and put up their weapons. Their officer, a young man with Captain's bars on his shoulders, dismounted and approached. Leah risked a quick glance towards the other three, seeing each of the children were seated on one of the saddles and held there carefully by the riders. She also noticed a solitary horse toward the back, its own saddle empty but heavily loaded with bedroll and supplies.
The Captain spoke to her, saluting and eyes raking over her from head to toe. "Major Covington, ma'am?"
Trying to return the salute with a shaky hand, Leah replied "Yes?"
The youngster looked her over once more before saying, "We…thought you were dead. I see those reports were…exaggerated?" At this, Leah felt herself go still for several moments before did something else wholly uncharacteristic for her:
She doubled over laughing.
Nicolia soon joined her, both of them clutching to each other and falling to their knees. The Captain could only look over his shoulder to his men, fearing their hysteria was contagious. Leah was soon trying to gasp something between laughs. "Ma'am?" the Captain asked, kneeling down, but not too close.
"Mark…Mark Twain!" she bellowed out, and laughed some more, not entirely sure what they were laughing in the first place.
Night had fallen by the time they reached the patrol's encampment. During their ride Marcous, the Captain, had given Leah (who rode with Nicolia on the extra horse, which Marcous swore he hadn't noticed before and who had made a beeline for the healer) a brief sketching of the past several days. Her aunt, furious that she hadn't been informed of Leah's mission to the Southern Nations, had dispatched several mounted patrols into the Blackwood Corridor so to ensure the safe return of both herself and the pilgrims. Marcous' team had come across the abandoned caravan two days ago, and had been searching since then. They'd of course communicated their findings to the other teams, who began their own searches, but had held back sending word back to the border.
"Very wise, Captain," Leah nodded, knowing what her volatile aunt's reaction would likely have been. She'd have marched into the canyons with every soldier she could muster, gods alone knowing what the Zionists would have made of that.
"As luck would have it," Marcous continued, "we were passing by on our final circuit when we heard the commotion as you were…climbing out." He coughed and tried not to look too embarrassed. "I'm afraid the children had wandered off a bit when we found them, so we nearly missed you."
"Hmm," was her only response to this.
"Ma'am? About the others…?" Leah's answer was in the devastated eyes she fixed on the young Captain. He asked no further questions, concentrated on leading them all to safety.
It turned out Marcous and another patrol had established a joint base only a short distance away, its fires offering a reassuring beacon for them. There were over a dozen pitched tents there, offering at least the appearance of sanctuary for them, an illusion all involved were more than grateful for. Leah was simply too exhausted to acknowledge the salutes or stares thrown her way. Rather, she dismounted and ordered Marcous to deploy extra guards to the perimeter. "My caravan was attached by bacchae. I doubt they'll be any trouble, but tell the men keep frosty," she told him, the full weight of her exhaustion finally hitting her. The Captain nodded and signaled his counterpart. The medics appeared as if by magic, quickly prodding and poking the children for wounds before turning to herself.
Nicolia had directed Leah to sit on one of the larger stones near the central fire, kneeling beside her so to examine her foot. She was somewhat rudely prodded aside by one of the medics, who took over the examination. Leah gathered her strength to rebuke the stern-faced man, the fire in her eye enough to at least singe his handlebar moustache. She was quelled by a tiny shake of Nicolia's head. "How long have you been walking without boots, Major?" the medic asked.
"I dunno. At least a day, I think." The man grunted, sounding unconvinced, and stood.
"I'll scrounge up something for you. Try to get some sleep, eh?" he said before moving away, not giving Nicolia even a second's glance. The women shared a tired chuckle between them as Nicolia draped a blanket over her shoulders. Leah surprised them both by reaching out and grabbing her wrist before she could withdraw, quickly pulling her down into a somewhat awkward embrace. She momentarily tensed, more from surprise than actual reluctance, before settling into her Amazon's lap. She let go a shuddering breath and relaxed, truly relaxed, for perhaps the first time in her life. Leah drew her close, the blanket covering them both.
The warmth and security left her drowsy, making her eyes heavy and head light.
"Nicolia?" she heard her name called.
"What took you so long?"
The healer smiled into her Amazon's shoulder, the question signaling her journey completed. This thought in mind, she drifted away into a dreamless slumber.
In the darkness just before dawn, Leah opened her eyes, still drowsy but strangely disturbed.
She looked about in momentary confusion, wondering how she'd gotten into a cot with Nicolia draped over her. She began to sit up, but quickly thought better of it, content to lie there and let her other half's gentle snores vibrate through her. They reminded her how she'd picked up the sleeping healer and brought her to one of the tents, intent on letting her sleep in peace and herself take a cot nearby. The woman's grip on her convinced her otherwise, and she found herself occupying the narrow frame with her, somehow maneuvering them both into a comfortable position.
Certain the source of the disturbance wasn't beside her, Leah let her eyes drift to the half-open tent flap. The sky was still inky black and the campfires were burning low. Beyond them she caught the reassuring movements of the sentries, all casual and fully alert. Confused, she turned her eyes back to the interior of their tent, taking in the bare walls and the cot opposite theirs…
…where Gabrielle sat, watching them.
We she not still half-asleep, and half-convinced she was merely dreaming, Leah was sure she would have leapt to her feet and screamed seven hells at the diminutive blonde. Instead she lay there and returned Gabrielle's keen stare with her own heavy-lidded one. Of all the questions she could think to ask, only one came to her lips. "Is it over?"
The smaller woman smiled. "Ah, difficult question." She tapped her chin for a moment before continuing "Let's just say anyone else passing this way won't have to deal with the sort of…obstacles you all did."
"And the others?"
Gabrielle's expression turned dark. "I'm sorry about them. Truly." She took a breath. "They won't be…coming back, if that's what you're worried about." Leah unconsciously tightened her hold on Nicolia, who'd shifted and murmured something intelligible. That had been among her more secret fears since waking up in that abattoir. Only similar fears for the children had kept her from thinking of it more at the time.
Seeing this, the blonde smiled again. "I was hoping you two would find each other some day. I just wish…"
Anger shot through her at this. "You…planned this?"
Gabrielle simply shook her head. "Nothing of the sort, I promise." She stood and knelt beside their cot, Leah again tightening her hold and drawing them back as far as she could from the blonde's approach. The small blonde, doing her best to look as harmless and reassuring as possible, reached out and took Leah's hand, placing something heavy there.
Leah, mind full of terrifying and irrational thoughts, didn't dare look away from those hazel-green eyes to see what she now held. Despite herself, she was dazzled by the gentle smile the blonde woman gave her. "Keep that with you. Its not blood on the threshold, but it works." A small shrug accompanied this, drawing Leah's eyes to the object.
A long dagger of golden metal, its three-edged blade catching the light, was nestled now in her hand.
Leah looked up, more questions on her lips, only to find herself alone. She looked around for any sign of the blonde's departure, seeing only the tent flaps swaying ever so slightly in the early morning breeze. She was about to call out when that same breeze kissed her cheek and whispered "Sleep, child."
Her eyes closed, head pillowed against her other half's shoulder. Their snores mingled in the otherwise silent morning.
This was how Marcous found her hours later, his morning salutation quieted by Nicolia's warning glare, the golden dagger hidden from sight.
"We're breaking camp in a few hours, ma'am," the Captain reported to her, which Nicolia acknowledged with a dismissive nod. Marcous withdrew, leaving the healer to sit back and admire her Amazon's relaxed profile. She looked so much younger in the daylight, but no less beautiful.
As if hearing these thoughts, Leah opened her eyes, smiling the whole while. "Good morning," Nicolia greeted.
"Yes," her Amazon hummed, bringing their lips together for the first time. "Yes, it is."
It was some days afterwards that the djinn finally found its way out of the tunnels. It was not a large or especially strong creature, nor really built to go climbing about in underground shafts. Goat's hooves were not the being the best implements to climb on, as the sheer number of tumbles and broken limbs it had endured testified to.
Nevertheless, emerge it eventually did. It had a job to do, whatever the warrior's threats to the contrary, and damned if it wouldn't do it.
It huffed and puffed its way out of the hole, immediately catching its appointed's scent. Following this to now-abandoned campsite, the djinn promptly began stomping its tiny hooves cursing a miniature storm, realizing the healing woman was beyond its reach.
Oooo, but the Master was going to be pissed when it found out. This only made the imp curse that much harder, knowing the sorts of tortures and indignities it would have to endure as apology. Though it was just possible, if it played up the warrior just enough, it could perhaps get reassignment. The prospects for that, however, were about as dim as the proverbial night sky.
More cursing and stomping, sending the scorpions and snakes fleeing to their lairs.
Eventually, it calmed and simply scowled into the dark night. "Ah, vell," it muttered. "Que sera sera." Brushing itself down, the djinn set off into the waiting darkness, where its fate waited.
Author's Notes and Somewhat Random Musings:
Well, once again we've landed far afield from where I intended. Thanks for your patience, your occasional bouts of impatience, and the many kind (and not-so-kind) comments along the way. I can safely say my one regret here was not having this finished for you all by Passover holiday, 1999 CE.(sorry, I'm not sure what year it is in the Hebrew calendar)
I realize I began this story portraying the Mormon Church in a less than favorable light. Understand, the individuals portrayed here can easily be, and increasingly are, found in any and all religious doctrines the world over. They are NOT representative of the Church as a whole, and should not be taken as such. Also keep in mind this all takes place after decades of upheaval and disaster, which understandably can leave one a bit unbalanced.
As I've said before, no story is written by the author alone:
Thanks especially to Katrina, who inspires and encourages.
Thanks to Kieren, Malea, Madora, and Miguel, who all endure my occasional rants and frequent bad moods.
Most of all, thank you to the many who have written back and begged, cajoled, threatened, and demanded this be finished…all one hundred plus of you. You wrote when I needed to hear it. Keep it coming.
Sub-Standard Disclaimer: the furnishings of the bacchae caverns were not harmed in the writing of this story. They are, however, always accepting any donations of used but in good condition coffins. Pinewood preferred.
Until next time…
There has been some question as to why I posted a story that displayed Mormonism in a negative light, especially considering that is my heritage. I had a reason.
1. I do NOT censor. I will NOT censor.
That bears repeating. I do not and will not censor.
This was Joseph's vision (no pun intended), not mine.
This doesn't mean I won't argue my beliefs... I did. I warned him that people might not be too terribly receptive to the portrayal. (And He was *still* surprised!) Then I went on to give him *my* opinion about the whole thing, describing what would probably *really* happen should such a scenario occur. (Nothing like having an inside view.) He, most sensibly, ignored most of what I had to say and wrote as his heart dictated. I think the only thing he changed because of my arguments was the names of the leaders...heh. So there you go.
I am adult enough to deal with the sting, especially since I knew he was speaking with pretty much no real knowledge of how the LDS church actually works....But then..again...time passes and people change...and things *do* happen. I read the story, again, and decided that it was good on its own, because it could have been (as he states) ANY religion playing the prejudicial role, and as long as he was willing to deal with the consequences, I was willing to post the story.
Meanwhile, what came out of the writing was a solid, scary romance with some mighty cool characterizations!
Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!