The office lighting was dark, just the way she preferred it. The subdued lighting made it easier to subdue the consciousness of the person she inhabited. The only illumination was the feeble desk lamp. Its weak yellow glow barely covered the large desk surface.
Professor Bernadette Klause flipped through the latest batch of seismic surveys. They showed the rough outline of the outer walls of a small fortified village. Fainter lines indicated small buildings beyond the outer wall. She smiled coldly as she studied the information, then she sat back and sighed. It was so liberating to be back in the real world, even one so far removed from hers. Time had passed; man had grown up, but it was still like a mass of sheep waiting for the slaughter.
There was a tremor of consciousness from the mind of the person she inhabited. She settled it easily and grimaced in mild disgust. Her latest incarnation had been a sniveling, weak minded, bleeding heart, idiot. The woman known as Dr. Bernadette Klause was a mere glimmer of the power that she had possessed in the past. She grimaced at the thought of being so weak. Her introspection was interrupted by a soft knock on the office door.
"Yes?" she replied softly, still not used to the voice that emanated from her lips. She settled back and folded her hands under her chin.
The shadowy form of a man glided into the room. He was lean and slender with pale blond hair close cut on his pale head. In his thin fingers he held a small bundle of cloth.
"Ah, Mister Finch" Bernadette said calmly with a catlike grin. "You have it."
"Yes, madam," the man replied with a clear baritone voice. He fixed her with a gaze that was better suited to a reptile. "The dig team was quite excited when they discovered the tomb. The village itself was only recently discovered. No one suspected the family tomb would be where you indicated," he smiled. "Or rather, where I indicated."
"That's the beauty of it," Bernadette said. "How would anyone know about it?"
"Yes, Bernadette," Mr. Finch repeated with an unnatural politeness that would have sent a shiver up anyone else's spine. He handed the small bundle over to his employer and stepped over to the small bar and poured himself a glass of bourbon. "The thing I find interesting is that you knew where it was?"
Bernadette merely smiled a knowing smile so cold that only a like minded creature could gaze upon it unaffected or with appreciation. Mr. Finch was such a man.
He merely shrugged and seated himself with a flourish and gently shook the glass of alcohol, listening to the melodic tinkle of the ice against the glass. He watched his employer open the package with reptilian detachment.
The figure that was, in appearance, Doctor Bernadette Klause, gently unfolded the ancient oil cloth and exposed a beautifully crafted crystal medallion on a fine silver chain. It was shaped like a four pointed star. The points were each formed by a single, polished clear crystal surrounding a simple, pale green one in the center. The whole was surrounded by intricate silver framework, covered with tiny, detailed letters.
Doctor Klause smiled greedily as she studied the artifact.
"So, Bernadette," Mr. Finch asked, leaning over to get a closer look. "What is this worth?"
Bernadette's dark eyes flashed up at him with such barely restrained animalistic hunger that even he sat back in surprise. Instead of retaliating as his conscience desired, he merely sat back and smiled coldly. His left hand fingered the closed straight razor in his coat pocket. "Not yet," he thought to himself. "Not just yet."
The good Doctor was out of her seat and hovering over a nearby globe that rested in an antique stand. She held the amulet up to the globe over the city of Athens, her present location.
"Now," she hissed in anticipation. "Show me where it will be."
The central crystal began to pulse faintly, as did the left most triangular piece, like an indicator.
Doctor Klause smiled eagerly as she slid the object in the direction the crystal indicated, crossing the Atlantic Ocean into America. The central crystals' glow intensified as it traveled and the Doctor's eyes lit up, demonic in its pale green glow.
Mr. Finch merely sat back patiently, waiting for his employer to complete her task.
When she finally did, she turned and grinned triumphantly.
"It will be somewhere in the vicinity of Chicago," she announced.
"That's wonderful, Bernadette," he said with complete neutrality. "Perhaps you would care to explain to me just what will be in the vicinity of Chicago?"
Bernadette simply settled back into the overstuffed chair behind her desk and stared at Mr. Finch intently.
"Not plotting anything untoward, are you?" she asked in a voice that sounded more like a tea kettle boiling over.
Mr. Finch merely smiled and settled back in his chair, sipping the bourbon and studying Bernadette with even, unreadable eyes.
"It is refreshing to know that a newcomer with a certain flair can suddenly burst into the business with such flourish and skill, and still not be taken unawares by the people she employs." He said in a kindly tone. A tone that might have appealed to a crocodile.
"I know," Bernadette said evenly, her eyes locking on his with unnatural intensity. She tossed a thick envelope into his lap and smiled. "That despite the money I pay, you wouldn't hesitate to kill me if you thought it would benefit you."
Mr. Finch smiled and opened the envelope, his thumb slowly moving the bills from side to side as he did a quick count.
Doctor Klause rose and stepped around the desk, seating herself against the edge, in front of the killer. She looked small and weak in the soft nightgown and robe she wore.
Mr. Finch, still smiling that reptilian smile, looked down at the envelope.
In a flash, the Doctor had him by the hair on top his head, yanking his face up and back.
Mr. Finch let the envelope fall as he reached into his coat pocket and drew out the razor. She intercepted the hand and disarmed him. He felt the cold steel against his own throat.
Bernadette's face was inches from his, and her eyes glared, bloodshot and rimmed in red, like a possessed being. Her leering grin was savage and bestial as she hissed in his ear.
"I know," she whispered. "That given the chance, you would have tried to kill me tonight, Mr. Finch. I know, despite your infernal courtesy, you have no sense of honor, and I know that you could never hope to defeat me, though you are just stupid enough to try."
She released her hold on his head and settled back against the desk, her finger testing the sharp edge of the blade thoughtfully. She folded it back into its handle and looked at Mr. Finch, seeing fear in his pale eyes for the first time. She smiled again, this time in a way a snake might seduce another of its own kind. She tossed the weapon into Mr. Finch's lap and turned away.
"Take your money and get out." She said coldly. "We need to create a reason for the good Doctor to travel to America." She leaned over the desk and grinned.
"I believe the Frank Weldon, a former colleague, lives in Chicago. I understand that the cities can be quite violent." She folded herself back into the seat like a snake coiling to strike. "Take two men with you and arrange an accident for the good man. That should motivate my alter ego into leaving the dig. I will contact you when I arrive. Do not try and contact me, understood?"
"Of course, Bernadette," Mr. Finch responded, showing that he had mastered his initial shock and fear. He stared at her for a moment, his own mind working to ascertain the level of this woman's duality and insanity. In the end he merely accepted that her money was just as valuable as anyone else's. In the end, that was what really counted.
He could bide his time for a while and wait for the opportune moment. Whatever the little trinket was, it was merely a tool for something greater. To him, that translated into something more profitable. Profit was the only thing he was interested in. This newcomer with all that money could continue to pay him for his services until he knew everything he needed. She was ruthless, cold, calculating, but inexperienced in the ways of business.
Let her feel superior for the moment, and then squash her like the insect she was.
Mr. Finch smiled and rose, draining his glass in one long gulp. He set the empty container on the bar and gave the Doctor a polite nod.
"Good night, Bernadette," he said kindly. "Pleasant dreams." He backed out of the office, closing the door silently behind him.
Professor Bernadette Klause sat in silence for a long moment until she heard the sound of Finch's car crunching down the gravel drive and off the complex grounds. Then she simply laid her head back and closed her eyes.
A few moments later, Professor Klause's eyes fluttered open again and she breathed sharply in surprise. She looked around at her darkened office with a slight air of fear as she felt the shadows in the room close in about her.
"God," she breathed. "Not again."
She rose from the seat and stepped gingerly over to the light switch. The glaring yellow light blinded her for a moment as it flooded the room and chased the shadows away from her surroundings, if not from her mind.
Her eyes traveled the room, taking it all in before she began to cross back to her desk. A glint off to the side caught her attention and she paused.
A frown crossed her face as she noted the empty glass on the bar, the ice cubes still resting in the bottom.
"That's strange," she commented to herself. She took up the glass and sniffed cautiously, wincing at the odor of the bourbon. Then she frowned again in concern. No one she knew drank that stuff?
She went back to her desk and ran through a quick inventory of her information. The contents of the latest seismic survey lay there, spread out across the desk instead of neatly filed in the manila folder beneath them. There was also an ancient piece of oil cloth resting on her desk that she knew had not been there before she had left work earlier that evening. Someone had obviously been going through her things, but usually a thief would have taken something, not left it? She unfolded the cloth and stared in wonder at the contents. A beautifully wrought four pointed star medallion of clear and green crystal covered by engraved writing of a language she could not immediately identify.
She held it up to the light.
"Where on earth did you come from?" she asked it, half expecting an answer. The concern for the security of her latest archeological dig was slowly being overcome by her insatiable curiosity. In the end she concluded that she had sleep walked from her small apartment on the other side of the university to her office. It hadn't been the first time she had done this. There had been several digs in the past where her drive for answers had caused this type of behavior. Still, none of her walking dreams had ever yielded an artifact before, especially not one in her own office. As she stared at the green central crystal, an image flashed before her eyes. The face of a young woman, with short blonde hair and fierce emerald eyes. The image struck her with such force and surprise that she nearly dropped the amulet. She set the thing back down on the desk, re-wrapped it in the cloth and then tucked the bundle safely away in the locked drawer.
Whatever the artifact was, it certainly wasn't classical period? Perhaps Minoin or Samaritan, but not from the era of the Poditia dig site. A colleague must have brought it by to ask her to identify it. It wasn't unusual for Professors of one site to ask advice of another, and the act of dropping off unknown artifacts to a colleague had been something of a private joke for many of them. A test to make certain that each of them was on their toes, so to speak.
She smiled wearily, sat back down and removed the surveys of the Poditia dig site for another inspection. She discovered, at the bottom of the stack of papers and images, a large area satellite image that showed the outline of the current dig site, with the small blue tents of the team and the various pits dug in the surface of the lush green field. Then gazing at the image, she noted a small black X in permanent marker, drawn in a place about a mile from the site, at the base of a small, rocky hill. Again she frowned. She hadn't requested anything for that area. She checked the grid reference and confirmed that nothing had been scheduled for that site. As far as she knew, all the manpower and equipment was focused on the excavation of the village wall foundations and interior buildings.
Perhaps it was a site that she had planned on exploring at a later date? Her mind felt like clay and the weariness seemed to wash over her afresh. She slid the papers back together and filed the information back in her desk.
As she prepared to leave, a blank expression suddenly washed over her face and she quickly dipped her hand back in the drawer if the desk and removed the oil cloth package, slipping it into the pocket of her robe. Then she switched off the lights and departed.
The cool, humid night air seemed to lull her into a deeper state of weariness as she crossed the courtyard to her apartment when suddenly the image of the blonde haired girl flashed before her again. She wore a costume of deep red animal skins, adorned with beads that seemed to refer to the amazon tribes of the region. In her hands she held two weapons not of Greco-Roman origin, but of Japanese. Two sais, which she seemed to wield with superior skill.
The image flashed out as the young woman seemed to leap right at her. She paused in her walking and breathed deeply of the cool scented night air.
Once in her apartment, she looked in the mirror above her small wash basin and studied the lines on her face. She looked tired and worn out. Though she was barely thirty-seven, she appeared to be older. It was as if her life's work were slowly sapping her of her vitality.
"What's wrong with me?" she asked the reflection. Then she dipped her hand into the cool water in the basin and splashed it on her face. When she looked up again, she almost screamed. In the mirror was her own reflection, but not her own. The same face, though seeming younger and more vibrant, stared back at her with deep, somewhat wild dark eyes. Her face was framed by the skull and skins of a deer or elk, cut into a headdress, and her body was covered in the skins and bones of the same animal, some areas still red with the color of old blood.
"My God," Bernadette gasped.
"Please!" The image spoke back to her, smiling with undisguised contempt. "You repulse me! So weak, so full of ambition, but no direction! You've seen the one who threatens us, and yet you stand there fawning! Pull yourself together, damn you!"
"You," Bernadette said. "Who are you?"
"I?" the image replied and she chuckled with such an evil sound that Bernadette felt her skin crawl. "I am you! I am the greater part of you! The part that your soul is hungry for! I am the heart of the power you seek!"
"What power?" Bernadette asked. She feared that she might be going mad. "Who are you?"
"I am Alti," the image announced. "I am the original incarnation of you, more's the pity!"
The image scoffed in contempt. "Look how far we've fallen! Two thousand years to grow and perfect our craft, and what do you do? Dig in the dirt with worms! Two thousand years ago, you could call spirits from of the dead to serve you! You could hold the powers of the universe in the palm of your hand! Now you hold only a spade or quill. You drew energy from the earth, now you draw up pebbles and trinkets!"
"What are you doing here?" Bernadette asked, a lump of cold horror forming in her throat.
Alti smiled. "I am coming back to life," she said. "I had hoped to do this slowly and subtlety, but our combined enemy is here now, and she is too great a threat to go unchallenged! I must have your body, now!"
"NO!" Bernadette cried in horror, but then a fire raged through her brain, shoving her consciousness deep into the recesses of her mind. She felt her will slipping into a deep, endless void. She tried to scream, but she no longer had a voice.
In the mirror, the image of the frightened professor was replaced by the calculating, cold image of the ancient shamaness. The lines of stress and worry that had been on her face smoothed over and were replaced with the cunning look of a stalking cat.
"Gabrielle," Alti muttered. "You're like an insect that won't die!" She stepped away from the basin, knocking it to the floor with a crash and strode through the apartment.
Once she had found suitable garments, she picked up a cell phone and, ransacking the lamented Professors mind, gleaned the information she needed to use it. She tapped the small buttons and held the phone to her ear.
"Good evening?" a soft flowing voice responded at the other end.
"Finch!" Alti barked. "Change of plans! Get your men and meet me back here in one hour! We leave for America tonight!"
"Will we still be traveling to Chicago?" the educated voice cooed.
"Yes!" Alti barked. "One hour!"
She snapped the phone closed and slipped it into her jacket pocket. In the back of her mind, the Professor struggled to regain control for a moment.
"Sit down and be silent!" Alti growled, easily forcing the submissive mind back. "Pathetic," she finished and she began packing a small travel bag with her basic necessities.
Gabrielle slept fitfully for about an hour and then she sat upright in the small bed. Somewhere below her, she could hear the sounds of fighting and the clashing of steel.
She got up and grabbed her sais, moving quickly across the deserted main room and to the door that led down into the "shop".
As she peered through the door, she witnessed two figures standing opposite each other, in ready stances, each holding a long, narrow bladed sword.
"Ready?" she head David say.
The other, dressed in white, nodded, and the two closed in a series of lightning quick moves.
"Atcha!" David's voice called and they parted. He tapped the upper left side of his chest and pointed at his opponent. "Got me. Good one, man."
"So," Dusty asked as he went back to his starting point. "What do you think of our house guest?"
David shrugged. "Don't know enough yet? I think someone kicked her out of a car, or something? No one in their right minds would be out there, in the cold, dressed like that?"
They stepped apart, dropped into a ready stance again and charged.
"Ah shit!" Dusty's voice emanated from the opaque mask. The tip of David's blade had smacked loudly on the top of his face plate. "It's that damn gorilla reach of yours!"
"She seems friendly enough?" David continued as they reset again. "Why? What's your impression?"
Where Dusty's equipment was more utilitarian, long sleeved white fencing jacket with white gloves and mask, David's was more stylized. He wore a loose fitting green shirt beneath a simple black chest protector and black opaque mask. The gloves on his hands were also black, trimmed in a green that matched his shirt.
The two of them closed again and each scored a hit. Laughing, they returned to the end of the strip and squared up again.
Gabrielle forced the adrenaline down and watched, quietly sliding her sais back into her boots. Her ears perked up at the subject of conversation.
"So?" David asked again as he crouched down, readying for the next exchange. "What are your impressions?"
"Ah man, "Dusty replied. "You know me? My first impressions are always based on physical appearance. So, I think she's hot."
"Hot, huh?" David replied, smiling behind his mask. "That's pretty shallow, even for you."
"But honest," Dusty replied, and he charged in again. The blades crashed and then Dusty ducked low and whipped his weapon around, across David's chest.
David spun away from the hit, his left hand rising to his bruised side.
"Wow!" he cried in surprise. "That's gonna leave a mark!"
Dusty laughed fiercely. "Smoke that!" he challenged.
He strode back towards his end of the strip. "So, you don't think she's hot?" he asked.
David laughed. "That's not the point."
Gabrielle smiled at the evasion, her attention fixed on the two men below.
David spun his weapon in a flourish as he reset and then he dropped back into his guarded stance. He tapped the point of the blade on the ground, his left hand back behind him.
"So," Dusty teased him. "you do think she's hot."
"You know," David sighed. "I keep forgetting how much of a hound dog you are."
"Paid up, card carrying," Dusty replied cheerily.
Dusty also tapped his blade and nodded. "Bring it on, big guy!"
The two closed with reckless fury. Their blades clashed and struck back and forth, clanging in the large chamber for what seemed a long few seconds, then Dusty launched himself through the air and stabbed downward. There was a sound of tearing cloth and David recoiled with a frustrated cry.
He pulled the mask off and looked at his opponent with an incredulous smile. Sweat was streaming down his face. His long dark hair was tied back in a tail that fell down between his shoulders.
"What the hell was that?" he asked, laughing. "A kangaroo on acid?"
Dusty also removed his mask, his face shining with perspiration. He was grinning broadly. "It worked, didn't it?"
David grinned and went to replace his mask, moving his right arm experimentally.
"Uh, you might want to check that?" Dusty offered. He pointed with his weapon, indicating David's right arm.
Confused, David looked down and saw the small, spreading dark stain on his upper arm. Then he saw the hole in the fabric of his shirt.
"Ah man," he moaned. "This is my favorite fencing shirt!"
"What about the arm?" Dusty asked in concern. "You're bleeding?"
David lifted the torn flap and inspected the small cut. He shrugged. "It's nothing." He grinned mischievously. "But your ass is mine now!" He reset the helmet on his head and dropped into ready. "On guard!"
Dusty sighed with resignation. "This is going to be a long night. What's the score?"
He also replaced his helmet and got ready.
David pointed at Dusty and then at himself. "Ten to eight."
Dusty raised his weapon. "All right. Let's do it!"
Understanding it to be a competition, Gabrielle quietly edged out to the first step and sat down to watch. It was like watching a fast, precise dance. The exchanges lasted mere seconds before one of them or the other scored a point. The blades flashed, the feet would shuffle and then someone raised a hand and pointed, indicating where they had been struck.
On the next exchange, David leapt straight in, mimicking Dusty's suicidal maneuver of a few rounds before. In this case, he brought the weapon whistling down, striking the collarbone with an audible whack.
Dusty recoiled with a cry of pain.
"What was that for?" he asked, rubbing his neck.
"That was for the arm," David replied, grinning behind his mask. "And the shirt."
Grumbling, Dusty reset himself and got ready for the next exchange.
When the score tied at fourteen, the two of them removed their helmets and stood erect, facing each other.
"La belle," David said. He raced his weapon in salute. Dusty repeated the gesture, then the two of them replaced their masks and settled back down.
"So?" Dusty asked as he readied himself. "You gonna make a move, or not?"
"Make a move?" David replied, adjusting his mask and dropping into ready. "Christ man, we just met the girl? We don't know anything about her?"
He raised is weapon to ready.
"Make a move?" Gabrielle frowned. Then she smiled. Here were two men, engaged in combat and discussing whether or not they should approach her, after only one night? She had been in enough inns and taverns to understand the context of those questions. She shook her head and smiled again. Then she focused back on the match below.
"Good luck," David offered.
Dusty nodded and raised his weapon. "Ready?"
Gabrielle held her breath, though she didn't understand why.
Suddenly, Dusty stepped quickly in, while David launched himself forward with a cry. The blades clashed and then David was past him, his weapon smacking loudly on Dusty's head. At the same moment, Dusty stabbed upward.
David landed and turned tapping his chest and pointing at his friend. Simultaniously, Dusty turned and patted his mask before pointing at David. The two of them laughed aloud.
"Gods, that was fast," Gabrielle whispered quietly.
"Alright," David said with a cocky air. "Alright!" He went back to his starting point and dropped into on guard. "I'll get you this time."
Dusty grinned behind his mask.
"You'll try, Bullwinkle," he challenged. The two of them reset.
Gabrielle held her breath again.
Again, they closed and struck, and again they both hit at the same time.
Gabrielle let out a squeal of excitement in spite of herself.
Both of them removed their masks and looked up at her in surprise.
Gabrielle shrugged. "Sorry. I was just watching."
Both of them smiled and looked at each other.
"Think she heard us?" Dusty asked quietly.
David smiled. "Probably."
"Still La belle?" Dusty continued.
David smiled and nodded as he went back to his starting point. "Yeah, we both died on that one too."
Dusty saluted David again and smiled. "I think you just want a chance to impress the House Mouse?"
"Dream on, buddy," David countered with a laugh. "Ready?"
The two of them charged again.
David tossed in his sleep, his mind wandering in an ancient field, somewhere he did not recognize. His eyes beheld the ancient trees, white with age and weathering. Not a single leaf lived upon them. Even the grasses beneath his feet seemed only a mockery of life. He stood in a small clearing, looking about him at the trees. On the ground about him was a series of small stone arrangements, signifying grave sites. And about him hung the decomposed bodies of several other people, most of them rotted away to mere bones, trussed together by the tattered remains of ligaments or old clothing.
"This is not where I was hoping to go," David said as he tried to focus his dream in another direction. It had become an art that he was quite proficient at. On this particular night, however, someone else was leading his dream walk.
He glanced down at his body, clothed in a simple black coat with blue jeans, boots, and a black hooded sweatshirt beneath his leather vest. His hands were covered in fingerless gloves, and he saw his bowie knife strapped to his right hip.
"All dressed up and no one to date," he smiled ruefully. Then he looked about him at the ancient carnage again, knowing without reason that this had been a real place. "All right then," he muttered. Then he stood up straight and stretched out his arms to either side, hands open in a gesture of welcome.
"Who has brought me here?" he called in a clear voice. The words echoed about him, bouncing through the dead trees into infinity.
Suddenly a small pile of wood burst into a merrily crackling camp fire.
The sound of slow deliberate clapping could be heard behind him. He turned and beheld a tall man with thick black hair and narrow goatee. He was tan and powerfully built, wearing a black vest, pants, boots and a pair of inlaid black bracers, covered in silver.
"That's new," the man said easily as he smiled. "Most people get nervous when their dreams don't go the way they want. You seemed to welcome it?"
"Not the first time I've been yanked off my usual dream walk," David responded coolly. He took one step back, wary of this apparition. "Who are you?"
"Yeah," the man said. "Introductions first. Been a while since I've had a mortal to talk to. Most of you don't even recognize me anymore." He held his hands out and gave a courteous bow that would have seemed genuine if not for the barely concealed wry smile on his lips. "Ares, God of War, at your service."
"Ares?" David replied, a smile touching his lips. "The Ares? That's rich. Okay, I'll bite. What is an abandoned God of War doing calling me from my dream walk?"
Ares gaze momentarily went dark, and then he smiled suddenly and chuckled. "That's what I love about you modern humans. You're so full of yourselves that you don't even fear a God anymore. So brave and yet so stupid." He shook his head. "You obviously have no idea who you're dealing with."
"No," David nodded. "Actually, I have a real good idea. I also know that you didn't just walk in and take over my Dream Walk. You were allowed."
"Allowed?" Ares laughed. "What makes you think I need permission to do this? Man, are you arrogant! You're worse than my late half brother!"
"The truth is seldom gentle," David said evenly. "I'm assuming that you had a point to make, right?"
Again, Ares stared at David with a dark look, hoping to intimidate him. When it became apparent that this would not happen, he shrugged and smiled again.
"Okay," he said. "You've recently met a young, very attractive, very irritating little blonde girl named Gabrielle. I guess I can assume you've noticed a few things odd about her?"
"A few," David conceded. "That point you were going to make?"
"She's going to want to talk to you in the morning," Ares said. "Now, some of what she says – okay, all of what she says is going to be strange to you, more strange or annoying than anything she has said so far. I'm here to tell you that it's all going to be true."
"I was kind of figuring that," David said knowingly. "One thing she doesn't seem to be is full of shit."
Ares caught the hidden rebuke and this time his temper began to take hold.
"Listen you little brat," he said, pointing a finger at him. "You don't want to make me angry. I'll fry you to a crisp!"
"No you won't," David chuckled. "You couldn't if you wanted to, and we both know it."
"Really?" Ares asked, and then a blast of fire shot from his hand and exploded just before impacting into David's chest. He fired another and a third, all with the same result. David merely crossed his arms and waited, a confident smile on his lips.
Ares looked down at his hand and back up at David with a look of total perplexity.
David merely crouched down and held his hands out to the flames.
"You can't touch me, here," David said. "Or anywhere, for that matter." He looked up at Ares and nodded. "My Goddess protects me here, and in all things."
Ares looked as if he could skewer David with his eyes alone.
"And my Goddess has been around for a hell of a lot longer than you have. Hell, she was probably your great-great-grandmother." He shrugged. "So what about this talk that Gabrielle and I are going to have? And why were you hiding in the mirror behind the bar tonight?" David looked up at Ares knowingly.
Ares eyes widened in surprise. "How did you know I was there?"
"Hey, Retired War God," David said with a touch of injured pride. "I just look like biker trash on the outside. I've been a temple High Priest for nearly ten years now. We just aren't as open about it as we were back before the Burning Time." He seemed retrospective for a moment. "Come to think about it, you didn't do much to help us back then, did you?"
"Call it an oversight," Ares growled.
"And not knowing your opponent?" David asked. "Just another 'oversight' for the God of War? Come on, Ares, Patton never would have approved."
"Well," David continued before Ares could say anything. "Let's get down to it, shall we? What do you want?" He gestured to a nearby log, offering for Ares to sit.
Ares stared at him for a moment, and then he laughed out loud, truly laughed.
"I like you!" He admitted. "You've got heart, you know that?"
He sat down on the proffered log and looked around.
"Look around," he said. "This was the work of another person a lot like you could be."
"Really?" David gazed about him. "I never got into the Vlad the Impaler thing, myself."
"I had a woman once," Ares boasted. "Her name was Xena. With a little prodding in the right direction, she accomplished this long before I was finished with her."
"You must have been proud," David muttered. "The point?"
"Okay," Ares said. "If you decide to help out Gabrielle in this upcoming endeavor, you're going to need a few things from me."
"Like?" David asked.
"Better reflexes, strength, accuracy, and brains," Ares ticked off. "I can give them to you, temporarily of course."
"Of course," David said. "Kind of like letting Gabrielle speak my language?"
Ares mouth dropped open for a moment, and then he smiled again. "Well, you don't miss much, do you?"
"Try not to," David replied easily. "Now I have a question. What will it cost me?"
Ares shrugged. "What is it with you mortals and debt?" he asked. "No one can give you anything for free? Why is that?"
David shrugged. "Ever since I started reading philosophy, I've become inherently suspicious. I especially like the passage that states "If something looks too good to be true, then it probably isn't true." You're little offer sounds too good to be true, unless there are strings attached."
"That's a terribly out dated frame of mind," Ares waggled a finger at him.
David smiled sarcastically. "Well, I'm talking to an outdated God."
Ares was struck again by the sheer impudence of the man before him. In all his thousands of years, he couldn't remember anyone who had spoken to him so casually, so rudely. He stood up and towered over David, trying to be as menacing as he could.
"I may not be able to hurt you," he said in a growl. "But that doesn't mean I can't get to you. You have friends, loved ones, even that irritating blonde might start growing on you."
David nodded and rose, looking Ares in the eye, unflinching. "True," he agreed. "I'm sure you could mess with everyone I've ever known or will know. But, if you do, that would just prove something else."
"What's that?" Ares asked.
"That Ares, the Great God of War in the Greek Pantheon, was actually a coward at heart. He's a bully who will torment the people that can't defend themselves, because the real players were too damn good for him to measure up."
David's eyebrows rose in question. "So," he asked. "What's the truth, Ares? Are you a badass, or a bitch?"
Ares' eyes were two black pits, filled with impotent wrath. His chest heaved with breath as his rage swelled within him. He knew that this one was protected by a power greater than his. The man's faith in that power only strengthened it. He turned and began to stalk off.
"Hang on a second," David called after him in a truly apologetic tone. Ares turned back to face him.
David's demeanor changed in that moment. "Okay. We're done with all the posturing and bullshit, right? Now, let's talk. What do you want from me?"
Ares looked at him darkly for a moment, and then a realization began to dawn on his face.
"You were playing me?" he asked, totally astonished.
"No more than you were trying to play me," David replied with a grin. "My teacher always told me, if I wanted to know someone, I should make them angry, and that way I see the true person. I made you angry. I know, now that Gabrielle wouldn't be here if something wasn't serious. I know, now that she is not exactly from this neck of the woods, and that you have a vested interest in her. The rest, I'll let you fill in."
Ares stared at him and then his grin reasserted itself and he chuckled. "You're good," he said, waggling a finger at him again. "You're very, very good. Okay, let's parlay, shall we?"
Gabrielle moved slowly through the misty haze about her. In her mind, she knew she was sleeping in the small room, David had provided, but that realization did little to comfort her in this place. Vague shapes could be seen at the edge of her vision. They would be there for one moment and then scoot out of sight before she could recognize them. She continued through this place for what seemed an eternity, then the mist faded away and she beheld a small valley. She was at the crest of a high rocky hill, looking down at various blue dwellings, with people moving to and fro between a large, dug out area. With a sudden wrench of her heart, she recognized it as the valley of Poditia, her home. The village was gone, reduced to a large pit in the midst of a field. The sadness of it washed over her like a cold wave.
Voices beneath her caught her attention and she gazed down to her right at a closer group of people, working in a small cave below her.
She crept stealthily down to a spot just above the opening and looked down at some of the artifacts already being removed from the place. With a shock, she saw several large rolls of ancient parchment, just like the ones she always used. She crouched lower, her hands coming to rest on the ancient stone, and seemed to feel the breathing current of life in her fingers. Suddenly, the activity began to slow till it came to a complete stop. The figures of people ceased moving. She stared at the scene in wonder and amazement as she saw everything before her frozen in a single moment. Just above her head, a small bird hovered, just shy of its tiny foot touching the branch on which it would land. A small squirrel, stared up at her, seemingly lifeless, in mid panic as it prepared to scamper off, the hairs of its bushy tail were rigid like wire.
Then, slowly the figures began to move in reverse. The people and artifacts moving back to their original positions as time reversed itself.
Gabrielle knew this sensation only by repute. Autolocus, the King of Thieves had described his experience with the Chronos Stone, and she remembered it well.
Her fingers gripped a little tighter as the universe spun in reverse, faster and faster until the movement of the seasons were like small flashes of light. She had a sudden sense of falling as the world regressed back to something more familiar.
Just as inexplicably, the images and seasons began to slow back down. The months and years slowing to a gradual reverse progression of days. She witnessed activity at the mouth of the tomb again, this time it was individuals dressed more in line with the time she was familiar with. A small cluster of people emerged from the tomb bearing a litter, upon which a body rested. It did not stop moving until it was a good distance away. Then, as if the universe paused to catch its breath, the people beneath her began to move forward again.
Gabrielle watched the grim procession as it approached the tomb. She saw the bearers, four young men, strong and lithe, bearing the litter of a person who had been rather tall in stature. The thin veil covering the body obscured the details of the face, but she could see that the dead man had been an elderly one. That was some small comfort at least. The man had lived a full measure of years. Behind him came the other mourners, obviously family. Something about the way they moved sent a chill up her spine. She saw the central figure of a woman, about the same advanced age as the dead man. It wasn't the age of the woman that caught her attention. It was the way she was moving, and the look in her pale green eyes. Her eyes!
Gabrielle's breath caught as she realized she was watching a funeral for someone she would know in her future. In the back of her mind, she inspected the way she looked at advanced age. She had to admit that she would age well, if this was accurate. A grim smile touched her face. Then she noted the two figures following behind the older her.
One was a man, tall and strong, in his late twenties or early thirties, with long golden hair and deep, fiery green eyes. He wore a close shaven beard and moustache that leant his features a rather roguish appearance. Gabrielle recognized the stance and bearing of that man. The other was a woman, also tall and proud with dark brown chestnut hair and deep dark eyes. Both were dressed in simple traveling attire. Gabrielle realized with a start, that she was looking at the faces of her own grown children. The resemblance between her and the dark haired young woman left little doubt, though she had obviously inherited her height from the father.
Both young people were fit and strong, each with a hand resting on the elder Gabrielle's shoulder, attempting to comfort her while at the same time dealing with their own sense of loss.
Gabrielle looked down from the place and saw the fierce attempt at her elderly counterpart to keep her emotions in check. She could imagine the last time she felt that much emotion in one moment. Her heart ached to behold the sight. Without understanding why, she rose up from concealment and moved to go down to them. The three figures looked up and their eyes went wide.
Gabrielle froze, suddenly uncertain as she saw them looking up at her, and past her.
She realized in that eerie moment, that they could not perceive her, but they did perceive something else.
Gabrielle's older counterpart slowly covered her mouth in wonder, her eyes alight. The two children behind her stood tense and amazed, the man's hand slowly traveling to his sword hilt.
Gabrielle gulped in sudden fear and slowly turned her eyes to look over her shoulder.
She discerned a large black shape, and then she was falling through a tunnel, faster and faster, the universe had vanished suddenly beneath her feet. She screamed in fear – and sat bolt upright in the small bed, covered in a sheen of cold sweat, her breath coming in ragged gasps and a sob on her lips. It was the palpable memory of something that would come. The loss of yet another loved one. She huddled against the cool wall and hugged a pillow to her chest, weeping quietly.
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