Disclaimer (def.: a pseudo-legal statement of b*llsh*t intended to cover one's a** in the course of committing egregious violations of copyright law and good taste; alternately, a chance for the author to hurl insults at the reader while thumbing their nose at convention, all in good fun, of course): if you don't know the drill by now, I don't know why we even bother. I don't own the rights Xena, Rickie, the Watchers, the-theory-of-Immortality-as-set-down-here, Revolutionary Movement 17 November, or certain historical incidents; I'm merely borrowing them for the time being while I commit egregious violations of copyright law and good taste. This is a (very likely) lengthy piece of fiction written for fun and therapy, with no intention or hope of material gain coming from it. If you work for either Renaissance Alliance Pictures, Panzer-Davis Productions, Universal Studios, or other official entity attached to the characters herein, I advise against suing me as I'm bankrupt and broke.
There will be xex, violence both subtle and overt, hurt feelings, questioned assumptions, and general mayhem. Oh, and a fair bit of xex between two people of the same gender. If any of that bothers you, leave now. I'm not making apologies for any of it later.
This is set in Redhawk's "Infinity" altverse and follows about less than a week after the conclusion of "The Sound of Distant Thunder". Xena and Rickie are now both Immortals and looking towards a long retirement. Unfortunately, there are those who have other ideas.
Destructive criticism and death threats may be directed to email@example.com Compliments, praise, and constructive critiques can be directed to-the-hand. Wait . . . reverse that . . . I think . . .
Onwards . . .
Book One - Kavala
Throughout the summer and into the autumn of 2004, three armies gathered their forces and advanced upon their shared objective. Unlike the armies of old, these forces relied not upon force of arms, nor did they call muster in open fields. Their weapons were more subtle, as was their mobilization.
There were those who left both home and hearth - both with and without explanation to their spouses, lovers, and children - and those already placed near the objective. Those who prepared and those who were already prepared. Some knew the fine details of the whys and wherefores, others with only the most cursory of knowledge or interest.
The armies gathered their forces from across the globe, some coming quicker than others. Each sent their scouts into the world, their intentions transparent and their movements going unnoticed by all. Unsurprisingly, those whose path's crossed one and other paid little mind to such encounters; some less practiced in subterfuge than others, the rest practiced but focused upon their target.
Their target, unmistakable and commanding as the long-fallen Colossus of Rhodes, moved about her life, seemingly unaware and unconcerned by the steady approaching storm that threatened from all sides.
Even so, none those gathering were so foolish to risk approaching too close, justly fearing rousing suspicions within the target. Only fools and opportunists actively sought war, after all, and there none to be had on any side.
There were also those who watched, two steps removed, as events unfolded.
The shades of the small room were down, cutting the light from outside to a set of thin streaks that fell solely upon the simple table at the room's center. The light shone upon a the mess of seemingly random objects resting there: a small pile of photos of varying sizes and formats, a crystal ashtray with a still smoldering cigarette resting in a bed of ash, an open box of matches, a handheld microcassette recorder, and a pair of cellular phones, one exceptionally large and the other fashionably small.
The rest of the sparsely furnished room was left to the darkness, as was its sole occupant, who sat at the table silently. Two arms rested upon the table top, not touching any of the photos or appliances there. Every so often, the cigarette would be picked up, the loose ash tapped off, and a short draw taken from it.
The end would alight with each drag, its weak glow doing nothing to dispel the darkness nor illuminate the occupant who waited there so patiently.
Outside, the cry of gulls and dolphins could sometimes be heard, a might the steady lap-lap-lap of the sea upon the docks, the scent of brine in the air, even the purr of motors and calls of sailors to their fellows. None of these intruded upon the occupant's private thoughts, all of which was focused elsewhere.
In time, a gentle chime broke the room's silence. The larger of the two phones came to life, its small faceplate lighting up. Patient hands reached out and picked up the cellular, flipping up the keypad to reveal a miniature LCD screen and alphanumeric keyboard beneath it. Text was typing itself across the screen, a message long anticipated and holding no surprise.
LATEST: HON. SEN. WILMA, MA, TO ATHENS 12/9/04
A touch upon the keyboard and the screen went dark, the message gone from sight. A second touch, and the phone was closed and switched off.
September 12, 2004
The Arrival of Royalty
Olympic Airways 266 landed at Athen's International at just after 3am, local time, without fanfare or incident, delivering the Princess to her nominal realm safely. The First Class seat in which she had traveled was the only indication of her status; that, and the subtle smiles and almost indiscernible nods of recognition directed to her by several she encountered.
Not that any made any overt move to ensure her swift passage to the homeland, nor drew unnecessary attention to her. If a stewardess made sure to keep the freshest steak dinner for the young lady in seat A12 . . . or if a customs agent gave the same passenger only the same cursory once-over they did everyone else, then happened to glance over her shoulder in the direction of a waiting private car . . . well, one would have been hard-pressed to see anything anyway.
The Princess nevertheless let herself enjoy the small thrill of such behavior, even though she didn't recognize any of those who all but bowed at her passing. She had to wonder how they even recognized her rank, having learned of it herself barely a decade ago and journeying to Greece only once to take part in a ceremony whose details were murky at best.
These were idle thoughts, quickly subsumed by the greater thrill of returning to her ancestral lands. The same doubtlessly felt by the rest of her sisters as they departed their previous lives to likewise return. There would be those whose joy would be colored by a sadness of having to cast off familiar surroundings and even familiar bonds, and the Princess was resolved to soothe such rough feelings as best she could. Some would bring their families with them, but they would be more the exception than the rule. Pity, that, but the dictates that bound them all were as cast in steel, and even she didn't dare challenge them.
The private car was hardly a limo: dust- and rust-spotted chassis, four doors, steering wheel on right, well padded seats, and all windows open for lack of air conditioning. The driver made no move to get out said nothing to her as she deposited the baggage in the open boot and herself in the back directly behind took her from the airport to an estate more than a two hours' outside of the city.
While expansive, the place had seen better days. The lawns were overgrown and dry and the main house, clearly visible from the road, looked abandoned. Those traveling passing by were unlikely to spare it more than a glance.
The Princess nodded to herself, satisfied the camouflage was working as it was meant to.
The car slowed to a idle before the rusted iron gates blocking the turn-off leading to the main house. The Princess exited and retrieved her luggage from the boot of the car. The driver revved the engine and threw the car back into gear the instant she'd closed boot, kicking up a small cloud of dust and grit.
The Princess watched the departure with a small frown, puzzling for a moment why the driver wasn't accompanying her further. She didn't waste much time on it, however. If needed, she had no doubt the driver would be seen again; if not, she had enough to worry over.
These heartening thoughts firmly in mind, she picked up her bags and pushed her way past the driveway gates. The early autumn morning was still warm and humid, without even a touch of breeze to relieve her.
The sky was only just beginning to lighten in the east with the dawn by the time she reached the main doors, which opened seemingly of their own accord. Two women, both dressed in loose robes, stepped out silently. One took possession of her suitcases while the other, who carried a simple candlelit lantern, reached out and grasped her hand. The lantern holder led the way back into the house, not letting go of the Princess' hand and the one carrying the suitcases trailing close behind.
The house's interior was unlit and stank of dust and mold. The Princess paid it no mind other than to watch her footing as she let herself be led further inside. Eventually, they reached what initially seemed to be a spacious closet, though one with walls of metal and sliding doors that hissed shut behind them; an elevator, the Princess realized with some small surprise as it began its descent. She honestly hadn't expected the Sisterhood would possess anything so advanced.
This in mind, she was still further surprised when the elevator came to a sudden stop and the doors hissed open, revealing a well-lit room. On one wall was a topographical map of Greece and the Aegean, stretching from Macedonia down to Crete. There were several computer workstations set up about the floor, their screens alive with pictures and data. There were other tables with other things atop them: electronics, maps, weaponry both ancient and modern. About a half-dozen women moved about, initially unaware of her presence. They too were dressed in simple, practical robes.
The Princess turned to her guide. "Surely this is not all that is left of our Sisterhood?"
Her guide grinned and shook her head. "Hardly, your Highness," she said in perfectly schooled English. "Others are arriving."
"Good," was the Princess' relieved reply, followed quickly by a yawn.
"You are tired from your journey, Highness. You need rest before continuing." Much as she wished to argue, the Princess instead found herself nodding tiredly and allowed herself to be led away to a side room. If she expected a stark, barracks-like cubicle with minimal facilities, she was again surprised to find herself in a comfortable bedroom with carpet underfoot, freshly cut flowers on the bedside table, and an actual bed with pillows and sheets.
The Princess took in her new surroundings for a moment as her suitcases were brought in, then turned to her guide. "Have there been any further sightings?"
"None since she bought her boat last week, Highness."
"Very good. Have a summary prepared for me when I awake." The guide gave a small bow and left. Now alone, the Princess took a cleansing breath and undressed, letting her travel-tired clothes fall to the carpeted floor. She then slipped under the fresh-smelling sheets and closed her eyes.
With that, Wilma Allison Dearlyn, first-term Senator for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Princess Regent of the Sisterhood, fell fast asleep and did not dream.
September 13, 2004
A Calm Monday Afternoon
As had become her habit, Rickie would leave the villa and make her way by one means or another to this same dockside cafÈ, where she would watch the comings and goings of the tourists and fishermen, the dockside workers and the children in their idle play until sometime after the nooning hour.
She would watch and scribble every now and then in the notebook she brought with her, random notes that might someday become a story of their own: the imagined life-stories of the sailors, the future deeds of the children, the joys and sorrows and casual cruelties of the works on the dock, even the indignities and idiocy of the tourists whatever their nationality.
For sustenance, she would sip from the coffee or tea she'd buy to compliment the range of pastries and bakery that would inevitably be ordered during her observation. The young writer would otherwise remain motionless, her eyes the only part in constant movement.
These jaunts into town had, initially at least, been a point of contention between herself and her (very) significant other. It had resulted in their first and thus far only argument since settling in their new home. Rickie had pointed out, perfectly reasonably in her opinion, that despite her "death" several months ago there was no reason for her to stop writing. Certainly it was no reason for her to simply cloister herself away from the world.
The significant other had countered that there was always a chance she'd be recognized from her writing. What if someone asked for her autograph? What then?
To which Rickie calmly pointed out that none of her books had ever been printed in hardback, and none of the editions had ever had her picture in them. She'd never been on a tour, never had occasion to do a book signing, and certainly hadn't let herself be closely attached to the books in the first place.
Well, what about all the pick-pockets and the like, ready to pounce on an innocent like her.
Rickie huffed at this. "I used to be one of those pick-pockets, remember? ëSides, I need the practice if I'm going to be speaking Greek like something other than a student."
We can practice here, can't we? Where its safe and . . .
Xena, her indomitable, immortal warrior, hadn't been able to finish after that. Rickie had understood even before the first objection had passed her lips. In that understanding was a deeper awareness of her warrior's mind. The events of May were still very much with them both, though for Xena it was perhaps more superficial, a worry over physical safety. Granted, ëworry' was a bit mild when it prompted her warrior to behave with an ever-escalating paranoia about either of them leaving the villa. Not that Rickie herself wasn't unaffected by it herself; though with her it simply manifested as a mild case of claustrophobia, hence her need to literally get out of the house and convince herself she was still breathing and not back in the morgue.
Rickie's concerns for her warrior ran far deeper. Xena was afraid, and fear, if the multitude of warrior's proverbs was to be believed, was an enemy deadlier than a thousand arrows aimed upon a single target . . . or something like that. That the fear was grounded in undeniable reality didn't exactly help things.
Not that this was an enemy Rickie herself could deal with, even if she'd wished to. A little fear was healthy (or so her professors in Psyche 101 and 201 claimed). It kept one from taking stupid chances as a matter of course, like bungee jumping using iron chains or high diving into a partially drained pool.
It certainly had helped spur their activities in the bedroom. Their couplings had become increasingly frantic, almost desperate. Rickie had to wonder what her friends back home . . . back in the States would say if they had a look at her back, or the insides of her thighs, to say nothing of her gluteus maximus.
"And she calls me a bacchae," Rickie caught herself muttering quietly, the marks on the aforementioned muscle mass suddenly itching.
Enjoyable as it all was, Rickie had to keep reminding herself it was a sign that all was not well in their private state of Denmark . . . them-marked . . . whatever. Granted, Xena carried several more markings than herself, many in areas that should ensure her warrior would remain housebound for at least a couple weeks. For good measure Rickie had hidden the keys to the Volvo, both scooters, and the Harley Davidson. And even if Xena found those . . . well, Rickie was reasonably sure the padlock she'd installed on the wardrobe would hold out.
Rickie sighed and took another sip of her coffee, only to discover she'd drained the whole cup. She considered getting another, but a quick look at the sky above confirmed the sun was beginning its westward descent. No doubt Xena would be ready to start climbing the walls and unleash the hound dogs on her. Or, worse, let her paranoia override any sense of propriety and come searching herself.
A look at the day's writing merely confirmed her near-total distraction. Doodles made by primates twisted on peyote would have appeared more coherent. No, like it or not, it was time to head home and face the proverbial music.
After which, it would be time to make much more beautiful music of their own. Thank gods the villa was fairly isolated. No telling what their neighbors were thinking as it was.
Rickie stood and gathered her things, her hands moving mechanically through the well-practiced movements as her mind turned over scenarios that might well be awaiting her at home. The blush she could do nothing about, and so made no effort to hide, gave ample testimony on that score.
Without a look around her, the young writer hurried off the promenade and to the scooter parked several paces away.
Behind her, covered by the sounds of the port and peoples, was the sound of a high-speed camera shutter opening and closing. Again. And again. And again.
The photos were examined in sequence, their subject completely unawares throughout:
Rickie Gardner sitting at her small table, a cup and pastry at her elbow.
Rickie repositioning herself so she could rest her notebook on her lap.
Rickie picking at the pastry with one hand, the other poised over the notebook.
Rickie taking another bite of the pastry, something catching her eye.
Rickie paging back through the notebook, the other holding a pen as she chewed on its opposite side.
There were well over 28 photos in all, each and every one focused upon Rickie Gardner, and each and every one the object of careful scrutiny by those handling them.
The photos were passed between the small knot of wildly disseparate-looking individuals studying them. The large man with dark skin and wearing well-tailored silk passed one to the shorter russet-hair woman beside him. Across from them was a lean young woman with a dark mocha coloring and close cropped hair holding two photos side-by-side and examining them with a critical eye. Beside her was man of middling height and build wearing a dark suit and holding a magnifying glass to the photo he was examining.
"She's keeping her hair short," remarked the younger woman. The large man across from her grunted, presumably in acknowledgment of the comment, the others remaining silent. "Can't say much for her choice of hair-dye," she continued, setting both photos aside a retrieving two others.
The comment was lost of the rest as the large man sat back looked towards the woman beside him. "Who shall make the initial approach?"
"I'll do it," the younger woman piped up again, her eyes still on the photos.
"You're a bit of a familiar face, aren't you, Victoria?" The shorter woman studied the exchange with a critical eye, keeping her own counsel. "Bit dangerous, isn't it?"
Whatever reply was coming was lost as the man with the magnifying glass broke in. "Approaching might not be the best idea just now. Look here." He passed the photo and glass over to the woman, who took them with a look of strained patience. She squinted at the glass, her non-expression slowly becoming a frown, quickly metamorphosing into a sarcastic grin.
"Hullo, Margarethe. Look everyone," she sighed with exaggerated cheerfulness holding the photo aloft. "Its dear old Margarethe." She blew an irritated breath and tossed the offending object back atop the pile between them. No one could ever accuse Marie de Anan of repressing her emotions.
Beside her, Manfred Emmanuel Armistead retrieved the photo to study for himself. He could just make out the familiar face there, almost hidden in the crowds surrounding the young writer.
"The Sisterhood knows she's returned. Wonderful." Marie pushed herself back from the conference table and stood up, rubbing her head against the coming headache.
"They likely have the villa under surveillance as well," Michael Grant added, somewhat superfluously, as he took back his magnifying glass to study a different image.
Marie nodded as she began to pace. Armistead simply set the photo aside and turned to watch the Clan Elder. "Shall we approach?" he asked her again.
Marie quit her pacing and looked back towards the rest. Armistead watched her with both concern and patience, Michael with divided interest, and Victoria with open expectation. The last years had been hardest on the young heir to the Dunross shipping and brokerage fortune, having spent them all in close contact with the bard. A close friendship had consequently developed between the two, one unexpectedly severed by the latter's sudden death, resurrection, and subsequent disappearance.
She sighed again and stated "We wait. For now, we wait." She ignored Victoria's crestfallen look and focused on Michael. "When are Enzo and Ian due back?"
"Tomorrow, but they're to check in tonight."
Marie nodded and moved back to the table, reaching for another of the surveillance photos.
The small room's solitary occupant let the last of photos drop to the table, then stood and meandered toward the shuttered window. Rickie's face stared out of each one, a dozen different angles and scenes. They told him nothing he didn't already know, so continuing to stare at them was pointless.
He flipped the shade's tiles and stared outwards, bringing the lit cigarette to his lips for a slightly longer drag. This time he couldn't help but erupt in a short coughing fit. "I've got to give this up," he muttered aloud, giving the cigarette a short glare as he flicked it out the window. The tidal breeze picked it up and carried it off into the bay. The wine dark waters of the Aegean swallowed this small offering quickly completely.
Beyond the room and its shadows, the hustle and bustle of the town below continued on as it always had, unaware and unconcerned. Overhead, the calm sky darkened with the coming night.
Tbc . . .