by Joseph Connell
Disclaimer and Introductory Comments: Xena and Janice Covington are the property of MCA/Universal Pictures, while "a certain theory of immortality" herein belongs to Davis/Panzer Productions. The big stuff (the Second World War, agents of the National Socialist Party of Germany of 1923-1945, unnamed aboriginal tribes of the Amazon rainforest) all belong to historical fact, though individuals I name are purely my own construct. All are used here without permission and with no intent of material gain. Don't anybody bother suing; I'm way too deep in debt from university to bother with. There will be incidence of violence, maybe a few expletives, and references to same-sex love (nothing actually acted or shown though, for reasons that will become obvious later). If any of this is disturbing or illegal where you live, may I suggest the library down the street? "War and Peace" is a much more interesting read.
This is a prelude of sorts to the groundbreaking "Only One" by Redhawk, and tries to address certain inconsistencies between her story and events in the show, particularly "The Xena Scolls."(see Author's Notes at the end) For the uninitiated, here's a ten-second recap: Xena is an immortal in the vein of Duncun MacLeod and the rest of the "Highlander" crew, thanks to having tasted the ambrosia. Consequently, the gods have long ago stopped involving themselves in her life. She's survived to the present day, though Gabrielle's death (from old age) of nearly two thousand years ago still haunts her. A rough timeline of her life to the present day is posted on Katrina's site. Check it out; the warrior's led an interesting life.
Comments, criticism, and dutiful worship is welcome. Flames and the like will be consigned to virtual oblivion.
The medicine woman emerged from her not-sleep after three days. She didn't speak of the dreams she had suffered through in all that time, and not even the gentle humor and rich cooking of old-mother Nalli (easily the oldest member of the tribe, save for the medicine woman herself) could pry it from her. A first, which made the tribe's elders nervous.
She had been with the tribe for countless seasons, longer than even the oldest storyteller could recount clearly. Her skin, while dark in tone, was far lighter than any other in the tribe. Her hair was as dark as theirs, grown long and rich, and her eyes were the same brilliant blue as those who had come before her, marking her position among them as clearly as any sign from the gods. The skills she brought to them were many and precious, from tool-making to foraging to hunting to the mending of every wound describable. Some believed her a god-made-flesh, remembering the stories of how she had once rescued a child from a rogue crocodile, falling dead from her wounds in the process, only to awaken alive and healed not a day later. They wisely kept such thoughts to themselves, unwilling to risk her wrath at such presumption.
For her part, the medicine woman finally emerged from her hut she promptly collected digging tools and her apprentice Mor'a, then set off towards the highlands. The tribe lived deep within the rainforest, a good half-day's journey to the banks of the great Amazon river and almost two day's (by canoe, no less) from nearest trading post. Because of this isolation, the tribe had long-ago come to depend upon its intimate knowledge of the land and jungle for its very survival. For the strongest among them to fall so suddenly, then all but flee them, sent ripples of subdued panic throughout the community. What would become of them, if she never returned?
Grandmother Nalli, however, stepped in and calmed all fears. She reminded them with story after story exactly who delivered the tribe's children for the past four full generations, and who it was who taught the hunters and guided the foragers. Who taught the other healers, and who made the children laugh with fantastic stories?
And who, Nalli also reminded them, always warned them that she would one day be called away, to the wider world?
It was nearly dark when they returned. The chore actually took longer than expected, whether because their prize had been buried deeper than she remembered or because the occasional mudslides had added additional layers of soil and slit atop the original mound. She'd assured Mor'a time and again there was no question they were digging in the correct place. Both were sweating hard, the hold deep enough to where only the medicine woman's head was visible while Mor'a disappeared entirely, when their bamboo shovels finally hit something other than soft soil and loose rock. From there on they used their hands, and soon uncovered the length of a slim, rectangular crate. The wood surface had long ago lost its polish, and there were signs of wear and decay pitting the grains. Yet the hard wood had weathered the years marvelously.
Wrestling the crate out of the hole proved less difficult than uncovering it had. Not easy, mind, but hardly a stressful challenge. Mor'a was very confused by her teacher's wide grin at the jingling sound (she was sure it was not caused by bone or wooden beads like those of the village women) that emanated from within the crate as they moved it. She found herself even more confused by the teacher's simply picking up the long box and carrying it across her shoulder as they made their way back down to the village.
It wasn't her carrying the crate as such that put Mor'a off. She and the rest of the village had long ago become used to such casual displays of strength. Rather, it was the relaxed manner with which her teacher strode down the sharp inclines and little-tread path. This contrasted sharply with the feverish desperation with which the medicine woman had summoned her and had lent such effort as they'd dug. Normally Mor'a would have questioned such actions, asking for and teasing out a clear reason for these things. It was this penchant to seek answers, more than simply her talents with herbs and humor, that led to her apprenticeship. Hand-in-hand with this, however, was the wisdom of knowing when to speak up and when to simply follow. A second look at her teacher's gait, seeing the raw tension bubbling beneath the relaxed manner and easy stride, told Mor'a now was a time for the latter.
The village made no move to approach them upon their return. So complete was their trust in her, a trust built upon seasons upon seasons of good advice on everything from crop rotation to how long the children should be allowed to swim in nearby ponds, that they did not question her abrupt departure or equally abrupt return.
Mor'a herself, though she would not openly ask the obvious question, was determined to follow and observe her teacher until satisfied by either explanation or sight. The medicine woman herself had paid her student little mind, to the point of utterly ignoring her while carefully clearing on of the long tables where she ground and mixed her remedies, then set the crate atop it. She'd only begun undoing the complicated-looking latches on it when young Tohn came running in, voice high-pitched and desperate. Mor'a quickly shushed him and managed to pry his message out between the tears and hiccups. It seemed he and his younger brother had, in defiance of stern warnings, taken to playing around a somewhat treacherous stretch of forest, known for its sudden dips and hidden pits. His brother had fallen into one of these pits, fortunately a shallow enough one that Tohn managed to drag him out and help him back to their family. The boy had since been complaining of pains in his stomach and legs, and their mother ad sent him to summon the medicine woman that she might work her usual magic.
One glance at her teacher's hunched shoulder told Mor'a this would be her duty alone. Somewhat reluctantly she gathered her pouch and filled it with every remedy she could envision needing. She was half-out the door when the medicine woman's distracted voice rang out behind them. "Don't forget the Yula salve." A quick glance into her pouch showed Mor'a she had forgotten the most versitile of their many, many medicines.
The apprentice fetched the appropriate jar, mindful of her teacher's unseen grin, and set off after the boy.
In her dreams she had first heard distant voices, her own among them. They spoke in English, so there was no difficulty in understanding them, though the accents were all strange and unfamiliar. Her's, Joxer's, and...
There were gunshots, though too few and too rapid to be musket-fire. Wild screams of abandon coming from...from...
Demands for a name, more curses, more strange words and voices. At the center of it all...
She experienced it all through a distance, hearing yet not seeing. Awareness was equally distant, only the faintest traces of sensations. This was as it should be, as she merely dreamed she heard Gabrielle's voice. There could be no other explanation. She chose to indulge the fantasy as long as allowed, and so did not fight the strangeness of her senses. They spoke of ethereal feeling, the sensation of swimming in thick, warm mire. She saw nothing save the darkness then.
Again and again that impossible voice reached for her. "Still wanna stick around?" it taunted. "Stay outta my way!" it ordered. It called to her, and she let herself float towards it. Closer she drifted, light soon warming her sight. Soon she was no longer drifting, but could feel herself pulled upwards...faster...faster...
A charge of power stuck her like Zeus' lighting bolts, robbing her momentarily of all thought.
She awoke to cool, dusty air, knowing at once she was no longer in the jungles of her home. A sword had found itself to her hand, as had the chakrum. Still more proof she merely dreamt what came next. Unfamiliar, impractical clothes chaffed her skin, while some ridiculous thing of glass and metal was perched on her nose. She was quick to take in the surroundings: a chamber, hewn from native rock, its walls covered with stonework and carvings so ornate and extravagant they could only be the work of the gods themselves. Sand and dust tickled her nose, while a too-familiar voice rang in her ears.
"Release me," the God of War demanded.
"Think again, Ares," was her reply.
The momentary shock on his face alone made it worth the headache standing so quickly caused her. That he even felt the knee she applied to so-called manhood, never mind was actually doubled over by it, was added spice to her feast. A pity, she thought as she fled, unwilling to risk a confrontation too soon, the real Ares had never been as easy to deal with.
Not that seeing Gabrielle was all that easy itself. True, it was only...only a dream...a construct of her own imagination. The clothes that hid her strong, sleek form, the attitude of self-pity hidden by arrogance, were too alien to her bard to be real. Probably brought on by a light fever or too much time foraging for the proper roots...
Why then did Gabrielle think so little of herself? "I'm just the descendent of a useless sidekick." she called herself, and it was all Xena could do not to run her sword through the apparition for such blasphemy. Remembering this to be a dream, and careful not to think about how often she had to remind herself of this, Xena spoke soothing words to the vision, almost desperate to reassure her...it...her...
The dream became vague after that. Joxer with a strange accent, Hephaestus' name bandied about, the chakrum slicing the air, sledgehammer fists pounding into her...
The chakrum flew a final time, breaking in two, as she had been broken so long ago...
She awoke in her simple hut, alone. The air was wet and thick with humidity, a sharp contrast to the atmosphere of her dream which left her eyes damp with tears yet to be shed. Bruises covered her body from the phantom blows, though it was the ones left within that left her weak and shaking. Bruises left by uncaring fate when it had chosen to tear her soul in half.
Unbidden by any conscious decision, her legs carried her from the bed and out the door, joints protesting such sudden use after days of neglect. She barely recognized the voice that called out "Mor'a!"
Madness. It was sheer madness to have dreamed such things, never mind to have let them affect her so. Wild imaginings were no reason drag one's apprentice so deeply into a treacherous jungle with only a pair of bamboo shovels in hand. To do so was irresponsible, to say the least. Never mind arrogant and just a tad silly. Not in a good way, either.
Such points went unheeded, however, as she and her apprentice moved the earth at their feet. It took most of the daylight to reach the prize, though only the ache of her arms and the sweat mopping her brow told her anything of the time or effort spent. All focus was addressed to finding what she had buried so long ago.
She barely remembered dragging it out, or carrying it back to the village. She heard little Tohn yammering about chest pains. Or was it his legs? Then hearing Mor'a fumbling about with their remedies. Had she offered some advice? With all her energies centered on keeping her hands from shaking too hard as she undid the latches, the thundering of her heart in her ears, she was deaf to everything else.
It sickened her heart to open the case once more, knowing there was no more choice to be had for it. She would have traded all the wealth of the world for a taste of Lethe's waters right then. She had fled here, to this sacred land within the deep jungle, exhausted beyond measure at the accumulated failures and betrayals of her hopes. Escape is what she had sought, finding it here, where her memories and the demands of the Immortal Game quickly receded into the far distance.
Now? Now there was nothing that could stop her reaching into the case. Not even herself, had she truly wished to.
The purse of gold coins was the first thing to come to hand. The leather was dry and brittle to the touch, though she was thankful at seeing its contents were only slightly tarnished. She could only hope gold was still a coveted enough commodity to get her passage north. Otherwise she was going to be on foot for a long, long time.
It was the second and last object resting within the case that brought her full attention to the present. With gentle, almost reverent fingers she lifted the long cloth-wrapped bundle out and held it, simply looking at it for a short time. Those same fingers began to undo the dry wrappings, the oil that had once soaked the fibers having dried away long ago, almost of their own accord. The hands worked mechanically, her eyes distant and heart uncertain if she wanted to hold it close...or throw its length into the deepest pit she could find.
Too soon, the cloth fell away, and the blade of a bastard-grip long sword glinted dangerously in the gathering twilight. Though unornate, the sharp edges and solid lines of the weapon bespoke the deadly purpose it had been (and would be) put to, time and again.
Gripping the pommel with one hand, she settled into an instinctive fighting stance. Mid-guard, ready to either take the offense of resist on defense against some imagined foe. The blade balanced easily in her strong hand, and a familiar thrill ran chill through her blood. Until that moment she had not known how desperately she'd longed to hear the song of steel-against-steel once more. Indeed, she could almost hear it now, the clash of phantom blades and strength ringing in her ears, drawing a grim smile from her lips.
A single tear gathering and running from the corner of her eye was the only sign of the pain eating her. The pain of accepting what is inevitable, having to remember all that had been forgotten and did not want to be relived.
Xena of Amphipolus, Immortal, stood in the dying light of day, the life she had lived for so long dying with it, the night heralding her return to the world she had left behind and could not escape any longer. Nor would she try.
It was, after all, who she was. It was what she was.
For the remainder of the evening, the village watched as the lights burned low within the medicine woman's hut. The small sounds of jars and furniture being moved drifted out occasionally. But more frequent was the sound of rock scrapping metal, and the woosh of a sword's blade cutting the air.
Morning would find the hut empty of its occupant. And with her, any sign that she ever was.
To the untrained and uninitiated, the jungle could and did appear as a solid wall of greens and brown. No clear path can be immediately seen, nor any break in the thick foliage. Only those who have learned the ways of the jungle might maneuver with any speed or confidence.
Though she had rarely left the village proper, its grounds as holy as any church the Christian might consecrate, Xena had spent sufficient time with the hunters and foragers to find her way to the trading post. She'd chosen to leave long before dawn, and carried neither torch nor lantern. It was a test, to see just how much of once-sharp edge had been lost after so long at rest. Very little, she was pleased to see, her progress going unimpeded and her pace unhampered by the weight of her sword once more upon her back. She still wore the simple sandals and woven skirt of the village, but now wore a loose tunic and her wild hair gathered into a tight ponytail. This was not out of modesty by any means, as she'd never had much concern about going unclothed, but rather for practicality. No point in giving the traders the wrong idea about what kind of payment she was willing to offer.
The dawn was only just lighting the horizon, and she well along the small trail leading from her village. The purse tied to her belt didn't so much as jingle at her steps, which were heavy as they were cautious. Despite the clear path underfoot, Xena felt every step as though she were wading hip-deep through mire. Part of her, the warrior she was and would be once more, was angry at this reluctance. The warrior demanded she stop hiding and be ready for battle once more.
The rest of her, that small and vital part of that was human, ignored the warrior and longed for the peace of her village. The longing to reverse her steps, to shatter the sword and toss the coins into the forest, was strong. So very strong. She longed, but knew it could not be. Just as she could no more ignore the essential fire of her being any more than she might the cry of a child in pain. True, she had once let herself be consumed by that fire in younger days, at the head of her warlord army, and now ever guarded against it. But the fire that might burn and destroy might also warm and light the way through darkness. Xena had learned to be the latter, having feasted too long on the ashes of the former.
Ironically, it had been Ares himself who'd made the decision for her. "The weapons more destructive," he'd said of the world with such confidence and pride, convincing Xena of every word. "The people, more hateful." Such a world needed her. She nearly chuckled aloud at her egotism, knowing it was more than simply that. She was too much the wanderer. Ares had simply provided her the excuse. But more than this, her heart could no longer stand to be closed off from the wider world. Gabrielle had worked her magic on her too well, and her wounded and stony heart had been opened too wide now.
It didn't matter what weapons she now faced, or how many armies were massed. There were wars to end, and innocents to save.
Again Xena heard a chuckle issue, hearing her bard's voice in such a sentiment.
As she walked, keeping a sharp ear out for the least sound of some opportunistic predator looking to make her its morning meal, Xena pondered her dream. Gabrielle visiting her this way was no surprise. Her bard, gone so very long, had become something of a regular feature in her dreams. Often it would be some distant memory or event in their lives that was relived, though occasionally she appeared in odd dress and speaking in strange languages. On these occasions she seemed panicked and teary-eyed, babbling about her "fainting." Invariably the minions of one or another of the gods made an appearance, only to be dispatched with speed and efficiency. Gabrielle always appeared...shocked at seeing this, staring as though at a total stranger. These dreams never lasted long, and were few and far between; Xena could recount their number on one hand alone. Half a hand at best. She was secretly glad for this, the look in Gabrielle's eyes too close to condemnation for her fragile control to endure.
But this latest one puzzled her, leaving her shaken as never before. Ares personal appearance (there was no mistaking his smug presence or unbridled presence) and their fight (her joints still aching from the exertion, however illusionary) had with them a feeling of such vivid clarity and desperation she couldn't help but wonder...wonder at the familiar feel of the tomb the dream had placed her in...wonder at the inherent at the inherent she'd felt with Gabrielle's doppelganger...with the body she'd awakened in...
Wonder...could it have been more than a dream?
Xena could not stop the thought from surfacing time and again, however chill it left her.
She seen nothing of the gods for two millennia. Nothing. They'd done nothing as the one God of the Israelites and that young prophet from Nazareth came to prominence, their temples rededicated (or simply destroyed) in its honor. Artemis herself had turned a blind eye to the rape and murder of the last of her Amazons on Milikion. One and all had seemingly turned their collective backs on their former worshipers, letting all that they had built be torn down and nearly forgotten. Yet now she was suddenly trading blows with War himself? Xena stubbornly refused to think of the experience as anything more than a dream; a particularly vivid and unsettling one, granted, but nothing more than the fancy of a fevered mind.
Ares words continued to haunt her steps all the same. "And there's a new leader. A lot of vision. A lot of potential. His name's Hitler."
"Not for much longer, Ares," Xena vowed under her breath, low enough even the god would have to strain to hear her. The only question in her mind was how long it would take her to find and deal with this "Hitler." She'd infiltrated Ming Teing's fortress without breaking the least sweat. The poor fool probably had never seen a battlefield in his life, leading his country through guile and wits, all for his own personal glory rather than for the betterment and safety of his people. That was the sort of leader Xena had seen developing when she'd left New York and its sister colonies in disgust, just seven years after they'd won their independence from England. Thinking on it, such a leader was the sort Ares would make good use of. Not the General, but the King who ordered the General to fight pointless battle after pointless battle.
She could only hope she might get to the fool before he cause too many deaths.
She'd reached the clearing marking half-way between the village and the river, deciding to rest a few moments there. The sun was a quarter above the horizon, its strong light breaking through the canopy of trees here and there in bright shafts, when she caught the first stirrings of the Quickening. Xena froze at the familiar sensations: the shortening of breath, her guts suddenly clenching hard, the rush of phantom wind in her ears. The moment passed quickly and actually left her winded and dizzy. It had been so long since she'd last felt it
Her hand automatically went for the sword's handle, stopping short of drawing it when she caught rough voices disturbing the jungle's midmorning chorus. She was hardly opposed to a duel, at least in principle, though to do so soon after leaving sanctuary was certainly not something she looked forward to.
Then again, how could it be avoided?
There were several voices, all male and low. The last thing any duel needed was an audience. For this reason, more than any real reluctance, Xena immediately dove into the thick green lining the circular clearing. Even she was surprised at how limber her joints proved, and how easy it proved to climb the nearest tree silently. She hadn't consciously chosen which tree to use as her perch, letting her body act on instinct. Clearly those instincts had not decayed over the years.
Balanced, so easily as to look effortless, on one of the higher branches and half-hidden from sight by the heavy leaves, Xena looked down upon those who intruded here. She wasn't surprised to see they were European, nor that they were soldiers. Professional ones, judging by their collective bearing and the functional cut to their uniforms. This was somehow more comforting than seeing just another batch of Jesuits or the like, sparing her having to war with her conscience whether to aid them or simply let the jungle have them.
Their voices drifted up to her, carried by the still air of. Fortunately they were German speakers, so she didn't have to strain too hard to understand them, blood heating with each sentence caught.
Christian van Treischman mopped his brow for what must have been the tenth time in half as many minutes, hating the damp heat of this jungle and longing for the cool alps of his native Bavaria. The men accompanying him, a sizable detachment of 11 Reich KommandoGruppe, likewise suffered and groused from the heat, but at least had the good sense to do so quietly and keep at least some of their wits about them. The danger didn't come from the Fuhrer's enemies, there being little chance either the British or Americans knowing of their presence here. Even if they did, the British were too occupied fending off the Luftwaffe and readying themselves for the inevitable invasion to spare the resources to pursue them, and the American's were too decadent and lazy in their isolation to care. Russia was hardly a threat, that madman Stalin murdering his best minds to realize he was certain to be the next to fall, as France had already fallen.
No, what endangered them was the jungle itself. Treischman had lived too long not to appreciate how dangerous such wild territory was. He'd been on enough games hunts (and not only for four-legged prey) to know just how canny and lethal an adversary the land could be. He didn't honestly expect the bulk of his men to survive this little expedition. Oh, they were all well trained and brave, almost to a fault. Many hand been among the infiltration teams who'd opened the Blitzkrieg against France. But looking into their eyes, it was clear they were ill-suited to the mission at hand, so far from the least sign of civilization or any of its comforts.
Which to Treischman's mind made this entire operation all the more suspect. That it had been authorized by Himmler himself didn't particularly impress the aristocrat; "Little Heini" was too obsessed with his mysticism and impossible dreams of an Aryan utopia for Treischman to take seriously. Only the prestige (and justifiable fear) of his Schutzstaffel stormtroopers kept the Wehrmacht from doing the sane thing and eliminating the lot of them. Several of the men actually were SS, though even he wasn't sure which. An open secret which kept protests to a minimum.
Treischman had little interest in Hitler or his so-called Reich, having seen and heard it all before. Several times before, actually. His involvement in the war was strictly out of boredom. And this so-called mission, bah! "Seek and secure the treasures of the seven cities of El Dorado on behalf of the Fuhrer and the Reich. Failing that, establish a clear route by which future expeditions will follow." What nonsense, if only on grounds of logistics. He'd easily need five times as many men as he had now to commit even a half-decent search of the region. He might as well be leading an expedition to seek and secure the Golden Fleece or King Soloman's diamond mines. Himmler had sent expeditions to Tibet to acquire the pelt of a Yeti, and off into the Macedonian deserts to dig up everything from the Hebrew Ark of the Convenent to the bones of Joseph of Aramatheia. No small irony there, given the rumors Treischman had heard of what was starting up in those camps in Poland and elsewhere.
The aristocrat shook his head at the sheer waste of it. Just as well he'd taken this assignment; it was coming time to reassess his participation in the Third Reich.
"Herr Colonel." It was his NCO, Unteroffizier Dachler, hurrying towards him. Dachler had been carrying rear-guard position, using his formidable size (none of it fat) and rank to keep the rest in formation and moving. Compared to Treischman's natural and handsome (if bored) profile, the Unteroffizier nearly simian in the blunt construction of his face and manner. He kept his voice low and "This heat is leaving the men too worn to continue at this pace, sir. They need to rest, sir."
Treischman rather admired his NCO's frankness, and had long ago crossed the man off his mental list of possible SS agents within the detachment. He wasn't about to undercut his own standing with these still-unknown agents, however, by appearing too soft, no matter how much he agreed with the assessment. If his own fatigue were anything to go by, then his men were positively dying in their dark fatigues and heavy field packs. Add to that it wasn't even noon, and he wouldn't have to wait for some jungle predator to get to them. The heat alone would do them all in. A part of him wasn't necessarily opposed to such a contingency, as it would certainly make his planned relocation easier.
With a sigh, Treischman realized he was too much the old Teutonic knight to drive men under his command to suicide so casually. For the benefit of those listening with a different pair of ears, he said "We've only been underway five hours, Sargent, and still have much ground to cover."
"We will cover even less should the men simply collapse where they are, sir."
The aristocrat snorted and gave a short nod, stopping in his tracks as he did. Looking upwards, into the trees, his face taking a distant look as the men marched by. They'd just arrived at a wide clearing, one whose dimensions and size were too exact to be natural. There was soft patches of moss here and there, along with evidence of small fires all arrayed around shallow pit filled with charred wood and debris that took up the clearing's center. The trees and branches formed an incomplete dome overhead, which alternately lit and cooled the area. The jungle was very much alive around them, its natural din going undisturbed by their arrival to this place. Perfect, was the only thought that came to mind.
Treischman shook himself out of his momentary trance, seeing Dachler watching him with some concern. "We will camp here for the day, Unteroffizier. Have the men bivouac and detail guards on rotation. We'll press on at sixteen-hundred hours."
"Javoul," the Unteroffizier piped up, turning and already yelling orders to the men. Treischman was deaf to it all, his eyes and attention for the trees alone, feeling unseen eyes upon him and his.
While the men settled, he took to wandering about the perimeter, eyes not leaving the unbroken greenery surrounding them all. He half-caught snatches of conversation among them. Boasts of girl back home and experiences in the field, sneers against all non-Germans, camaraderie in the form of crude ribald jokes. Treischman heard it all, and listened to none of it.
At some point, he passed a couple of young troopers engaged in a rather animated discussion about the natives. "I hear they're all headhunters here," one was saying.
"Hmph," his comrade growled. "I've read studies about these tribes. The men all have six wives."
They both snickered lustily at the thought. "I wonder what we're to do if we encounter any."
Treischman, who'd been standing directly behind the pair of them, his back to them and hands clasped severely to the small of his spine, tossed casually over his shoulder "What we do with all inferior races, Private. Exterminate them all." It was Party rhetoric of course and the aristocrat didn't believe a word of it. He said it just for the benefit of ears listening for such 'loyal' sentiments, continuing on his way.
There was the distant sound of birds disturbed from their rest, fluttering noisily upwards. For the first time that day, Chrisitan van Treischman smiled. Perhaps there was sport to be had here, after all. A bit of hunting even.
"Dachler," he called out, sensing the NCO's quick approach. Without turning, he informed the large soldier "We'll stay the night here. Let the men get a decent rest in, yes? See to it."
This said, he put all thought of his men aside, turning wholly towards the hunt to come. His smile grew as feral as the eyes he felt center upon him from deep within the green beyond. "Tonight!" was the promise he gave to the wind, which carried it to the ears it was meant for.
A slight ripple, almost going unseen, to the jungle before him whispered in reply, answering on the hidden one's behalf.
The night could not come soon enough.
The day proved interminable, dragging itself out and leaving the aristocrat in increasingly ill temper. He'd spent the bulk of the day alternately pouring over maps of the region, sharpening his machete, cleaning his Lugar, or wandering amongst the men. His rare contributions to the chatter became increasingly biting and harsh. This had the perverse effect of improving the men's morale and overall mood. If their commanding officer suffered so from the heat, they were certain to outlast the arrogant ass here. Indeed, bets quietly began circulating on how long it would take him to collapse when they broke camp tomorrow, though they were careful not to let Unteroffizier Dachler catch them at it.
There was actually a charge to the air among them. Whether it was the low din of insects and birds and whatnot ringing them and grating their nerves, or unconscious anticipation at the prospect of pitting themselves against some unseen enemy, the men were uniformly anxious and energized. Whatever the cause, their nerves were all electrified and singing, which led to many a nervous but genuine smile amongst them. They soon were mirroring their commander, examining and cleaning their weapons and sharpening both bayonets and machetes, over and over again. Even the guards around the perimeter were affected, their short circuits becoming shorter or longer, depending upon how jittery a given trooper was.
The notable exception among them was the stoic Dachler, who watched his subordinates with hawk's eyes. Whether he approved of all this activity, particularly its ad naseum repetition, was impossible to tell. He watched, and didn't so much as touch his own weapon or sidearm, save to heft his Heckler SMG from one shoulder to another. If anything, the giant soldier looked positively serene. No perspiration doted his skin, no unnecessary movement was undertaken. Nothing giving the least sign of his thoughts of the tableau about him.
As day slowly became evening, the shadows among them growing long, the mood within the camp relaxed sufficiently that most laid down their bedrolls and prepared to call it an early night. Dachler's Gefreiter, a wiry blonde Aryan named (of all things) Schmidt, did his own rounds among them, his manner suitably serious that the Unteroffizier didn't see need to follow up. There were no arguments to break up, nor really any more grousing than usual on the guard rotation.
His men seen to, Dachler prepared himself for the night to come, laying down with no intention of sleeping beyond a short nap. His commanding officer would need back-up that night, the aristocrat's intentions and plans as plainly obvious as that short beak he called a nose. Part of him was perfectly willing to let the Barvarian get himself killed out there, in the dark jungle alone. But he'd sworn an oath, the same his father and grandfather had taken. Damned if he'd toss the family honor away simply because he had to watch the arrogant prig twenty-four hours a day.
He caught Schmidt out of the corner of his eye, who was rummaging through his field pack with such care that he knew he'd be confiscating somebody's hidden flask in the morning. A brief, metalic glint in the firelight confirmed his suspicions. If he was lucky, it'd be a decent brand of whisky this time.
The thought of so soothing a drink in mind, Dachler closed his eyes and thought no more of it, letting fatigue then take over.
None of the sentries, despite their vigilance, so much as felt the clear blue eyes that studied them throughout the day. Nor did they catch the smallest glimpse of the hungry smile breaking beneath those eyes, for the hidden one waited until she was far enough away before allowing herself even that small sign of anticipation.
She was quick, but not hasty, in her preparations for what was to come. She knew the jungle could be as fearsome an opponent as any army, but to her pleasant surprise proved a most generous friend right then. She silently thanked the land, as her tribe had taught her, and used their lessons well.
She was done and gone from sight in mere moments.
He'd felt his fellow long before they'd reached the clearing. The Quickening had been so intense, heralding so powerful a spirit, he'd almost laughed from the aftershock of its passage, but only almost. He, unlike the great majority of his fellow Immortals, had schooled himself not to show the least sign of shock or reaction to the Quickening. In this way he'd managed to surprise more than a few, giving him the extra edge so often needed in their duels.
This one had been more sudden, more shattering than most, reminding him of the last time he'd truly enjoyed himself in bed. He could not even clearly recall the experience, never mind the face or features of his partner. Sometimes he dreamed it was a demur and buxom female, others he recalled it had been a young boy with a tight virgin ass. It had been a long time ago. Perhaps only a few years, perhaps a few centuries. Time blended so easily for Immortals, the flow of years becoming rapids, sweeping away all that is familiar.
He was unconcerned with this, the past being dead to him, the present so much more interesting.
The notion of a duel out here, in the untamed Latin rainforests, had a particularly strong appeal to his otherwise bored psyche. He found himself waxing philosophically over the possibility. To test one's mettle as well as one's blade in so wild an environment, yet to strive to rise above the animals who populated these forests, above the base instincts of simple survival this was the true test. A test made doubly so as he didn't even have his proper sword with him, but merely a machete. One he'd spent much of the day sharpening to a fine point, true, but too common a blade to be worthy of the coming contest.
Guarded as he was against showing signs of the Quickening, he was doubly so against showing any awareness of the other's presence. He felt the eyes upon his back, to be sure, just as the other was sure have felt his upon them!
Why else would the other have withdrawn so quickly?
The contest was already joined, and already his opponent withdraws before even the first exchange of blades. He resolved to be merciful, and take the other's head quickly.
Why make such a pathetic wrench suffer?
Treischman proved more patient than he thought himself capable of. He'd endured the day gamely, using the time to prepare for the sport to come. He'd already resolved not to take anything heavier than his machete and Lugar .38 automatic, and was determined not to resort to the latter unless absolutely necessary for the kill. The problem was slipping away from his men with sufficient stealth so as not to disturb their rest, yet without leaving himself open to charges of desertion by the various 'observers' from the SS. Rather a Gordian knot, but hardly an insurmountable one for one of his lineage and training.
It was Dachler of all people who provided the excuse he sought before he devoted too much time or energy to the matter. "Herr Colonel, if you wish to go hunting for game tonight," the large soldier rumbled, quiet and mindful of his sleeping men, "then I must insist on accompanying you." Treischman was naturally suspicious at the offer, holding the soldier's gaze and searching for clues to the man's intentions in those eyes. The Unteroffizier's face was a perfect mask, save for the eyes, which regarded him with so iron a look as to be ubermensch.
Treischman felt a small trickle of anxiety drip across his spine. There was nothing to be read or discerned from the soldier's gaze, save the unblinking intensity with which those pale eyes held him still. This close scrutiny took the aristocrat back to uncomfortable memories of his childhood, where he chaffed beneath the stern gazes of his governess' and grandparents disapproval. Now, however, he was more than capable of holding his own against such onslaughts.
"Very well, Unteroffizier, if you feel you must." Treischman made the concession sound bored, a resolution to a matter of no real importance. His own eyes hardened to the challenge, and spoke as those iron-spined spinsters had taught him. "But you will not interfere with my hunt tonight, yes? I will conduct this particular expedition as I see fit. Is this understood, Unteroffizier?" He spoke in the same low tones as the larger man, emphasizing the last just as a reminder of which of them was the real commander here.
Even so Dachler remained impassive, his eyes still cold and impenetrable. Only a hair of a tremor to his stiff neck, his equivalent of a nod, gave any indication he'd even heard his superior's words. It was nonetheless enough for Treischman, who answered with his own nod and said "We leave at nineteen hundred, yes? Bring only your sidearm and machete "
"Sir?" Dachler's iron façade cracked slightly at this, confusion giving a hairline crease to his brow.
Treischman actually smiled at this. "I wish to make this true contest of skill, Herr Dachler. A rifle makes the kill too easy and clean. I would see our prey taken in all its glory." He wasn't aware of the distant look that overtook his eyes, focused as he was upon the hunt to come. Dachler watched this, mask once again in place, letting no sign of questions or misgivings leak through.
Fortunately the aristocrat quickly returned from whatever distant sight he'd drifted to and focused once more on his subordinate. "I demand your oath, as a loyal German soldier, that you will not interfere or intervene on my behalf in this." The hard edge to Treischman's voice allowed no debate from the Unteroffizier.
Dachler attempted all the same. "And if the prey manages to best you, Herr Colonel?"
"Then you gain a field promotion to Leutnant and take command of this mission." The idea, never mind the actual possibility of Dachler becoming a junior-ranking officer was almost too absurd for words. He'd easily be the oldest Leutnant in the entire Wehrmacht. Treischman managed not to laugh (aloud at any rate) at the mental picture this painted. Rather, he again held Dachler's eyes with his own, the demand still hanging between them.
With appropriately grave formality, Dahcler said "I swear, upon my honor as a soldier of Holy Germany and the Third Reich, it shall be as you say." Treischman nodded, more at the careful wording of the oath than any satisfaction from the oath itself. Clearly he wasn't the only one who at least suspected there were SS among them.
"Ready yourself then," was his only response to this, turning back to his own preparations. Dachler's final question gave him pause.
"What shall I tell them men, Herr Colonel?"
The aristocrat waved this away. "Whatever you think best, Unteroffizier," he said, turning his attention away from the camp, and out into the surrounding forest. He neither heard nor really cared what story Dachler came up with. The minutes ticking away to evening were now his only concern.
That, and the invisible eyes stabbing at him from the green around them.
The Hunter's Moon, though bloated and bright in the clear night sky overhead, actually provided little light for the two hunters. They were too deep into the forest, having left the clearing some paces behind, and the foliage became only denser with each successive step. Both men strained their senses in the darkness, each quietly unsettled by the ever-present buzz of insects and the forest's nocturnal denizens. Neither showed it, of course, Treischman being well schooled in ignoring his emotions for the sake of 'appearance' while Dachler simply battered down any sign of fear.
The jungle was nonetheless a surprise for both. As a youth Treischman had hunted big game in Africa, particularly the Serengeti Plains, more often solely in the company of a single guide than as part of one of those absurd expeditions the British insisted on mounting these days. His skills of tracking and ambush, which his guides had assured him were as sharp as any they'd seen, were part of the reason he'd been chosen for this particular mission. But this territory was infinitely wilder (and quite a bit less hospitable) than the grasslands. A small fact friend Himmler apparently hadn't quite grasped in planning this operation.
Which was why Treischman was so keen to get away from the men and pit himself against his opponent out here. This was as much a test of himself as for a moment away from the duplicitous eyes of the SS moles among his troops. Out here, where he could face the enemy honestly and true, this is where he would prove himself once again.
Against the one. Against her.
Yes, he'd felt her (how he could be so certain of gender was beyond either ken or concern, he simply was and that was that) since the moment he'd stepped into that clearing, their rapport of hunter-and-hunted singing within his bones. Her eyes had tracked him the full day long, recognizing him as Nemesis no doubt. Perhaps even recognized his natural superiority, as so many others had, which explained why she had kept her distance during daylight, and why she slunk away from him even now.
It left the aristocrat mildly disgusted with his intended, this cowardice she displayed. Oh, there was no doubt as to the outcome of their contest, and so her refusal to face him immediately was understandable. He could even sympathize, having seen like behavior in Poland and Denmark, defeated soldiers and cowered peasants looking away as he and his fellows passed by. It still left him disgusted, as his upbringing demanded it should, and had never given him reason to pause in dealing with dissent or subversion. Indeed, he looked forward to such duties, his talents in that arena almost as refined as his hunting skills.
Dachler had left the men to his Gefreiter, giving only a vague explanation for their leaving involving which scouting and "getting some decent meat for breakfast". Certainly they would have their meat, provided he could restrain himself enough. If not well it wouldn't be the first time he'd needed to conceal the evidence of his wilder nature. He'd scandalized his family a time or two before. Yet they'd never failed to cover for him. Even over that servant girl he'd enjoyed.
An especially messy business, that was; very messy despite the fact all the pieces had been collected and given proper burial.
For himself, Dachler had little interest in the hunt, occupying himself instead with watching his commander's back and trying to anticipate dangers ahead. He'd been with the first vanguards into Poland, and later had been poised to strike at Dunkirk, all of which had left his natural taste for combat all the sharper. He'd been a soldier as long as his memory stretched back, which was far indeed, and had never quite tasted the same thrill as he had in the past year.
Needless to say he was rather anxious to get back to it.
Given the state and nature of this current mission, to say nothing of the quality and training of these men he'd been assigned to, the Unteroffizier was in an ill mood. These weren't soldiers he kept company with now. Soldiers, true warriors of Holy Germany, didn't sneak upon an enemy and kill from behind. War, true war, was fought with courage and principle, not for lies over 'Aryan purity' and 'racial cleansing'. At times, Dachler found himself regretting serving an army that employed such tactics.
It was made all the worse by having to serve under an animal like Christian van Treischman. Whatever his title or rank, the man was little more than a wild beast who walked on its hind legs. The aristocratic shit had a reputation worthy of de Sade and Vlad Tepes, with only his family's powerful influence keeping him from a richly deserved meeting with the hangman's noose. Dachler had heard stories of his dealings in Warsaw and Krakow, ones that should have been only the rantings of madmen than the calm recitations of troops stationed there.
The temptation to wring this animal's neck, or simply cripple him and let the jungle have its way with him, was a strong one. Dachler, whatever his feelings, could no more do that than he might halt the Earth's orbit about the sun. He had sworn an oath, to serve and battle with honor, no matter how dishonorable those above or beneath him proved. Such was his way since birth, so very long ago.
Which was why he'd insisted upon accompanying his commander on this hunt of his, knowing full well it was not tiger or wolf or some other natural predator he sought. A part of him hoped the major met his match that night, if only so he might march his men back to Germany so they might fight the true enemy. But he knew of Treischman's reputation in that respect as well, and didn't hold out much hope there.
He'd sensed the unfortunate some time ago, even catching sight of their movement around the perimeter the few times they'd ventured close. Probably some native child who'd lost their way, knowing enough to keep out of sight. The old trader by the river had said there was a village nearby. No doubt they'd come upon it tomorrow, and Dachler was under no illusions what the major's orders would be when he found none of them spoke a word of German.
But that was for the future. For now, his only focus was keeping the officer from too serious harm. Despite his vow earlier, he would intervene should the major actually be overcome by his prey. Though should he slip from Dachler's sight, and then be overcome
The Unteroffizier shook his head and continued on, refusing to let such idle notions distract him.
Neither man caught the least sight of the cold sapphire eyes upon them, nor had any sense of the hidden one's shadowing their every step.
She stopped only once, early in her approach, the Quickening once again coursing through her strong form. It was all the more intense this time for its proximity, leaving her momentarily breathless. Neither of these first two, the tow-haired one with the arrogant walk and the grey-haired giant behind him, showed the least sign of feeling the same. Both paused their steps at roughly the same moment, however, leaving her to deduce her opponent had trained themselves not to react to the Quickening.
Act, don't react. Gabrielle's voice flittered through her mind. The advice brought a bitter grin to her lips, as much because her opponent had taken it to heart as suspecting her love wouldn't really approve of what was to come. She quickly fought down the pang such thoughts brought to her, refusing to be distracted by such self-torture and promising herself ample time to indulge both memories and their pain...later, once this was done.
For now she had to be the hunter, the dark predator of her youth. The very monster she and her love had struggled so long to leash.
The tow-haired arrogant's words came back to her, his talk of "inferior races" and "exterminate them all" setting fire to her blood. Had she not once said such words, and had not "Kill them all." once been her creed? The warnings of her dream were now given voice.
She could actually taste the rage on her tongue now. Amazingly, it actually served to clear and order her thoughts, all her energies now focused upon the work here. It would be bloody, to be sure, particularly should one of these intruders prove to her true opponent.
Her grip on her weapon tightened at the thought. Honorable or no, whether Gabrielle might approve or no, she would end this quickly. There simply was no time to indulge in niceties, particularly if (as she'd come to suspect) these were part of this "Hitler" character's army.
The thought brought another grin to her, one more feral than before.
The soft soil made no sound beneath her bare feet, nor did the jungle betray her presence as she moved ever closer to her prey. No longer the mere warrior, but the hunter of hunters.
He'd sensed her approach long ago, almost from the moment he'd slipped away from the fodder he'd fallen in with. By Odin, was there no glory to be had in this new war? These were supposed to be elite troops he was with. Yet every mission was sneaking and common murder. No chivalry, no honorable battle. Their enemies were either crushed or routed so quickly there was hardly any challenge to them.
And now, this so-called "mission" bah! The jungle was too humid, too noisy, and simply stank from the animals who wandered and shit in it. For a moment he let himself envision it all burning to the native rock, the delicious screams of the animals (those who walked on both four and two legs) filling the air already choked with smoke. Such things were possible these days, particularly if this new Wunderwaffen the Army and SS were rumored to be working on bore fruit, though it was also rumored Himmler only pursued them because they were couched in terminology better left mystic cranks and Roma fortune tellers.
How the fool had risen so high, to say nothing of the rest of the Party elite, would forever mystify him. Young PeterI at least had his royal lineage to explain himself. He himself had not yet realized his true heritage, though those pale blue eyes of that giant of woman (who could only be one of the Valkyrior come to Earth) who'd frequented his court back then had hinted at such secret knowledge. But the foul-smelling Austrian he saluted now, a greasy-haired paranoid who couldn't even gain entrance to a second-rate art academy, had no such excuse.
He took a deep breath, soothing such flaming thoughts. They had no place in the here and now. They were too dangerous to be indulged. He'd do so later, when he returned to Germany. Then, by Fenric's teeth, he'd teach those pups in Berlin a thing or two about real war!
But for now, he would teach those lessons to the cowardly wrench that awaited him here. He wouldn't dignify this comedy by thinking of it as a true duel, certain that there would be no challenge to the kill. Rather, he thought of it as a dress rehearsal for his return to Berlin, save that he'd be quicker here than against his so-called superiors.
There, off to his left, there was movement. An anticipatory smile played across his lips, and a thrill ran through his bones and across his thoughts.
'And so it begins,' was his silent observation, his faux-blade held at the ready.
It would be cliché to say neither knew what hit them; would be, save that it was the god's own truth.
Treischman had of course taken point, leaving Dachler several steps behind. Both men knew this was reckless in the extreme, particularly with the sort of prey involved here. Treischman didn't particularly care, completely confident as he was in his abilities here, while Dachler certainly did care but was equally determined to remain true to his oath not to interfere in his officer's sport. The aristocrat led them deeper and deeper into the jungle, their nerves all aware for the least sign of danger.
They might as well have been bound and blindfolded for all the good it did them.
Treischman saw and read the signs. Bent leaves could tell much to the careful and experienced eye, and his were both. The trail was nearly lost in the dense greenery, but there all the same. He followed it as he had so many others, a single eye on the signs at his feet and the rest of him alert for ambush. He kept his pace slow and steady, gripping machete tightly, feeling strangely relaxed in knowing his prey was close. It would be over soon.
He paused in his approach, hackles suddenly screaming in alarm. Rising, he scanned the surrounding trees and wide-leaved bushes for some sign of his alarm. Dachler was nowhere immediately in sight. There was nothing to be seen moving among the tree-tops, nor the did the bushes or lower branches so much twitch despite the occasional breath of wind, nor was there the least sign of the prey beyond their trail. Even that damn insect din had quieted some
Treischman froze at that thought, realizing for the first time exactly what felt so out of place.
The jungle had gone utterly silent.
No insects, no bird calls, nothing disturbed the too-still air. Even the light breeze from the nearby hills had died.
Treischman knew this as a sign of the prey as well, and felt himself tense in readiness, the jungle a silent audience.
Circling slowly, muscles loose and blade at the ready, the aristocrat watched for his opponent. He let his eyes loose focus, letting his other senses take over. They led him to a massive old-growth tree only paces from where he stood. Letting his sight center entirely upon its trunk, Treischman unconsciously crouched and tensed, ready to spring the instant the prey showed itself
freezing in disbelief as a pair of eyes opened out of the rough bark of the wood.
Each were as bright and clear blue as the noonday sky itself, and as cold as the tallest mountain peak. The pearl-white smile that appeared beneath them was equally cold, more belonging to the great dire wolves of legend than any human.
Christian van Treischman didn't understand the evidence of his eyes, it seeming as if the tree itself were coming alive and lunging at him. Nor was he able to comprehend what occurred when a length of solid steel ran directly into his heart, piercing the muscle and stopping it instantly. He remained frozen in place, eyes still fixed on the tree ahead, even when the eyes and smile disappeared and warm wetness poured down from his chest and from between his legs.
Perhaps realizing it was his last breath, he issued a gurgling laugh of frothy red bubbles, then pitched forward into the darkness awaiting him.
Dachler came upon the body a minute later, the blood-flow from its chest still steady and leaving the soil underfoot soaked almost black. The smell of death-piss had already settled over him. It was all the soldier could do to wrinkle his nose at the stink, lean down and quickly snatching the Lugar automatic from the dead man's holster. He sheathed his machete and drew his own automatic, the weight of the two guns a reassurance he desperately needed right then.
Standing, Dachler unknowingly mirrored his dead commander's circuit, eyes and ears scouring the area for some sign any sign of the attacker. As he circled, both weapons extended and ready, he realized how utterly still the air was. The silence of the jungle was suddenly as oppressive and smothering as a funeral shroud.
Was that movement to his right? His left? The old soldier spun about in sharp angles, weapons never wavering. This succeeded only in giving him a small headache and leaving him slightly off-balance. If the attacker was still present, which he doubted, it had gone to ground in hiding. Believing it posed no immediately threat, Dachler raised his left hand, pointing the automatic's barrel straight up with the intention of firing off a alarm shot and summon the rest of the detachment.
His finger had no chance to tighten even a millimeter, fully eighty inches of razor-edged steel suddenly running through his back and slicing his heart in half. The blade was withdrawn so quickly it spun the dying soldier about, bringing him face-to-face with his opponent.
For a moment, Dachler was quite sure he was being attacked by a Geist, as there was a sword clearly hanging in the air before him but without anything immediately visible holding it. He could see his blood coating its smooth edge, and was quite aware his life was literally flowing out of his chest and back in long, steady spurts, though strangely he felt no fear from this. Indeed, he had only one thought to his entire awareness. Even as his vision darkened and body became cold, even as foul warmth filled the crotch of his trousers and ran down both legs, Dachler applied all his formidable will to raising one of the Lugars. His last moments, each lingering a hundred lifetimes, were spent in aligning the sights with the twin points of blue hovering just before him...curving his finger about the trigger
Darkness consumed him.
And in that darkness, thunder roared.
The single gunshot was all it took. Even those who'd slept for hours now were awake and moving. Most hadn't been aware their commander and NCO were gone, and so looked around wildly for the two of them while attempting to disentangle themselves from their beddings. Gefreiter Schmidt was already standing and throwing out hand signals, doing so with authority and confidence that belied his clean-shaven, youthful looks. Without uttering a word, he pulled the perimeter sentries in, organized the men by their respective fire-teams, and had them ready to proceed in detail into the jungle. Schmidt himself went in with Team Alpha, signing that Teams Beta and Omega were to hold back several minutes.
The minutes ticked by, the sweat on their brows having little to do with jungle heat.
Alpha had been gone a little under two minutes when the night air was broken by several bursts of gunfire mingling with the screams of men dying. Bravo and Omega brought their weapons up and directed them in the general direction of the weapons fire. Wisely, no-one fired, lest they hit any survivors. The team leaders looked at each other, communicating in the silent shorthand of long-time colleagues. Bravo was quickly relocated and spread its number out to cover Omega's rear, while Omega fanned out to better cover their sectors. This was also meant to give potential attackers greater difficulty in pinpointing individual troopers as targets.
Twelve men, all well armed and trained, battle hardened and courageous, stood or crouched in the clearing awaiting their enemy, believing themselves equal to whatever might come.
For all the good it did them.
Where exactly the attack came from, none could ever tell. One moment they all stood or crouched there; the next the still night's air was once more broken, freezing them all as the enemy made itself known.
Two troopers, neither particularly close to the perimeter nor to the clearing's center, were the first to die. One was simply decapitated, the other slashed clean across the back, the cut so deep and precise his upper half pitched forward at a bizarre angle to the lower half. Another three were quickly dispatched, one stroke of the blade each and all falling clutching their severed throats.
By then, their comrades realized their peril and swung their rifles and SMGs about to try and track the attacker. The few who catch sight of her hesitated in disbelief of the sight: a giant figure, seemingly made of green earth and mud, wielding a sword with such speed that it appeared as nothing save a blur of silver. The figure was featureless, with only quick-darting eyes and a wide, insane smile to even suggest it was human. The smile was, to a man, the last thing they ever saw. Each fell into darkness, the smile burnt into their minds.
These three bought the remaining four the seconds they needed to gather their wits and remember they were armed. Only one, holding a Mauser MP9 SMG, opened fire and sprayed the area in a wide arc, mostly at any small movement that caught his eye. This resulted not in damage to the attacker, but in the death of his three comrades, each doing a death-dance as dozens of nine millimeter rounds riddled their torsos.
His weapon fell to the ground just as his last fellow did, though he couldn't remember letting it go. In confusion, he looked down, and saw that in fact he hadn't let it drop. His hand were still very tightly wrapped about the handle and magazine clip...and that blood as now spraying from just below both his elbows...where they had been severed clean...
A scream welled up in his throat, his head thrown back to deliver it to the heavens...only to have his entire head literally roll off his shoulders and impact with the ground. He continued to try and scream for some minutes as his brain slowly died of asphyxiation, his eyes rolling madly about. The last sight to come to him, the instant before death overtook him, as the sight of two long, sleek legs beside him, the blood-stained tip of the sword glinting in the moonlight.
And the smile of the victor, reflected there in the metal, sending him to death. He would have laughed, had he been able. Instead all he could do was try and scream...until there was nothing left of his life.
Until there was only the dead...and the silent air...
Xena stood and looked about at her handiwork, at once please and sick. How long had it been since she had picked up a blade to do such bloody work? Trysbeck village? Milikion? She discounted Orleans, that being war.
This had been slaughter. The systematic, cold-blooded murder of the helpless. That they had been armed with weapons that made the muskets she'd last seen European troops carry look as dated as a crossbow was irrelevant. The slaughter of animals, true, but a slaughter all the same.
She took a deep, cleansing breath, her lungs only slightly labored from the exertion. The mud and soft soil she had covered herself in certainly hadn't slowed her down any, even if it did cause her to sweat a bit more than normal. Her reflexes clearly hadn't atrophied from the many seasons where her greatest challenge was prying feuding children apart, and certainly she'd proven herself every bit as capable and ruthless as ever.
But the true test was yet to come.
When the Quickening overcame her yet again, she knew that moment was at hand. That he was at hand.
She remained where she stood, thoughts calming once more, her patience suddenly infinite. She would stand there, amongst the bodies and blood for as long as her opponent deemed to make her wait. A mute challenge to him.
He did not disappoint, not making her wait all that long.
Xena hadn't really known what to expect. More accurately, she hadn't quite known who she expected. The Quickening had been come and gone, and there had been too many possibilities for her to narrow her opponent down immediately. She'd delivered the deathblows quickly to the first two, each , then circling around with the intention of dispatching the rest quickly and cleanly. This way her tribe would be protected from these animals, leaving only him and her to settle their business.
That the grey-haired one had managed to fire off a shot in alert, then find some had gone missing before she reached the clearing, never mind properly maneuver herself along one of the overhanging branches so she could descend on them with total surprise, led her to momentarily reconsider the plan of attack. There seemed little point to engaging only some of the soldiers while the rest of their comrades crouched in the jungle, ready to pounce on her at the first opportunity. Oh, they might succeed in killing her, leaving her helpless long enough for her opponent to take her head. Tempting as the prospect was, she could not abandon her tribe to these invaders, nor leave the world to mercy of war. The dream remained with her, a constant prickling to her conscience and filling her with a familiar determination to act. Ironically, this left her with something of a conundrum: stay there, balanced on the branch, and risk discovery while waiting for the others, or creep away and try some other approach?
The burst of gunfire in the forest, echoing her dream once more, made the decision for her. The troops under her quickly and competently fanned out in a more defensible arrangement. By rights, any attack against them from the jungle would have failed. But then, who in their right mind would expect an attack dropping down from above?
And so now she stood there, amid the bloody wreckage of her work, calmly awaiting the main actor in this little drama of theirs.
She could have easily foregone all this and simply taken all their heads. Even those in the jungle would have proven no challenge. Doing so with last trooper had been a calculated risk, and one Xena was not disposed to take twice. For all her dislike of this endless game she and her fellow Immortals were fated to play, there were rules to be followed. Not once had she'd broken them, from the prohibition against fighting on holy ground (though the thought of defiling a few temples she'd encountered had a certain appeal) to taking heads only in single combat. She'd always honored them all, even with that motherless son of Bacchus at Camlan. If ever there had been a time she should have spared herself (and the world) the heartache, it was there.
But she hadn't, and now, as then, she'd give her opponent a fighting chance to win. Xena found herself wondering momentarily what Gabrielle would think of this. "Probably be pleased I was acting so civilized." she concluded quietly, snorting the last word. Where before she might have hoped he would take her head, Xena knew her only option here was victory. Gabrielle would not approve of suicide, and her bard's spirit demanded she return to the world and fight once more.
The Quickening had passed, leaving anticipation in its wake. The jungle was still silent around them, save the distant calls of birds and insects.
Xena stood her ground, making no move to hide herself. An unspoken challenge to the other.
He answered just as boldly, breaking the silence between them before revealing himself.
He nearly laughed as he gunned down his men, more from the looks of shock they died with than some twisted amusement. They simply hadn't known what hit them or from what direction. He'd simply seized a Mauser from one of the startled troopers and opened fire. It was more mercy than they deserved, but one he allowed them all the same.
He thought for a moment the gunfire rattling in the distance was but an echo of his own. But it lasted longer than any echo should, and was accompanied by cries his own victims hadn't had time to cry out. This time he did laugh, if quietly so.
This one was clever. And quick, having struck her first blows less than a hundred yards from their camp, then circled around before the warning shot had even a chance to fade. Her strategy was genius in its childish simplicity, eliminating the unwelcome audience that would have gathered to their duel, while at the same time flushing him out among the bodies. She'd actually done him a great favor in all this. Now he could dispose of this absurd identity and uniform he'd been forced to wear the past five years without fear of discovery or investigation. Now he was free to pursue his true nature.
Now he could be a warrior once more.
He'd have to remember to thank her, right before he took her head.
To do otherwise would be rather uncivilized.
He spoke in German, each line accompanied by an audible footfall. He was circling her, doubtlessly thinking himself a hawk scouting its prey.
"Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
"In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
"And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when they heart began to beat,
What dread hand? And what dread feet?
"What the hammer? What the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
"When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see ?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
"Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forest of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame they fearful symmetry?"
Throughout this lengthy recital, Xena had kept her eyes firmly fixed ahead, tracking the other by scent and presence. She didn't loose track of him once. Another test of her abilities, again passed unnerving ease. For a mad half-moment she contemplated old suspicions about herself and her origins, wondering if her immortality were truly the endowment of the just ambrosia or if there were something more to her something other than mortal
The crunch of vegetation directly ahead of her fixed her attention once more where it belonged.
She didn't immediately recognize this one, though she wracked her memory for the least sight of him, certain she had encountered him somewhere before now. She took stock of him, searching for some clue in his manner and stance, ignoring his rough-cut features knowing she would find none there. He emerged from the forest with an arrogant, lop-sided grin fixed across his lips, smiling as if he alone understood a joke he'd just told. He was both shorter and far younger than she'd first expected, walking with a deliberately light step that spoke volumes to his thoughts just then. There was a machete held loose and ready in each hand. No sweat-stains could be seen on his dark drab fatigues, nor any perspiration along his brow.
Xena felt a vague discomfort at the sight of his relaxed pose. For just a heartbeat she would have sworn it was Iolus standing there, trusty longbow and short-sword by his side. Certainly the basic resemblance was uncanny. Fortunately, the image was banished by the sound of his voice. He spoke in fluid German, though she clearly caught a Norse undertone to his words, and with a particularly cloying tone to his words. "Guten morgen Fraulein? Forgive me, it is difficult to tell in this light."
"Good morning," she rejoined in perfect Norse.
"Ah," he breathed, her not-so-subtle hint seemingly lost. "Fraulein it is. I am Gorddon Feingson, last son of Astroguard, Norway." He gave her a slight bow at the waist, gray eyes not leaving her and fixing her with a gaze reminding her of a circling vulture eyeing a thing dying beneath it.
"Xena, last daughter of Amphipolus." She spoke again in Norse, this in a more guttural dialect than before, the sort common among reindeer herders and rough trappers among the fjords, and lacing it with the sort of tone and exact pronunciation one spoke with slow children.
Gorddon Feingson, who for the past fifteen years had gone by the name Erik Schmidt and held rank as Gefreiter in the Wehrmacht, removed his field cap and smoothed a palm across his cropped blond hair. He declined to rise to the bait her choice of dialects offered, the insult subtle and all the more stinging for it. Let her think what she would. Whatever wrong assumptions she arrived at would only shorten their duel and assure his victory. He wondered for a moment just how old she was, how intense the post-kill Quickening would prove.
He studied her from a distance further than their simple proximity. She held herself erect, though well-shrouded in the pre-dawn darkness and fading moonlight, appearing to the naked eye as little more than a tower of solid darkness. Only the bastard-grip sword in her hand and the intensity of her eyes betrayed her as something other than an insubstantial shadow. Even so he could make out she was entirely relaxed and prepared for their contest, more by sense than sight. There was no tension to be felt from her, nor any trace of anticipation or anxiety. There was, in fact, nothing to be felt from her, save utter calm and patience. Only one other had ever affect such a stance in his presence, the one he'd come to think of a Fredrick's "Valkryie", whom he'd glimpsed only once as a young courtier in two centuries earlier. He'd fallen in battle shortly thereafter on the Prussian monarch's behalf, and rose again in discovery of his true nature.
To find her again, in this place, was surely a blessing from the gods themselves.
Xena kept her thoughts to herself and let no sign of them pass her shadowed features, though her grip on the sword tightened slightly, the only evidence of her anticipation. This one had evidently taken the meaning his hometown's name to heart, probably fancying himself an offspring of Aesir, though there was the underlying sense of familiarity to him. Then again, this was hardly new; she could walk down any city in the world and just know she should know the person across the street or coming towards her. There were simply too many faces to be remembered, even with her sharp memory.
With this one it came across only in the vaguest sense. Certainly not enough to prickle her conscience over what was to come. Truth be told, she felt only slightly guilty about his lack of proper armaments. Arrogance on the level he projected by stance and grin alone was to her mind a contagion the human race was better off without suffering.
She was mildly disappointed he proved to be the sort comfortable with the silence between them. Others had often tried to fill the air between them with idle chatter, perhaps as much to reassure themselves as to distract her. It would occasionally bring a smile to her, though solely because her bard's voice would whisper in her ear, reminding her of how intimidating she could appear.
This one simply put one foot in front of the other, approaching her without hurry or hesitation. The blades of the machetes glinted dangerously in the last of the moonlight. Not that she'd need any external lighting to see that damnable smirk of his. The pre-dawn darkness closed in upon them, the jungle falling silent and preparing to bear witness.
He stopped a respectable distance from her, the machetes held loose at his side. The white of his teeth shown through, bared in a full smile.
"Shall we dance?" Not so much a question as an invitation, one already accepted.
The blonde Immortal sprung forward, short blades swinging out at opposing arcs, one coming at an angle from above and the other horizontally from the side. Xena found herself surprised by his speed, so much so she was immediately on the defensive, bringing up her own blade and managing to deflect the one aimed at her head. This allowed the second to connect, cutting a shallow depth through her right shoulder. Red pain jolted through her at the blow, though this more angered Xena than actually distracted her. She could easily remember a time when such a blow wouldn't have landed, or even if it had, she wouldn't have felt it until the battle was done.
Rather than let him know her pain, Xena returned his smile and spoke in German. "That's your free one. You don't get a second." The bravado didn't sound even partially real, doubts now resurfacing and lending desperation to her thoughts. This one was good, fast, and she was long out of practice. She felt the bitter taste of uncertainty settle in her mouth, which only served to distract her still more as the smaller man's blades struck out once more.
By blind luck rather than planned skill, Xena managed to parry both, but only because he swung them as one and coming from the same angle. Still, the strike was strong enough to issue sparks and unbalance her slightly. She parried again from the opposite direction, again striking to sparks, then brought her own blade down. The intended target dodged away, preventing pursuit by a series of wild cuts and parries. This covered his retreat some paces back, leaving him beyond easy reach.
"Getting tired already, boy?"
"Good one," the younger Immortal breathed between clenched teeth. "You're good."
"Ha." Xena laughed, chest only slightly labored. "Better than you'll ever be, youngster." Again, bravado that sounded hollow, even to her ears. She quickly took stock of him: quick and agile, but predictable and it seemed easily frustrated. His retreat from her after only a few attacks (not probes of her defense, but actual attacks aimed at finishing her in a single, quick stroke) suggested he was too used to finishing his opponents quickly, this in turn translating into impatience in his technique. She could use that. His lack of proper weaponry was in her favor as well, given her sword allowed her to reach further a strike more decisively than his two blades combined.
The problem to her was his demonstrated speed and agility, which combined had allowed him to seize the initiative so far. Her shoulder, aching like mad, was hardly immobilized. Xena knew better than to simply brush the wound off. It would heal in time, but time was something of the essence here. She could try and outlast this self-styled Norseman, certain that her endurance outstripped his, particularly with all the running and jumping he was doing. But how many more blows could he land in the meantime, and how long could she hold up against ever-increasing blood loss?
It would take only one stroke of a blade to end it all. Again, the prospect seemed...tempting.
And again, temptation gave way to a promise made too many lifetimes ago to be ignored.
Well, Xena mentally sighed, might as well finish this.
Aloud, she said "You've had your fun, boy. Now for mine." The last was snarl, the only warning she allowed him. No sign of fatigue or the pain that coursed through her bloodied shoulder and down her side. Just her blinding, wide grin and the flash of metal cutting deadly arcs through the heavy jungle air. Sparks flew as metal impacted metal, time and again. Xena fairly spun forward, the sword little more than a blur as she put every ounce of her strength into the blows, rewarded time and again as his resistance to the blows steadily weakened. Soon he was trying to simply dodge, to spin or duck out of the way, only to have her anticipate him each time and block his escape smoothly and without breaking stride.
Xena felt her body hum with sensations long absent, the savage joy of battle running hot through her veins. Even the pain in her shoulder and side were now long-lost friends. Her dispatching the troopers was nothing, nothing compared to the now. Now thought, no hesitation, no doubt. Only movement, and steel, and the inevitable conclusion.
At some point, she must have paused , perhaps to get her bearings or to catch her breath. It couldn't have been more than a second or two, not even a full heartbeat, but it was all Feingson needed. He parried her thrust with the blade in his right hand, stabbing out with the one in his left, catching Xena dead in the stomach, all in one swift move.
You were saying about the inevitable? her mind chided as her eyes went wide in shock, one hand automatically dropping and grasping his wrist nearest her gut. She could feel the play of his muscles beneath her grip as she strained to stop him from either extracting his weapon or twisting it deeper (or both). Her stomach was on fire, leaving her nearly blind and mindless to everything save the hot, liquid pain flowing out of her abdomen in a red torrent. Somewhere there was the sound of a sword clattering to the jungle floor, slipping from fingers suddenly bereft of strength and feeling.
"My turn again, Fraulein?" Feingson hissed, applying all his strength to jerking the machete buried within her, managing to work it a little deeper, to twist it slightly this way and that. He soon had to let it go, the handle becoming too slick with her blood to hold properly. With a growl of contempt, he kicked her away with a single push to her hip, watching as she curled over onto her knees in a fetal ball. He fell back a few paces, chest heaving and knuckles white around the pommel of his other machete.
"There...can be..." he breathed, bringing up the twenty inches of sharpened metal, ready to deliver the killing blow. Xena heard this, knowing full well what was coming, body reacting as much from long centuries of experience as from semi-conscious thought.
As the last son of the settlement of Astroguard charged the last few steps between them, Xena felt herself fly into motion, experiencing it all from some distance away. She tucked, rolled, and straightened without fully realizing it, pulling the blade out of her abdomen and slashing the air between them so cleanly, so smoothly it appeared like the most natural thing in the world to happen right then. Even if he had seen it coming, there had been no way for Feingson to avoid it, his own momentum carrying him directly into the perfect arc Xena struck with.
His head was instantaneously severed from his shoulders, so quickly he was gone before he felt it or could even realize what happened.
Xena stood there, blankly watching the Norwegian's body stumble its final steps forward while his head bounced and rolled to halt in the opposite direction. "There can be only one," somebody's voice echoed in her ears. She was beyond caring who's, just as she was beyond the pain that consumed her every pore and fiber. Beyond the chill that settled through her as the flow of her blood slowed and pooled at her feet.
Beyond even the lightning and Quickening-light, both a hundred times as intense as the noonday sun and the worst of Zeus' tantrums.
So intense was the storm that enveloped her, its invasion coming as a crashing wave upon her dying consciousness, Xena drowned almost instantly in the currents of sensations and memories. The crisp air of Nordkapp, the taste of strange fish, the sharpness of the French bayonet piecing the heart, the first Quickening following victory, the dizzying change of the centuries, breathing toxic gasses without fear in the Somme, starving on the street as the brown-shirts and communists battered each other, the small man with the a greasy little moustache screaming out to the hysterical crowds, screams of war machines from the sky and across the ground
She felt herself lifted and buffeted through the air, a marionette dancing upon strings of jagged lightning, those strings ultimately cut and dashing her to the ground.
Xena of Amphipolus lay there, a broken, unmoving figure amid the remains of a dozen others. She did not stir as the first light of morning lit the horizon, her breath having stilled long before then.
Around her, the jungle once again came alive, indifferent to the fallen.
The largest of doors can be opened or jammed closed depending upon the smallest ball-bearing. So too can decisions and actions of many be made effective or useless depending upon the temperament of just a few.
Or even one.
The telegram was waiting her when she got home from the War Department. It had actually been delivered a day or two earlier, but the recent German advances in their drive towards Moscow were distracting to say the least. Particularly as it made tracking the movements of a certain roguish archaeologist and her partner from the Carolina's that much more difficult. It didn't help the blasted things was originally addressed to her late father, or that the postal service was being its usual efficient self.
To look at her or know her position, one wouldn't think she could be so discomforted. Undeniably attractive, even beautiful, and living in enviable if modest style in Georgetown through 'old family' money, which gave her independence few appreciated. Her husband was a career Navy man, though an accident early in his career had left him relegated to deskwork. The same accident had claimed her brother, though his wounds were minor enough to allow him to continue field work while keeping him out of active combat. Her own work in the War Department was officially little more than shuffling requisitions and travel vouchers. The efficiency with which she attacked the mountains of paperwork her superiors was impressive to say the least, and so the gave her the space she presumably needed.
What went unappreciated was the opportunity this space and the information contained within these vouchers and requisitions afforded her and her's. It proved very easy to divine the coming American entry into the war, or slip in requisition for air transport for a civilian from the State Department, or to make sure an 'approved' voucher for an officer out of Naval Intelligence to fly out to Damascus is cleared and filed without it ever having crossed an Admiral's desk.
She felt no shame at knowing or doing these things. The first could be divined by any fool with a brain (why else would training facilities need to be expanded so quickly, as her husband was busily supervising out in California and Hawaii, or production of rifles and vehicles be stepped up?). The second assured favors to be called in later (as they inevitably would, such favors having sustained her family for centuries). And the last the last was for family.
As eldest of their clan, Elisabeth Kieran O'Donhugh took her responsibilities to protect and provide for the family very seriously.
That particular day had been rather exhausting, as she'd had to put up quite the show of 'searching' out a few pieces of paperwork verifying and supporting Lieutenant Nathaniel Byron's trip out to Damascus was ordered from higher-up. Said paperwork, however ersatz, would hold up under any scrutiny, if only because those same higher-ups didn't want to look stupid at having sent a sailor out into the Macedonian desert to seemingly no purpose. Truth be told, it served a very important purpose, though one the War Department was unlikely to either embrace or understand. Watching out for the off-spring of Henry "The Grave Robber" Covington and Professor Mel Pappas of Chapel Hill University, South Carolina hardly seemed to fall under the rubric of 'national security'. But Covington's father had been something of a project for their family for the past twenty years, his obsession with finding the bard's scrolls placing him well outside the academic norm and firmly within the clan's sphere. That his daug ter had reportedly uncovered them led her to take her father's place in their esteem, and her activities suddenly took on significance easily greater than Japanese naval deployments or German U-boats sinking oil tankers off Venezuela.
Lt. Byron's own, much lengthier telegram (delivered by special and very confidential courier that morning) only contributed to her fatigue, though more mentally than physically. She wasn't even sure why, though the news that the scrolls were now in possession of one Jack Kleinman was hardly welcome. The Kleinmans were equally well known to their clan and not in a good way. What left her chilled was his finding the interior of the tomb Covington had uncovered, though reduced to a structural wreck by dynamite charges the archaeologist herself reportedly set, still proved accessible. Worse, its inner sanctum wide open and empty.
It was as if she now possessed clear evidence Satan himself were loose upon the world.
Kleinman had reportedly gone to ground in Lisbon, so the scrolls were out of harms way for the time being. It was the safety and security of Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas that was suddenly very important, and damned if she knew why. Elisabeth had already made preparations to make sure they returned to the states unharmed all the same.
The telegram from Brazil changed all that.
She gave it a few moments' perusal over a simple dinner of broth and carrots, then set it aside for more important documents. It was dated over week earlier, its origin Rio de Janeiro and its addressee her late father. There were only a few lines to it, puzzling in their content. Elisabeth paid it no further thought until after she'd settled into bed and closed her eyes.
Only to have them snap open a minute later and her breath stop short. The impact of the words, of their possibility slamming into her like the proverbial ton of bricks.
Inexplicably panicked, Elisabeth raced from her bed back to the study, tossing papers here and there from her desk until she found the telegram again. She read the words much closer this time, her full attention on them.
Prepare the feast. Stop.
War has slipped His bonds. Stop.
The Warrior ends Her exile. Stop.
Signed, Don Roberto. Stop.
She vaguely remembered a cousin of her father's named Don Roberto Del Turo, who reportedly lived in Brazil. Along the Amazon, where he owned a trading shack deep in the interior the same his own father had operated
She read the words several more times before managing to settle herself into a nearby chair. The first two lines made no sense to her, however certain they somehow should. The proverbial Dogs of War had certainly slipped their chains and seemed to be playing in damn near everybody's yard these days, to say nothing of resultant death and destruction reaching a scale few had dreamed possible only a few years before. That the old man knew about the war, remote as his home was, was surprise enough. Could he have been making some oblique reference to Shakespeare? Did they even read Shakespeare in Brazil?
It was the third line that held her attention so: The Warrior ends Her exile.
The Warrior. Capital W. A watchword among her family, a title afforded an Immortal from Greece they had followed and watched was every bit as much zeal as the Watcher Society had. More, truth be told, thanks to some obscure prophecy their ancestors had attached to her over two millennia ago, and the involvement one of their number in the warrior's early days. If the stories were to be believed, it had been that same cousin of theirs, an Egyptian slave feed and adopted by a wandering band from their clan's, who first taught the warrior the use of nerve punches and pressure points.
Her name had been M'llia, and it was she who had called the clan's attention to this strange and gifted woman; she who first suggested the Warrior was prophecy made real; and she who was the first to pay with her life for that belief.
The upbringing of herself and her siblings and all their cousins was replete with tales of the warrior woman, stretching so far back and crediting her with so much as to make her seem more as a Goddess than simply a long-lived warrior. Such things had fallen by the wayside in the past century, greater concerns now commanding their resources.
Elisabeth herself had never credited much of those stories. Even having access to the chronicles of the Watcher Society, learning how much truth there was to those stories, engendered nothing more than a passing interest in her. Those chronicles ended after her being present at the storming of the Bastille in 1789, bordering a ship bound for the Americas only a day later.
The Warrior had simply fallen from sight after that. No further crusades, nor intrigues with her distinctive stamp to them. No trace she had ever been.
Rumors swirled about her being as though she were the calm eye of a tornado. The rumors claimed she had fled to the far east, to Tibet. To Java. Into the wilds of Canada and the north. To the barren steppes north of China, where she rode with the Cossacks and Mongols. They said that she lived her days out as nun in an abandoned abbey outside Rome. That she had ridden with Geronimo and the Apache, and had been on the Trail of Tears. That she had planned strategy with Bismarck and Von Molke. That it was her plans the Wright brothers had followed in constructing their airplane. That it was she, not Lenin, who controlled the Bolsheviks.
Rumors that spoke with every confidence she had wrest control of the Illuminated Nine and commanded the Elders of Zion and danced the world on puppet's strings.
The Warrior ends Her exile.
Elisabeth shook her head at the prospects contained in that one line. The chronicles spoke of how she had been disappointed with the Americas and disillusioned with the world whole, going to Paris in the hopes of saving the Enlightened City from its own short-sightedness, faring no better than the mythical Comte de St. Germain had. The madness that had taken root in Paris, heaped atop all what could only be centuries upon centuries of still more blood and failure, could surely have been the final straw for her. But such a retreat flew in the face of all that the Warrior was reputed to be. Such defeats were supposed to harden her resolve, not shatter it.
Or was she as old and frail as the Society suspected? Their chronicles of her began in the fifteenth century, amid the War of the Roses. There were hints of her being older still: the way she spoke with such familiarity of the likes of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, and with acidic hatred of Julius Caesar that can only come from knowing a person, first hand. Even how she reportedly conversed so easily with the Immortal Darius, who afforded her an uncommon deference beyond the practiced and honest humility the monk had with all others. If this left the Society confused and reaching, it succeeded only in giving Elisabeth a headache.
Her thoughts turned to the author of the message, her memories on that score far more lucid. The Del Turo's, a distant branch of their already far-flung family, had been among the earliest settlers in Brazil, forgoing the ports along the coast for the untamed interior. They had settled far along the mighty Amazon, their trading post among the most remote in the jungle and all but unknown. Their family was careful in where they settled and what vocations they sought; they'd had to be, given their guiding mission (or obsession, as some rightly called it) of watching the Warrior's movements and activities. And hence the influence they now enjoyed in the modern world.
The Del Turo's had seemingly forgone this role.
She rose and turned to the neighboring bookcase, quickly selecting a volume. It was an exceptionally long one, containing the genealogy of their family since their coming to the Americas in the 1790s. The Del Turo's were a footnote in the far corner of the family tree, the second cousin of her grandfather's grand-uncle. The only notation beside the first name, one Benitto Del Turo and his wife Mary, was "Settled in Brazillia - 1792".
To settle there, so far from civilization, and to take up such a seemingly pointless existence left the rest of them believing their Latin cousins mad. Why settled there at all? Why rebuff every overture and offer a better life in the city, an offer repeated generation after generation? Why, save perhaps to indulge some secret madness induced by loneliness and not a little whiskey. Elisabeth herself had occasionally wondered if such madness wasn't genetic to their bloodline.
But what if it wasn't madness, but the execution of a duty the rest of them had been derelict in for generations?
Suddenly, Don Roberto Del Turo was the sanest member of their insane family.
She reached for the telephone atop the desk and dialed her brother's home across the river, in Arlington.
They met along the Mall, the calm Reflecting Pool catching the moonlight and the great Washington Monument in its glassy surface. The night was crisp, and Nathaniel came in dark Navy overcoat and dress uniform. Elisabeth herself was equally bundled up against the cold, though not so much so that the embrace between them proved too awkward.
"I got your telegram," Elisabeth opened, the cold making a cloud of her breath. "You're sure the tomb was empty?"
Nathaniel nodded. "Positive. The place was wide open."
"I thought you said Covington blew the place to rubble?"
"She had. I found enough blasting caps and residue to collapse the Capitol building over there," he finished with a wave towards the brightly-lit dome at the Mall's opposite end. He then looked distinctly uncomfortable, as if searching for words. "If I didn't know better it looked like something dug its way out." The chill that shook them both could have been simply the late-night wind that rippled the Pool beside them. Could have, if either of them even felt it.
Elisabeth shook her head, ordering her thoughts and held out the Brazilian telegram. "This was waiting for me at home tonight."
Nathaniel took the offered paper, studying it with a furrowed brow beneath his dress cap. He was silent for some moments. Elisabeth waited patiently for him to finish, occasionally shuffling from one foot to another to keep the circulation going in her toes.
Eventually, he looked away from it, meeting her eyes. Understanding was there, the same conclusions she'd had to force herself to accept reflected there. Her estimation of her brother went up a notch. But then, he'd always been the one who'd accepted the Warrior's existence without question. Even their younger siblings had expressed doubts. Not Nathaniel, ever.
"This reference to 'War'? Any ideas?"
Elisabeth made a dismissive gesture, eager to move from the issue. "Maybe our Uncle Don is a Shakespeare reader."
"There were inscriptions in the tomb my guides translated "
"Forget about the damn tomb, already!" It came out harsh, almost shrill. She hated the way her voice got like that. But she was already dead tired and there were places she absolutely refused to go. Nathaniel saw this, and backed away. He really didn't want to go there himself.
Instead, he opted to think about the present. "I take it I'm heading off to Brazil now?"
Their mouths both quirked into grins, though Nathaniel's was a tad grimmer. Elisabeth felt a pull of guilt, recognizing how much had been asked of her brother of late. He had a wife of his own (well, several actually, spread across the globe and all comfortably supported with O'Donhugh money) and hadn't spent more than a month with her here. Elisabeth herself had made it a point to keep the poor woman company, often having lunch with her or inviting her to dinner. Jacqueline had even slept over on occasion, when they would be up all hours arguing politics and philosophy. Blasted woman could drink with the best of them, and walk the next morning without a sign of a hangover.
"In a day or two," she assured him, her grin a wry one. "I'll need time to cook up a decent cover story to get you sent down there," was added with a single-shoulder shrug.
Nathaniel nearly laughed. "How about a Nazi expedition trampling around trying to find El Dorado?"
Elisabeth adopted a thoughtful look as if actually considering it, while striking a pose worthy of Chaplin. "Hmm," she hummed. "That could work." What tension there had been gave way beneath the laughter between them. "C'mon," Elisabeth offered, linking their arms and leading him to her Ford parked a short distance away. "Lets get some coffee."
He eyed her suspiciously, and she laughed again.
"Real coffee, you squid!"
It proved easier to have Nathaniel sent south than she could have imagined. Between German U-boats wrecking havoc with Venezuelan shipping and the abundance of U.S. business interests in the region, there were ample reasons for an officer of ONI to be in Rio. Amazingly, there were reports from the Embassies in Berlin and Rio of at least one detachment of SS kommandos being sent into the jungle of the interior. Because Brazil had followed America's lead and declared neutrality, Germans could come and go as they pleased so long as they behaved themselves and made sure to pay the appropriate officials sufficiently. Capitalism wasn't the only cultural import the west had brought to the land of the Inca and Mayan.
Jacqueline had been surprisingly understanding as well, inviting Elisabeth to dinner as often as being invited. The latter had more than once suggested she was simply being used as a guinea pig for Mrs. Byron's newfound passions for cooking. To which the accused would always plead the fifth and just dish out more of her latest effort. The friendship between them deepened appreciably, and it was a rare night that one did not spend the night on the other's sofa or guest room, usually after an insightful debate on politics or culture or whathaveyou after several whiskeys.
Elisabeth kept herself busy for the long month and a half between sending Nathaniel off and receiving his first report. She had the usual mountains of paperwork to contend with, mountains that grew to Mount Everest proportions thanks to a "promotion" her nominal superiors saw fit to drop on her. The stepped up production of armaments, thanks initially to Lend-Lease but a now having a growing percentage being held back here in the States, itself generated obscene piles of meaningless forms and still more unctuous individuals to shuffle them all. The fawning of some of these bureaucrats was starting to make moving out to Honolulu, as her husband's frequent letters not so subtly hinted at, rather an attractive option.
Then there was Covington and Pappas to worry about. Elisabeth had so focused her energies on getting Nathaniel sent to Brazil that she'd all but forgotten about them. By most accounts they'd holed up in Greece with relations of Pappas, though there were also reports of them making it Switzerland or Sweden. They hadn't been able to confirm any of this, and Elisabeth was giving serious consideration to sending young Richard off to Geneva. His position as a broker on Wall Street was adequate cover, though getting the necessary visas might prove a bother. She also debated the wisdom of sending anyone, particularly their youngest brother, to chase down what were likely idle rumors. The lad was only just out of college (as if she were that much older!) and not all that wise to the ways of the world.
Nathaniel's telegrams, staggered over the course of a week, again quickly pushed such concerns to the wayside. His words held her rapt.
Have arrived in Rio. Stop.
Will contact Embassy here to ensure cover still holds. Stop.
Love to J. Nate. Stop. (Dated March 11, 1941)
Cover story intact and viable. Have "hired" Uncle Don as guide up-river. Stop.
Uncle Don is ninety-year-old bead merchant. He knows EVERYBODY. Stop.
Says the Warrior was last sighted on the docks. Have begun inquiries. Stop.
Expect more within the week. Stop.
Love, Nate. Stop. (Dated March 12, 1941)
Uncle Don says trip up-river will take two days out, two days back. Stop.
He advises two days in the jungle to get intelligence on Warrior's activities. Stop.
Not sure if I trust him. His mind wanders. He talks about meeting her. Stop.
Will press for details during trip. Stop.
Inquiries around the docks coming up empty, except that she was there. Wondering if we were wrong about this. Stop.
We leave tomorrow morning. Stop.
Nate. (Dated March 14, 1941)
We traveled two days by boat to his trading post. It is a shack by the river. Read Conrad and you will get the picture. I still can not decide which of us is Kurtz and which is Marlowe. Stop.
Uncle Don told me what happened before and after he met the Warrior. Stop.
The Germans had come up-river from Rio two months ago. The cover story was accurate, from what Uncle tells me. It was not a large detachment. But a well armed one. Uncle does not speak much German, and they had little Spanish. They asked about El Dorado a bit. They started beating him and his son, smash up the shack, then left. Our cousin Daniel is okay now, but judging from the scars and evidence of broken bones, I am surprised he is still alive. Stop.
The Germans were gone two days when gunfire could be heard in the wee hours of morning. A "lightning storm" followed, but there was no rain. Uncle stopped there and said he would tell me the rest when we came back from the jungle. Stop.
We hiked into the jungle for a day and a half, stopping at a village. The natives knew Uncle, and speak Spanish fluently. Uncle handled the translations. If I didn't know better, I would say we had been expected here. Stop.
They were very open, until I asked about the Warrior. I started describing her, then they turned us over to their oldest grandmother. Everybody else turned into clams. Stop.
They call her their "Medicine Woman". Quote unquote. They consider her a God. They have no name for her. What do call God, anyway? Stop.
She has lived here for AT LEAST the past century. Roughly five generations, I calculate at 25-30 years per generations. There have been no Immortals or duels in ALL that time, so I have to wonder if the Warrior is STILL a warrior. Stop.
The Grandmother sent us to a place outside the village with one of the girls. The girl was one of the Warrior's apprentices, but as a healer. The girl took us a hilly region and showed us a hole she claimed she and the Warrior dug a few months ago, right before she left. There had been a long box buried there. I'm guessing a sword of some sort. God only knows how many other caches the Warrior buried who knows where before coming here. Stop.
The girl told us the oldest story they could remember about her. She'd come here alone, floating down-river on a raft. There had been a boy about to be attacked by a crocodile nearby. The Warrior intervened and killed the croc, and got killed in the process. Naturally she woke up a few hours later. Seems this tribe has a myth about blue eyes being divine. Did not hurt she never got old and was a quick study. She told us a batch more stories. I have the relevant details written down for when I get back. Seems she is the one who taught the tribe not just Spanish, but Latin and what I am guessing is Grecian Amazon. The Sisterhood would have a field day out here. Stop.
She has delivered ever child born since then. The entire village damn near worships her. And she never left for more than a day or two, which explains how Uncle and family knew she was down here. Stop.
So why did she leave? Seems she went into a semi-coma a few days before running off, talked in her sleep, and woke up all bruised. Like she had been fighting for her life. Stop.
I know you do not want to hear this, but the time frame is right for when Pappas and Covington managed to penetrate that temple. The girl counted out the number of days between her keeling over and today. The time frame is EXACTLY right. Stop.
She left them in the middle of the night. No explanation for the coma, no parting words. Nothing. Oddly, nobody seems especially upset by this. Like it was expected. Stop.
They heard the gunshots as well. "Like angry bees", the girl said. But none of the tribe went to investigate, so they can not tell me what happened out there. Stop.
Uncle and I headed back after a day. He brought me to the same clearing half-way back to the river and told me the rest. He had hiked up this way the day after the gunfire, thinking the Germans had found the village and killed everyone. Daniel was still in bad shape, so he stayed behind. Uncle made it to the clearing and found bodies all over the place. The Germans had been cut to ribbons, he said, but only two were decapitated. He says he remembers there being more of them when they first arrived. There are no signs any survived or escaped, so I am guessing the Warrior got them all. Stop.
Uncle said he saw the Warrior there when he arrived. She appeared dead, but jumped up the second he felt for a pulse. She did not kill him, nor did she identify herself or offer explanations. Together, they buried the Germans and headed to the river together. The clearing was empty when I saw it. No evidence of graves anywhere. Uncle provided me their dog-tags for evidence. This should satisfy the brass back in Washington. Stop.
From there, they returned to the river post. She immediately put Uncle and Cousin Daniel to bed and set about repairing the damage to the shack. She cooked for them, cleaned, rebuilt, bandaged, did everything for them for the next week. Not once did she identify herself, or speak of what happened with the Germans, or talk about herself. She only referred to herself as "medicine woman" and asked that she be taken down-river. Daniel was in no shape to press, and Uncle knows he's too old to try pushing her. Stop.
I believe them. The shack looks like its been COMPLETELY rebuilt from the ground up. And Daniel is still visually on the mend. But the splints and stitches all look professional. If I did not know better I would think he had been taken care of at Bethesda Medical. Stop.
She has not lost her touch there. And if what Uncle tells me about the Germans is accurate, she is as deadly as ever with a blade. Stop.
We headed out that night, returning to Rio after two days. I am sending you this over the embassy telegraph. They think I am reporting to my superiors, so I am alone. Thank god for small favors and easily impressed clerks. Stop.
I leave in two days. Uncle still has feelers out on the docks. I am not hopeful. Stop.
Tell J. I love her. Nate. Stop. (Dated March 21, 1941)
Dockyard inquiries came up mostly empty. The Warrior was definitely there, looking for passage to Europe. A warf rat 'remembered' her talking to a Portuguese captain. He remembered after half a bottle of whisky. No idea if she found it or not, or where she ended up. Stop.
Uncle wants Daniel brought to the States. I agreed. There is nothing for him down here now. Stop.
I leave by plane tomorrow morning. Stop.
Do NOT make me do this again, E. I am taking leave and going away with J. Stop.
Nate. (Dated March 22, 1941)
This last telegram put paid to Elisabeth's hopes of their finding the Warrior any time soon. She had no doubt the Immortal had found passage out of Brazil. She equally had no doubt she'd paid enough to ensure there would be no records of it, anywhere.
Strangely, Elisabeth was more relieved than worried by this. If they couldn't find her, even with their extensive resources focused on the task, surely the likes of the Society, the Sisterhood, and the rest would have even greater trouble. She was safe from their interference, insofar as anyone was safe these days. This war was turning savage. The Germans were still making headway deep into Russia and were keeping the British on the run in northern Africa. Elisabeth half-expected to hear Rommel had reached Cairo or Jerusalem in the next news report. Worse, relations between the U.S. and Japan were starting to come unraveled, as much over the trade embargo Roosevelt imposed on the islands as their stagnated invasion of China. Who knew what would happen next, and where?
She had no doubt the Warrior would find herself in her element now. Hell, she'd likely emerge without so much as a scratch on her.
Removing her glasses and rubbing her strained eyes, Elisabeth grimaced at the various aches and pains running through her. She was entirely too young to be feeling so old.
She tensed only for a moment as Jacqueline's practiced hands suddenly descended on her, pinching and working her tense shoulders. "News from Nathaniel?" she asked in her quiet Parisian accent.
"Hmm," Elisabeth nodded. "Not very welcome news, either." Feeling the nails involuntarily dig into her shoulders, she quickly added "He's alright. He's safe, Cara." The use of Gaelic always had a calming effect on the young woman, for which Elisabeth was rather grateful. Her sister kept those nails of her's in pristine condition.
"His mission has failed?" Jacqueline's tone clearly said she wasn't referring to the one supposedly handed down by the Joint Chiefs. She knew some of their family's other work, though details had never been imparted. Elisabeth couldn't help but wonder just how much her sister-in-law had intuited from overheard conversations and watching her husband trek off to distant locations having absolutely no military or political significance. She certainly wouldn't put it past this innocent-looking French flower to put the clues together and come to exactly the right conclusion, however insane it might sound.
Elisabeth shook her head and sighed. "Not as such. Just I was hoping he would find more " She set the telegram aside and turned to smile into her sister's eyes. "He'll be home within the week. Says he wants to take some leave. You two certainly deserve some time together."
Jacqueline returned the smile and concentrated on the task at hand, her thoughts to the future.
She missed the intense look with which Elisabeth gazed out the window, as if scouring the darkness beyond for a sign of the same future. Her's and another's.
It was the last place she'd expected it to find her purpose again.
Xena hadn't been planning on attending the conference, never mind this particular lecture. She'd settled into the area more by chance than design, and had fallen into using the university's library to play "catch up" with the times, which ironically left her almost regretting coming back. The long tracks of history she had reacquainted herself with - the rise and fall of empires, the dizzying pace of technologies and spread of humanity, the world-changing upsets and wars - left her wondering why she had even bothered to leave the jungle. Humanity, it seemed, remained ever hell-bent on self-induced extinction.
Still, she had returned, and covered herself and her identity well enough to go relatively unnoticed, even though the tenor of the times becoming increasingly suspicious, even paranoid, thanks to the vitriolic Senator McCarthy. It was nothing new to her, there being shades of Calligula, Nero, Mary of Scots, Cromwell, and a dozen others come before. A sad commentary on a century and a half of so-called progress if ever there was. She'd kept digging all the same, quiet anger burning through her at learning of Reign of Terror, the squandered opportunities of Napoleon, the American Civil War and the genocidal westward expansion that followed, the rise of European nationalism and the bloody pointlessness of the First World War coming from it, and the atrocities of Hitler's Germany, and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With each new chapter, the same question haunted her: how much could she have changed, could have prevented, had she not let Madison's arrogance and the her own disillusionment in the shadow of the Bastile drive her away?
This brought a low chuckle out of her, too low to ever be heard or to disturb those nearby. Clearly her egotism hadn't suffered any from her 'vacation' in the jungle or her studies.
Just what could she have done? Taken over the world? Terrorized prejudice out of the race? Battle the monsters by becoming one, the very thing she'd sworn to Gabrielle she would never do?
In her mind's eye, she clearly saw what would come of that. It was a scene not unlike those she'd glimpsed of Stalingrad, Berlin, and Nagasaki only a thousand times bloodier.
She turned her attention instead to the program in her hands. The auditorium was only partially filled today, and even then those in attendance were scattered throughout the seats. Her own position at the back, close enough to the door that she could exit in just two strides should the situation warrant, went unnoticed. The stage was in clear view, and the sparse attendance guaranteed the noise level would be minimal.
The words fairly rang out to her from the paper.
"The Milikion Cache: Findings and Conclusions."
Presented by Dr. Janice Covington.
Xena had come across the name in her studies. Something a rogue in archaeology, following her father's work in digging up the truth of "The Warrior Princess." It was rather flattering actually, that her life should be the basis for so much scholarly effort, even if only a few were so engaged. Fortunately they'd never found Gabrielle's scrolls, or she'd have to go into hiding again, if only to escape the embarrassment when her bard's words were misinterpreted or blown completely out of proportion. Gods help them all should it have been serialized for radio, or worse, television!
That Dr. Covington had found anything on the island was a testament to her skills and persistence. Xena herself had made sure no trace of her lost home remained, and the documents and scrolls were buried deep enough in the hard earth of the island that neither time nor man might touch them. Obviously I should have taken safeguards against stubborn women scholars as well. Xena wondered just how much Covington had learned, and how much the Vatican would allow to be published. Can't have the masses knowing what kind of bastards the Church employed even then, right?
The staggered applause shook her from her reverie, though Xena didn't hear it. Nor did she feel the program or notebook fall from suddenly nerveless fingers. Nor did she even realize her breath had stilled dead in her lungs.
The small woman making her way across the stage took up her full awareness. Even through the distance, through the early wrinkles and sun-touched hair, ignoring the slight limp that even a blind person could see should have been more pronounced, she could see could see
"Good afternoon," Dr. Janice Covington said in a steady, professional voice that echoed across the auditorium and rebounded in Xena's ears. "I shall first give a brief chronology of the dig I conducted on the Aegean island of Milikion in 1952, followed by a summary of the conclusions based upon the artifacts uncovered. I will then take questions."
Xena heard it all, understood the language perfectly, and comprehended none of it. How does one comprehend the words spoken by the walking dead?
But this woman was not the walking dead nor was she her bard their voices were the same but different her voice had a hard edge, ragged like she hadn't cried in years what was she talking about? finding the scrolls she'd translated into Latin? somebody named Melody Poppins or Melissa? a fire? she couldn't understand how Gabrielle could be talking like this like she hadn't cried in years years
Xena recovered sufficiently by the time the bard the professor Dr. Covington called for questions and students were raising their hands that she could focus once more. She was in the process of prying her fingers from their death-grip on the arms of the chair and leaning down to salvage her still-unmarked notebook when the air was driven from her lungs once more.
In response to a question concerning previous digs, Covington was saying "Certainly the chambers uncovered on Milikion are similar in style and construction to those uncovered at the site in Macedonia in 1940. The so-called 'Tomb of Ares'."
"Release me!" Ares demanded in her fever dreams, fourteen years ago.
"I'm just the descendent of a useless side-kick." her bard's visage had declared in the same dreams, fourteen years ago.
Covington was speaking again. "The inner sanctum of the tomb complex was unlocked by a two-piece artifact, a ring-shaped weapon known in antiquity as a 'Chakrum', the origins of which "
The familiar feel of the Chakrum in her hand, the screech as it cut the air and iron chains her dream, fourteen years ago.
"Was there a curse?" some student asked, the joke clearly reflected in his voice but not in the professor's voice.
"Lets just say I've seen too much to dismiss such things anymore. Even the existence of gods."
"If the world thinks it knows death and destruction now "
She couldn't breath any more. She had to get out get away from the voice voices that made a fever dream fourteen years ago something else something impossible
" wait until they get a load of me!"
She was up and out the door so quickly, it was as if she had never been.
Only one in the hall noticed, and rose to follow as Covington made her closing remarks, which went largely unheard amid unenthusiastic applause.
Xena wasn't aware how long she'd been walking, or how hurriedly, or how far she'd let herself wander. Eventually she slowed and leaned against a convenient tree, her mind rebelling against it all.
For nearly a decade and a half she had convinced herself the visions that had driven her from her tribe in the Amazon had been solely the product of fever and fatigue. Or perhaps from a guilty conscience for having given up the fight for so long. Perhaps even succumbing to an unconscious longing for the fight once more, providing her with an excuse to return to it. The gods had had nothing to do with her for so long, why should they choose now to appear to to
It was so easy, so damn easy to visualize Dr. Covington in a fedora and leather jacket. Easier still to hear her rough, low voice hating herself. She heard it even now, and wondered.
She'd managed to avoid Gabrielle's children, at least the one's she knew of, over the centuries since she'd lit the funeral pyres on Milikion, resolving that night to make a complete break with her past hadn't she hurt enough at Camelot? or finding the Sisterhood...all
But to be confronted with her mirror image, hear her talk about that gods-be-damned palce, and hear such things from her
Xena let herself slide to the ground, the cold autumn ground firm underneath her. It was nothing compared to the chill that gripped her now. The same one she had narrowly escaped fourteen years ago, able to so then only because there were so many obstacles to overcome between her and her return to Europe, so she could afford not to examine her motives too closely.
But now, the war was won, the monsters defeated (some of them, anyway), and the world was at peace. Now there was nothing to hold back the cold truth she had managed to avoid for so long. The truth she was too frightened to admit even to herself.
She had told Ares there was no place for him in the world now. How very, very wrong she was. She could see Ares' handiwork everywhere. In Europe, in the Middle East, the Far East, Japan, and Africa. The revolutionary spirit was a contagious one, and new nations and causes were springing up every day. And with them, those all too willing to kill. The Bomb ensured great wars would never happen again, lest there be no world left afterwards, but could not prevent small conflicts from erupting between nations and peoples, where the weapon of choice was the rock or club. Just look at Israel and its many neighbors, or India and Pakistan.
Even the horror and fear the sight of a rising mushroom cloud had once inspired had given way to a perverse fascination. Crowds now gathered to watch nuclear tests from a distance, while young soldiers dutifully marched almost enthusiastically towards the devastation of Ground Zero.
It was not hard to see the hand of War, however indirectly, guiding events, or to hear his laughter on the wind.
Which left her with the rather obvious question: what could she do about it?
Hunt down the God? This brought a snort of derision from her. Hunt him down then what? Entomb him again? Wait for him to escape, again? She refused to even think about what horrors would accompany his release the next time around.
She could always return to her solitude in the jungle, let the world go to blazes if it wanted. Right then, it seemed the sanest option, not to mention the most tempting one.
As is the way of the universe, direction came to her rather unexpectedly.
She'd sat there for a short time, exercising rigid control over her breathing and letting her mind wander, though eventually her backside protested the hardness of the ground underneath it. Rising, somewhat awkwardly, and moving on, Xena was startled slightly by a sudden shout of "Look out!" Tensing and spinning towards the voice, she managed to avoid getting clunked on the head by an incoming baseball. There was a small knot of boys playing on a sandy diamond some distance away.
With practiced ease, Xena reached out and snatched the ball from the air. She regarded it for a moment, as though trying to divine the secrets of life from it. "Hey, mister!" came the cry across the field. "Can we have our ball back?" Xena looked up at the boys far across the field, her mouth quirking with a grin as she gauged the distance between herself and the diamond. She made no effort to correct their mistaken assumption, instead throwing the ball with so powerful a swing it was sent sailing over the heads of the various outfielders, the basemen, even the pitcher, landing at the feet of the batter himself. Their stunned looks of astonishment were clear to her even from such a distance, and her grin widened to a genuine smile as they boys resumed their play, seemingly with more gusto than before, a few chancing a glance back at her.
Xena let herself take a deep, cleansing breath. So simple an act, so great a realization coming from it.
For those boys, their sisters and brothers, for their children and children's children yet to be born, it was for them she would continue. Not grandly or striding as a giant among gnats, but simply as a woman with many skills, helping as many or as few as she could reach.
Perhaps she would attend university somewhere, study these new sciences. The machines these days were wonders to behold, and she longed to see how they worked.
Perhaps she would search out Dr. Covington someday before the strong-willed scholar died, and tell her tales of long ago to ease her passing.
Perhaps she would pick up the pen herself and write out her memories, as Gabrielle had so often urged her to. Or seek out Darius and tell him he was right about leaving the world. Or find Gabrielle's own descendents, and watch and guide and love them as the family they were. She had neglected that particular duty far too long as it was.
All things were suddenly possible. It mattered not if she ever met Ares again, face to face or in her dreams. It didn't even matter if that dream proved real or a delusion.
She was where she needed to be.
And so she would remain, until the end.
Nathaniel Byron, Captain, USN (retired) watched the tall figure recede into the distance.
However well disguised she might have been, he had no doubt of the figure's identity. He and his siblings and their cousins and cousins' cousins had searched and searched and searched for her for over a decade, finding no trace of her. This was not too surprising, as they knew the Warrior was well practiced at concealing her tracks over the centuries. Annoying as all hell, but certainly not surprising.
And now, against all odds, he found her here. How could he be so sure? There was no immediate evidence to be seen it was the Warrior, save the gut intuition that led him to follow the half-hidden figure in the back row out as she fled. True, Cousin Daniel had been insistent on his coming and attending Covington's lecture, though he'd been uncharacteristically quiet on why. Well, now he knew. The Del Turos, it seemed, had a gift for finding the Warrior whether she wished it or no.
Perhaps it was the frantic flight from the campus, or the power behind that throw he witnessed. He only knew it was the Warrior of legend, and of prophecy.
Now he could contact the rest of the clan, and tell them to prepare. Leadership had passed to him in recent years, Elisabeth suffering through a miscarriage and fracturing marriage, passing the burdens on to him. It wasn't enviable task awaiting him, mobilizing their family as quickly as possible, yet keeping it all from the watchful eyes of the Eff-Bee-Eye and others. Their interests were wide-flung, wider still since the end of the war, and were certain to make a juicy target for HUAC should McCarthy and company feel so inclined. A daunting task, but hardly without precedent. Watching the Warrior in Cromwell's England, or following her across the steppes and into the crowded bazaars of Baghdad and Bombay were themselves hardly easy tasks.
Whatever the obstacles, they would continue to watch, and follow, and wait, as they had for millennia.
For now, it was he who watched her return.
His voice was soft in the early evening air, a fine mist that quickly dissipated reaching anywhere near the one it was directed towards.
"Welcome back, Warrior," he smiled, a greeting of one warrior to another. "Welcome back."
When I first read "Only One", between being blown away by the novel idea of an Immortal Xena and first-rate storytelling, there were a few inconsistencies with the episode "The Xena Scrolls" that bugged me. For example: how could Xena 'possess' Mel Pappas and fight Ares in 1940 when she was still alive and well? And how could the chakrum be intact in the private collection of the despicable James Dartmouth and be in two pieces in Ares' tomb in Macedonia at the same time?
Hence, the story you see here.
For those interested, the poem Feingson recites is "The Tyger" by William Blake, from his volume Songs of Innocence and Experience. Which, needless to say, was among the primary inspirations for this story.
With Thanks to:
Redhawk, for breaking new fanfic ground and letting the rest of us play along.
Meyer, for correcting my butchery of the German language.
Llachlan, for enduring so many transcontinental phone calls and rants.
Malea, Madora, and Katrina, for listening in and telling me where I'm going wrong.
For Michele. My partner in all times, all places, and all things.
Remember: FEEDBACK = MORE FANFIC.
Aesir - the name given to the race of immortals composing the Norse pantheon of gods, including Odin, Thor, Loki, Baladar, and others.
Astroguard - Norse, roughly translating into "God's Home".
Blitzkrieg - German for "Lightning War"; strategy of combined armor and infantry attack with heavy air support pioneered by the German Wehrmacht in World War II.
Camlan - a field where Arthur and Mordred reportedly met to negotiate, during which a knight (it is not known from which side) suddenly drew his sword to kill a snake near his foot. This was misinterpreted as an attack by the opposing side and both armies quickly joined in a bloody and needless battle.
El Dorado - one of seven (likely mythical) cities made of or housing great treasures of pure gold supposedly hidden in the Latin American jungles.
Fenric - a great hunter wolf, whose escape from captivity plays a part in the end of the world as described in Norse mythology.
Gefreiter - German army equivalent of corporal.
Geist - German for "ghost".
HUAC - an acronym for the House Un-American Activities Committee; an investigative committee in the US House of Representatives (later expanded to a Select Committee, composed of members from both the House and Senate) who from the 1950s until 1975 conducted ethically questionable inquiries into the political affiliations and loyalties of various segments of the American public.
Leutnant - German army equivalent of Lieutenant.
NCO - anagram for Non-commissioned Officer; highest-ranking enlisted man in a military unit, generally sergeant or higher.
Roma - Generic name for the Travelling People (a.k.a. gypsies) of Europe.
Schutzstaffel - German for "Elite Guard", formal name for the Nazi SS.
Ubermensch - Nazi ideal of a "super-man".
Unteroffizier - German army equivalent of sergeant.
Valkyrior - In Norse mythology, the Valkyrie were an order of warrior women charged by Odin to act as "Choosers of the Slain", who were to judge whether a slain warrior was to go to Valhalla (heaven) or Hel (hell).
Wehrmacht - term for combined German armed forces between 1935 and 1945; no longer in use.
Wunderwaffen - German for "wonder weapon"; advanced research and development projects carried out by the Germans the 1940s, producing the V-1 and V-2 rockets and the Me-262 jet fighter.