Disclaimer: MCA and Renaissance Picture owns Xena, Gabrielle, and anybody else you recognize. I'm using them without permission, but will return them in hopefully semi-working order when I'm done. This is a kinda-sorta Uber piece of alternative fiction from Katrina's "Blood and Roses" altverse. The bacchae bard and Ares' little girl are here, and they aren’t alone. There is scenes of violence, suggestions of societal collapse and mass death, and heavy hints of a loving relationship between two women *well* over the age of consent...to say nothing of a few surprises I thunk up along the way. If any of this bothers you, go read something safer.

This is dedicated to Lisa and Charisse, who prove souls DO rejoin for all eternity.

Personal disclaimer: There has been some controversy regarding my depiction of the Church of Latter Day Saints here. I have nothing specifically against either the Church or its congregation, and my portrayal of its here is not meant as an attack against it or its teachings, but rather as a possible future incarnation of the Church. I mean no harm in this, so please take these characters with a strong dose of salt.

Remember: FEEDBACK = MORE FANFIC. Any questions?



By Joseph Connell



Let this begin at the end. The end of what was, that is, not what has come since.

The world didn't end with the dawn of the new millennium, though many who were left quietly wished it had.

First came the collapse of technology. Though truth be told it was more a severe stumble than an actual collapse. The dire predictions of the Millennium Bug were proven, at least in part, as power grids failed and vehicles ceased to move. Brief moments of chaos gripped the world while stock exchanges from New York to Hong Kong to Vladivostok to Pretoria to New Dehli went dark or spewed nonsensical numbers and totals. Civilization teetered at the cliffs edge only in its collective mind, righting itself as much by instinct as by will, Hobbes' Leviathan proving to have both its great feet firmly planted on the ground and unshakable in its strength. Or so seemed for too short a time.

Then came what some called "The Judgement", others "Gaia's Revenge". Out of nowhere, the unsuspecting population was stuck time and again by the worst nature could offer. Whether this was retribution against those who abused the planet's bounty, or simply the natural cycle of all things, would be a matter of debate for later generations. Those who endured these deprivations had little time and still less inclination for such high-minded pondering.

The old order didn't completely collapsed from the combination of epidemic and disaster. Cities still stood, though the streets seemed to become a little less crowded and a bit more dangerous, and religions still preached their respective gospels, more often inciting riots than repentance and reconciliation. Capitalism remained king, the information superhighway widened and advanced, and the unknown of space still beckoned earth-bound explorers.

But fully two and a half billion had died in a series of epidemics the decade before. They were nothing exotic from the rainforests, merely a resurgence of tuberculosis, leprosy, and influenza, all coming in quick succession and killing millions. Neighborhoods and towns became mass graves, scavengers thriving in the wake of it. The elderly were wiped away, as were many of the young. It seemed for a time that Malthus would have the last laugh.

Even so, human civilization endured.

Then came the rains and the droughts. The rising seas consumed islands and coasts, while lands once fertile dried and became dust. Famine and still more disease picked at the already frayed nerves of society. Riots erupted frequently, governments decayed and were replaced, armies roamed far afield and soon took orders only from themselves. Billions died, becoming nourishment for the earth...and, in some cases, their own children. The full numbers would likely never be known.

Humanity endured, adapting to these upheavals and moving on with the daily business of life. Children were still born every day. Families came together and were torn apart. There was still hope to be found.

In time, the world calmed and quieted, a new order to the things coming to pass. Memories of the old remained, but this was nostalgia for the survivors. They had enough to deal with.

Each other, among other things.

The caravan had been on the road for several moons, and the Timberline Freestate seemed no closer. The fact they now had to traverse the wide Utah territories only made them all the more jumpy. Utah was Zionist country, and there was little love to be lost between the Zionists and Freestate pilgrims. The California Bay made taking this route a necessity, the untamed coastline unfit for travel and its choppy waters too treacherous to attempt crossing.

And so, Utah it was. For this reason, every member of the caravan kept their rifles in easy reach, each hoping they wouldn't need them. The mountain passes and valleys of the region were all the more treacherous given the rubble and unstable walls they had to navigate. Add to that the territory was controlled by a gun-totting, trigger-happy, isolationist military theocracy and it was small wonder everyone was sweating hard.

They rode in three large land-rovers, eight people per vehicle, three of them not yet in their sixth summer. They'd actually made good time, having gone from the Freestate to the Southern Nations in only two moons, not encountered a single patrol or militia outpost. This was quite the blessing actually, given the animosity involved between the nations and Zionists. While this Zionist movement was actually Mormon in origin as opposed to Hebrew, it was every bit as aggressive as its forebears had been in settling the region. The caravan actually traveled through Nevada territory, since reclaimed by several native western nations who defended their territory with a fierceness equally only to that of the Zionists who sought to expel them. Still, it was close enough to the border to worry.

There was plenty to worry about.

The leader of the group told the driver "Stop." No explanation, no alarm or note in the order, just "Stop." He carefully applied the breaks, the rover coming to a slow halt from there. The two behind them did likewise, the break lights of each illuminating the evening's twilight. Within the cab of each, driver and passenger moved for their weapons: an automatic for the driver, normally worn in a shoulder holster, and a 12-gauge shotgun for the 'shotgun' seat. The ones in the back had the more intensive hardware.

The leader popped her door and left the cab. The driver, Perry Alocard, was both relieved and alarmed by this. Alarmed that the blasted woman was putting herself directly in harm's way (again!), and relieved that this time she'd taken her sidearm with her. She and her family were funny like that.

The sun had already set over the hills and bathed the landscape in burnished gold. The leader called out to it. "All right. Show yourselves."

The echo of her voice died away, and a dozen dark shapes melted out of the lengthening shadows. Several red dots appeared out of the dark and tracked over her still form, a few straying over the caravan, only to quickly return to the leader.

She remained stock still, hands in pockets and wearing a patient expression that only fooled the ones in front of her, not behind. She let them examine her at their leisure. From her short, dark hair to her well-formed curves to her more than ample bosom, not to mention the tight jeans and sweat-patched shirt, the Zionists were doubtlessly salivating at the visual feast she offered. She'd happily do a strip-tease if it meant getting her people through this.

Damn it all, she hadn't wanted to travel with these pilgrims. Loyal as she was to family and legacy, she really had little use for the more religious aspects of the nation her parents had help found, not that it didn't have its uses. This particular group provided her (and the bodyguard her father and aunt had insisted come with her) with a convenient cover for travelling to the Southern Nation. Pity the trip hadn't accomplished what they'd hoped it might. It'd be a perfect capstone to a pointless series of meeting with the Nation's elders... to get her ass blown away out here in this wilderness by a pack of wild animals who just happen to walk on two legs.

When the leader of the shadows threw up an arm, the universal signal to his team to hold their position, the leader let herself relax enough to speak. The red dots disappeared (the members of the caravan letting out a collective sigh of relief) and a single cone of light stabbed out, catching the leader square in the spotlight so to speak. She didn't so much as blink, merely stared straight ahead into the unseen eyes of her opposite number and said "We have permission to travel here."

That brought a fart of laughter among the Zionist patrol. Their leader made no effort to quiet them, instead demanding "Permission from who? The Advocacy Council? Bishop Albreicht?"

Mentally filing this away as confirmation of some of the rumors of discord in the supposed religious paradise, she replied calmly "By the grace and permission of the First Assembly of Zion, in accordance with the terms of the Peace of Blackwood." She paused and added for good measure "And by the leave of His Holiness, The Prophet Jacob Mormon."

The laughter stopped dead, and the silence stretched into gathering darkness of night. "You have documentation?" She produced a carefully folded sheet of paper from her breast pocket and handed it over, clasping her hands behind her back while she waited.

The paper was soon handed back to her, and the Zionist officer asked "Just who in the good Lord's name are you?"

"Leah Margareeth Covington."

The Covington name was a respected one, even here. It had been, after all, General Melissa Covington who had beaten back the Zionist expeditions into the Freestate time and again, her forces always out-numbered but never out-classed. But it had been her brother (and Leah's father, who would doubtlessly have a fit when he found out about this) Simon who forged an actual treaty between the two sides. The militiamen glared, but none moved to heft or aim their own weapons. Covington turned back to the caravan, walking the short distance with a stride which said nothing of the way her lungs were aching for fresh air.

Covington let out a quiet, if shaky and rattled breath once she was back in the cab. "Sonovabitch," she managed, equally quietly, before saying "Get us outta here."

Her eyes hadn't strayed from the indistinct shaped ahead of them, hand positively itching to grab at her sidearm. Only the story of the fields of Camlan, where a knight suddenly drawing his sword to strike at an adder had unintentionally touched off a pointless bloodbath, kept her hands still. Goddess, these unofficial border guards were getting worse by the day. She could understand old Jacob's reasoning, putting these self-styled fundamentalists out here were they might do the least harm...but these were the sort of fanatics who take pot-shots at little kids just for the hell of it.

To say nothing of a certain high-placed someone undertaking secret meetings with leaders of the opposing side for reasons known only to a few.

The caravan inched forward slowly, the militiamen parting to let them pass.

Their sneers could be clearly seen in the darkness, even long after they themselves were out of sight.

Like so much else of "the Ruin" (or "the Fall" or "The Judgement", depending on who you talked to), the re-formation of North America happened largely on its own. While the three pandemics which ravaged Europe, Asia, and Africa had left much of the western half of the continent untouched (though you probably couldn't sell the mass graveyard the east coast had become for a proverbial song), generations of pessimistic geologists and doomsday prophets were vindicated when an eight-point-nine scale earthquake shook the Los Angeles basin. The crust beneath the city cracked and sent over five hundred square miles of plunging into the ocean. There would never be a accurate count of the dead.

This was not the end, however. The same earthquake give birth to a volcano, who's submerged eruption easily rivaled Krocatoa's in 1883. The tsunami which resulted created new lakes and riverways as far north as the Sacramento foothills and spewed up enough magma to create a chain of islands stretching far out in to the ocean. In a decade, life would take root there. In another, birds would nest their eggs and amphibians would make their homes on the shores.

And the cycle of life from death would continue.

Further north, the newborn volcano's much older cousin, St. Helens, destroyed itself in a rage of lava and pent-up forces that by rights should have been released through its open cone...rather than bursting out its walls and leaving nothing but ruined land in its wake. Yet that same earthquake that had birthed its cousin had managed to seal its cone, dislodging enough rock to seal the orifice tight. The forces beneath the cap simply built and built and built, and finally burst out in all their primal and destructive glory.

It was as though the land were covered in cool twilight for years to come. The fires lit by hate and hope kept the people beneath this shroud of dust warm enough, as did the fear of things which dwelt there with them.

The militia were all proud men (and only men, as defense of home and hearth is not work fit for women), and so were naturally galled at being made to step aside for these heathens. Led by a woman, for Jehovah's sake!

They'd all heard of the Covington family and its scandalous history. From Henry the Grave Robber, to his corrupt and heathen daughter Janice, to all their demon-possessed decedents, the good men of Zion held the name in contempt, even as they granted it a grudging respect. There was little doubt among them which side of the Great Argument the Covingtons served, but they did so with such bravery and determination it was impossible not to respect them for it.

Still, it had taken a writ from the hand of Jacob Mormon himself to stay their hand. That and only that had kept them from meting out justice. Why The Prophet deemed them fit to travel through their lands without harassment was beyond their ken, but such is the mysterious way the Lord does his good work.

Their leader, a rough-hewn man named William Matthews and a veteran of the eastern border, was not one to take his duties lightly. He proven himself time and again in the east, defending the border against the often-suicidal attacks by the self-styled "Defenders of the Faith" operating out of old Missouri and Iowa territories. Yet not once had his application to the Civic Militia been considered, not once had his service been recognized by the Prophet or his Bishops. Rather, Matthews found himself out here, again in the wilderness, prowling the border for signs of incursion with only a band of thugs and fools at his back.

Not that this assignment was any less tolerable, what with the red heathans resurrecting their primative rites but a few miles away. Stories circulated (most of them lies, he was certain) of their attacking and scalping some of the more outlying settlements. True, something was attacking their borders here, but Matthews doubted it was the redskins. Judging by the way the bodies were literally torn apart, to the point where identifying the unfortunate was simply impossible, it was more likely they were looking at a pack of blood-mad wolves. Nothing human could do such damage. This stoked the already smoldering lump of resentment towards the Prophet he served so loyally. It was nearly enough to...

The tumbling of rocks against the sheer walls around them shook Matthews' attention back to the present. He and his men had chosen to bivouac on one of the smaller plateaus which studded the valley walls. It provided shelter enough from the elements, yet was positioned well enough to see anything coming down the trail at them. That the silvery moon hung above in a cloudless sky overhead was a definite bonus.

Rifle in hand, Matthews breezed out of his tent and looked across towards those of his men. Only the wind could be heard, pulling at the tent flaps and the dust at his feet. There was nothing out of place to be seen, though his every instinct screamed that something was wrong.

More rocks tumbled, this time closer and just beyond the expanse that hid them from sight.

That was when Matthews realized what was out of place. The two sentries he'd stationed at the edge of the camp...in their place was empty air.

Now there was a shuffling sound to be heard now, echoing off every surface it became impossible to tell from which direction. In his heart of hearts, William Matthews knew he had no time to even cry out. Desperate prayers to the Almighty scrolled through his panicked thoughts, begging forgiveness for his sins and...there was simply no time.

When these predators came, not even a full second later, he had not chance to even raise his weapon before they silently fell on him as one.

They fed well of him, their feast ending too soon. Little matter, as there was still plenty of meat to be had.

The pack broke apart, each member stalking ever so quietly towards their next meal. Again, each ate and drank deeply of the meat, with only the cold moon and stars overhead bearing witness.

It was impossible to know exactly when or why the pandemics had started. Some believed it to the work of those impatient for doomsday. Others saw it as simply the result of humanity's arrogance. The sudden spread of TB and influenza alone, both proving gleefully immune to antibiotics, had been enough to tear human society apart. The reappearance and spread of Hanson's disease, mere months after the last influenza patient had died, set brother against sister against parent against neighbor against stranger. The merest cut to the skin became a death sentence. The merest wrinkle or flaw to the skin, a mark of the sickness...whether it actually was or not.

Violence became commonplace, self-appointed 'protectors' roamed the streets with whatever weapon they could find. Rarely would they have guns or batons, as one would expect. Rather, it was baseball bats and crude wooden planks and chains and broken bottles. They 'protected' by searching out those cowering in the rubble, or wandering and searching for food, or simply those wearing a shirt none of them liked, and beating them bloody...or, more mercifully, to death.

Too many died because of this. Too many doctors, who might have found a cure, but who worked themselves to exhaustion and simply began to look their age. Too many innocents, who's only crime was poor but intact health, found themselves beaten and outcast.

Ironically, this blood-madness that gripped humanity may well in fact have saved it. For all the innocent and healthy blood spilled, the disease's spread was slowed and eventually stopped by this, isolating those unfortunates who suffered from it, and by isolating those who might have contracted it. Without victims to feed it, the disease died out.

By then, however, a brave new world waited those who ventured out from behind their barricades and locked doors. One where predators walked on two legs as well as four, and whose hunger was for more than simply flesh.

They'd ridden in silence a good hour past the patrol when Alocard spoke up. Even then, doing so only with good reason, his eyes picking out the details in the darkness before them. "Chief?"

"I see it," Covington nodded. "Slow down." Alocard obeyed without question, Covington disembarking the instant the vehicle slowed sufficiently. Alocard's silent curse-but the latest in a long, long series of expletives he'd been uttering since volunteering for this little assignment-went unnoticed by its familiar target. He counted his blessings all the same, blessing in the form of taking her sidearm and one of the stronger torches they had.

Covington hit the switch to the flashlight and bathed the area before them in its comforting light. The moon hadn't quite cleared the horizon, and so lit the canyon floor with only the faintest glow. Even so, the harsh terrain was all too visible. Where the rocks weren't piled into little mounds were pits and holes that went from shallow to treacherous. To even think of navigating this stretch (and quite a stretch it was, she could see, easily going several hundred yard beyond them) at night was something between grotesque stupidity and outright suicide with or without full moonlight.

If she'd been on her own, Covington might have risked it. Might, depending on how drunk she was and how much she preferred a broken neck to her parent's inevitable diatribes about her safety.

As it was, the only option open to them was the absolute last one she wanted to risk out here. One look at the trail ahead, however, convinced her. Better a day lost than loosing one of the caravan to a broken axial, or worse, one of the children to a broken neck.

With a sigh she turned back and let out a shrill whistle. This brought every driver and his or her shotgun, Alocard included, running before the first echo resounded. Covington gave an irritated sigh and informed them "We're going to have to stop here for the night." Groans were quick in coming, though not as many as she'd feared. Good to know not everyone present was the impatient or foolhardy sort, as had been her initial impression. Then again, it took one to know one, didn't it?

"I want three guards on rotation. One at the front, one at the rear, and a floater." Covington snapped out the orders automatically, almost unconsciously, as though it was the most normal thing in the world for her...the fact she'd hardly spoken a single word to them since first leaving the Freestate notwithstanding. Everyone, even Alocard, couldn't help but stare for a moment, then broke up as ordered. Alocard was among the first watch, taking time away only to escort her back to the cab of the lead rover.

On her way, Covington considered praying to...someone...for a single quiet night, but just as quickly dismissed the idea. She had little enough use for the gods; no point in making herself into as much a hypocrite as the idiots they'd passed an hour ago by turning to them now.

Covington settled back into her seat, glancing behind her that the rest of her passengers (a young mother named Cellene, her brother Jerrald, and her two children Luke and Maria) were still fast asleep before letting herself drift off. Damn but she was tired, and not by the journey or her mission alone.

The epidemics did not attack all places equally, nor all with equal force. The western half of North America, for years prior drifting further and further away from its crowded and busy neighbor across the Mississippi, was spared the worst through a combination of luck and culture. The old ways had never fully disappeared from the aired lands in the south or the wet forests of the north, old medicines and the contrasting climates producing their own barriers to the diseases, as did the frontier spirit that unconsciously isolated communities from one another.

There were deaths, true, but not the ravaging that the east saw. That only came later, after the droughts again reduced Oklahoma to dust and half of California fell into the ocean, after still more death, when new communities formed out of the ruins.

The new Zionist movement, growing out of the confusion that had consumed the old Mormon Church and tossing away its heritage of tolerance, laid claim to much of the Rocky Mountain range and territory. They claimed land from the valley Rio Grande to the fields of Saskatchewan to the outskirts of St. Louis to the dusty flats of Nevada. In doing so they earned the ire of the many tribes composing the Southern Nation, who found their homes in Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona under threat, and of the fast-spreading Baptist community out of the Missouri region. Old angers were lit anew, and undeclared war quickly became a daily fact of life.

The Zionists responded to this by searching for land further to the west, only to be stopped dead by those who had made the forests and plains there their home. The Timberline Freestate, they called themselves, and followed a curious mix of the old ways and new. They welcomed the first pilgrims, but refused to hear any of the Holy Scripture or allow separate churches to be built within their lands. Their efforts at explaining their confusing yet accepting culture fell upon deaf ears. Yet when it came to blows, the men and women of the Freestate sent the hardened Zionists into full and humiliating retreat.

The lands within the Freestate were too rich and bountiful to be left unclaimed, and so the Zionists committed expedition after expedition into those forests, only to be turned back time and again. No matter how many men were sent, no matter how many weapons or how hardened their commanders, each time saw their expeditions sent into retreat.

This went on for decades, nearly a full generation passing before a peace was finally reached.

Even then, it was only a tentative one, created more out of necessity than an admission of futility. The Baptists in the east, their blood now aflame for Crusade, had begun to push across the borders and thereby force resources to be committed there than guarding the western borders. To the dismay of some, on both sides, the peace endured.

Soon, there were other, still darker and more dangerous things to occupy the attention of those who lived in the daylight.

The moon had traced half its silvery arc across the sky by the time Alocard felt the hours finally start pressing down on him. He was a hardened fighter and more than capable of long duty...but gods above even he had his limits! Four full moons, that's how long he'd been by Leah's side and watching her back. Four full moons, and it was all catching up to him in one go.

There was no-one to blame for this, save himself. He'd volunteered for the duty, as had a few others, and had been chosen due to his longer record of service. Full disclosure had been made from the start, which really didn't make him feel any better. Guarding the only child of Simon Magus Covington was pressure enough; doing so while traveling with a pack of air-headed spiritualists whose only business with the Southern Nations was smoking drags of peyote and chanting their beads for a few weeks strained his all his reserves to the breaking point.

He bit down on the wide yawn that made his jaw itch, refusing to give his fatigue even that small victory. Rather, Alocard busied himself walking the oval perimeter around the caravan, concentrating all his energy on keeping his ears sharp and his step light.

Not to mention a really firm grip on his Remington rifle.

He'd completed half a circuit, passing the middle rover on his left, when the hair on neck stood at silent attention. This had happened quite often of late, both here and in the Nation. Too often to be taken all that seriously anymore. Caution after so long a stretch, even when perfectly justified, is little more than paranoia.

Not to say paranoia didn't have its place or its use. It had in fact saved his hide more than a few times. But out here, it was the last thing he could afford to indulge in, and so ignored it and simply concentrated on walking a straight circuit around the caravan.

Still...he could have sworn something was amiss out here. Nothing in sight, no noise to speak of whatsoever. It was just himself, the vehicles, the guards, and the crickets doing their nightly symphony.

He gave the rear guard, a heavy-set (not in a healthy way) man named Mikel, a good-natured slap on the shoulder that immediately perked him up and gave eyes at the sheer valley walls surrounding them. The moonlight gave illumination enough to make any sneak attacks or ambushes difficulty in the extreme. Or rather, it did...until a few puffs of clouds slid over the disk and darkened the area for only a moment.

Alocard went stock still at this, every nerve suddenly screaming. His eyes torn apart every shadow that suddenly surrounded them, trigger-finger itching. All for good reason, as his hearing told him mere seconds later.

The crickets had gone silent.

Desperately, Alocard tried to swallow past the lump that had developed in his throat, just as he tried to pry his legs from the paralysis that gripped them. It was too late to raise the alarm. Too late, he knew in the depths of his soul, for anything.

When the moon emerged but moments later, he and his fellows could see the predators of this place surrounding them. Their eyes lit with balefire, they made no move in either attack or defense, even as Alocard and his fellows raised their weapons and took aim. Then again, why should they have? They easily outnumbered all those within the caravan, whether asleep or awake.

Breaking his paralysis, Alocard turned enough glance towards the lead vehicle, knowing all the while it was a mistake. Doing so brought him face-to-face with the pack's leader, who's barely-seen eyes scorched his very soul.

No alarm was raised by what came next, no sound disturbed the sleepers as their guardians fell.

Nor was their sleep the least bit disturbed as inhuman hands fell upon them all. Even the children, who normally were such light sleepers, knew nothing of befell them.

The territory claimed by the Zionists proved of such size and stretch that there was simply no way to patrol its length effectively. Fortunately for them the New Baptist out of Missouri, the Freestate and the Southern Nations had no real territorial ambitions. The former only wanted Mormon blood while the latter two simply wanted to be left in peace. Consequently any conflicts between the two sides were either bloody bits of genocide (as tends to happen when religion and righteousness are mixed with heavy artillery) or simple thrust-and-counterattacks (as tends to happen when one side decides it really doesn't want to give up land it just lost).

This was equally fortunate for the Nations and the Freestate, as travel and commerce between the two went pretty much unimpeded. The Peace of Blackwood granted some protection for such things, and neither side really wanted an all-out war over the issue, so "safe corridors" were established and that was pretty much that.

Not to say there weren't hardy souls who'd ignore such well-worn paths and insist on finding their own ways across the land. The Zionists took these incidents for what they were and left these rugged individuals to their own devices. They had enough to concern themselves with as it was.

One such traveler, mounted atop a butter-colored mare, knew all this as she knew every twist and turn of these same canyons. She'd made it her business to know such things in recent years, having made the region her home and not wishing to miss a thing.

She had no name that either the pilgrims from the north or the Zionist patrols would know her by, for they never saw her. The Nations to the south believed her a wandering medicine woman, a healer who came and went with the wind. Those who encountered her would not speak of what they saw. Only the rarity of such incidents, and the fact wounds and ailments that by rights should have been untreatable were put right, confirmed her existence. The Nation honored her work by leaving her be, as (they correctly interpreted) was her wish.

She'd drifted about the area the past few weeks, letting Nutbread take her where she willed. The mare was every bit as prone to wanderlust as herself, and had little trouble seeking out new paths to explore whether it be day or night. They both preferred night travel, and could go days on end without stopping.

But tonight, the mare and rider found themselves inexplicably nervous. Even when passing a dozen paces beside a Zionist patrol, never had they gotten this nervous. Nutbread was nearly shaking on her legs. And her rider...her rider dearly wished she had more than a simple Bowie knife to defend them with.

Just as she knew every crevice and niche in these walls, so too did she know the secret places where the predators of this land made their homes. Unlike their wilder (and wiser) cousins, who kept to their own patch of land and food stock, the ones she was most wary of roamed and foraged where they willed. This made them all the more dangerous, this unpredictability of theirs. Bad enough they were able to think beyond simple hunger...some of the time, anyway...

She unsheathed the knife and held loosely in her palm, tightening her grip on Nutbread's reigns. The mare read the signs as well, and was ready to take flight.

Truth be told, the nomad wasn't at all surprised by their...increased activity. The collapse of the old order had given them ample feeding for a time. Longer than she'd expected, or could have even hoped for. Time enough for a new order to emerge, giving humanity a chance against its less restrained cousins.

But by now pickings must have become slim in the towns and cities, or simply become too dangerous for them, leaving them to migrate out and revert to their oldest instincts. It would have been so much easier if they simple regressed all the way back to being feral scavengers. Instead all indications spoke of the worst of all possible worlds: intelligent organization and sentient cunning coupled with raw blood-lust. The remains of fully three dozen families, all well armed and of rugged stock, here in the frontier was all the evidence she needed.

What worried her most was the frequency and breadth of these incidents. Too many, occurring too quickly, and entirely too far apart for the number she'd once estimated living (if such a term even applied to such as they) in this part of the world. It could only mean their numbers were growing, and growing quickly.

She'd have to turn north, to the Timberline. They'd have need of her there soon. The Zionists would no doubt try to burn her at the stake were she to offer her skills there. Those people were funny like that, she reflected, so let them take their chances.

Nudging her mare on, albeit more cautiously now, the nomad made her way into the canyons linking the north with the south. The silver crescent of the moon looked down upon them, its light dim and cold comfort.

Humanity was not the only one to seek and find opportunity from The Ruin. There have always existed peoples and beings, both strange and wonderful, alongside the vast humanity. They populated the secret places within the trees and beneath the rocks, behind the waterfall and high atop the mountain. But because they were so few in this day and age, and because humanity instinctively fears that which is different, and because these same peoples and beings had terrorized them, humanity had chosen to disbelieve their existence.

These strange and wonderful peoples passed into myth, became legend and bedtime stories, and vanished from the daylight. But their numbers flourished in secret, and children kept alive their memory.

They watched with dismay as the world and air was poisoned by the appetites of humanity, and with silent glee as nature extracted just payment for it. But when the cities were filled with death and the land changed beneath them all, it was then that they decided to emerge and roam in the daylight once more.

True, there were those who had never truly left. The tribes of shy Sasquach and the solitary Yeti, for example, though they kept to themselves and had little to do with the wider world. The former found itself under siege by the newly-awakened Wendigo, who seemed to prefer Sasquach flesh to its traditional human fare. The centaurs, the satyrs, and Changelings were the first to emerge, their numbers the largest and hardiest. They quickly moved into the deserted towns and villages, or established their own.

Human gawked for a short time, then shrugged and moved on. Even when drakes and the occasional elder dragon would take to the sky, or when wild unicorns stampeded through the forests, humanity still paid it only enough mind to stay out of their way. Perhaps it was the shock of seeing all that had been collapse so quickly. Perhaps they had never truly stopped believing. In the end, it mattered little why so little attention was paid these developments. The world had changed, and that was that.

Some of the awakened could not help but cause chaos in their wake. In China, the Earth Dragon reared up and took to wandering here and there, at least until confronted by a group of architects and wisemen. They politely reminded it that every building in China rested upon its back so could it please go back to sleep so they could do their jobs and people could return to their homes? The Earth Dragon was suitably chastised and profuse in its apologies. "Just stretching my legs, you understand," All in vintage Mandarin, of course.

Across the frozen tundra of northern Asia and Scandinavia, great dragon-like beasts roamed. These were not malicious beings, but merely too large for the world they had awoken into. Fortunately they kept to the cold north, finding the frosty air much to their liking, and generally tried to respect the small Inuit and Scandi settlements they came across.

The Mothmen and Devils, none of whom had a malicious bone in their bodies, of the Jersey Pine Barrens came out and danced their strange dances, much to the delight of the chipmunks and birds.

By and large, their return went without violence. True, there would ever be those who would fear and attack them, but such incidents were far fewer than the number of positive exchanges which took place daily. Humanity, by and large, accepted their long-lost cousins once more.

Would that all those who emerged were so accepting.

The signs had all been there for her to read. She'd had a fair idea what had happened when first coming across the tracks, hours earlier. A small caravan, she was sure, moving northwards at a steady clip. The pace couldn't last long, given the way the canyon trail quickly degenerated into nothing but stones and pits. There had been signs of an encampment some miles back, though as many signs of having been savaged by...she really didn't want to think about by who exactly, knowing full well the parties responsible.

She found the caravan rather easily, which worried her no end. Freestate pilgrims were hardly the sort to simply sit themselves out in the open like this, particularly in hostile territory. Granted, the path ahead was nothing to risked lightly, any more than she herself would dare with Nutbread save in full daylight. Looking into the back of the middle vehicle, she saw the reason for their risking stopping out here.

A child's rag doll. It spoke volumes of these pilgrims.

So, too, did the small dark pools dotting the area around the vehicles. There were trails linking them, thin and thick, each ending abruptly. She dipped her fingertip into the nearest pool. A single taste, cooper and salt stinging her tongue.

The only signs of any life once in this place.

She didn't count those still hiding in the shadows, not having the time or inclination to play the prey game.

"You can come out now."

She'd counted three cowering among the rocks behind her, each of whom bravely leapt into sight. Why shouldn't they? She was simply one woman with a knife and medicine satchel...and her horse.

An easy meal, they thought.

She could see them clearly in the moon's light. They'd been human, once. They still had two arms and two legs...at least, what once had been arms and legs. On one the arms were as misshapen as the wind-twisted tree branches. On another, they were as more multi-jointed than those of an insect's. The third crouched on feral legs and claws.

Their eyes glowed with cold fire, and their teeth were so many razors glinting in the silver light.

The shine of her Bowie, capturing the same moonlight, burned into their eyes. As did her clear, cold grin.

These were primitive and brutal scavengers, for all their form and cunning. They knew now their meal, unlike the last, would not be an easy catch. This excited them as nothing else. Even the wild mating of their pack paled to it.

What could there be here for them to fear?

They leapt forward as one, their target waiting patiently.

Six sightless eyes, a few pulled partially, even fully, from their native sockets, started all about as the crescent moon fell below the western horizon. Had they sight, a vista of torn flesh and body parts would have been all that might be seen.

Their moans of pain and despair drowned out the steady stacco of departing hoof-beats on the hard ground, the departure of the one who had bested them so easily the furthest thing from their minds. They were simple members of their pack, hungry for life.

They sensed the approach of dawn, knowing the daylight would leave them nothing but ashes.

Their moans became full-bodied cries as the morning's first light began flooding the canyon. Those cries sounded out for a short time.

The echos died as quickly as the cries themselves, leaving only silence behind.

There is no way to describe the course of the collapse of what was. No words are big enough, nor any description adequate to the scale of it all.

Rather, look to your family. Walk down a crowded street. Look at the faces you pass by, or those you sit at dinner with. Stop and watch a crowd for a moment.

Now, imagine: one in three of those faces, of all those people...

...lying on the street...

...their skin bloated...

...or peeling off the bone...

...bold scavengers, large and small, feasting on the corpses, unafraid of any who might see them...

Imagine, all those bodies, on the streets, piled on doorsteps and in alleyways.

Whole families, parents and children gathered to hide from the death outside...finding no escape in the end. Norman Rockwell, made grotesque.

Imagine towns and villages made forever silent, save for the wind which quietly howled in lament.

Imagine long roads and highways, empty of all traffic, the concrete and steel weathered by the raw elements. Some reduced down to their girders and foundations. Others partially collapsed upon themselves.

Ships, their captains and crews all struck dead, did occasionally run aground, creating novel habitats for both sea- and land-dwellers.

The cities proved the most stable and secure communities, as much by their sheer size as by their wealth of medicinal resources. Small, remote communities were much the same way, though their knowledge of herbs and old healing countered the sickness as effectively as modern science could have.

The cities survived, some better than others. And while the survivors had their homes and dry walls, their streets soon fell to the animals (both four and two-legged) who grew bold and could satisfy their hunger on the many fallen. Night was their time, the time of hunters and prey, whether within city walls or without.

Not to say the hunt was always easy, or that the hunters didn't occasionally become prey.

Leah awoke to a body screaming in distress. Her mind, unfortunately, was so full of tight-packed cotton she couldn't focus enough to do more than slide through the sensory haze which greeted her. Sight, hearing, taste, touch all melded into a mass of sensory data so thick as to be impenetrable. There was no context or sense of direction to either the sensation which bombarded her or the disorganized thoughts bouncing between her two ears.

For a moment, Leah suspected she was dead and floating in Limbo...until the floor came sharply into focus mere feet beyond her nose.

Looking up, she found her feet disappeared into solid rock. She instantly assessed her situation, panic nipping at her mental heels all the while. A fair response when one finds oneself hung upside down in a cavern, not unlike a side beef in an old-fashioned slaughterhouse. The analogy, unpleasant in implication, is only fortified by the sight of over a dozen more individuals in the exact same state.

Seeing her fellow pilgrims was not what drove Leah nearly into screaming panic. Rather it was what she did not see which taxed her control beyond all measure.

She did not see any of the children. Anywhere.

Getting her joints to work was impeded for the same reason she could barely put two coherent thoughts together...hanging upside down, for hours on end it felt like, was not conducive to either mobility or clear thinking. Still, the Covington's were hardy stock, and Leah was not one to shrink from hardship.

Granted, she'd never put herself through contortions like this, wrestling with numb limbs and cramped muscles so she might grab the backs of her knees and curl herself upwards. This allowed the blood pooling within her head and arms to drain away, diminishing her headache and rudely awaking both arms to the joys of pins-and-needles raping her nerves. The pain was a welcome goad all the same.

Able to get her thoughts clear once again, Leah concentrated on her surroundings and what memories managed to bubble to the surface. The former proved far more solid than the latter, though she struggled to salvage them all the same.

Her orders to the sentries, the brief argument with Allocard over who takes the first watch, a crick in her shoulder from leaning against the door and trying to sleep, sounds of creaking metal, the scent of dust and cooper...


No-one stirred at this outburst. Leah diligently refused to let herself wonder about this. Because if her suspicions were right...no, don't think about. If she thought about it, she'd freeze...forever.

Unfortunately, there wasn't that much else to do. Even in the dim light, she could see her feet were sunk deep into the stone. There was no indication of how this had been done. It looked for all the world as though the rock had literally melted around them. Just the thought of this, one she ruthlessly squashed, cause sweat to break out. Gods, she felt herself start to shake as much from this as from the exertion of grasping her knees and doing a mid-air tummy tuck.

"Shit!" she panted, which clearly echoed off the walls. Again, no-one stirred.

"Argh," Leah grunted in true Covington manner, finally having to surrender her grip and let herself uncurl. She desperately tried to think past the renewed pounding in her ears, to focus on ways to escape this place, to find some way to protect her people from...from...

Leah didn't think the name. Wouldn't let herself think the name. Because to just think about them, about their name, was to call them. So long as she didn't call them, she could...could...could what?

Panic started well in her stomach, and move its way inexonerably up into her throat.

She couldn't do anything! She was trapped! Helpless! They'd hung her out like a piece of meat for dinner!

Muscles started clenching and twitching of their accord, while her lips pressed together into a tight line. She refused to scream, however much her throat ached from unvoiced emotions...she would not scream!

The human form can endure only so much stress, whether inflicted from without or bubbling within, before succumbing to simple fatigue. Fighting oneself is no less tiring than battling an external foe. Perhaps moreso. And if there is anything a Covington instinctively knows, it is how to fight.

Leah Margareeth Covington, a Major in the Timberline Army, fought her panic as she did the stone covering her feet. Fought with both, applying all her strength to both conflicts, not fully succeeding against the one, and making no progress against the other.

In the end, there was only surrender to the darkness. Again, in true Covington fashion, Leah did so with a curse on her lips.


There were only the dust and shadows to hear it.

Covington had only just stilled when a pair of points of red balefire lit the darkness beyond. It was joined by another.

And another.

The darkness moved, creeping towards the hapless bodies. One could almost feel the hunger swelling there, demanding sustenance.

Hunger which would not be long denied.

There were those who had always called the darkness home, and even the utter collapse of what was willing not fully draws them out. The light of day was deadly to them, and so they remained deep in the shadows, venturing out only to satisfy the very hunger and thirst which led them into those same shadows.

These were not animals by any means, however brutal their feeding. Theirs was a culture every bit as old as their cousins the Satyrs, Centaurs, and Minotaurs, though in truth they had more in common with the Changelings. Their powers were far darker, far greater, than all the rest. The blood of the Olympians flowed strong in their veins, each a direct blood-child of one in particular.

The children of Bacchus, God of Wine and Revelry, each having drunk of his Bloodwine, found circumstances very much to their liking.

Oh, they wouldn't dream of giving up their dark ways and communities. Rather they let slip their oldest instincts and drives, feasting as never before, their hunger shifting from drink...to meat.

They flourished, these dark cousins, and their numbers grew fast and wide. Those falling to the plagues as often awaking in non-death as finding their final rest.

These newborns knew little of their heritage. Just as the collapse of what was all but wiped away social forms and restraints in the daylight, if only for a time, so to did it rot away the hierarchies which ruled in the shadows. The once-weakest of the blood-kin became as princes. Fancying themselves such, many chose to rule rather than teach, and presiding over courts of slavering dogs. The few who clung to the old ways did so more out of fear of their father...and his daughter...than out of reverence of the gifts his blood imparted.

They would emerge only at night, these arrogant, ignorant youths, and take as they wished and as they were able. It proved easy at first, meat being plentiful and their strength greater than most. In time, however, the meat learned to fight back, learned what made these hunters afraid and made full use of herbs, fire, and even faith. The number of bacchae however proved too numerous for these weapons to eliminate them all, and the nightly sport continued, albeit often with mixed results and eternal confusion over who was the prey.

Not that there weren't still a few elders here and there who clung to the old forms and rites. They were of powerful stature, or weak and ineffectual, depending upon their followers and their own wits. Those of the latter were derided and ignored. But the former were looked upon with awe, as one might a king, their aura all the more overwhelming for the power in their blood.

Yet, odd stories circulated of one acknowledged as the most powerful of all the blood-kin. The daughter of Bacchus himself, so it was said, known to travel without either court or retinue, seeking no followers and never feeding off the plentiful meat found in the cities. One who could and did stand and travel in the daylight without either scar or burn.

Most believed the stories to be just that: fancy myths, spun by impotent ancients, in the hopes of frightening their rebellious offspring into remaining by their sides. Stories of the The Death One, who ruled the vast wilderness near the California Bay, who was neither male nor female and who was corruption incarnate, were believed because their subject was occasionally seen and its vast power feared.

But to believe in an ancient who might walk in the daylight and would not kill? Such things could only be myth.

Never mind there were a few who claimed to have met this Ancient, marked by their newfound unwillingness to kill for sustenance.

Stories of the Ancient, whispered with both venom and hope, circulated far and wide throughout these realms of shadow and blood. Those deriding them as scare-tales for the newborns were half-right, for many an elder invoked the stories to bolster their weak positions amongst their respective courts. The few who knew better kept their peace, and were careful to uphold the old ways, lest they draw the Ancient's attention.

The wanderer had followed their trail to a narrow opening in the rocky earth. Like the abandoned caravan, the signs were so clear only the dead could miss them. The thought brought a smirk to her lips, so appropriate for those cowering within.

It died on her lips at her next thought, that it might be only the dead waiting her within. She had seen much in her life, equal parts pleasant and profane, most often of the latter. Among her greatest fears was having been left too hardened to continue as a healer.

Thinking back to the caravan, and the rag doll she'd secreted in her medicine pouch, was all it took to prove her otherwise. The emotions which played across her unlined and beautiful face, a dizzying sequence of horror to rage to grief to rage again to something bordering on despair to clear heartbreak to all-out-irresistible determination, spoke of a heart very much alive and beating...after a fashion, anyway.

Taking the rag doll had been strictly for tracking purposes. The child's connection to this hunk of cloth and cotton every bit as strong as mother to child. It practically sang of laughter and innocence, singing in tandem with the child's own soul. A simple enough matter of following the child's echo to its new source.

For that, this doll was worth more than a dragon's horde.

She left Nutbread several paces back, with firm instructions to run to safer lands and find herself a nice stretch of plains should the worst happen. Only their proximity to the lair kept the mare from nickering in argument. Her eyes spoke a good deal clearer, anyway.

The wandering woman spared her rebellious friend little mind. This wasn't because of indifference, but simple practicality. There was a battle to be fought here, after all, and arguing with an obstinate mare was a waste of energy. Better save it on battles she knew she could win.

Drawing her Bowie knife once more and making a final adjustment to the pouch hanging from her shoulders, she eased her way into cavern's inky darkness. Some small, silent voice cursed her for a fool, knowing full well who dwelled in this place and what was likely to come of this. It was met by an equally insistent and silent voice which reminded the first exactly whom it was talking to.

Nutbread kept her distance, her eyes still raging in argument. She tapped her hooves, but not too loudly, and kept to glaring at the back of her friend.

Oh, she understood the decision. Perhaps too well. She knew her friend's nature, having been her companion for as long as memory could stretch.

Her friend could not turn away from even the smallest hurt on another. Nutbread herself had benefited from those same talents, almost spoiled by them in fact. New shoes every moon, long rest every night, fresh grass and oats most days...and never suffering the smallest scratch or sore for more than an hour.

This didn't make the separation any easier to swallow, and certainly didn't improve her mood any. Nickering was out of the question, of course, which really didn't help her mood. Stomping her hooves was all that she dared, and quietly at that.

Still, it proved enough to drown out the approach of the figures behind her.

Leah awoke later, her joints aching like mad and head pounding. She could see more detail now, as a few torches had been placed and lit around them. They cast a minimal glow, not particularly warm or comforting, but one strong enough to illuminate the cavern better than the indirect moonlight she'd relied on earlier.

All the same, Leah immediately wished it was pitch black again.

There were fewer bodies hanging beside her than before, and still no sign of the children. What she could see clearly looked pale, too pale for it be just shadows drawn on them by the poor lighting. Leah was gripped by the urge to simultaneously strangle every one of them she could find and flee to the deep, darkest pit available and wall herself in so nothing could ever, ever touch her.

She settled for simply hanging there, imitating the dead who surrounded her.

Then came a second realization: they were no longer alone here. The low light provided no detail or features. It was little more than a shape against one of the walls. In this place it was so damn hard to tell one wall from another, particularly given the many paths leading out of this natural meatlocker. Half the time she imagined It appearing in four different corners, the other half she imagined she only imagined it.

'Oh, the joys of all the blood settling within one's head.' Leah went limp, somehow able to think past the pounding in her ears and realize It was...snoring. Snoring meant sleep, and sleep meant they...she ...no, dammit, they!...might have a chance to get out here.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see It lurking like a lump of darkness. It could have easily been within arms length, or hundreds of yards distant. She had no sense of perspective here, making any escape attempt problematic. Her training with the Irregulars back in Portland was taking over, not that Leah really minded, as being a sneaky, ruthless bitch was likely the only way she...they!...were ever going to see daylight again.

Her mind was already breaking escape down in phases to be worked through, deconstructing the entire situation into steps requiring only the exercise of the proper amount of will and strength and cunning to pass from one to the next.

Of course, it would help if she could first scrape herself off the ceiling.

Looking up, Leah had a better view of the surface she was suspended from. The sight of which gave her reason to smile, though she didn't indulge its full length.

The light had abandoned her the instant she entered the caverns, with only the soul-singing of the doll to guide her.

This was both a good and bad thing. Good, in that the normally reflective nature of the Bowie (so perfect was its shine it could catch the smallest glimmer of moon or hint of sun) was muted to nearly nothing.

Bad, in that she was blind as the proverbial bat. Her eyes were at least as sharp as the Bowie's shine, and given it was some much dull metal right then...well..

That little voice, the one with the nasty language and poor self-image, was back and in full swing. It called her every nasty name which could be imagined, taunting her and demanding she turn tail and run for the most distant mountaintop.

She paid it no more mind than she had any other time it screeched in her mental ear.

The cavern itself was a wide one, and led downwards at a clear angle. The walls, judging by the feel, were still their natural rough selves. But the floor...it was too smooth for it be naturally formed. Hundreds of thousands of feet had tread this path smooth, all over a long period of time. Who could tell exactly how many lived here.

Gods help them all.

The wanderer appreciated the irony here. She continued her wandering, merely exchanging the open skies for choking darkness. No clear destination, no idea what lay before her.

That little voice was back in full force and annoying the daylights out of her, just like old times.

Even the dreams were visiting her again.

Dreams of blood, and screams, and the cries of newborns.

Endless vistas of wilderness, and vast armies marching and meeting across them, armies both human and otherwise. The moon becomes as blood. The forests grow and spread and grow more from one sunrise to the next. In her own hands a herb branch in one and knife-becoming-sword in the other.

Her back is pressed against another, the one whom she has sought and who has sought her in all lifetimes, and together they prepare for the armies surrounding them.

Pity the armies, for they know not whom they oppose...

Only long experience with them, an uncomfortable familiarity with their sights and tastes, let Nutbread have a peaceful night's rest. She had long ago stopped trying to divine exact meaning from them, taking them as signs of things to come, as they had happened long before the fall and would continue to happen again and again. It was enough to know that life would continue, whether she continued on or not.

Which made that little voice very happy, giving reason enough to call this mission nothing more than a glorious and exotic effort at suicide. The wanderer was hard-pressed to argue the point.

Rather than waste herself trying so, she pressed ahead, all senses alert for the smallest clue to her goal. And her senses were very sharp, indeed, which proved a mixed blessing. Sight, taste, touch were all assaulted with contradictory signals at every step: the air was slowly becoming fresher, but her course continued downward. The walls she felt her way along were oddly warm, while her skin was left chilled. She moved through a dense, heavy atmosphere, rich in its emptiness of either scent or essence.

Her grip tightened involuntarily on the Bowie, wishing for something a bit more...substantive. Like an old-fashioned flame-thrower. Or an atomic bomb.

The floor suddenly disappeared beneath her feet, leaving her to tumble head-first into the darkness and silence there, that damned little voice laughing all the way.

It turned out her feet weren't really buried into the native rock of the ceiling. Rather, she was up to her ankles in something...coating that rock. Something feeling solid as rock, yet looking...organic. It...whatever "it" was...looked...looked like...she had no idea what it looked like...except very red...and put her in mind of...of...exposed muscle tissue...

Ah, geez. This place just got better and better.

What she was held by was significantly less important than the fact it was something other than solid rock. And because it was something other than solid rock, her chances of escaping this place went up quite a bit.

The fact she could work her feet a little within...whatever it was...was an added bonus, making her next actions actually seem logical.

Curling herself upwards once more, curling one arm behind her knees so to keep in that position, Leah reached up with her free hand and began, very carefully and very deliberately, to undo the laces of her boots. Not the easiest thing to do under such circumstances, between having only four fingers and a thumb, all clumsy from messed-up circulation, and all hurting like mad from it. Hunger from gods knew how long, anxiety over the missing children, and a healthy dose of self-preservation-induced fear all making the job quite a bit harder.

Difficult as it might have been, the task was eventually accomplished. Next came the even more interesting task of getting to the floor without breaking her skull. Loosening her laces freed her feet up enough that she could wiggle them out of this coating on the ceiling. The danger there was her simply falling out of them and meet the floor head-first. Not much point in trying to escape if one immediately ends up dead from it.

Rather, Leah managed to grab the laces and tongues of both boots, her fingers having gone from numb to the delightful agony of pins-and-needles. Again, the pain was goad enough to focus her thoughts upon the work.

She fought for a firm grip upon her boots, then, with great care and still greater caution, Leah managed to wiggle both feet out at the same time. Even so, she still could not avoid landing in a crumpled heap once both were free, and tasted blood on her tongue from biting her lip to stifle the her own cries. She could only lay there for a short time, long enough for her limbs to remember their function and wake enough to get themselves moving.

None of this, fortunately, was sufficient to rouse their watch-whatever it was. Neither was her painful intake of breath as she struggled to her feet. Hurt like hell, of course, but it was a hell of an improvement over the ceiling.

Wincing with each step, Leah crept over to her fellows, heart pounding at what she knew she would find there. Pebbles cut into her feet as she paced herself across the floor, slowly, fighting to keep her muscles from knotting with the tension.

The first one she reached was one of the men. Eriksson, if she remembered correctly. A cleric and father of two, both children safely back in the Freestate. His skin was cold to her touch, as the pale tone of his skin warned of, and no pulse to be felt at his neck.

Leah closed her eyes to take this in, rage boiling within her at this, the anger leaving her momentarily exhausted. It was crowning stupidity to let her emotions run away like this, knowing full well she had neither the strength nor the time to indulge them.

She swung back, eyes stabbing at the hulking shadow across the chamber. Her teeth flashed in a feral grin, and one could be forgiven thinking she might attack it, so fierce was her manner.

Rather, Leah Margareeth Covington turned back to her fellows, intent on confirming her fears. She had to take a lip between her teeth, stifling the cries that were certain to spiral out, while reaching out to each body, her fingers always coming into contact with dry and dead flesh.

She didn't try to stop the tears that came, added by each new body. Each name was seared into her mind, their final expressions forever burned into her mind's eye.

Knowing there was nothing more she could do here, Leah gathered herself and began moving towards the opposite end of the cavern. It could just as easily lead deeper underground as towards the surface, but Hobscom's choice reigned. She secretly hoped it led down instead of up.

She had children to find and lead home.

Consciousness returned slowly, as did memory. This was good, as it gave the healer time to reign in what could have been unchecked panic; something tantamount to a death sentence in this place.

Contrary to her initial fears, the medicine woman found (much to her chagrin) she'd managed to stumble over a small crevice marring the floor's otherwise smooth surface, not the reclining bacchae her imagination had immediately envisioned. The embarrassment and relief of it all was nearly enough to make her laugh aloud.

That same image, with its leering grin, full of razor teeth, and narrow eyes of balefire, was quite enough to strangle the laugh before another breath could be drawn.

The healer reached out with shaking hands and searched for the Bowie. A futile effort, or so it seemed, until her fingertips brushed the blade's sharp edge. She winced from the painful contact, and couldn't help but jerk her hand away, ear's catching the quick-fading echo of metal scraping rock. Her stomach sank with the realization of what this meant.

Emotions close to boiling over as it was, she lay there for some moments, whole body shaking from the forces warring within. The instinct to flee in melee with the determination to resist. 'This was a mistake,' that damned annoying little voice informed her smugly. 'Everything's going wrong. Those travelers from the Freestate are probably already dead. To go on is suicide. You don't owe them anything. You don't even know them, dumbbunny. Why even bother?'

It might as well have been trying to shout down a thunderstorm. The medicine woman had ears for the soul-song of the rag doll alone. That song, that innocent and off-key melody only a child might manage, was all the strength she needed to gather herself and rise once more.

Only when that song was strangled silent, only then would she stop...stop forever. Damned if she'd lie there and succumb.

Purpose renewed, the healer crept forward at a cautious pace, eyes as feral and clear as any hunter seeking prey. Let them mistake her for prey; her weapons were a thousand times sharper than any mere knife or blade.

So focused was she upon what lie ahead, the healer felt nothing of the eyes which tracked her, from the smallest tremble of her hands to the exactness of each step one after the other. They watched with fascination, mixing with admiration and calm patience, though one pair did narrow ever so slightly with well-contained impatience.

The passage took a clear turn downwards, the touch of her hands telling her of the jagged stalactites and vicious outcroppings. A clear enough warning sign, one she'd actually been looking for. The mentality of these predators was simple and brutal, a defensive one that would seek and utilize perfectly natural advantages to guard themselves with. Hence the more difficult the terrain encountered, the closer their lair was likely to be.

Worse, a soft, unnatural glow began to build in strength. There was no phosphorus to be seen within the surrounding rock, nor any other source of illumination to be readily found. No moss or Madjan bugs, no torches, nothing to explain it. She refused to be distracted by this, turning her attentions ahead.

The passage soon terminated at a vaulted opening, one too precisely curved and smooth to be wholly natural. The first step to their main lair, no doubt. Any other would have doubtlessly backed away, uncertainty of what lay beyond naturally shaking even the strongest resolve, particularly knowing these predators the way the healer did. Rather, this certain knowledge *hardened* her resolve, all while giving a lightness to her step. The consequences of discovery all too clear to even the densest of characters. She herself might be many things, but a dense fool was not among them.

Though, certainly, stepping across that threshold should have proven otherwise. Her lack of hesitation doing so was no less contrary to such conceits.

Her tripping over something mere paces into the darkness beyond renewed her embarrassment...until the nudge of her boot toe told her it was not a crevice this time.

Leah slipped here and there as she went, the floor proving exceptional smooth to her stocking feet.

Exactly why she'd chosen this route was somewhat beyond her. Well, that wasn't exactly true. While the whatever-it-was hadn't been roused by her bumbling all about back there among the hanging bodies, and so was unlikely to have been disturbed by her carefully easing past it, there was always the chance its sense of smell was sharper than its hearing. Absolutely no point in going to all the trouble safely getting herself down from the ceiling if her smelly socks gave her away, right?

It was weak justification to her ears, but it sounded a hell of a lot better than 'simply running'. 'Slipping scared', if you wanted to get technical about her progress. Besides, there was still the children needing to be found.

After what must have been the twentieth spill, Leah found an unexpected boon. The heel of her foot encountered something small and pointed. Biting down a yelp of pain from the sharp prick, Leah carefully grouped towards the object, her mind calling forth all its experience with every weapon she had handled since the crib. Caution made her fingers hyper-sensitive, encountering the smooth blade moments before actual contact.

She identified it easily: a Bowie knife. A well-cared for one to boot. There was no rust or nick to be found on it, a small fact utterly at odds with the environment. To the best of her knowledge, none of her pilgrims had come carrying such a weapon, despite it being in vogue within the Freestate. Its pommel was worn soft by constant handling, and the fine shine of the blade itself caught the sparkle of the cavern walls. Leah found herself taken with the crystal-clear reflection of the metal, her eyes staring back at her with mute fascination. Bright eyes became dark and hooded in the metal, changing color and shape. Blue becoming something darker...not brown or black...eyes brows thickening...oval eyes becoming rounder...wider...no longer her's...

She quickly shook herself out of the trance, her own eyes meeting her once more. There was nothing enchanted about the knife, of that she was certain. The stress must've been catching up to her again, letting the mind play its little tricks on her. Better find the children fast, before completely keeling over from it all.

The Bowie secure in one hand, the other used to steady herself against the wall as she went, Leah progressed more cautiously. A Bowie knife, simply lying in the middle of an underground tunnel, in pristine condition? Greater caution was the only logical response.

After only a few steps her hand encountered what felt like a carved archway. It was difficult to make out any detail in the gloom, save tall pillars hewn from the native rock, curving upwards and terminating in an apex obscured by the distant shadows. The elaborate carvings and designs she could make out were...disturbing in their depiction, her mind shying away from the sight for some reason.

Instead, Leah focused herself on debating whether or not to cross past this arch and into the vague darkness beyond, or return the route she came and risk waking the slumbering whatever-it-was. There wasn't a third option, as she'd not found one side turned or passage in *any* direction. It had been somewhat unnerving, the way these smooth, unbroken walls led continuously forward, twisting and turning downwards.

Well, there really wasn't any choice was there? Nope, no choice whatever.

Leah knew nothing of the eyes that detached themselves from the darkness behind her. Nor sensed anything of the shapes that mirrored her steps beneath the archway.

It was as they wished, having watched one, then the next cross into darkness. Their presence would be felt soon enough.

For now, patience would suffice.

Amazingly, no catastrophe fell upon her after the first step. Nor after the second. Or the third. Or even the fourth. There was a haze of light just ahead by then, a light fog of illumination hanging before her. She slowed her advance to let her eyes adjust to this new development...and froze in her tracks at the sight that greeted her.

She found herself in a vaulted chamber, not unlike the one she'd awakened in, though much, much bigger. At least that's what it felt like. The dim shafts of light that leaked down from the shaded skylight far above gave away few details; what little there was proved sufficient to both awe and rob her of all breath and color.

There were great pillars and arches to be seen, infinitely larger and more elaborate than the one immediately behind her. A raised dais was the only other sign of construction or habitation. But these few things were not what gave her pause.

What did it for her was the literal sea of bodies which covered the floor.

Bodies clearly, even in the cold dimness here, not wholly human.

Leah caught only glimpses of limbs belonging to species she recognized, and ones so deformed and bizarre as to be unrecognizable. The bodies were vaguely human, at least in shape, and ran the gamut of shapes and forms. Tall to short, grotesquely obese to rail thin, dark-skinned to paper white to shades not rationally possible.

This 'sea' erupted here and there in ripples of movement, bodies tossing and turning. Many actually... snuggled... close together, the...strangeness...of their limbs and bodies belaying any tenderness that might have been attached to the movement.

One near to where she stood (more human-looking than most despite its being naked of all hair and indeterminate gender) rolled unto its back, its wide mouth falling open and displaying rows of pearl-white fangs.

Leah fought down the urge to scream at the realization of this place. The bodies of her fellows alone should have told her all she needed. But then again, she'd stubbornly refused to believe the stories that had filtered in from the wilderness. Stories of blood-drinkers and wild scavengers belonging to no other race. Stories easily mirroring those of her aunt and the elder scribes. Centaurs and wild Satyrs were real enough, many having been her playmates in younger days, but the Bacchae were nothing more than campfire thrills and bedtime stories for misbehaving children. Even the Changelings, ethereal and mercurial as they were, had more substance.

Or so she'd arrogantly maintained, with a stubborn bull-headedness only a Covington (or Minotaur, depending on whether you cared to differentiate or not; most didn't) might manage.

Now, in this place...it was all Leah Margareeth Covington could do not to screech or turn and flee. Rather, she backed away, slowly, intent on returning the way she'd come and searching out a different route. One not involving sleeping bacchae of any shape or size.

She made it back only two steps when powerful hands reached out and engulfed her. One wrapped over her nose and mouth while the other caught her wrist, immobilizing the knife in that hand. Shock overtook her for less than a second, by which time a very human voice was hissing into her ear.

No, she realized. Not hissing. Whispering. Whispering so softly as to inaudible, "Shhhh!"

Despite the urgency it communicated, Leah found herself immediately calming, her shoulders and arms unbunching at the voice behind the whisper. She knew it immediately, recognizing it from the innumerable dreams of her life, both from sleeping and waking.

Slowly turning around, carefully of sudden moves that might disturb the many sleepers scant feet away, Leah found herself regarded by a pair of wide, dark eyes. Where had she seen those eyes before?

Neither of them dared speak a word. The demand in those eyes was obvious, to which Leah nodded her acquiescence. The hands released her, the skin tingling from the loss of contact. Not an unpleasant sensation, akin to having just taken off a favorite shirt.

Leah quickly pushed those thoughts aside, knowing them too dangerous to be entertained here.

Damned if they weren't going to have words later!

Tearing her attention away from those damned eyes, her entire body vibrating from the energy exchanged by their contact, had been an effort nearly beyond the healer's will. She'd had to jam her tongue between her teeth to keep them from rattling.

Of all the godsbedamned places to find...

Shaking her head, as though to clear it of such dangerous thoughts, the healer looked once more into those too-blue eyes that had haunted her for so very long. She was perversely pleased to see a coldness there now, a brittle flatness speaking of volcanic emotions repressed only a Herculean effort of will. Was there hate mixed there as well? Perhaps, but just enough to keep tongues from making statements neither could walk away from. She knew she could not survive seeing more.

They spoke with their eyes, a clear if unsatisfying mode of communication if ever there was. Satisfaction would have to wait in any case, so it was just as well to depend on such silent modes. To have to hear her voice now, in this place, was courting disaster.

The healer concentrated on the directions of the soul-song she'd followed thus far, attentive to changes in tone or pitch. It gave her the excuse to turn away, her will too weak now to manage it otherwise. The melody clearly led across and out of the chamber, which was certainly logical. She'd been stuck in this overpopulated nest of misshapen predators long enough to see there were no children here. The arrival of the Amazon (with her Bowie yet!) had been fortuitous to say the least, her own nerves were unlikely to support such a journey alone.

Not daring to so much as glance back over her shoulder, she pointed across to the opposite end of the chamber, reaching back as she did, half-expecting the invitation to be refused.

Their hands met exactly half-way, clasping smoothly and without hesitation. She had no doubt the Amazon wasn't even looking.

The woman's hand was warm within her's, but Leah didn't let herself think about that. Nor did she think about the way such a strong, callused hand could cradle another's so gently, or how its rough surface could seem so smooth.

She didn't think about those things, otherwise she would be unable to think of anything else.

So instead it was one step after another, over rocks and bodies and other things, eyes for the distant wall alone...not for the well-toned shoulders she had to focus past...damn those shoulders...damn her for being so distracting...

Not that getting her distracted was all that hard, right now. If it wasn't her guide, it was the newest twist to basic physiology she stepped over. Only the steadying presence in front of her kept it all from sinking in so deeply as to leave her frozen solid, the warmth to her entire body found in her hand alone.

So Leah Margareeth Covington kept her eyes up and forward, studiously ignored the bodies at her feet and the one leading the way, their presence filling every avenue of her awareness. Her grip on the pommel of the Bowie tightened with each cautious step, as though this offered protection from all dangers surrounding them. Chalk it up to wishful thinking, or just blind instinct...not unlike keeping such a perfect pace with this newcomer, their legs marching in perfect tandem.

So intense was Leah's concentration that she literally walked into the newcomer's back, the latter suddenly stopping in midstride. Fortunately they'd stopped in a clear area of the floor, free of any sleepers or rubble, else another tumble was sure to have resulted. Confused, Leah looked at her guide, seeing her staring rather intently to their right.

Following the path her eyes traced, finding where they were, Leah quickly understood the reason for her stopping dead, her own muscles locking still as solid stone.

They stood before the dais now, its surface still smooth and polished, but no longer unoccupied. Atop it was a figure staring down upon them. No features could be seen of it, and not simply because of the dim lighting existing here, wrapped as it was from crone to toe in what looked like an assortment of rags and filth-encrusted linen. Height was impossible to properly judge, the figure standing far enough away so to be partially obscured by the dimness, their own position at such an angle as to further distort perception.

The perfect stillness with which the rag-clad figure regarded them was unnerving to say the least. "Bone-chilling" would be more accurate. Leah winced as she felt the grip tighten on her hand, returning the pressure herself with equal strength, the same as she did on the Bowie.

The hairs on her neck suddenly stood on edge. She snapped her head in the opposite direction, her guide doing so as well at the sound of her involuntary gasp.

Before them stood dozens upon dozens of bacchae, no longer slumbering and now standing before them, one and all having silently risen from their sleep. Their eyes all lighting the darkness, so numerous as to add a soft red glow to the half-darkness, while the cold blue light from above highlighting their wide, sharp-fanged smiles. Those eyes spoke of hunger, and a readiness to feed.

Leah quickly positioned herself between them and her guide, the Bowie knife held out like a small saber before her. She began backing them both slowly away, and towards the dias, knowing there could be no escape for either of them.

At the very least, she would give them a good scar to remember them by.

The bacchae advanced, one step at a time, with each step the two of them retreated. They watched her moves with predatory eyes, their smiles widening at though tasting the panic building within her.

Too soon their backs met the stone of the dais. Nowhere left to flee.

The baachae pressed forward from all sides, each salivating at the thought of their fresh-awakened hunger being sated.

 Leah know only the feel of leather-covered metal in one hand, the tight clasp of another's hand in the other, the press of a strong body against her back, her own snarl of rage against the implacable darkness gathering about them, another heating the back of her neck.

For a moment, time froze for them all, the universe shrinking to their interlaced fingers. 'How fitting,' was her only thought, no fear to her anymore. They would die here, yes; but now it would be death together, not apart. Fitting.

Her only regret was that the children would be left to the mercy of these creatures. Her only prayer was that their suffering would be brief.

All the rest of her focus was centered on the connection with the one behind her. Every brush of skin, every inch pressed together, the presence which warmed her back; these were the only things occupying Leah's awareness in the these final moments.

Her name was Nicolia, and for the first time in her life's memory she was afraid. And that fear stopped all things, all time, and presented the world to her in all its vivid clarity.

Oh, she'd known fear before. Her teacher's periodic rages (all well-intentioned and each ensuring no mistake was repeated) were horrors to behold and never failed to leave her shaken. Being cast out of his house, tears in his eyes and fire on his tongue ("Go!" he ordered, voice horse with emotion. "There is nothing I can teach you do not already know. Go, daughter, and leave an old man his illusions of worth!"), and setting sail across the great sea to this land had torn away any sense of security she had ever known. Her earliest days in this new land, fraught with uncertainty of both its peoples and her place here, often robbed her of sleep and not a little peace of mind.

For all that, she had carved out a life for herself, one of her own terms and worthy of respect. She owed no one a thing. Not even the old teacher. She could leave this world free of obligation.

If so, why then did she tremble so as bacchae advanced? Could it be she did not want to leave this life yet? That she might wish to live another twenty-eight years and more beyond?

The death-grip crushing her hand, the close, protective press of Amazon against her, were all the answers Nicolia would ever need.

'Unfair!' she raged silently. To have had to wait for so long, to be only allowed these few moments...

A single tear formed. In it, condemnation enough to leave all the Fates, Furies, and gods there ever were taken to task for this.

Whatever curses she might wished to deliver, Nicolia kept silent, not willing to risk distracting her Amazon. Better they savor their first moments together this way. A silent oath was sent to the rulers of the Afterlife, promising all manner of retribution should they not be together there.(This was heard by those it was intended for, who knew the medicine woman too well not to take this oath seriously; hence the frantic manipulations undertaken to forestall that particular scenario from coming about. Even the normally recalcitrant Charon was cooperative.)

Her free hand groped the smooth wall behind then, searching desperately for a loose stone or shard to use as a weapon. Nothing came to hand, however, and her vision was taken up by the advance of pale-glowing eyes.

There were other eyes, watching, not so far away.

They had followed the caravan north for a full moon, never coming too close nor losing sight of them, knowing full well the consequences of either happening. The Oracle that had sent them on this journey had been unnaturally specific on that count. Her mad grandson, "Corn-something or other", had been a bit of distraction wandering all around prophesizing a great flood and constantly demanding "TP". It was a wonder they'd heard anything the old woman said, though the smaller of them had taken it all in stride. The taller had occupied herself with thoughts of cutting the boy's tongue out, slowly.

The directions had been sufficient to lead them to the caravan, yes, but so too had it led them into the path of the wandering healing woman. They fled to the nearest cover whenever within her vicinity, again as the Oracle had directed. She'd been less specific on reasoning behind this point. Neither had thought to question this at the time, the need to be on their way paramount. As consequence, they had little choice but to hide themselves, so hadn't seen the capture of the pilgrims, nor what befell those who lurked behind in the aftermath.

Then came the trail of signs: an empty camp here, tire tracks there, a pile of bones so malformed as to be anything save living animal. It spoke to them clear as though screamed from the mountaintops, though certainly the last proved a puzzle. The bones spoke of a least a trio of strong predators. What could have bested them so quickly and quietly? There was clear sign of a struggle, however brief, yet no sign of the victor save the tracks of burdened mount. They'd followed the trail to its terminus. The stink alone was sufficient to lead them to where they needed to go. What else could they have done?

Choice had never entered into it.

Seeing the medicine woman's mare, whose shoes matched those of the trail they followed, at the cavern's entrance was certainly a surprise. She'd been skittish enough, and their arrival had nearly tipped the poor thing over the edge. Had she panicked and bolted, as the chestnut-coat mare looked ready to, it would have been certain disaster, not the least because it would have left the medicine woman on foot. Fortunately the mare calmed quickly, it taking only a few gentle strokes of her mane to quiet her. Their new friend hadn't been too happy about being left there all on her lonesome, and their leaving only moments later did nothing to improve her mood. She did find adequate companions in their own horses, however, and so quieted upon their departure.

Finding their way within those caverns had proved simplicity itself. If they weren't led by the strength of the stench, it was the uncorrupted stench of both pilgrims and others that steered them true. The abattoir, with its spent and abandoned bodies, had set their blood to boil. It had been all the elder could do to keep the younger from tearing off into shadows. She'd not left enough of the watch-beast there for it to be ever recognized as once living.

The trail of at least one survivor of this led them deeper into the lair. This suited both fine, the younger wanting blood, the nominal elder recognizing a particular scent to the surrounding stench.

They'd come to the critical juncture, just in time to see the medicine woman enter the main cavern, the too-familiar Amazon following only moments later. They waited in the shadows, willing to let events take their course, as the aged Oracle had decreed they should. But that had been seasons ago, and the younger had never liked nor trust prophecy particularly when it involved family. The bloodline might have been weak, but it shone clear and strong in the Amazon.

Their hands joined between them, respective weapons at the ready, they followed their kin's footsteps and entered the cavern.

Time started again.

The bacchae advanced, arms rising, outstretched, hands-claws-talons-whatever open and ready.

The Bowie glinted in the light.

Their joined fingers and knuckles going white, already tight grip growing tighter.

The silence screaming all about them.

Until the screaming broke out, coming from neither the Amazon nor the medicine woman.

It came from behind, startling all who heard it, and left none time to defend themselves against the onslaught it heralded. Even the specter towering over them on the dias seemed startled, backing up a fraction of a step from the sudden din.


With it, the sound of metal and rent flesh.

Bacchus’ daughter was not the only one to whispered of among the shadows. There was her companion, The DarkFire, so she was called. Equally feared and equally envied as the Ancient Bard herself, and not merely for her actions. Where the Bard would speak of peace, the DarkFire acted to realize it…by slaying those who failed to heed this call. Within the shadows, those deaf to the Ancient’s message, whether spoken by her own or other's lips, were legion. One and all fell to the DarkFire’s fury.

Her beauty was as legend as her weapon's skill and the sharpness of her wits. The onyx of midnight crowned her head, the precision and perfection of her face shaming the collective work all the sculptors of all the races and times there ever were upon the Earth. Her eyes alone, sapphire hued and cold as that precious stone itself, could ignite the flames of passion and fear were they to settle upon one, so many said.

None dared doubt this, even though evidence was rare and often developed the Ancient's way, provided they might survive the encounter to begin with.

She, too, was recognized as spawn of Olympia's seed, there being no doubt which of the Storm Master's first children was her sire. Who else, save brutal and impartial War, might create such a fury? Many was the kin who had threatened their children, knowingly or not, and learned the bitter lesson that their power was but the smallest sliver compared to what the DarkFire wielded. She did so with every bit as much skill as she might with a simple sword, and no less passion.

The children of the Bloodwine trembled as much in fear of her as they did the attention of the Ancient Bard, ancestral memories running deep how she had defeated their common father not once, but thrice, and had often hunted their wildest number to death. Not even their ashes remained. The other returned races held like stories of her, though to most she was the Lioness of the Plains, the Unbreakable Blade, and the Walking Storm.

But, it was sometimes debated among the kin, would she be equally feared by one already dead?

The first few, the slowest to wake and most slovenly, who hung to edges of their fellows and fed only on scraps left by the more savage ones, those ones died quickly. Further in, where surprise quick gave way to panic and self-preservation, the bacchae moved to defend themselves. It did them little good, most quickly cut down and left helpless.

The larger of the newcomers did all the work while the smaller one held back, willing to allow her partner her fun. To a point, at least. Right then, the Ancient was content to gather her long, strawberry-blond hair back into a simply ponytail and lean against her staff, watching the scene unfold. Perhaps she would record it for posterity. Make a fun story for the next tavern they stopped at.

Her attention drifted further ahead, towards the dais. As hoped, the commotion here drew all attention away from their intended meal. They still cowered there at the foot of the central dais. Good, as they were safely away from the chaos on this end. All that was required was fighting a path to them and giving them adequate lead time. To devil with being seen. This was family here. So long as they stayed safe...

Unbidden, her eyes drifted upwards, spying the one standing upon the dais. Lips curled into a familiar sneer at the sight. Her feet carried her forward without conscious thought, mindless of the carnage her other half had left in her wake. The flopping of severed limbs and wailing heads underfoot was a very small thing. Getting their children away, far far away from that abomination was the Ancient's only concern.

Her warrior was simply too busy hacking away at the bodies attempting to press down upon them to notice. It wasn't nearly as effortless as it looked, though the most difficult bit was balancing the heavy sword in one hand and an ornate three-edged dagger in the other, all while making herself look open just enough to keep their interest focused.

It barely registered when the ranks against her thinning, lost as warriors are wont to in the haze of the battle. Equally noticeable was the growing scent of ash and smoke; also a small thing, but familiar enough to penetrate through to conscious thought.

Sword buried in one torso and dagger slicing through another, the warrior looked across the chamber, across the corpses burnt to black stone, and saw the slow advance of the Ancient bard. Her hands continued about their work automatically, fending off those who thought her distraction to their advantage, even as her brilliant blue eyes narrowed to a dangerous focus. Even when she turned fully away from them, so to better see what her bard was about, would-be opportunists were unconsciously swatted away.

It wasn't that the smaller woman was helpless. Far from it. Those who set upon the bard fewer than against herself but still no small number, each literally burst into momentary flame at the merest contact with her. So brilliant and consuming were the flames that all were left charred husks in mere seconds.

Even seeing this did not dissuade those who beset them; most, yes, but not all those who's hunger, whether for blood or simply the excitement of the chase, overrode whatever good sense they possessed and pressed on. Those few who menaced the Ancient proved too far to be easily reached. She didn't dare throwing either sword or dagger to ward them off, not so much out of worry for her aim as giving the enemy a weapon. It would have been a wasted effort in any case, knowing the Ancient's power as intimately as any might.

More worrisome was the handful who stalked her step from behind. Trained eyes catching the dull glint of metallic edges; sharp ones from the look of them. Not enough to kill her all by themselves. No weapon forged by mortal or immortal hands in all creation could accomplish that. But if used in unison? The warrior clearly saw the glimmer of intelligence and cunning in those eyes, reading their plans as if they'd spoken them aloud.

They were fools, doomed from the start. Oh, they might manage to surprise the Ancient, manage even to get in a lick or two before she reduced them to ash. But that would take time, and time was something they were running short on. There were still too many bacchae between them and the women, some of whom were certain to remember what a tasty meal the latter presented. Getting their kin far from this place was paramount.

For this reason, she reached into her greatcoat and exchanged the golden dagger for the more familiar curved edges of her preferred weapon. She'd dared not use it before, at least not in view of so many. Word would pass between those who held court here in the shadows now, and they would know no peace.

The consequences meant little to her right then, and certainly present no obstacle, never mind a decent argument, against doing this.

Their children were endangered. Nothing else mattered.

Hence what came next.

The Chakrum flew from her hand, sailing across the chamber and neatly rebounding off the distant wall, its tell-tale shriek filling the air and freezing all. The first rebound, oddly, was nowhere near the targets, which was intentional as the warrior wanted everybody's attention rather than to do any damage (yet). The second, which caught the edges of the dias, took it even further afield. The next, however, sent it directly towards the Ancient's fair head, missing her by a hair and doing no more than ruffling her straight golden locks as it passed.

Those immediately behind her, the very ones at whom it was first aimed, had only a fraction of a second to realize their fate. A couple even managed raise their own weapons in a vain effort to deflect their doom. All fell beneath the spinning blade, each one cleanly decapitated.

The warrior plucked the Chakrum out of the air on its final rebound, pleased that her skills had not dulled despite nearly a millennia's lack of practice. Gods knew it had take enough time simply to forge a replacement, the original proving key to the entombment of her damned sire, only to be shattered by his escape. Her skills with a forge and hammer, thankfully, were adequate enough to produce a reasonable copy of the original.

All eyes were once again upon her alone. Even the Dead One's attention was focused her direction. This drawing a grim smile out of her. Their eyes, all their eyes, were ones where fear and rage battled one an other, the former often coming out ahead while the latter simply stayed their ground... barely. They milled about her in a cautious circle, ignoring all others.

This was both a good and bad thing. By keeping all focus on herself, the Ancient was afforded sufficient time and space to gather the women and flee while she kept the local animal life amused. This plan, unfortunately, ran aground on two points: the Ancient was actually moving away from the women, and the bacchae were carefully blocking the only visible exit from this place, which happened to be right behind them.

So much for the easy way out. The warrior didn't even have time to curse for it before they again moved in, en masse, as if eager to meet her waiting blades.

Ravenous as they all were, the bacchae for her blood and the warrior for their's, the screech that echoed out moments later stopped all movement and all thought.

It was an inhuman sound, originating not from them, but from atop the great dais.

Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)