Regina looked out the window of the Suburban as Diana drove as the sun set, shadows being cast from the mountains to the west and the road ahead slowly settled into twilight.
"I have no idea why I agreed to come with you," she said taking off her sunglasses and pocketing them, "you don't even have a CD player in here."
Diana smiled, shadows playing over her face as she signalled to take a turnoff from the main road to a dirt road on the left, sunlight and shadows played over the dashboard as she sped up and the Suburban bounced over the ruts in the road.
"Your husband wasn't going to be getting a better price on his property with you along," Diana said, her voice rising and falling with the jostling of the vehicle, "and we are a good two weeks to your first paying drop load. I thought you could use a few days off."
"Hah!" Regina said, punctuated by rock hitting the underside of the vehicle, "At least you have friends out here, right? That is what you said..."
Darkness deepened as Diana hit a switchback, the Suburban growling its way up towards a ridgetop that was still lit above them.
"I do... a native group I've known... for awhile," Diana said as sand on the road made the wheels spin and then grabbed in for traction and lurched the vehicle forward with a sudden jerk.
Regina looked out her side window over the landscape and then realized, looking down, that it was a sheer drop on her side of the vehicle and that the road cut was just a thin line ahead of them nestled between steep hillside and near cliff. Her eyes led her to look sideways at Diana who had a set face and was gazing straight ahead, the gloves on her hands taught over her knuckles as the wheel tried to move left and right as the Suburban bounced on the road. Chill started to seep through from her side of the vehicle as night fell on the valley they had just come from, the main road just a lighter grey in the distance, snaking into the falling darkness. The vehicle slowed and Diana turned left onto the ridgeline and a clearing that was still in full sunlight and warmth. It was impossible to gaze into the glare of the sun coming through the dust on the windshield, and the three buildings just ahead were lost in that glare, mere shadows beyond light.
"We're here!" Diana said shutting off the engine and putting on the parking break.
"Finally," Regina whispered as she unbuckled herself from her seat. She opened the door and slid her legs down towards the ground and her sneakers grounded out on dry grass and sand. She heard Diana get out, and stepped out in front of the vehicle and spread her arms, Regina watched the sunlight cast her shadow backwards. Regina stepped slowly besides the vehicle and in front of it, the distant sun slowly moving down beyond the next ridgeline with its disc touching on trees causing a green cast to go with the shadows being cast.
"Beautiful," Regina whispered as she saw some of that green shade playing with the yellow sun across Diana who still had her arms out, her face smiling behind the sunglasses she wore. Slowly Diana lowered her arms and turned to face Regina, still smiling. From off to the right and behind, Regina heard a door squeak on a spring as it opened and slapped shut.
"Diana!" a man's voice sounded, "I'm so glad you could make it."
The shadows from the west slid over the ridgeline casting twilight onto the clearing. Diana removed her sunglasses and then her gloves, stepping to Regina, sliding her arm around Regina's waist.
"Malcolm! It is so good to be here!"
Turning with Diana and then walking with her, Regina saw an older man, a head taller than her, stepping to them down the stairs of a cabin made of rough hewn logs. Wearing a brown vest over a white t-shirt, jeans and leather boots, the man was a firm and solid figure, black hair going grey and the high cheekbones and aqualine nose making his face striking. Stern and craggy with deep lines, and yet soft cheeks that had a rosy red showing from a deeply tanned face used to long days outdoors.
A few steps away from the man Regina stopped with Diana, who slid her arm from Regina and stepped forward to hug the older man.
He closed his eyes and smiled as she stood on tip-toe to hug him and his thick arms engulfed her.
"So good, Diana," he said barely above a whisper.
Regina could barely hear Diana's voice and not make out a word, a spoken whisper only for the man.
Nodding he released Diana and she slid to the ground.
"Malcolm Blackridge, this is Regina Lassiter. She is the wife of my cousin Herman."
"It's a pleasure...."
Regina held out her hand to the man and he took it and bent over, and she could feel his dry, cracked lips kiss the back of her hand.
"The pleasure is mine, Mrs. Lassiter," he said shifting his hand from hers.
"Please, call me Regina," she said, having been caught off-guard by Malcolm's formality.
"Of course, Regina," he said smiling stepping back and turning to look at Diana.
"Do you have bags with you?"
Diana nodded, "In the back. I assumed we would be in the back clearing so its packs."
"With tents?" he asked chuckling.
"Well, one, yes," Regina said, "sleeping bags too..."
The man shook his head clucking his tongue.
"Noooo... not this time! I won't have it. You two can have the guest house by the spring. I don't want you having to go back up the trail after the gathering."
"I didn't want to put anyone else out," Diana said softly.
"You aren't! Not a bit of it! If you have packs then its probably better that you two get them. I'll get a flashlight and meet you at the trail head in a couple of minutes."
"OK," Diana said waving as Malcolm turned to walk to the cabin.
Regina looked at Diana.
"Gathering?" she asked.
Diana turned and nodded to her and they walked to the back of the Suburban, where Diana slid the back door down and clambered into the vehicle, pushing packs towards the lift gate.
"Yes. I arranged that for you. Its... well..." Diana pushed a long case out next to Regina's pack as Regina turned around to put the straps of her pack over her shoulders. "Its special. I hope you enjoy it."
Regina adjusted her straps and pulled the waist strap around her and cinched it tight.
Diana slid out and strapped the long case to the back of her pack and then put the pack on. She reached in and took out a pair of canteens and handed one to Regina who slung it on her left.
"I don't... " Regina was flustered at every step of the way over the last day and a half, and now that they had arrived things were not letting her really orient herself, "... what sort of gathering is it?"
Diana closed the lift gate and took out a small flashlight from her backpack, but didn't turn it on. They walked side by side in the gathering night.
"A few of the families here... they take in... give life lessons to boys and girls... for a year give them basic training in life. Not just hunting and fishing, but all of life outside... of cities... civilization. They are natives teaching the old ways, the old stories. By the time they are done near the end of the year, they are skilled enough to help newcomers."
As they moved around the vehicle Regina saw Malcolm with a large flashlight and a small pack of his own slung over one shoulder and a red baseball cap on his head.
"Diana! You surely don't need that much, do you?"
Regina chuckled as Diana shifted her pack and shifted her shoulder pads slightly as she shrugged.
"Better to be prepared for disaster than disaster to be prepared for you," Diana said as she looked at Malcolm, "as you well know."
Smiling, Malcolm nodded.
"As we teach it, yes. Though I doubt anyone carries both a bow and a rifle with them for a week's vacation..." he started walking with them as they approached and led them to a path that went amongst trees and slightly downhill.
"I know. I'm so very good at not being practical," Diana said, chuckling.
"Well yes," Regina said, "extremely good at it."
"That is her best quality," Malcolm said, "and we are coming up to the clearing, ahead. The guest house is off to the right and the spring pool has a path to it from there."
Regina could see the glimmer of firelight coming through the trees as night descended fully and the last rays of the sun were only highlights in the sky above which was, itself, turning dark. The slight rustle of wind through the evergreen treetops far above carried with it low chanting and the beating of a single drum. She could hear and feel rhythmic footsteps as Malcolm took them through a final stand of trees and then into the clearing where at least 20 people, men and women, boys and girls, were assembled, many sitting opposite of the trail they had come on and a group of six dancing around the firepit. She had expected Native American garb, but these people were in jeans and shirts, a few with hats, and while the dancers had on native footwear, the others were a mixture of boots and sneakers.
"Come, I'll take you to the guest house as we have a good hour to full night, yet. You can freshen yourselves there. We have hot venison stew in clay pots in the kitchen for you both, and chilled pine tea in the fridge."
They followed him to the guest house faced with dressed lumber, painted an earthen red with white highlights around the windows and on the shutters. A wooden plank porch held a log sofa with outdoor padding and two aluminum frame chairs as well as a planed top log table in front of the sofa. Beyond the screen door was an opened door made of solid wood planks with wrought iron hinges and modern steel handle with bolt on the inside. Malcolm used his flashlight to find lanterns and lit them.
"Please, make yourself at home. The main bedroom is to your left, kitchen to the right, and there is a loft although it is a bit limited for adults it does well for children or storage."
Inside the main room had a simple set of rustic hewn log chairs, round table, two sofas and a fireplace on the far left wall. The half-counter on the right overlooked the kitchen area with a pantry area in the back, counter and cabinets framing a refrigerator and then a stove towards the front of the kitchen. Two people could work in it, and three would be a crowd. Two large reddish pots sat on the stove that had indications of being a propane system with gas burners on top.
"There are more lanterns in the back room, pantry and fireplace. It is wise to keep one dimly lit most of the night by the door in case of calls of nature that can be answered to the kitchen side of the building at the outhouse."
Regina shrugged off her pack and put it on the sofa near the fireplace, looking around at the interior space that was done in simple whitewash with some log shelving built in along the outside wall.
"This is really nice!" she said, "Something like this in Tahoe would cost a lot to stay in."
Malcolm looked around the interior and nodded.
"Not so well made, perhaps. It was done ten years ago by my parents and some cousins to help with family gatherings. Now it serves many, and every year those who partake of it are asked to come help maintain it."
Regina sucked her lips in and looked at Malcolm and then down to the floor.
"I can't promise..." she started.
"There is no worry on that, Regina. You are not family, but honored guest. As is Diana as we know she prefers to sleep under the stars, than under a roof."
Diana made a sour face that had Regina and Malcolm chuckling.
"Now I will leave you to freshen up and eat."
"Thank you, Malcolm," Regina said.
"We should be out by full night," Diana said, "and thank you again, Malcolm."
"Welcome, to both of you," he said opening the screen door and then stepping out, letting it softly shut as he walked off the porch and down the stairs.
Cool air started to move in with the breeze through the screen door as Diana moved to the sofa and dropped her pack next Regina's.
"This is actually a pretty nice place," Regina said walking into the back room and finding a lantern to light.
"I've always liked it here," Diana whispered before turning and watching as a glow came from the lantern in the bedroom. "I'll get the food ready."
With night fallen and venison stew eaten, the two women were sitting on a blanket outside the circle of dancers around the firepit. Further to their right was a gathering who were sitting, and chanting with the beat of a single drum held by a man standing behind them. As they settled down, Regina pulled her old leather jacket tightly to her and buttoned it down. Beside her Diana had changed her attire to that of an outdoor shirt in dark green, jeans of a faded blue, leather hiking boots that had seen better days, and a belt with two or three small pouches closed with velcro. Regina couldn't understand how Diana could so easily withstand the cold, until she remembered a moonlit night on a plateau and the warmth of her arms, her body and the warmth that flowed through herself in response. Regina picked up the thermos that was next to her, unscrewed the top and poured out some coffee into the cup as she watched the dance slowly come to an end and two boys bring up logs to be put on the fire.
"They are good dancers," Regina said screwing the plug back into the thermos.
"Yes, its a dance to greet the night and welcome the Moon," Diana said.
Figures moved from amongst the seated group and in the darkness beyond the fire on the other side of the clearing as the drumming came to a slow stop. A woman stood up with a tambourine and began to tap on it with the heel of her hand as she started to sing softly with it, her voice rising with words that couldn't be discerned. As she sang a sudden, low bang came from the other side of the clearing along with distant sparkles of light amongst the trees. The bang echoed and the sound of others were heard coming from many points in the valley and the next ridgeline. Lights glowed and twinkled through trees following the other small explosions that joined the one close to them.
The roar of a beast was heard echoing and reinforced in the night until it sounded as if it came from everywhere. The singers continued, the flames from the firepit starting to lick over the new logs with pops and crackles. Another low boom could be heard and staggered resonance from it came from around the valley.
A young girl came running from their left, she had on a simple, thin tunic and skirt made of white cloth, and a cloak made of dearskin. Her face and hands were done in white, and her hair was dark framing it starkly in the night. There was a look of fright and terror on her face as she came closer and the sounds of hard running footsteps followed her as a larger man came up from behind her. He was tall, heavyset, with white hair and beard clad in simple cloth toga with earthen red cape that flowed behind him. As he gained on the girl he reached out and pulled her cloak, which caused her to stumble and look up at the larger man standing just two paces from her.
"What...?" Regina asked softly, but not continuing as she could see Diana out of the corner of her eye. Diana had her arms wrapped around her legs, and was watching what was going on over her knees.
"Please...!" the girl cried out and the man roared like a beast in anger, in rage.
He flung his left hand open to her and sparkling dust flew out between them, the sparkling dancing over the girl as it fell on her, and she fell to her knees screaming out, grabbing at her tunic which fell from her as did her skirt. As she screamed the man stepped forward and flung his right hand at her and red glitter sparkled with firelight over the girl, putting darkness on her skin and she fell backwards writhing and moaning in apparent pain.
The scene, so simple, with so few words, was compelling beyond the need for them. Regina could see this was a story she was watching, but a story of what she couldn't know.
The man stepped forward and wrapped the cloak around the girl and took her off with her back into the night. There was a low tone from the singers, the rattle of the tambourine muted and the drum now joined it. A sound like the rushing of wind or perhaps water came from where the man had taken the girl, along with a moaning from her and his laughter echoing through the trees. Soon he had returned to the clearing, with the girl as he placed her on the ground and flung her cloak out into the darkness. She moaned and her legs moved, her skin now red and blackened, shown by the firelight that made the colors come alive on her skin.
Slipping off his cape and then his tunic the man stepped down to the girl, and spread her legs. Regiina could see what he intended, but felt that she was powerless to stop it. A quick glance only and she saw that Diana had her forehead to her knees and only slowly shifted it so she could see, once more. Shifting her gaze back she could see the man and hear him growl, once, as he pinned the girl's arms down and then shifted his body over hers.
"Ahh...." the girl barely said.
The man rolled off her and into the darkness screaming, and then a large explosion of dust and ashes came from where he was and that settled over the ground, the girl and the clothing he had left behind. The girl continued moaning, groaning, and a dog appeared from the other side of the fire, out of the darkness, to come up to her and begin to lick her face. She reached out to it, cooing softly and the dog whimpered as she stroked its fur. In a moment she shifted to her knees and began to gather the dust and ashes together and place them on the cape, along with the sandals and toga the man had removed. Soon that was tied into a sack and the girl rested her head on it. Unnoticed the dog slunk away from her and beyond the fire to disappear in the night.
The girl rested, and turned in her sleep until the dog returned on the other side of the fire and barked once. Dimly, beyond the fire, were three other figures standing and watching the girl. She had awaken with the bark and crouched with her fingers on the ground, on one foot with the other knee under her to steady her. One of the figures stepped forward, a man in a leather shirt and leggings, with a hair-hide cape, and simple skin boots. The girl jumped to her right, closer to Regina and she could see the girl grab at objects on the ground and picked up two of them as the first man apparoached. As she stepped up he halted as he saw the simple vine net and shaft with blunt end to it and came closer to her. The girl stepped to her left and the man moved closer to her, somewhat warily but showing no evidence of fear.
Regina narrowed her eyes as she watched as the blunt tip of the shaft told her of what was to come and she sat on her knees and shifted forward on the blanket.
The man made to lunge at the girl but she had danced away and draped the net on him and he was on the ground and screaming in anger. She half-threw the shaft at him and dust came from its blunt end and he rolled away and more dust and ashes exploded in silence from the wilderness.
The next man had on a buckskin vest, skirt and leggings with a coyote skin for cloak and the head of the coyote on his. He rushed at her yelling but she had already moved back to the right and came up with simple bow and blunt tipped arrow, which she used on him. The arrowhead was blunt and dust flung from it as it struck him and he, too, rolled into darkness with an explosion of ashes and the coyote skin landing near the red cloak bag.
The last man stepped forward, taller than either of the others, and he had on a tight fitting buckskin shirt, cloth pants and simple yet sturdy hobnail sandals. He had a javelin and came towards the girl who was searching for anything in the darkness. He moved closer and closer, holding his javelin up as if to throw it. The girl turned towards him, her face set and whispered something dark, menacing, to the man. To this his jaw clenched and he whispered to her, shifted his stance and threw the javelin which became a streamer of yellow, glittering cloth that glowed for an instant in the light before it fell to the ground. As the cloth touched her the girl screamed and collapsed, prostate on the ground. Warily the man stepped up, used his foot to turn her over and then narrowed his gaze. He spat on her once, and then adjusted his leggings and pulled them down. Moving slowly he shifted her legs out and apart and then moved between them, gazing at her barely breathing form.
A final scream from him, a falling and rolling to the side, followed by a last explosion of dust and ashes that settled over the girl and ground.
Slowly, hugging the ground, the dog came towards the girl until it was next to her, licking her face again. It nestled beside her until she began to move, her hand on its fur, petting the dog slowly as she pulled herself up. On her knees, she slipped her hands over her nude body and looked around her. She reached over to the side to retrieve her bow and then stood up with that and walked towards the red cloak bag. There she picked up the coyote skin and put it on, then took up the cloak bag and looked slowly around. Softly she called to the dog and it came, and she knelt to whisper to it before throwing her head back and howling. The dog joined her and other voices joined theirs from beyond the firelight. Calls from elsewhere arose from the valley and responses could be heard from wolves in the night who called out to one of their lost sisters. Taking up the bag and bow, the dog followed the girl as she slowly walked into the darkness.
She ran. She had no choice but to run, and it was fastest to any place that had her symbols, her stories, her idols, anywhere her name was shared and understood was the fastest way to go. At first she tried to follow the swift one, but there was no hope in that as she could not avoid mountains, rivers and could only slip through forests as fast as a wraith. Only when the Moon was out, O beloved Orb, could she travel its shafts of light swiftly, and there would be none this night after that horrible day of death.
What she did was to be unobserved, the creature of forest, trees, glade and grotto, which could move in front of any watcher and still not be seen. Paths made by forest creatures meant swift slipping in ways that beguiled all, towns and roads she avoided like the gallows they were. She dared to venture to the Great Forge and found the fires damped with finality and her club-footed brother hanging upon a hook on his door, his arsenal emptied. That told her all she needed to know and she had to redouble her flight as one now so powerful and the means to exert much more power not just by the artifacts that were made but by the power of the hand that made them. A proper pyre could come later. If she survived, herself, to later.
With daylight she ran amongst light falls that once were harbingers of the smiling face of her twin, and were now the fearful bane to her of being trapped and seen in some man-made work by the new sight that was part of the gift of the Sun. Blessed was her brother with such power, cursed was her father with it, now. As she reached the first of mountains she must go over she stopped to look over the sea below which should be so placid and was now roiling with a storm not from above, but below. Wide-eyed she stared and became most frightened as she knew what this was, what it meant, as she had seen her Uncle seek to regather himself after his fall from their common home. Yet the shrug her father had given to his brothers should have been the warning to both: even in their Seats they were now in danger.
Chill mountains where the glare of snow fought with Sun and she snow leopard strode unseen until the farthest of the mountains led down to places and shrines she could follow. The very few so high up had exhausted her and yet there was no faster way. Distance and to find a place where her father had, as yet, no place to be so as to focus his newly gained powers. Sites dedicated to those now dead were of no use as sigil trails, and only those dedicated to him would serve until he was able to sweep all the powers into himself. With that she now was mindful of tilled fields and orchards as they were no longer partially hers to be in and fully those of her father. Vineyards felt safe, still, and she slipped amongst vines as unnoticed as deer of the forest.
Now came the problem as she could dance upon waves, but these waves were no longer welcoming, no longer of a friendly Uncle. Still the sea birds roamed and darted and she darted under them, barest tips of toes on foam and gaily skipping and hopping until she had found white cliffs and carved countenance that beckoned to her. The jump up to forest was easy for such a place to her, and only when she landed did she begin to guess that she had not gone unnoticed. There were fewer idols here, to her, and this realm was home to other powers. So long as she gave no offense, she might still find safe harbor with which to fashion those wild arrows and thorn-nets that would reduce any power to something that she could handle.
A roar of storm echoed over the horizon.
She could feel his footfalls, as they trod in places that were her own. Were. Until lightning came, of course.
With a rumble the clliff-side cracked and sheets of white chalk tumbled down to sea.
Now she crouched and sidled her eyes darting amongst trees until the small statue by the spring was her enticement and place to gather materials. If she could avoid those things and places that he now had power over. If.
"Artemis..." came the roar of wind over sea, and the footfall of her father could be heard if any bothered to listen. Distraction was what she needed and she knew just the place. On the run again, through trees, avoiding towns, jumping roads, she finally found the hillside she wanted with the great figure on it done in chalk layers thick. Here it was not a tended place, as such, and the one it was given to was certainly dead a second time, this time for good. Between the figure's legs on hillside she strode and then stopped at that most sensitive of places and she knelt down to kiss the cool grass.
"Forgive me, half-brother," she whispered and then dashed off down a road just long enough, she hoped, and then traversed back to the coast as the sun began to set yet again.
"I will get you...." was the sound of her father, mad, enraged, and bent to send her to his brother's domain, if it was his at all now.
She could feel her father stop as his gaze swept the hillside and with that she danced over calmer seas as her father now had his attention captured by his half-mortal son.
"Ahhhhh.... Hercules.... this should not have been your end."
That last was barely heard as the distant isle dropped over the horizon and she ran as the night skipper on wavetops. Jumping to land she ran and heard the crashing of waves behind her and looking up she still saw no Orb that was hers and felt it far on the other side of Gaia's body. With a tremble she realized that Atlas no longer upheld it, no longer trudged on celestial firmament but that all was now cast to the space of All Places. of course that was so, as the Orchards would need to be defiled and only Atlas was left to tell of it.
Next came the tricky passage from land to islets to island, and then a passage of open water which was short but now treacherous. Still the sea, enclosed, was not good for the sea power and she hoped that her father had not gained mastery of it. Being Master of the Seas did not confer the skill of Mastery, just its power. Yet, as her feet deflty sprinted to wave tops on the final crossing, she could feel the sea beasts coming for her, their fins betraying them, until their snouts spoke of power flowing to them in tiny parcels. She dared and stepped on backs, toes touched snouts and she defied her father to actually find a way to master the seas as his brother had. His enraged bellows from afar, but growing closer, was her reward.
Smiling she stepped on to land again and was in her element of forest, trees and she sought the cave of another power to see if she could plead for simple spun threads of undoing. Alas, she of the spinning was not to be found as her power was that of spun fate and she could avoid this one quite easily as there were enough of her father's places nearby to give him power over her even in her Seat. That was ominous, the absence was, and it would not admit of help from others now. If she strayed too far from her sources and places, she would be lessened in her uses and she preferred the concentrated places she had set up centuries ago to the mere diffuse power of everywhere. Her father, she suspected, had placed out more resources even longer ago, and was thus a threat in places she could not even guess.
To the edges it was, then, and the last, very last, of the old shrines which was amidst idols and sigils and even shrines to other powers. Her plan was simple: her father's presence should enrage these other powers and might even set them to war against her father. If she was the last of her kind... she shivered as she reached her holdfast... the last...
"No..." she whispered she thought to herself.
"Yes," came the roar of her father over the valley, "you will not escape me now..."
The river! South to the Amazons... they adored her but were so very, very far away...
She ran whispering.
"Please, Gaia, just a bit more so my Orb can allow me to dance..."
She was the deer, the gazelle, the one who knew she was prey.
Her father had figured out the mastery of horse which had been his brother's, too. He could take to eagle power, but she could avoid the eagle gaze, especially at night. Now she had to let her nature's instincts go and to wolf power she would use, to attempt to evade the horse, and she loped much more slowly but constantly and could now find the places most treacherous to the horse power. Her tongue out as she panted and loped, this was one of her most useful masteries but the most dangerous here at the borders of foreign powers as it would bring attention to her.
The bellows of her father was too close... she wavered... and was caught up by him... cloak ripped off... her few weapons scattered... she stumbled forward and barely turned in time to see her father with the weapon he mastered at such a young age as to be his own element. With it he could pierce any other power.
Remove it to himself.
Lightning pierced her body, and flowed around her being.
She shrieked and cried, as not just modesty of clothing ripped before this living lightning but all of her being was laid bare.
Her power was being ripped from her.
"And now to dissipate the rest," he said as his left hand drew back and his right moved forward as the sun peeked over the Eastern Trees.
The burning of flesh was something she hoped would spell her doom. Sickly sweet burnt smell came from all of her as this power her brother rarely used fiercely was concentrated by a father who felt no such compunctions. Her fingers that had felt the lightning, now scorched by the power of the sun, dug into the ground under the trees. Her legs had been flayed open and cooked.
Yet still she lived.
"Ahhh...I will save the best for last..." her father said as he wrapped her cloak around her and slung her lifeless yet still living form over his shoulder.
"I have some last children to deal with, and your state will dispirit them no end."
She wished this was just nightmare.
The land of Morpheus was no escape from this and no nightmare had this power of reality.
A touch of a gentle hand upon her blasted flesh.
"Diana," came the whispering voice so soft and sweet, "are you OK? I think you passed out and Malcolm helped me carry you to bed."
She opened her eyes to the face of Regina.
"Please... hold me... I'm so cold... alone..."
Regina glanced back at Malcolm who nodded and left the room quietly, closing the door.
Slipping the blanket back, Regina took her sneakers and jacket off and then slid next to the pale, shivering girl who had grown colder than anything the night could do, and held her as she cried. Moonlight came in the window and blessed these girls.
In that land of dreams they would finally slip, to frolick and whisper as the dead hand of Diana's father became dust to girl's love.
He had grasped too far in his victory. In his rage. This he could not take from her. For he had forgotten of simple love. One could not become all knowing and actually know everything because that, too, had a price upon it. Ashes were his destination in that desert that dead dreams stay had claimed one of the living because he had not understood this.
And it had cost him all his power. All his life.
Regina could never understand this, but loved Diana just the same.
He sighed in the hotel room, his safe haven now that he had gotten one of his cars out of storage in Pasadena and drove it to San Francisco. He dropped in on Frederico at the Viceroy, as it was getting into the late lunch trade and he did need a quick repast. Touching base at his old haunt had been fun and had lasted more than the two hours he had given to it, but he was used to such slips in schedules. He threw his coat over the chair in the corner across the room and watched as it arced through the air.
'Such a slow moving world,' he thought to himself.
The drive to Santa Rosa was uneventful and he expected the visit to the private airfield nearby would be likewise. He would liquidate his Learjet as useless overhead. He had souped it up, of course, but he now had his sights on higher and faster means of travel. After that would go the Ferrari, now nearly a decade old, as he would travel via private commuter jet or call up an old friend for a ride if one was nearby. Up in Idaho he kept a coouple of his rare items there would go very quickly as there were few examples of them in private hands. While his brother's venue of war had ravaged Europe, his venue of commerce allowed him entree to places most others couldn't go.
And make off with things from a collapsing government that no one would miss and would just attribute to loss via bombing or artillery. Happily such things were also easy to procure during a war. It might be considered theft, of a sort, but unpaid bills gained their own weight and collection rights and collect he did.
His slow steps took him to one bed and his suitcase thumped and jumped as he casually placed it aside. He was glad to see the large conference table he had asked the hotel to put in his room. It was the right size for him to work on in peace and quiet. The room and table would be easy to get in San Francisco, but the peace and quiet couldn't be bought for long periods of time at least in downtown. Setting aside a day for gathering his thoughts and selling his assets should be enough which meant that the ebb and flow of life in a large city had to be kept at a distance making Santa Rosa preferable to the larger environs to the south. Stepping around the edge of the bed slowly brought the table closer to him. Shifting his shoulder his left hand reached for the strap attached to the tube that had resting there since he had taken his coat off in the elevator. Taking the cap off the tube allowed him to get to the long rolled up set of papers inside that he had gotten from the large format plotter the night before. Spreading it out he jostled out a roll of tape and started taping the corner and edges of the paper down to the table. Reaching in he took out a packet of mechanical pencils, straight edged ruler, compass and set them on the paper which had on its far sides the outlines of dimensions for the ALV II cargo area. After placing the tube next to a low chest of drawers that had a television on it, along with ice bucket and lamp, he went back to his suitcase, opened it and withdrew a manila folder which had scale drawings of different parts he had been accumulating for the past 2 months.
"Was it only this May that she came to me?" he said softly to himself putting down the folder on top of the television and opening it to one that held a set of Inconel plates as mechanical drawings, with annotations on stress, resistance, and torque the plates could handle. As he leafed through the drawings his mind wandered as his hands moved the paper so very slowly, piece by piece, automatically moving necessary sheets to the table. Vividly he remembered back to the room over the bar, seeing a familiar figure on the monitor, a figure he thought long dead in the aftermath of what had happened so long ago. Seeing her roused him from his normal way of coping with the speed of the world, which was a mode of being nearly asleep, just at that point where his mind's eye tracked closely with the rest of humanity. His body always lived in this way, now, but his mind still held enough of who he had been to make living amongst men a vexing problem and one that would have driven him mad if he hadn't learned patience.
Absently a part of his mind concerned with the immediate task of working on an efficient manned rocket design moved his body over to the table and took up a mechanical pencil and ruler and began to sketch out the Inconel parts in relation to the carrier attachment pieces that would need to be fabricated. In quiet, without distractions, this part of his mind moved to the task at hand and tracings of pieces, rods, attachments started to appear on the paper, with neat annotations to the side for each piece and part. This was still faster than utilizing a computer with CAD/CAM capability, although one of those would still be necessary to go into fabrication for those pieces that needed absolute precision work.
"Of course Hephaestus was first, even with his powers he had to gain that one thing necessary to conquer all," sadly smiling he remembered the scene at the forge leading from the volcano where his club-footed brother had sought to gain the few pieces that might make him immune to those powers Zeus had. The scars of lightning, the remains of a body hanging on a hook and ashes across it all, they told the story as well as the melted parts of the wall by the forge. What were the powers of Apollo, Demeter, Aphrodite, Hera, and Hestia when the great smith could forge tools and arms to counter them. He had arrayed himself against lightning and storm, but he fled when he realized that the power of the Sun itself could bake him in his armor and melt his weapons. Working with what he knew Hermes had delivered the body of Apollo to Ares for the funeral that befitted the first Olympian to fall. With care and reason, the first place to go was not to confront Poseidon, Hades, Athena or Artemis but for the one brother who would have the means to defend against each, in turn.
"His own hammer had clubbed his brains into the forge," Hermes said, his hand not wavering one bit as the designs flowed over paper. His body began to sweat and he stood up straight to flex his arms and back, then step slowly to the bathroom to gain a towel and fill a glass of water. He drank the latter and tied the towel around his head, remembering the scene where the Great Smith's own towel had been festooned with bits of hair and skull. His closets and chests were emptied, of course, and only a few simple tools remained.
"Now he could have used a CAD/CAM system!" Hermes said swinging his hips slowly and smiling. Putting the glass on the dresser he unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it casually aside. Sweat had started to stream down over his shoulders, down his back and over his breasts. Air conditioning turned on and he felt its cooling movement over his skin, the gentle breeze granted to the body. Moving sinuously she set about adding in systems to the overall structure with its thin swing-wing design that would act for guidance when used in the last of the atmosphere and as the place to slow the craft when it moved merely into super-sonic speeds.
"Alice would have loved him," she said absently.
She knew the mind of Zeus at least during normal periods, but when his rage was up there was no real way to consider him sane. Still, there were two sisters to fear, and either Artemis or Athena would be next. Hermes ran his tongue-tip over his lips thinking of Artemis.
"She had her own realm, a guiding spirit and protected like none other in it. She was too fast, and able, not as fast as I was," she sighed, "but so lovely to hug. Zeus would be wary of her," she said as the life support systems started to snake through the cabin with its own air supplies, rebreather elements, pressure pumps, each put in with deft and dainty penciling, thin but clear of line. Softening of cheeks allowed the sweat to spread into a sheen over her skin instead of into rivulets which cooled her fast enough to keep up with the protesting body seeking to shed warmth as fine detail flowed as fast as the larger outline.
A single blink and she remembered finding the next obvious victim as this was a part of his own flesh, his own mind, brought forth from his forehead. Hermes had found the shield, first, by a riverside, water flowing over the remains of it where the heat of the sun had softened it and then the spider's traces of lightning had gone through it. She had retreated north from her beloved city, and drew Zeus into a grotto where she could make a final stand where lightning could not sneak in from behind, nor light lance her directly from overhead. She knew that if she could just enrage him, misdirect him, that the waters in the cavern would claim his mind. Hermes had approached this place carefully, but it was evident that his speed was not gaining him lost hours of time.
Spear point buried into virgin rock told of her defense. There was, yet, blood on it and that could only be from her attacker. Next further down to the cavern were the broken pieces of the spear shaft, rent asunder with lightning, broken apart and bloody hand prints on it. Slowly, with eyes adjusting, Hermes remembered the slow tracing of path amongst fallen rock, one of which was cleaved neatly in two. She was the Maiden of Battle and its skilled Artisan but nothing could protect it from the hammer that had forged it into shape, snapping the top part of it off with shards of metal embedded into rock. Again blood further in and evidence of melted walls and charring over the dust traced out the pattern of lightning. Only at the river's edge did he know the end, the hammer used to pulverize her mailed fingers into the handle of the sword and then the backstroke of the hammer ripping into her side, armor and flesh and tearing her chest open and the armor off. Yet the most gruesome part was the fingerholes put into the helmet, ripped off with the top of her head attached so that Zeus could reclaim those gained skills and knowledge that he had granted her. What remained was a mangled body with the top of the head sitting in the waters itself. The body still breathed.
Hermes shifted a moment now putting in more of the consoles and controls, an exploded view showing how all the parts fit together and numbering each part and naming them on the side columns.
Athena had lived, even after that which formed her had defiled her body, her mind, her spirit and left her worse than dead. Crying while carefully splitting the helmet away from the top of the skull, Hermes replaced it where it had come from and stripped pieces from the toga and carefully secured her head together. Likewise the pieces of rib and chest were put in place, then next the remains of the hand retrieved with the gauntlet and the latter split open to set bones carefully. Athena was alive and perhaps, just perhaps, there would be some of her power left to begin this horrific knitting process again. Hermes couldn't kill her as they had laughed and danced in town and city squares, recited poetry together, and had swimming contests in the wine dark sea. He left a small lantern he carried, lit at its lowest wick, a small skin of water and salted meat. If she survived, revived, she would not suffer further starvation, and the final placement of her still and battered form just at the cavern entrance would protect her from the sun and most scavengers would not espy her hidden just beyond the overhang. A kiss on cracked, blood salted lips was all that could be afforded as now he had to warn Ares that Zeus had the final parts to meet them with.
In the dark he ran, she flew, and paid no heed to the storm clouds gathering in the north.
Swift she was.
Lightning was swifter still.
The sad bearing of news, the body of Athena too frail to move had shook Ares and Dionysis who had joined him. Even worse was knowing that for what they had, between them, doughty warriors gathered by Ares, infused with courage by means liquid from Dionysis, would mean a very hard fought battle against the God who would be Ruler of All.
With dawn would come the sunlight of fear, with storm clouds of dread and dropped before their redoubt from above the limp yet still living form of Artemis. Any attempt to save her would mean exposing themselves to the one of the clouds, the sun, and, with a rumbling of the ground around them, the knowledge that if had that from one brother he would already have dealt with the other. They were the last to fall, and the still smoking rent open chest of Artemis told them all that there were, indeed, fates far worse than death by their father's hands.
The sketching continued into the long, long night with only a single tear drop falling on open paper and being blotted away.
She labeled the design 'Athena' and it would be unlike any other rocket or weapon system of that name that had come before it.
Only then could she allow herself some rest to know that she couldn't forget that one who could never remember again.
Ares peered through the range scope, his hat tilted back to allow him to get next to the eyepiece without disturbing the scope.
"Shot, nicked the 8 ring, 2 o'clock," he said laying prone on a mat next to Tamara under the Arizona sun at the desert range.
Tamara worked the bolt of the rifle still looking through its scope at the target, the spent cartridge flipped into the air and to her left away from Ares to land on a pile of other spent shell casings with the soft *clink* of metal on metal contact.
"Who would have thought a small depression like that would make such a difference" she whispered, sliding the bolt forward again until its handle went down into the locked position.
"That and just a brief bit of wind at the 70 yard mark, I think, along with another few degrees in the heat pocket there. If the breeze were a bit stronger the pocket would lift and get cooler air. Otherwise your shot would have been in the 10 ring, nicking the 9. Your form is excellent."
Shifting her hips, Tamara smiled and she was glad of the dry heat of the Arizona desert as her general position and feelings would be betrayed by her clothing. Even so that simple compliment was one she had heard before from the same man, just the night before, in far different circumstances. That and 'well toned' along with 'strong reflexes' with a taste of 'good stress relief' were ones that she had suspected were not just situational. A proposed date out on the range was something she thought would be fun, going horseback riding on one of the nearby ranches or farms. She really should have asked just which range they would be at since she found herself stripping down to her t-shirt as they walked the half-mile to the rifle range. Early morning target pistol work she thought was a teaser as, really, there were other places not more than a half-hour from the range which would have offered a somewhat more romantic setting.
While not a novice with firearms, Tamara had never done any serious work with a rifle beyond some plinking out at the family cabin with her older brother and father. She had even used an old Russian three line rifle that, even with the butt pad and shoulder pad, had given her a sore shoulder after just going through five rounds. Her dad served in the Reserves and his unit had never been called up for the minor conflicts of the late 1970's and early '80s up to his death in the early 90's as they tended to be regular forces for very short periods of time. The AR that he had taught his family how to use was a very different thing than the heavier and older rifles that were still a choice platform for precision shooters. He had only given her the basics on some standing positions and on the ground with one knee up for support. What Ares had hauled out was a four rifle case, with an old ALICE pack that must be filled with ammo. She had tried to shift that, thinking that there must be some clothing and other things that Ares had brought with him. She could lift it off the ground and the idea of trying to lug that load anywhere made her shiver. Yet her partner had simply lifted and shifted it to his shoulder once they finished their morning's warm-up. How he could so easily carry that load and not even appear to be straining, or sweating, was something she couldn't understand.
"100 yard target," she said softly re-adjusting her hips and shifting her entire upper body to loosen it up some to fight muscle fatigue then turning to look up at him. "Should I dope the scope?" she said hoping she had gotten the wording right as she wasn't used to much beyond iron sights.
He looked down at her with just a sllight relaxing of tension on his cheek muscles, not enough to call it a smile but enough to show a change in feeling.
"No, a bit of windage is all you need. You have breath control down and have done well understanding your heartbeat and pulse. Just the one shot left and we can finish up with the shotguns for a run and gun on the close quarters set-up."
They had eaten through the basket lunch she had brought after the initial familiarization session that Ares had given her to show that the rifle was a system and that the sling served a very important purpose for steadying it and managing recoil. She hadn't gotten that from her dad or the AR platform, but learned with the Springfield rifle that this was a very important part of how to use the gun. She had gone through three different standing positions, five kneeling or partially kneeling positions, and then prone positions with this last having her legs spread behind her as she was on the shooting mat. She was used to the touches of Ares, and his hands helping to let her feel how her body was positioned on the mat was something that she had come to understand from other venues. Which got her hotter from the memories of them than anything the sun could pour down on her. Her body did feel much more comfortable once he helped her to relax, his hands giving a simple muscle massage in the process. It was like he knew how her body would react, what it would do with each touch and that the softer, closer touches of other times between them now let him tell her what to do with very few words.
To Tamara Sinclair the idea that a day at the firing range could be romantic, even intimate, was something she would have laughed at just a day before. Now she was beginning to ask herself just how private this range could be, out here on the slight ridge they were on, with the main rangehouse a good mile away. Ares was the rangemaster for her today, the instructor, the safety expert, and the one she had taken kisses from as they walked to the rifle area and then before she had to readjust to sighting-in on a full stomach. Now she was working hard to try and show that she didn't need a handicap score against him and that if she could just catch the ten ring one more time, she would be a total of two points behind him with the handicap although still eight points behind without it. She really wanted to decide what they did after the range and some clean-up time, since she ached for a soothing sauna and shower together, a meal out with maybe a bit of dancing, and then time together at her hotel room at the Hilton. Luckily all of that could be done in one building.
Before settling down to peer through the scope she looked back up at him as an idea came to her.
"If you win, what would you like to do after this?" she asked softly.
Shifting to look down at her he did smile.
"You really want to know?" he asked in something just above a whisper.
"Time in a hot pool together, followed by a wild game supper, and then sleeping together in a cool place enjoying some beverages that Herman recommended to me," he smiled and looked down range.
She nodded, consciously relaxed and settled into her position.
'Perhaps he really isn't that strange at all,' she thought to herself.
She steadied herself and watched as the heat glimmered off the desert floor making the target in the distance shimmer. She even saw a bit of how it changed from left to right as an errant gust of wind picked up.
"Really, a bit of early dove hunting down by the hot springs would be enjoyable, and the low rock caves are easily checked for scorpions."
Tamara froze for a second and then forced herself to relax.
Most of the handicap was in that unknown shotgun range.
Carefully she watched as the shimmering steadied and shifted the center of the target just a bit above the cross-hairs at the center of the scope. She slowly breathed out and felt her pulse on her finger pad where her fingertip centered itself on the trigger.
The sharp *crack* of the rifle projectile no longer startled her and she was already working the bolt to eject the spent cartridge before Aaron told her where it had hit.
"Shot. Ten ring, dead center. Good shooting, Tamara. I'm sure you'll enjoy the close quarters drill next. I brougth spare knee and elbow pads along."
Tamara Sinclair was two shots down going into the major handicap area. She had only one thing on her side, which was 'Beginner's Luck'. And she had a will and determination to use it as she had no intention of sleeping in a cave with scorpions crawling around it tonight after shooting and cleaning her supper before cooking it. Not one bit of that for her today. Just two points and she just might be able to end the day on a high note.
Maybe many of them.