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The Magnificent Seven and the Aegis of Zeus
by Scribe

Alternate Universe: Relic Hunters

Summary: Approached by the mysterious Julia Pemberton, Chris Larabee and the rest of the seven are charged to locate the Aegis of Zeus, ahead of Nazi treasure hunters seeking to claim it for their Fuhrer.


Chapter One: Brisingamen

Somewhere in Nordauslandet, Svalbard, Norway 1935

There were moments when Ezra Standish thought deeply about his life and the choices he made to reach the present day. He wondered if the spiral had begun after his discharge from the military or by his ill-conceived notions of living a normal existence. Living the life of John Q Public had always been a pipe dream Ezra nursed after spending so many years being dragged by Maude cross country in pursuit of the perfect grift or the even more elusive big-score. Yet upon achieving it, Ezra felt as if he had slipped on a skin that did not quite fit. Being a Wall Street broker never felt right to him, even when he achieved some measure of success.

Perhaps the course of his life was decided when he chose to join the army like a boy running away to the circus. Suffering traumas he would tell no one, not even his best friend, Ezra fled to the waiting arms of the recruitment office to get back at Maude whose schemes had inadvertently sacrificed his innocence for her own checkered choices. Yet, even as the thought crossed his mind, Ezra dismissed it. He would never regret joining the army.

As terrible as the Great War had been, being a soldier led him to the men who would become his family, who like himself were misplaced in the world and found brotherhood in the trenches of France. They embraced everything he was and brought out the very best in him, making use of the heart most people thought was cold and mercenary. Together, they had saved the world and Ezra would rather die than be anywhere else than standing alongside them in a fight.

Although this sentiment was the furthest thing from his mind since at this present moment he was hanging upside down over a pit of sharp stakes.

"This is entirely your fault," Ezra complained as he stared down sharpened spikes, their piercing points staring right back at him with almost menacing glee.

Nathan Jackson who was suspended right next to him, arms tied behind his back and the rope around his ankles keeping him from certain death, let out an exasperated groan. "Am I gonna be listening to you bitch about this all the way to the Pearly Gates?"

"Pearly Gates?" Ezra gave him a look. "I think you overestimate our chances of meeting St Peter. We are both more likely to be sipping vile vinegar with Satan."

"Never gonna happen. I know I'm gonna go to Heaven."

Despite their precarious situation, Ezra felt the need to query this line of reasoning.

"Mr. Jackson, you have as much chance as getting past St Peter as I do. Aside from having no shame in your numerous attempts to deceive your best friend, you are as prone to excess as I am and do not think your ability to heal gets you in good standing with the Almighty. Your bedside manner is as comforting as sandpaper in an outhouse."

"Don't worry Ezra," Nathan flashed him a grin. "I'll vouch for ya."

Ezra rolled his eyes wondering why he bothered with Nathan and then remembered, oh yes, he's my best friend.

"You realize if we had simply followed my plan to cause a convenient explosion, there would have been no need for us to be dangling here like the titular damsel in the Perils of Pauline."

Nathan was busy studying the darkened cavern they were in, trying to see the faces he knew were there in the shadows observing them with fascination and suspicion. "Hey, don't be calling me no white woman named Pauline. By the way, is that the last time you went to a movie?"

"I believe the emergence of film will lead to the ruination of mankind," Ezra said haughtily, realizing now Nathan's attention was elsewhere and trying to see what it was that captured the healer's interest. "What is it that has captured your attention so completely Mr. Jackson?"

Nathan saw the faces stepping into the light of the torches hanging against the cavern walls and noted the new arrivals were no longer staring at them as if he and Ezra were invaders that ought to be killed. In fact, their captors appeared fascinated rather than fearful. The healer was not entirely certain if this was a good thing.

"They're coming back."

"This does not bode well for our situation," Ezra pointed out.

"You know, this is not the way I thought it was going to go if I ever ran into a village of women," Nathan remarked as he continued his upside-down view of their captor's approach. "Then again, I also pictured them all looking like Dorothy Lamour."

"What is your fascination with women in grass skirts . . . Madam!" Ezra snapped when one of the women, prodded him in the ribs with the blunt end of her spear. "Kindly watch where you are jabbing me with that weapon. I do not wish to be punctured any sooner than I have to be."

Unlike the lovely Miss Lamour, the women of this remote tribe Gunlod found in the depths of the wilderness that was Nordauslandet on one of the two Norwegian archipelagos were very much a product of their Nordic origins. With white gold hair and blue eyes, they were the purest example of Nordic stock and their appearance, despite their furs and weapons, were explanation enough of why Chris Larabee had made Buck Wilmington stay on the Darlin' Millie.

In response to his demand, she jabbered something to her companion, also a goddess in gold, speaking in a language that flowed like Norwegian but bore no markers to anything he could understand. After a moment, her companion produced what resembled a fishing gaff to snag him by the belt so he could be pulled towards them, away from the pit.

"Mr. Jackson," Ezra said warily as the women drew him to them like a slab of meat they had selected for the butchering. "I have a bad feeling about this."

So did Nathan but he was not about to tell Ezra that. Instead, he started working the ropes behind his back, attempting to unlock the mechanism concealed beneath his shirt sleeve. Having been inspired by the contraption Ezra had hidden beneath his sleeve for his derringer, Nathan thought it might be a good idea to have similar protection with his weapon of choice, a flick knife.

"Just stay calm," Nathan warned, his tone devoid of its usual flippancy as he saw the women drag Ezra to them.

"I am unable to do anything else," Ezra grumbled when suddenly, one of the ladies reached for his mouth and lifted his upper lift to examine his teeth. To his horror, the other lady in attendance removed her fur-lined mittens and began pawing him, first running her palms across his chest and then moving to a decidedly more intimate location which had Ezra tensing at her touch.

"Madam," Ezra's voice escaped him in a squeak. "I would ask you to refrain from squeezing those like fruit, they are as ripe as they are ever going to be."

Nathan who realized now their intentions were towards his best friend, reminded himself this was not the time to laugh even as he worked to free his hands behind his back. However, he couldn't help making at least one jibe at the gambler's expense.

"Ezra, I think you just got engaged."

"Who does he think he's talking to? A goddamn teenager? Don't tell me I'd lose my head in a colony of gorgeous ladies, all strong, athletic, blond, blue-eyed, who ain't never seen a man before . . . ."

Buck Wilmington paused a moment, a scene right out of some sybarite fantasy formed before his eyes. In his mind's eye, the women were plentiful and waiting to be sampled, each of them, like fine wine. These blond angels would prance around him, dressed in furs, with luminescent skin, paying him the kind of attention you wouldn't get even in the best house in the world (or France), with their sultry eyes and full lips . . .

What was he talking about again?

Shaking the fantasy out of his mind, Buck allowed it to evaporate into the glacial plains before him as a flock of penguins listened sympathetically as he sat on a snow bank, waiting for the others to return. As he did so, Buck lamented his fate, even though he was accustomed of being left behind to wait for their return, usually being chased by whomever they managed to piss off in the attempt to retrieve whatever object had been commissioned for return.

However, after learning the details surrounding the particular bauble they were commissioned to retrieve, Buck was more than willing to lend a hand. Especially after he learned the object's guardians were an isolated tribe of women in the wilderness of Svalbard. Until Chris Larabee, his oldest friend, with whom he shared countless adventures, whose life he'd saved on numerous occasions, ordered him to stay behind.

"He doesn't trust me!" Buck ranted to the Emperor penguin who appeared to cock his head as if he shared Buck's incredulity. "He thinks I'm going to completely lose my head over a bunch of women. I mean sure, I'll probably be a little distracted . . . "

The penguin's expression was skeptical.

"Okay," Buck threw up his hands. "A lot distracted. But if I'm distracted, it ain't got nothing to do with a tribe full of sex-starved women. Actually," Buck started to say when he paused and looked around to see no one in sight. The last thing he needed was any of his friends to listen in on what he was about to confide to the wingless confidantes before him. Fortunately, only the Millie sat behind him, already witness to more debauchery than any aircraft in existence, remained indifferent to anything he said.

"Actually, " Buck resumed once he was certain the coast was clear. "There is this one gal I met recently. Prettiest face I ever saw and she does things to a guitar that's practically indecent. It feels like each note she plays is a stroke against your skin. Now I know she likes me, she's playing all hard to get in front of everyone, but we've got something special between us, I can feel it. Although for some crazy reason though, she's fighting it. I suppose I can understand it, I mean she wouldn't be the first gal whose life got turned upside down because of me. I mean you know what women are like don't you?"

The penguin was in mid-nod when the diminutive bird and the rest of its flightless companions, quickly vacated the area. Their small bodies waddled across the snow and ice with far more speed than Buck gave credit to such a poorly designed organism.

"Hey, I thought we were talking!" Buck called out when suddenly, he heard a low growl behind him.

Turning around slowly, he gaped at the lumbering form of the snow-white polar bear who had heard his comments about Inez Recillos, the new owner of Paloma's bar and appeared to be affronted on behalf of all of womankind. The beast's head moved up and down, sizing him up as a potential meal and once again, Buck cursed Chris Larabee because he suspected this blond female covered in fur was not likely to be half as much fun as the tribe the others were encountering at this moment.

The Millie was within running distance and Buck hoped to high hell he could keep ahead of the behemoth who could crack his head with the ease of a peanut shell between those formidable looking jaws. As it was, the bear was eyeing him cautiously, uncertain what kind of creature he was. Buck supposed out here, in one of the most remote parts of the world, humans were scarce and it was very possible this bear had never seen a man before. It was this uncertainty that kept the beast from charging.

Slowly, he took a step back, aware he was going to have to carry out some fancy footwork to outrun this child of Ursus. The bear did not take Buck's departure well and felt the need to further discuss the matter as its massive body sprung into action, moving with a great deal more speed than a creature its size ought to possess, to give the pilot chase.

"Aw shit!" Buck exclaimed as he started running, racing across the snow with six hundred pounds of fur and bone shattering teeth following him. As the pilot ran for his life, he was certain with the way his luck was, the bear was probably a woman too.

"Gotta say," Vin Tanner remarked, watching Buck's dance with the polar bear from his vantage point on top of a mountain glacier some two thousand yards away, "Buck can move when there's a fire lit under his ass, or when the biggest dang bear I've ever seen is chasing him."

Both he and Josiah were observing through their binoculars respectively, the progress of their comrade as he evaded the bear in pursuit. Buck was weaving through snow banks and trying not to slip on the icy ground as he navigated the area where the Millie had landed, attempting to reach the door to the aircraft. Despite their appearance of outward calm at their friend's predicament, Vin's free hand was already reaching for the M1 Garand rifle lying next to him.

From this distance, he could put down the critter easily enough but Vin was loathed to do that to any animal until there was no other recourse. Even though the thing was making Buck run like a frightened chicken, (something Vin intended to bring up with the pilot later), the sharpshooter could not deny how magnificent the beast looked. He'd run across brown bears and Kodiaks in his time and while they were pretty damn big, the thing chasing Buck was impressive.

"Think he's gonna slip?" Vin inquired as he saw Buck's ungainly step as the pilot jumped over a mound of snow.

"Nah," Josiah shook his head, "the man has jumped out of more bedroom windows, shimmied down drain pipes and cleared houses in the dead of night without wearing a seat full of buckshot," the one-time seminary student paused and flashed Vin a grin at that remark, "he can keep ahead of that critter."

Vin uttered a short laugh before lowering the binoculars, replacing it with the sight of his rifle. "I better keep an eye on him just in case. Anything happens to Buck, we might get stranded here and I got plans with Alex next week. She's got some vacation days from doctor school."

Josiah suppressed a little smile, glad to see the young couple was making it work despite the distance between them. Since their meeting almost two months ago, Vin and Alexandra Styles had made an effort to keep in touch, turning the blazing passion of their affection towards each other into a slow burn stretching from one end of the country to the other. There were phone calls and letters exchanged and when the seven's jobs gave them the opportunity to stopover in New York, the rest of the seven were accustomed to Vin disappearing to spend time with his doctor.

"True," Josiah conceded the point. "JD's been learning fast but I don't think I trust him to take the Millie up in the air on his own if Buck gets eaten."

While Vin's attention was focused on Buck's immediate problem, Josiah spared a look in the opposite direction at the ladder bridge stretching across the chasm from the edge of the glacier they were presently occupying, to an even older formation on the other side of the drop. The harsh winds had shifted enough snow to cover their tracks, Josiah knew the path they had taken and followed it to the small fissure in the face of the mountain, providing them entry into the enclave where the prize they sought would be found.

There was no sign of Chris Larabee, JD Dunne, Ezra Standish or Nathan Jackson. All he could see was the brittle arctic wind sweeping across the mountaintop, making the snow on the ground shimmer like ripples across a pond. The wind was whistling in his ears and Josiah felt inordinately grateful for the thermal undergarments and cold weather gear protecting them from the sub-zero temperatures.

"How's he doing?" Josiah turned back to Vin.

"Oh he's doing alright," Vin said squinting through the rifle sight, "he's staying ahead of the critter, he even looks like he's trying to talk it into leaving him alone."

"He's practicing his charm for Inez," Josiah could help but comment.

This drew another short laugh from Vin, who despite the levity was poised to put a bullet through the bear's eye if it got any closer to Buck than he liked. As it stood, the big man was keeping ahead of the thing and the Darlin' Millie's main door was only a few feet away.

"Well, he's having the same luck with this bear that he's having with Inez."

Since Inez Recillos had assumed control of Paloma's, their favourite watering hole, following the death of her father Roberto, Buck had been smitten by the lovely Latin beauty who was one of the most stunning women the seven had ever seen. However, the lady was not only beautiful but had a fiery temperament that was more than a match for Buck's smarmy charm. It also appeared she had met more than one Buck Wilmington in her time and as a result was completely prepared for all of Buck's less than subtle advances. The lady's stubbornness to yield had created an equally fierce desire on Buck to win her over and their verbal foreplay the last two month was more entertaining than that Bob Hope fella on the radio.

"Any sign of Chris and the others?" Vin inquired, still watching Buck. At this point, he would not be removing his finger from the trigger of his rifle until the pilot was inside the Millie.

"No," Josiah remarked glancing at the fissure again. "But I can't imagine it would be much longer now."

The statue was carved out of ice but appeared more like diamond in the dim light of the torch.

It stood fifteen feet tall, a few feet from the cavern in which it was sculpted, a construct that could not exist anywhere but in this cold place. The carved image was definitely female, astride a boar. She was a majestic representation of all womankind, the preternatural mother of all. Her clothes what he could make out of it was of a regal bearing, a queen for the ages. This was the Norse goddess Freya, the patron deity of the women who lived on this island.

There was a good reason the tribe of Gunlod had remained isolated for so long. Like the Amazons, the society of women had started out as high-priestesses for the Norse goddess Freya. Some of the research JD Dunne had found while researching the artifact they were here to claim, implied this lost tribe of women were the inspiration for the famous Valkyries of legend. It made reasonable sense that Freya would entrust her sacred belongings to them to protect.

As Chris Larabee stared at it, he felt a certain amount of guilt at what he and JD were about to do but knew this was a necessary evil of the job. The Brisingamen or ‘the Brising necklace was hidden somewhere in this cavern and the seven had been charged by the Museum of Natural History at the University of Oslo, to recover the artifact before Nazi treasure hunters set their sights upon it. In the last two months, Chris had been hearing stories of German expeditions steamrolling competitors to acquire such treasures and the director of the museum, Oddvar Bjornstad, wanted the necklace in his possession before it disappeared into a vault at Berchtesgaden.

"Okay kid," Chris turned to JD and saw the younger man aiming a camera in the direction of the statue. Lately, JD had taken to carrying around the Kodak 620, taking snapshots of some of the places they had been. He supposed on this occasion, capturing the moment served some purpose, considering what they were about to do.

JD took several shots of the statue, just as cognizant about their next action and felt the need to record the moment for posterity. Lowering the camera, he saw Chris waiting for him patiently and quickly apologized.

"Sorry Chris," he said sheepishly.

"No problem," Chris replied and reached into his pack, producing the cans of salt they would need for the work ahead.

JD put away the camera into his satchel and did the same, retrieving the cans of salt in his own backpack a second later. As they approached the sculpture and began scattering the salt across the ice, watching the substance quickly eat into the statue with the same effect as corrosive acid on flesh. The effect was instantaneous and they stood back to watch the statue of Freya, which stood for so many centuries, unaccosted, melt before their eyes.

"I hate doing this," Chris grumbled. "This thing stood the test of time until we came along."

As Freya's features melted into sludge and then water, the floor of the cavern became soaked with the expanding puddle. The two men watched solemnly, the desecration they were committing, knowing if the Nazis became aware of the Brisingamen, they were likely to do a hell of a lot worse than simply melting the ice in this ancient ice sculpture.

It took only a few minutes for the sculpture to completely disintegrate, covering the floor with broken chunks of ice and slush, to say nothing about the brackish water seeping into the rough, icy ground to reveal the entrance to the underground chamber where the artifact was kept.

"There it is," Chris gave JD a look of approval. "Just like you translated. The gateway to Freya's Vault."

JD felt a surge of pride that overcame the destruction of the sculpture, at Chris's compliment. He always felt ten feet tall whenever the leader of the seven gave him his due.

"Thank God," JD replied. "I would have hated to destroy the sculpture for nothing."

"You and me both," Chris agreed and took a step forward towards the entrance and the steps descending into the earth below. "Come on, let's get this done."

Chapter Two: A Song of Rock and Ice

To this day, it often astonished Nathan Jackson to think his best friend in the world was a white man.

Not just a white man, but a southern boy who spoke like he strolled off some plantation from pre-civil war days, with his flowery speech and his tendency for verbal diarrhea. Considering the events that compelled Nathan to join the army, having a great deal to do with the bigotry he encountered in his youth, the last thing Nathan expected to find in the midst of so much carnage, was a friend for life. Yet that was exactly what Ezra Standish was to him.

They were both in their way, outcasts. On that battlefield in France, with Ezra's lifeblood turning the muddy ground into red clay, they had struck up a friendship and recognized each other for what they were, kindred spirits who had run away from the world. Ezra was the only one who knew why he joined the army, and though Ezra had not confided in Nathan the same, it took no clairvoyance to know whatever it was that drove Ezra to enlist, was almost as terrible.

Even though he was part of the seven, it was Ezra whose friendship meant the most to him and even if he took delighted in bursting that over-inflated ego at times, the truth was, if anything happened to the fast-talking gambler, Nathan would be devastated.

Which was why Nathan was somewhat concerned when he saw what Ezra was being subjected to under the power of these Godlund females. While they removed Ezra from his precarious position suspended over the pit of ice spikes, the gambler was now under the intense scrutiny of the dozens or more women present. They were pawing at him as if they were inspecting the prized bull they were about to sacrifice to their pagan gods. For his part, Ezra was managing to maintain his calm, despite offering erudite protests at the assault to his dignity and Nathan could tell Ezra was reaching the limits of his southern manners and would soon react to the manhandling.

Nathan had a feeling it would be a fatal mistake.

Working harder to cut the ropes around his wrists, each stroke of the blade against the hessian fibres felt painfully slow even if it was necessary to keep from cutting himself, or worse yet, looking his grip of the weapon. He had no idea what he was going to do when his wrists were free or how he intended to rescue Ezra. Nevertheless, he decided to deal with one problem at a time and his most immediate concern right this minute, was to free himself and avoid plunging into the spikes below.

However, even as he worked diligently to cut the ropes binding his wrists, the manner in which Ezra was being scrutinized had an element of menace to it he could not define but feared nonetheless. While the situation the gambler found himself in might normally give Nathan fodder for amusement, right now, all he could feel was the urgent need to get his friend out of there. As he tried to keep his escape concealed, Nathan went over what they knew of this tribe.

Until their arrival in this wilderness in search of the Brisingamen or the Brising Necklace as it was better known, the Godlund was meant to be a myth. Of course, this was most likely because no one was foolish enough to venture into such an unforgiving wasteland to learn otherwise, but now that Nathan considered it, there could be a more insidious reason. The way the women were eyeing Ezra, Nathan began to think that perhaps the reason the Godlund had remained shrouded in secrecy was because no one who found them survive to tell anyone else about it.

Worse yet, from what Nathan was observing, the ages of these women ranged from young adults to middle-aged women. Since he was no believer in immaculate conception, there must have been contact with men to produce children. However, the way he and Ezra were being treated, Nathan guessed men in this community would not be tolerated for long and yet to maintain a healthy, robust population when there were so few males would require some husbandry and that meant . . .

Uh Oh.

"Ezra, we gotta get you out of here right now."

The intensity in his voice made Ezra who was trying hard not to take a bite out of someone's fingers, turn sharply to the dangling healer.

"Why?" Ezra was almost afraid to ask as he winced at a set of hands clamping over another intimate part of his body, examining it through his clothes as was determining its ability to perform. If it was at all possible to cross the language barrier, he would have told her everything was just working FINE. In any case, Ezra was going to be making certain Chris Larabee didn't forget this incident any time soon.

"Because I think they want to use you to get knocked up," Nathan replied and felt the ropes starting to give way as he cut the last remaining strands around his wrists.

"I had determined that much," he frowned as one of the women started tugging at his jacket lapel, in what appeared to be an attempt to remove it. "Madam, please, you are stretching the fabric. I gather they are inspecting the merchandise to see who gets ownership."

"Uh, I don't think that's the plan. I think you're the bull they're about to let loose into the pasture."

"Don't be insane," Ezra quipped. "They cannot possibly expect me to service ALL of them . . . ." Ezra's voice drifted off when Nathan's silence became louder than a church bell. He stared at the expectant faces in front of him and realized that was exactly what was required of him.

"Now Ezra," Nathan saw the ashen curtain lowering across the gambler's face. "Don't panic . . . ."

"Don't panic?" Ezra sputtered incredulously and then came to the firm conclusion that this farce had gone on long enough. Besides, what distraction they were able to provide Mr. Larabee and Mr. Dunne had surely served its purpose and it was time to extricate themselves from this situation. He had been biding his time, allowing this to go on for as long as it was necessary but if these women intended for him to play stud to all of them, not even Ezra's patience was finite.

Just as one woman came at him again, Ezra reacted swiftly, reminding himself this was not the time to be thinking about chivalrous behaviour. Snapping his head forward, he slammed his forehead against the bridge of the woman's nose, sending her reeling backwards in pain as he registered the crunching of bone. A flurry of movement appeared at the corner of his eye and he saw another woman attempting to subdue him with a spear. Before she could do so, he swatted the shaft away with his bound hands and planted the ball of his foot into the side of her knee, bringing her down in a cry of pain.

"Ezra! Duck!" Nathan shouted from his position over the spikes.

Ezra dropped to his knees at Nathan's warning just as a spear sailed over his head and disappeared into the darkness of the pit. He threw out his leg and swept his would-be attacker off her feet. As he did so, he saw the stalactites hanging from the ceiling, sharp points of ice that would be quite deadly if one happened to be beneath them if they dislodged.

Despite his arms being bound, he had no choice but to activate the mechanism beneath his sleeve. The derringer slipped between him palms and Ezra needed to use both hands to take aim. The bullet, though small, produced a near deafening boom inside the cavern that had all the women crying out in fright, their hands covering their ears at the unfamiliar alien boom. The roar of that single bullet shuddered through the walls of the cavern, shaking loose snow and pieces of ice. Fissures began to run through the hanging formations, sending alarm through everyone present.

Meanwhile, Nathan succeeded in freeing his hands and somehow managed to reach his ankles, performing a feat of acrobatics he didn't think he'd be able to manage since his youth. In any case, in reaching his ankles, he was able to cut them free and use the remains of the rope to swing to the ledge where Ezra was presently doing battle with a bunch of angry women. He swung to the ledge like Tarzan except his Jane was a southern gambler about to be set upon by a group of fur covered angry women.

Nathan had to take a second to fully appreciate the absurdity of that statement.

Ezra was doing a pretty decent job of fending off the angry females who fortunately were only armed with knives and spears. However, their parkas of animal skin and furs made movement difficult and Ezra who was dressed in the finest outdoor wear provided by Abercrombie and Fitch, moved with surprising speed and agility when his life, not to mention his virtue, was at stake was fighting them off well.

Like most men of his time, Nathan felt uncomfortable about striking a woman, let alone a white one, but when he saw one of them charging at him, he had no choice but to defend himself. Sidestepping as she attempted to run him through with a spear, Nathan who stood almost a head taller than the female warrior, grabbed the weapon and tore it from her in one swift movement before tossing it into the pit. She rushed at him but he managed to shove her into another approaching opponent.

"Ezra, you got another bullet in that thing?" Nathan demanded as he threw a punch that connected with one of the women's jaw and winced when he saw her stagger back.

"Yes!" Ezra shouted, snapping his head back and connecting with the warrior approaching him from behind. Despite their attacks, Ezra knew they were trying not to hurt him too badly, especially if they required him for procreation.

"Well, what are you saving it for? Your virginity?" Nathan barked. "Shoot it into the ceiling!"

Ezra raised his eyes to the ceiling just as another warrior ran at him. "Mr. Jackson, I've already destabilized the formations above us quite a bit. Another bullet might cause a cave in."

"Ezra, do you plan on being a stud for the next year?"

"I take your point," Ezra fired the last bullet in the derringer.

The bullet struck the stalactites above and the effect was immediate. Even though the bullet did very little damage, the shockwave throughout the cavern was enough. The small, compact bullet was capable of making a hell of a noise and the first chunk of ice that broke free and began hurtling to the ground sent the Godlund into a panic. Forgetting about the man in their midst, they started to scatter as more and more of the deadly icicles began to descend on them.

"Show me your hands!" Nathan ordered as the two men remained behind in the cavern, painfully aware of the icicles smashing perilously against the rocky ground around them.

Ezra raised his hands and Nathan quickly cut through the ropes, just in time for the gambler to yank him forward when another icicle plunged towards the ground near him. It shattered spectacularly, sending shards of ice and water in all directions. Nathan looked up to see more of the formations breaking free, now that Ezra had begun a chain reaction with the derringer.

"I think we've caused enough of a distraction!" Nathan stated. "I say we get the hell out of here!"

"Mr. Jackson, I heartily concur!"

Unaware of what predicament two of their number were currently facing, Chris and JD descended into the dark depths of the newly uncovered tomb after melting down the ice sculpture of Freya standing guard over it for so many centuries. Lighting their way with torches, the passage was carved through rock and the thin layer of ice blunted the rough-hewn walls. Small clouds of hot breath punctuated their progress up the narrow tunnel as Chris took the lead as always, with JD consulting the texts they studied to bring them here.

"It says to reach Freya's gift, we must free Fenrir from his burden so he may devour the moon."

Chris shot JD a look. "Fenrir? As in the big wolf who brings on Ragnarok?"

JD looked up from his notebook, where the ancient piece of scroll that was their guide to the Brisingamen was kept in its pages, nodding." That's the one."

Once again, the younger man was impressed by his leader's knowledge of mythology even though Chris had no formal training or education in the subject. What the leader of the Seven knew about the ancient world, he learned through his own interest and private research. He often wondered what a success Chris might have been in the field of archaeology and anthropology if the man had the credentials behind his name.

"Don't know about you, but that sounds kind of ominous." Chris pointed out and rightly so.

Anything attached to the wolf was usually world-ending, especially in Norse folklore. With this in mind, Chris decided to be extra careful as they reached the end of the tunnel which emptied into what appeared to be a larger chamber. As the light reached its darkened walls, the illumination provided the two men with a view of what lay inside and Chris had to admit, it did appear rather apt in the context of what JD had just read.

The head of the chamber was host to what looked like a doorway, except this one was barred with jagged stalactites and stalagmites of ice on the ground and from the ceiling directly above it. It resembled, most aptly, like the clenched teeth of a great canine and would take nothing less than dynamite to break through. However, on each wall flanking the doorway, was what appeared to be the hilt of a sword, protruding from the rock, as if Arthur Pendragon himself was required to draw it from the stone.

The hilts of both weapons were ornate and beautiful. The pommel of one sword was shaped like a bird and Chris immediately thought of Josiah's crows, although in this case, it was probably one of Odin's ravens. The other was in the image of a thick knot, one that was just tight enough to bind a god until the end of the world if he remembered the legends about Loki's fate correctly.

"I think we gotta draw the swords out," JD stated the obvious while he looked at Chris with an expression of little boy excitement on his face. Why not? What kid didn't want to draw the sword from the stone like King Arthur? Chris could not deny sharing a hint of that same enthusiasm, although he was more masked about it than JD.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Chris warned, knowing from experience that if it looked easy, it usually meant it was the prelude to some attempt to murder you in some gruesome yet colourful way. As it stood, the symbolism around the weapons was painfully obvious. According to the legend, the great wolf Fenrir was chained to a boulder, with a sword placed in his formidable jaws to hold them open. While these jaws were hardly open, the presence of the swords told Chris, the architects of this shrine to Freya might have taken the story into consideration during construction.

The leader of the Seven raised his eyes and studied the cavern they were in. While the passage was narrow, the walls were high, with the silhouette of stalactites poised over their heads ready to fall. Chris could see them across the ceiling of the chamber, their frosted points gleaming in the darkness. Shining his torch at them did little to reveal the secrets hidden in the shadows and Chris knew they had scant time to linger. They needed to get this done because it was only so long before the Godlund became aware of their trespassing.

"There's two of them so I'm thinking they may need to be drawn together. You get that one, and I'll take this one." Chris instructed, regarding the sword with the raven pommel while JD crossed in front of Fenrir's jaws to stand in front of the other weapon. "We do it together."

"Sure Chris," JD replied eager to put his hands on the ancient weapon, but not so enthused as to ignore Chris's warnings about any possible danger. After almost a year working alongside the leader of the team, JD trusted the former Army captain's instincts more than any man alive. Those instincts saved them on more occasions than he could count and while JD considered Buck Wilmington a surrogate father, it was Chris whom JD admired the most.

Chris took in a deep breath, aware this was nowhere as benign as it appeared. There was no doubt in his mind, they were about to activate some unseen mechanism that had been waiting centuries for someone to make the attempt. Placing his hands on the hilt of the weapon, his palm covered the avian features of the raven before his grip tightened around it. Raising his eyes to JD, Chris saw his junior companion had also done the same. Both men stood side by side, with only Fenrir's jaws between them.

"On the count of three," Chris spoke up. "Draw it out slowly."

"You think it's going to do something?" JD asked, having been on too many of these expeditions with Chris to expect anything else.

"Oh I'm sure of it," he stated before begining the countdown. "One . . . .two . . . .three."

The swords wedged into place for so long did not give immediately and required the application of some force to dislodge the blade from the grip of icy rock. When they finally shifted, it was followed by the soft, teeth chattering sound of metal dragging against rock, as both men withdrew the weapons from their slots. Withdrawing the swords from their place in the wall, Chris was conscious of everything around them. The expectation of something being triggered was high and his gut was clenched in anticipation at what form this activation would take.

He didn't have long to wait.

Pulling the sword out of the rock, the blade was double-edged and bore the rounded point favoured by Viking swordsmiths. Along the blade were battle scars and the striations of repeated sharpenings by whoever had wielded it. Until the sword's honorarium here, this had been someone's weapon of choice. The metalwork was rough by contemporary standards but Chris couldn't feel some affection for the weapon, as more than just the trigger for some unseen mechanism. Glancing at JD, Chris saw him admiring his blade in the same fashion.

Reaching into the backpack slung over his shoulder, Chris retrieved a roll of buckskin leather cloth Vin presented to him as a birthday present a few years ago. The sharpshooter had given him the gift to wrap up some of the items they were commissioned to find, so they could be stored without damage. Quickly wrapping the sword in the soft leather, he secured it in his backpack about the same time the sudden screech of grinding metal tore through the silence of the chamber. It was loud enough to make both JD and Chris wince in unison.

"What was that?" JD asked, still holding the other sword in his hand.

"The other shoe," Chris deadpanned and listened closely.

It didn't take him long to identify what those metallic shrieks were trying to convey; the shifting of great chains into motion. Suddenly the walls began to shudder and as Chris looked up, he saw the deadly points of stalactites overhead beginning shake where they were hanging. It took no clairvoyance to guess what was coming next and Chris sought immediately a place to ride out the impending barrage. Unfortunately, it appeared the only way to escape whatever trap had just been sprung was to retreat the way they came. Considering his attachment to his skin, Chris decided this was the prudent course of action until they knew what was coming at them.

"Come on!" Chris motioned JD to follow as the first stalactite broke loose and plunged into the ground. It shattered across the stone floor spectacularly, sending shards of rock and ice in all directions. JD threw up his arms to shield his eyes, before collecting himself enough to follow Chris towards the exit of the chamber.

They had taken no more than a few steps when the grinding sounds stopped and was followed by an even more alarming one. As they continued running, sidestepping all the barrage of deadly icicles falling to earth down around their ears, they heard the loud rumbling that soon eclipsed the noise of the smashing formations of ice. Suddenly Chris saw something that was more than just icicles moving through the shadows of the ceiling above. Not only that, but it appeared to be the source of the approaching calamity.

Giant boulders landed one after the other against the hard floor, cracking the ice on impact. Almost as tall as him, the boulders rolled towards them, making Chris feel he and JD were caught on a pool table just after someone had made a good break. The things were made of solid granite, each the same size as the men sharing the floor with them and rumbled forward with little care for the flesh and blood obstacles in front of them. As they rolled forward at a juggernaut pace, Chris grabbed JD as the two men zigzagged past the rolling balls of rock, trying to return the entrance of the chamber again.

Somehow Chris and JD managed to weave through the stone titans before they smashed spectacularly into the walls housing the slots previously holding the twin blades. The third and final boulder, however, thundered loudly towards the jagged rows of icicles representing Fenrir's formidable jaws. It smashed into them at full force, obliterating the formations utterly, turning the fearsome looking stone jaws into crushed rubble. When the dust cleared, Fenrir, appeared humbled, a toothless beast with its jaws agape with defeat.

Both men stepped forward, hoping this was the end of the obstacles between them and their prize. As they walked over the debris strewn across the ground and navigated the large boulders and broken fragments of ice and stone, they saw something glimmering through the dissipating cloud of dust. It was faint at first, struggling to get through the shroud of dust and darkness but when Chris shone a torch on it, the object revealed itself in all its stunning glory.

"There it is," Chris flashed JD a grin, "the Brisingamen."

Hanging off the neck of an ice sculpture carved in the shape of a woman, presumably the goddess Freya, the Brising Necklace was a gold filigree with tiny emeralds on each leaf. It was almost 1500 years old and one of the most treasured artifacts of Norse mythology. It deserved to be appreciated by its people and better yet, saved from Nazi vaults if Hitler's scavengers had their way.

"It's beautiful," JD whispered, awed by the sight of it.

"It is," Chris agreed. "Alright, let's grab it and get out of here."

No sooner than Chris reached for the thing, the echo of a gunshot rang throughout the cavern, making the remaining icicles still attached to the roof shudder precariously.

Chris and JD exchanged glances before exclaiming in unison. "Ezra and Nathan!"

Chapter Three: Avalanche

While Vin Tanner kept a close eye on Buck Wilmington and his current difficulties with the Norwegian carnivoran drawn to his ‘animal magnetism', Josiah Sanchez's attention remained fixed on the mouth of the cavern the rest of the seven had entered some time ago. The entrance which was no more than a fissure in the side of the mostly ice and sandstone mountains was barely large enough for a man to fit through but Josiah suspected this was probably why the Godlund was able to remain isolated for so long.

The descent from the fissure was a sharp incline covered with thick snow that came to a halt at the edge of a crevasse. Chris and the others had crossed using a bridge over the gap, constructed by the lashing together of two ladders with rock climbing rope, anchored by spikes driven into the ice. As usual, Vin and Josiah played lookout, mostly because both men were silent types and Chris knew they wouldn't annoy each other if they were forced to sit in place for hours. Buck and Ezra alone were enough to test the patience of anyone because neither man could stand silence. JD tended to fidget if he sat still too long and Nathan was often needed to rein in Ezra.

When the crack of a gunshot was heard, muffled as it was through the wind, Josiah knew Chris and the others would soon be making an appearance. His gun was already poised and ready to fire, though the snow covering the mountain tops gave him reason for caution. The snowfall had been building up since they arrived adding layers of several feet over the already existing snowpack. At the sound of the gunshot, Josiah's eyes sparked at the sudden shift in a section of ice. The slide was brief, but it was telling.

"I think we may have a problem."

Vin, who had been observing Buck's situation, looked over his shoulder at the remark. Facing front briefly, he was satisfied Buck had made it back to the Darlin' Millie before he regarded Josiah again. "Well, I ain't surprised that they would have to get out shooting. Them women weren't going to be too happy about us invading their home. Hell, Alex gets ornery if I even look inside her purse."

Josiah managed a little smile at that. "That's not the problem."

"What?" Vin turned around fully now. "What's wrong?" He crawled over to Josiah from where he had been sitting.

"The snow's shifting," Josiah pointed out. "We start shooting and I'm not sure the snowpack will hold."

Vin's blue eyes widened. "You mean an avalanche?"

"Could be." Josiah nodded. "If Chris and the others come out of there hot, us giving them cover might bring one on."

"Hell Josiah," Vin cursed. "You know they've pissed off the women already. I'm pretty sure that was Ezra's derringer. Damn thing's small but loud."

Josiah knew Vin was right and did not like the situation any more than the younger man. If Chris and the others emerged with the Godlund in pursuit, a very real possibility now Ezra's derringer was discharged, they would be in no position to help. Opening fire with their guns would almost certainly bring on an avalanche, but they couldn't stand by and do nothing either. The Godlund may be women, but they were also savages who killed to maintain their anonymity.

For what Chris and the others were taking from their sacred temple, the Godlund would not be that merciful.

"I'm open to suggestions," Josiah eyed the sharpshooter.

Vin took a deep breath and glanced at his backpack lying against the snow. The ‘solution' could be seen poking out beneath the canvas flap. Although Vin's weapon of choice was a rifle, what he carried in the backpack was useful when stealth was necessary. However, he was nowhere as confident of his skills using the weapon as he was when he got behind the sight of a gun.

"I got one," he volunteered.

Josiah followed his gaze and caught on quickly. "You mean Clara?"

"Stop calling it that, it ain't respectful," Vin growled and cursed Buck for coming up with the name as he stood up and went to the backpack. He was fairly certain his foster father Kojay, who gifted him the Navajo bow would not be impressed to hearing its new title. Despite a rifle being his preferred weapon, the bow held a great deal of sentimental value to Vin and he carried it with him, out of respect to the Navajo Chief who welcomed him into the reservation and saved him from the orphanage, following the end of the war.

"Sorry," Josiah remarked, watching Vin returning, clutching the bow crafted with leather and wood, with multi-coloured bands of fabric flanking the grip and a quiver of arrows. Strips of leather dangled from each end and even though it was 1935, the bow looked as if it could have been fashioned in another century. "Have you seen Kojay recently?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded, settling down next to Josiah and arming the bow in readiness for when Chris and the others made their eventual return. "I took Alex to the reservation to see him and Chanu the last time she was up."

"Must be serious," Josiah teased, "taking her up to meet the folks."

"Something like that," Vin grunted.

Josiah couldn't help but chuckle. Even after nearly two months together, Vin had trouble talking about his relationship with Alex, even though it was clear to the rest of the seven just how smitten he was. To them, he would always be that mud covered child in the trenches of France, stuffed into an oversized uniform but revealing himself to be an absolute prodigy when he had a rifle in his hands.

They made it their business to ensure he survived the war to become the capable young man he was today who had met the love of his life who was just as enamoured by him. While young love made them all envious, Josiah had to wonder if maybe they were all jaded on the subject. Except for JD of course, who like Vin, hoped to meet Miss Right someday.

Josiah himself had given up hope on that subject.

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the low rumble of voices reaching crescendo as they neared the fissure. Ezra and Nathan emerged first, running for dear life through the opening. Both men were panting hard as they stumbled through the narrow passage. Nathan who had gone in armed appeared to have been stripped of his gun, which was just as well Josiah thought. If the healer fired the Remington, the results could be catastrophic.

Both men were having a great deal of trouble moving at speed in the heavy weather clothes they were wearing, a difficulty not limiting their pursuers. The women of the Godlund who wore fur parkas and breeches while carrying spears and short swords they were waving threateningly at the two men, were accustomed to moving in such cumbersome clothes. In fact, they were closing the distance to their prey, making Josiah twitch in response as he fought the urge to reach for his gun.

Fortunately, Vin was already pulling back the sinewy drawstring of his bow and letting the first arrow fly. It crossed the space between himself and the Godlund in seconds and the air was shattered by the high-pitched cry of a female warrior struck in the knee. She went down hard, sinking into the snow as the pain and shock overtook her. Her cry froze everyone in their tracks, even Ezra and Nathan, who quickly shot a look in his direction to confirm the source of their deliverance.

The moment remained frozen for only a second because no sooner after the scream faded away, it was followed by the outraged howls of the women who resumed running after their prey. Nathan and Ezra were descending the steep hill awkwardly, their legs digging into the snow like cement blocks dragging at their feet. Behind them, the Godlund increased their pace like a pack of dogs chasing down a fox. Vin fired another arrow, still feeling uncomfortable about shooting women, even if they were savages. It flew across the distance and pierced another warrior in the shoulder, downing her across the snow immediately. One of the women stopped short to help her fallen comrade while the others remained in pursuit.

"Damnit Josiah," Vin cursed. "This ain't going to get it done. Ezra and Nathan are never going to make it across the bridge with those women chasing them the way they are."

The former seminary student had to agree. It was more likely the moment the two men used the bridge to make their way across the chasm, the Godlund would either be right behind them or worse yet, dislodge the ladders That would effectively trap JD and Chris, who had yet to make their appearance, on the other side of the wide gulf. However, if either he or Vin used their guns, then they were going to almost certainly cause an avalanche that would not only endanger the Godlund but Nathan and Ezra too.

Chris and JD stood at the entrance of the Godlund domain and their sacred shrine, observing the situation. The party of female warriors were presently closing in on Ezra and Nathan who were trying to reach the bridge to make it across the chasm. Seeing Vin Tanner use arrows instead of bullets made Chris wonder what the sharpshooter was trying to avoid by using Clara instead of his rifle. As he raised his eyes to the mountain top, he understood why.

"What are we going to do Chris?" JD asked, seeing the formidable force about to close in on the gambler and healer, to say nothing about being caught between them and the bridge at the edge of the mountain. There was no way they could get through those enraged women without using force and like all men of their day, the idea of shooting women, even warrior ones, was abhorrent.

The leader of the Seven weighed his options and had an idea how this was going to go, even though it was dangerous as hell and could get them killed. Still, they didn't have much of a choice. They needed to get to the bridge and the Godlund needed to be halted in their tracks, right this minute. Since he had no intention of shooting women, that left only one solution. Without saying another word, Chris promptly pulled out his Colt and fired into the air.

The explosion of sound caught everyone's immediate attention. The Godlund stopped running and quickly looked over their shoulder at the unexpected source of the gunshot. Nathan and Ezra paused only briefly because they knew an opening when they saw it. Chris didn't think the two men could spot him and JD through the bodies of the Godlund standing between them, but they were certainly astute enough to guess what was happening.

"Chris, is that such a good idea?" JD asked once the echo of the gunshot faded away.

"No," Chris shook his head. "But its the only one we got."

The first bullet was meant to get the Godlund's attention, the next was not. Unlike Ezra's derringer, the bullets Chris fired next, were for a 45 calibre weapon and did not need the help of an echo chamber to seem louder than it was. The rounds Chris fired felt like claps of thunder that shuddered through the air as it dissipated. By the time he squeezed off the third shot, making everyone who heard it jump a little in reaction, the outcome Chris intended was well on its way to being realised.

The rumble was soft at first but unmistakable, like the coming of the Visigoths over the Seven Hills at the fall of the Roman Empire. However, the sound was unmistakable to the Godlund who recognised it for what it was. The thunderous noise of bullets shook the snow perched on its precarious platform, as large chunks of ice dislodged itself from where it had been barely hanging on to begin the swift descent down the mountain.

"RUN!" Chris barked and JD didn't have to be told twice before he was racing down the hill.

For their part, the Godlund forgot about the intruders, gaping at the descending snow and assessing the situation enough to know what they had to do attack. If they did not get indoors immediately, they would be barred from their underground homes or swept off the edge of the mountain, whichever came first. Either way, the invading men were the least of their problems. The leader among them uttered a cry in their ancient Norse tongue, calling for retreat. Receding up the mountain, they were confronted by the two men, whose presence had gone unseen, until now.

Panic and fear were momentarily forgotten as one of the female warriors prepared to strike down the men nearing them. She raised her spear high enough to hurl it at them when she was struck in the shoulder from behind. The arrow drove itself through her parka and she uttered a cry, stumbling forward in pain and forgetting all about the duo running towards her.

As she stumbled, Chris knew even with a bow and arrow, Vin had his back. Meanwhile, the rumble had grown so loud it masked the outraged voices of the Godlund who were not only furious by their trespassing but their precipitation of the calamity about to befall them. Overhead, he could see birds flying away from the mountain, driven to flight to escape the deluge of snow about to thunder down its slopes. No doubt other animals were also fleeing the area and Chris felt a pang of guilt at causing this to happen.

Chris, JD and the Godlund confronted each other in what had to be the most uneven clash of forces in all of history. Yet instead of fighting, they passed each other like ships in the night with the avalanche descending upon them all. Any retaliation the isolated tribe might choose to inflict on him and JD was overridden by their need to return to their mountain hideaway before they were trapped outside of it.

Meanwhile, Ezra and Nathan reached the edge of the chasm, thanks to the opening Chris had given them. Ezra paused and looked up at the peak of the mountain and saw the snow rapidly building momentum as it flowed toward them. The sluff was picking up speed and ferocity, the faster it progressed towards the glacial plain that stretched to the edge of the chasm. The Godlund was trying to reach the village beneath the rock before the wave reached the fissure, or be swept away or worse yet, off the edge. Somewhere in that deluge of bodies were Chris and JD.

"We have to help Mr Larabee and Mr Dunne!" Ezra shouted over the roar of the avalanche. They were next to the bridge, held back from crossing because neither could bring themselves to leave when their number was incomplete. Yet as they saw the descending wall of ice, it was becoming increasingly clear they had to move and they had to do it now.

"We have to go!" Nathan shouted back, unhappy at having to say it first, even though it was the obvious course of action. "Not all of us are going to be able to use the bridge at the same time. Get going, Ezra!" Nathan grabbed him by the arm and shoved him towards the ladder. It was being secured to this side of the crevasse by a thick camping spike driven into the rock, but Nathan was absolutely certain, it would not be able to withstand the force of the avalanche when it finally reached them.

"But . . . " Ezra stared at his best friend, refusing to abandon him even though logic was telling him it was necessary to do so.

"You gotta get to the other side and secure the ladder! If any of us are on it when that avalanche reaches us . . . "

Damn, Ezra cursed not needing him to finish that sentence. Nathan was right. The bridge was the only way off this mountain and it was a dangerous one at that. While they had done their best to secure it over the gulf, it would not take much to cause the construction to collapse, with enough weight and wind currents assaulting it.

"You better be behind me!" Ezra snapped back at Nathan before he started towards the edge. As he looked across the bridge, he saw Josiah emerging from his vantage point and was presently nearing the other side of the bridge. No doubt to secure it while they made their crossing. Vin was still keeping a vigil on any Godlund warrior who tried to prevent Chris and JD from reaching the edge.

"You can bet your ass I will!" Nathan waved him away.

"I never bet with anything that irreplaceable," Ezra retorted before stepping onto the ladder and dropping to his hands and knees to crawl across the chasm.

As he did so, he tried not to look down at the certain death he would suffer if he should fall. The bottom of the crevasse could not be seen as it was shrouded in shadows and Ezra was grateful for that small consolation. The bulky outdoor clothing made movement difficult, even if it afforded him some respite from the harsh and bitterly icy winds threatening to sweep him off the wooden rungs.

Squinting to keep the snow and dirt born on the wind from blinding him, Ezra saw Josiah crouching down on the other end of the ladder. The would-be preacher was pressing his weight against it, holding it steady as Ezra crossed. Sparing a glance behind him, he saw Nathan waiting for him to reach Josiah before making the attempt himself. Knowing his progress was the only thing keeping Nathan from safety made Ezra crawl faster.

Like Ezra, Nathan's mind was preoccupied with where Chris and JD were. He could see the Godlund climbing up the side of the mountain, desperately trying to reach the entrance before the avalanche made it impossible. They were no longer paying any attention to the trespassers and were scrambling up the bank, fighting the wind and snow. The vibrations caused by the descending ice had shaken more snow loose, adding to the force of the avalanche already racing towards them.

Suddenly, through the snow and wind, Chris Larabee's black hat pierced through the glaring white landscape, like a beam of light in his eye. Nathan's chest flooded with relief as Chris and JD finally appeared, leaving behind the Godlund warriors who had larger concerns on their minds. The warriors had reached the mouth of the cavern and were trying to cram into the fissure at once, creating a bottleneck that reminded Nathan of ants scrambling back to their anthill.

"NATHAN GET MOVING!" Chris shouted over the sound of the roar of ice catching up to them.

Nathan lingered just long enough to see the snowy curtain come down over the fissure and the Godlund before he turned around and started his own trek across the ladder. Ezra had already reached the other side and was now taking up position with Josiah, adding his weight against the ladder to hold it in place. He hoped the women had managed to return to their remote village and not too many of them were caught in the avalanche. Moving fast, he kept his eyes trained on the friends in front of him, instead of the doom below. The exposed part of his face was suffering ice burn and the gloves the Godlund took from him during his captivity, was very much missed right now as his fingers ached with cold.

Chris saw Nathan reach the other side and knew their time to get across was running out.

"GO!"

JD like Ezra earlier felt the same hesitation at leaving Chris behind, but the wall of snow coming at them gave the youngest member of the seven little room for argument. Nodding wildly, he quickly crossed the distance and dropped to his hands and knees before begining the journey across the bridge. The ropes holding the ladders in place was starting to loosen under his weight and JD moved as quickly as he could to reach the other side so Chris could make the attempt.

Chris saw the avalanche reaching the glacial plain and knew his chances of getting across without incident had just dwindled to nothingness. Shifting his eyes towards their makeshift bridge, he saw JD moving fast and knew he had no choice, he had to make the attempt while the kid was still on it or he wouldn't be making the trip at all. The tide of snow was seconds away from sweeping him off the edge into the chasm below.

Taking a deep breath, he scrambled onto the ladder, just as JD was a third of the way. The world was drained of all sound except for the thunderous roar of the snowy juggernaut closing the distance between itself and the edge of the crevasse. The cloud of snow and wind created a miniature blizzard adding to the chaos of the situation. Chris started crawling, refusing to look behind him any further because it would serve no purpose other than to distract him and waste precious seconds he did not have.

As he made his way across the wooden ladder, he felt the bridge beneath him starting to give way at the strain against the ropes holding the ladders in place. The constant bombardment by the hard, icy wind had shaken the knots loose and though they were holding for now, Chris knew they would not hold when the avalanche and all those tonnes of ice poured into the crevasse.

"HURRY CHRIS!" JD shouted as soon as he reached Josiah and the others.

The instant Chris saw the kid on the other side of the crevasse, with the bridge only needing to deal with his weight upon it, he moved faster. Feeling relief when he left the first half of the ladder bridge behind him, Chris was now on the second one being held down by Josiah and Ezra.

Chris knew the instant the avalanche reached the edge.

The bridge shook violently and Chris grabbed the rungs just as the entire construction collapsed. The snow snapped the first half of the ladder behind him and Chris cursed as the second ladder swung downwards before slamming against the wall of the crevasse. Through the roar of the snowy cascade, he heard JD shouting at him, telling him to hold on while JD, Ezra and Nathan held onto the ladder, refusing to let go.

"CLIMB UP!" JD shouted. "CLIMB UP CHRIS!"

Chris didn't argue with that order and started the slow climb up the rungs while his friends maintained their grip of the ladder, using all the strength they could muster to keep it in place while he made the ascent to safety. Vin had now appeared, looking down at Chris in worry, as he waited in anticipation like the rest of the seven for Chris to reach them. It took a few arduous minutes but finally, Chris arrived at the top of the crevasse. Both JD and Vin grabbed him by the arm and jacket to haul him the rest of the way.

As soon as he was safe, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra released their grip of the wooden ladder and let it tumbled down the chasm to its fate at the foot of that drop. They did not hear the wood crumble at the impact, but they could imagine it well enough. All six men sank into the snow, taking a moment to catch their breaths after their exertions. The avalanche continued to empty into the crevasse and for a few seconds, they appreciated the majesty of the snowy white cascade, now they were removed from its dangers.

There was no sign of the Godlund and Chris assumed they were now huddled back in their underground cavern, nursing their wounds and no doubt raging at the desecration of Freya's shrine.

"Mr Larabee," Ezra sighed, "do you think we could pick a more hospitable venue for our next venture?"

"We go where the job is Ezra," Chris sighed, thinking this argument from the gambler was like clockwork. Every job seemed to end with Ezra making the same complaint.

"Look I just want to get back to the plane right now," Nathan complained. "I got things frozen that ain't meant to be iced up ever."

"Amen to that," Josiah was sensitive to the man's problem himself. "I take it our venture was successful?"

"Yeah, we got it," JD nodded with a grin. "It was there, just like Doctor Bjornstad said it would be."

"Well," Chris started to stand. "I'm with Nathan, I want to get out of this cold. Let's get back to Buck and the Millie."

"Oh yeah about that," Vin exchanged a glance with Josiah. "We might have a slight problem with a bear . . . "

Chapter Four: The Rattle of Sabers

Two weeks later . . .

The world was changing.

The metamorphosis had begun less than twenty years earlier after the guns had fallen silent with the survivors taking stock of their losses and burying their dead. In the aftermath of the carnage, there was little to do but feel horror at what was wrought during the previous four years. When it began, it was all so simple. Pride and nationalism drove men who believed the old traditions were inviolate, that it would follow them into the new century. Yet the new millennium was like none that had come before it.

The 20th century was born in the machinery of industry where craft was discarded for mechanisation. Man no longer created, he mass-produced.

And he did this no better when it came to weapons of war. Stockpiling became the order of the day and with each country's growing arsenal, came the proportional rise of arrogance at their invincibility. Borders became lined with guns, voices barked at each other from across wire fences and the familiar rattle of sabres was heard from high offices. Those wanting to fight the Great War only needed an excuse and it came in the form of the assassination of an Archduke in Sarajevo.

Tipping the first domino, the assassination began the chain reaction that ultimately led to four years of carnage across Europe, seeding the nascent stirrings of America's international role in the world and toppling once and for all, the sick man of Europe, the Ottoman Empire. Germany was crushed underfoot for being the primary antagonist in the war, its people humiliated and made to pay for a war everyone had a part in. Moderate voices warned restraint by the victorious Allied forces in their dealings with the defeated German state but the shock of a war where the casualties numbered in the millions, left little room for compassion.

Julia Annabelle Pemberton was raised by one of these voices.

His name was Sean Boswell and when he married her mother Eleanor, Julia was nine years old. It would be years before Julia would discover why her mother fled America to the arms of their English family in Hertfordshire but once arrived, they discarded her father Donald Avery's name for the sake of their continued survival. Eleanor, ever independent, a trait she instilled in her daughter, remained at Hertfordshire briefly before making her way to London where they lived modestly on what Donald left them following his death.

Eleanor met Sean Boswell shortly after she began work as a typist at a shipping company situated in Vauxhall. Wheel-chair bound after an injury in the service, Sean was kind, charming and had great stories to tell. Unlike most men of his time, he respected his new wife's ability to fend for herself and her young daughter by not objecting to her continued desire to work. In fact, he rather encouraged it.

Julia adored him.

The family lived in the Boswell family home where Sean had lived alone with his Siamese manservant Narong. Sean who had more or less given up on having children loved Julia equally and they shared a close relationship from the moment she entered his life. He told her stories of the world and the people beyond England and encouraged her to always look outside the norm to find her answers.

"Being a woman should be no reason to give yourself limits," he often said and Julia took that simple order as gospel.

Throughout her childhood, Sean treated her like the son he always wanted but Julia took no offence in this because his love for her was real. Besides in comparison to her friends, who were expected to do nothing with their lives except become mothers and wives, Julia considered herself fortunate her father, and to her, Sean was her father, instilled in her greater ambitions outside those traditional roles.

During their hunting trips, he taught her how to shoot. Having been one of the best snipers in the service it was a skill he was happy to pass down to her, though at the time, she did not understand why. He encouraged her to learn languages and by the time Julia was sixteen, she was fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian and Arabic. He encouraged her to read, usually about history and geography, telling her the key to understanding people and their reactions was learning about where they came from and how they lived.

At the age of nine, Sean encouraged her to join Narong when the manservant performed his morning exercises. Julia never minded because the Siamese man's movements were graceful and beautiful. She practised with him for an hour every morning before school and then again before tea. It was almost two years later, she learned these exercises were for a traditional form of fighting in Narong's native country called Muay Boran. By the time she went away to boarding school, Julia knew how to protect herself against attackers.

Julia was often puzzled why Eleanor never objected to these rather unladylike pursuits until Sean explained how her biological father, Donald Avery, had been murdered by an apocalyptic cult that even now sought to find her and her mother. The Children of Erran had plans for Julia Pemberton and aware he could not protect her all the time, Sean, with Eleanor's permission, made certain Julia could do it herself. So far, her greatest protection had been her anonymity but someday that could change and he did not wish her to be vulnerable simply because she was a woman.

Following the outbreak of the Great War, Julia learned both her parents were not in fact employees of Messrs Rasen, Falcon Limited, a fairly ordinary shipping company in Vauxhall but rather the Foreign Branch of the Secret Service Bureau or the SIS as it was better known. Sean had served with Mansfield Cumming in Military Intelligence and was one of its most senior members. Eleanor had met Sean when she worked as Cumming's secretary and had served the Crown in the intelligence community ever since.

Almost all of the friends visiting their Kensington home, including Albert Lansing whose body she would view years later, were apart of the service. It seemed almost natural Julia would become one of them when she was old enough. Despite societal views of women at the time, the truth was, the SIS valued its female operatives because they were able to infiltrate places men were incapable of going. By the time she was a fully fledged operative, Julia had seen almost as much combat as any soldier in the war before and the one to come.

For years after the armistice, Sean had decried the heavy-handed approach the Allies were taking with the Germans, claiming that people under the boot resorted to extremism to survive and he was right. The continued persecution of a once proud German nation had driven its disillusioned and humiliated citizens into the open arms of Adolf Hitler. Intelligence agencies across the world watched in growing alarm as Germany improved its fortunes and once again, the rattling of sabres could be heard.

War was coming. It was inevitable.

However, unlike the last war, the weapons of this one, would be vastly different and make the carnage in the trenches of Europe seem almost trivial. Hitler wanted weapons that would more than just win, he wanted the power to conquer the world.

Hassan Tower, Rabat

She stared at it for a long time, trying to imagine how it could do what it was designed for. It was no larger than her palm, crafted with the meandering design favoured by the ancient Greeks into a circlet of aging bronze. It was pressed into the wall of the temple, one of a dozen such artifacts adorning the incomplete shrine once meant to be a monument to the empire that built it. The ambitions of the tower were never realised and though the precious items collected to decorate it still remained in place, the structure itself was never completed.

Julia Pemberton eyed the object again as she stood alone in the Mausoleum where the artifact was found. At this time of the day, which was almost evening, the tourists had bled away, with only the guards left behind waiting for the last of the visitors to depart so they could close the doors. In the background, she could hear Riley talking to the guards protecting this chamber, engaging him in conversation about the history of the tower, leaving her free to do what was necessary.

She had entered the place wearing the traditional garb of an Arabian woman, her copper coloured hair concealed beneath a headdress while her petite shape was similarly covered in robes. The only thing that gave her away were her emerald coloured eyes but the only way to hide them was to wear sunglasses which would defeat the purpose. In any case, no one questioned her when she arrived at the Tower and made her way into the mausoleum where Mohammad the Fifth was entombed. It was a splendid chamber paved with black marble, gilded gold walls and glazed zellige tiles that made it look like an exercise in opulence, a fitting resting place for a descendant of the Great Prophet.

Glancing about furtively, Julia stepped up to the wall where the artifact, referred to by Albert Lansing as the Circlet of Almathea, was used as a minor piece in a wall sculpture the ancient Moslems crafted to display their mastery over pagan religions. Julia could see the Circlet stood out among the other pieces whose origins she guessed were from the ancient civilisations of Asia Minor. Riley continued his chatter with the guards, giving Julia the opening she needed as she retrieved a flat headed screwdriver from her robes and proceeded to prise the thing from the sandstone wall.

It came away from the rock easily, snapping off once she applied a little pressure. Before it could fall against the hard, marble floor, possibly creating enough noise to attract the attention of the guards, Julia caught it with one hand and quickly hid it back in the folds of her robe. Discarding the screwdriver behind one of the statues standing guard over the white, marble coffin in the centre of the room, Julia departed with an almost casual air. As she walked through the doorway and nodded slightly at the guards in respect, she showed no sign of having committed the crime whose punishment would most likely mean the loss of a hand.

Riley did not pay attention to her departure, continuing to speak a little longer.

The Circlet was small enough for its absence to not be immediately noticed so Julia figured she had a little time as she strolled out of their sight. As she stepped into the stairwell, the rays of the setting sun had turned the space into a rainbow of colours thanks to the stained glass on the arched windows. It wouldn't be long before it was dark and even Riley's conversational distraction would run its course when the guards ushered him out. If they chose to make a survey of the mausoleum walls before they closed up for the night, they might discover her act of thievery.

Julia intended to be out of the Tower before that happened.

Hurrying down the steps, she discarded the costume she was wearing and revealed beneath them, the perfect picture of an English woman travelling abroad, bearing little resemblance to the Arabian female who entered the place. As she emerged into the open air, she heard footsteps behind her and felt her stomach tense. Clutching her purse, which incidentally contained her gun, she snapped it open and slid her fingers past the clasp to make contact with the stainless steel finish.

"Do you have it, Miss?" Francis Riley asked quietly as he came up alongside her and they continued walking briskly to the exit.

"Mr Riley," she gave him a little smile. "Did you ever doubt it?"

"Of course not," he grinned as they approached the sentries at the main gates, wearing their impressive looking uniforms and red felt fezzes. "Just didn't want all that success to go to your head."

Julia uttered a laugh as they passed by the oblivious guards, casting a glance over her shoulder just long enough to see the tower standing proudly against the sapphire sky. She wished she had a chance to visit the place like a tourist. It was really quite breathtaking. Facing front again, she saw the empty dirt parking lot where their car, a black Wosely Wasp waited patiently for them.

"Where to now MIss?" Riley asked, wishing to get out of this hot, arid climate and head somewhere cold and rainy.

"America," she said firmly. "We have the Circlet, but it's only the beginning of this little hunt. According to Lansing, there are inscriptions on it that might lead to the whereabouts of the item Hitler is after. "

"We don't even know what the ‘item' is," Riley pointed out as they climbed into the car.

"True," she nodded, "but I think its time we enlist the assistance of someone who can help us find out."

As one who was constantly opposed to change, for he preferred it when things remained in stasis once they reached a state of perfection, Ezra Standish had to confess he rather liked the improvements instituted at Palomas since it came under new management.

Roberto's feisty daughter, Inez had swept in from their native Val Verde where she had lived most of her life until her inheritance brought her to Albuquerque. Since taking stewardship over the bar, she'd made subtle changes Ezra would have balked at if suggested to him first. Fortunately, or rather, unfortunately, depending on one's perspective, Inez had controlling interest in Paloma's management and was able to make her improvements without his permission.

Which was just as well because the changes had boosted clientele. Not only because the woman behind the bar was one of the most beautiful Ezra had ever seen, but also because she brought some life and colour to an establishment that had become somewhat stagnant after years under the same hand. The changes were not sweeping, but enough to bring in new customers who previously considered the place a watering hole for old men.

Pleasant aromas wafted from the kitchen, dusted out of apathy, with a new cook who presented Mexican as well as contemporary fare, while in the background, a four-piece jazz band played a few sets, sometimes with Inez joining them and on other occasions, on her own. Whatever the combination, the addition proved popular and while their favourite haunt was a little livelier than usual, Ezra had to admit, Palomas suddenly became a fun place to be, especially when it attracted women to the place.

Enjoying his glass of cognac, Ezra glanced across the floor at the small space reserved for dancers and saw JD engaged in the lindy with one of the young women who now came to the place to listen to the music. Nathan, on the other hand, was leaning against the bar, talking to one of Inez's barmaids, a pretty Spanish young lady named Maria. He raised his glass, waving over Josiah Sanchez to their usual table when he saw the hulking man enter the establishment. The man's brow was furrowed as if he was unhappy but surveying the room for a few seconds, bled away whatever unpleasantness he had encountered.

As Josiah weaved through the crowd, he glanced at the bar where Buck Wilmington was following Inez across the floor, no doubt making another futile attempt to score a date with the woman. Since her arrival, Inez had fast become Buck's holy grail and his pursuit of her after her numerous rejections made Ezra wondered whether his determination to win her hand was motivated by more than just his usual womanising impulses.

"He at it again?" Josiah asked when he reached the table.

"I am afraid so," Ezra replied, allowing the instrumental rendition of Shoo Shoo Baby to soak into his psyche. "I think Mr Wilmington has more than met his match."

As Josiah watch Inez completely ignore Buck while she served a customer his drink before returning to the counter, the older man wondered if Buck knew the Sisyphean trial he was embarking on with this relentless pursuit. "I think she may be a little more than that."

Ezra allowed a dimpled grin to spread across his face before he regarded Josiah. "And you Sir? You arrived with a decidedly dark cloud hanging over your head."

"Oh," Josiah bristled, remembering his irritation of the incident now that Ezra reminded him of it again. "Just some crazy dame almost running me off the road."

Ezra sat up straighter at that statement. "Run you off the road? Pray tell what happened?"

"Nothing too serious," Josiah assured him. "Woman drove her car like she was racing for the Indy 500. Almost ran me off the road on the way here. Worst yet, she had a child in the car, I'm sure."

"Women are not their best in automobiles," Ezra remarked, aware he was being somewhat chauvinistic, but he stood by his comment. "I hope she did not harm your vehicle."

"No," Josiah said flagging a waitress to get him his usual. "But she's lucky we didn't exchange words or I would have impressed upon her that the maker will eventually gather us to his bosom, there's no need for her to rush her journey there or take a child with her."

"I'm sure she would have taken that advice in the spirit it was given," Ezra held a perfect poker face at that comment.

"I'm sure," Josiah was aware that it would not have been. "Where are Chris and Vin?" His quick study of the floor earlier had told him their number was missing their leader and their sharpshooter.

"I believe Mr Larabee is meeting the Professor about a potential new venture and Mr Tanner was collecting Miss Styles from the train station."

"That's right," Josiah nodded. "He did mention she was on break from school."

"Yes, I also believe she intends to pursue a medical internship in the area during this visit." Ezra pointed out, having heard the discussion the last time Alex was in town. "Hopefully with the Professor's endorsement and her father's standing in the community, the position will not be difficult to secure."

"Hello Josiah," Inez greeted, arriving at the table with Buck following her like a puppy, while she carried the tray that held Josiah's mug of beer.

"Hello Inez," Josiah greeted, tipping his hat at her, in politeness.

The lady flashed him a radiant smile, always grateful for the courtesies he saw fit to bestow upon her whenever she encountered him. After a day on her feet, serving customers, such consideration went a long way to securing her affection. Besides, Josiah and his friend were favourite customers of her father's, and when Roberto had talked about her taking over the bar someday, he made sure she knew which ones to pay special consideration to.

"Here you go Senor," she lowered the frosty mug on the table.

"Hey Josiah," Buck greeted quickly before returning to his efforts to secure Inez's company this evening. "Come on Inez, I promise you, you'll love what I got planned. I'll take you up in the Millie. We'll fly to the coast for a little dinner, be back by dawn after dancing under the stars by the beach."

Ezra and Josiah exchanged a glance, knowing full well Chris would turn positively apoplectic if he thought Buck was wasting fuel on such a frivolous journey. There was still a Depression on and the cost of fueling the Millie was not insignificant. However, neither man voiced this comment since they were both fairly certain Buck would never have the chance to go on such a date.

"Buck," Inez glared at him with impatience. "I am too busy for this today! We have a full house and I do not have time for your usual . . . ." her words drifted off as her gaze shifted to the entrance of the tavern.

The three men's eyes followed the direction of Inez's pointed stare and realised she was looking at a woman in her mid-forties, sporting a head of dark gold that hung around her in wild, crazy curls. She wore her age well, dressed in a pair of dark, wide-legged slacks, a crisp white shirt and a lavender cardigan. However, as fetching as she appeared, it was the boy standing next to her that was of most interest to them and to Inez.

He could not have been any more than seven, with dusky skin and familiar eyes. He was wearing the uniform of a Menaul School student, one of the few interracial educational facilities in town. The boy was sporting a black eye and a split lip, both of which had been tended to. As the woman surveyed the room and sighted Inez, she began ushering the boy forward while Inez closed the distance to meet her.

"Who is that?" Buck had to ask as he watched Inez stomp away.

"BERNARDO ROBERTO RECILLOS! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?"

With a sanguine smile, Ezra answered. "Her son."

Chapter Five: The Quest of Perseus

Life could sometimes be surreal.

It was not that long ago, the doom of Orin Travis's life, the Tablet of Destiny threatened all their lives. His childhood friends had died at the hands of the Erran, a death cult intending on unmaking the world and it appeared their daughters would be similarly sacrificed to meet that apocalyptic end. Alexandra Styles, the only child of his best friend, William, was nearly taken as an unwilling host to the ancient goddess Tiamat, while his own daughter Mary, was threatened with death or worst yet, slavery.

If there was any consolation to be had in the whole miserable affair, it was knowing at least Hank Conley's daughter, Sarah was out of their reach due to her untimely death in a fire. By the same token, Donald Avery's daughter, Julia had also escaped the Erran's clutches when she was taken across the Atlantic as an infant to begin a new life in obscurity. Her mother Eleanor, had no intention of losing her child the way she had lost her husband, by remaining close to his friends in America. Throughout the entire incident with the Erran, Julia Pemberton was the one piece of the puzzle that remained elusive, thus guaranteeing her safety.

Until now.

The woman who sat across the desk in his office at the University of Albuquerque was not the ginger-haired tot with the striking green eyes he had last seen at her christening. Instead, she was a dazzling titian-haired beauty, impeccably dressed in a white silk blouse, a tweed blazer and wide-cut pants, no doubt inspired by the fashions of Katherine Hepburn. Meanwhile, her distinct copper coloured hair, inherited from her mother Eleanor since her eyes were all Donnie's, was styled with pin curls that was the trend of the day among the ladies.

When his secretary had told him the identity of his appointment this morning, Orin had almost fallen out of his chair. After Eleanor's abrupt departure from England, there had been almost no contact between them with Orin respecting the lady's desire for distance. Considering what danger the Erran represented to her and her child, it was rather prudent. However, Julia's emergence so soon after the Erran were dealt with once and for all, seemed too fortuitous to be coincidental, especially when she requested Chris Larabee attend the same meeting.

Somehow, Julia Pemberton knew of his close personal and professional relationship with Chris, enough so to be confident he would be aware of when Chris and the rest of the seven were in town. Even when the seven were not procuring specifically for the University or the Museum which he played curator for, Chris always checked in when he returned to Albuquerque. It was a gesture of friendship between two men who had survived a war together and saved each other in more ways than one.

Chris had arrived shortly before her and was as equally surprised by the sudden emergence of Julia Pemberton in the aftermath of the Erran affair. They had assumed Julia had been left out of the whole business because the Erran had been unable to find her but it appeared she was closer than they knew by this sudden appearance.

She arrived at his office alone, revealing herself to be a picture of poised elegance, speaking with the accent of a high-born English woman, oozing with culture and refinement. Chris had to admit she was a looker as they got past the greetings and small talk. Like Orin, he was burning with curiosity to have an explanation for this sudden appearance and his summons to this meeting.

"So you work for a shipping company?" Orin inquired once they got down to business.

Chris watched her closely, turning his high powered perception in her direction and realising she was a pretty cool customer for a dame. She studied everything with her cat-like green eyes with as much scrutiny as he did, giving nothing away at the same time. It was a trait he employed himself.

"Yes, that is correct. My employer is responsible for the transportation of high-value merchandise and part of the service we provide to our clients, includes valuation and authentication, particularly for insurance purposes. We ensure the provenance of the more exotic artifacts are in order and investigate when they are not. Recently, something came into our possession that made us question its origins and its provenance."

"Really?" Orin sat up in interest, understanding why she might have sought him out although she was a long way from England and it did not explain why she would ask for Chris to be present. She had asked for him, implying she knew what he and the seven did for a living. "Do you have it here?"

"Yes," she nodded, reaching into the alligator purse she carried with her. "I thought you might wish to look at it."

Julia produced an object wrapped in a velvet pouch no larger than her palm and handed it to him. Orin promptly unfastened the cord holding it close and emptied the object onto the felt covered table in front of them.

Chris immediately sat up in his chair and leaned forward, wanting to see the object for himself. Its circular configuration made him think immediately of a bracelet or choker but he dismissed it immediately. The hollow made it too narrow for a neck and too wide for a wrist. The edges were smoothed, but not enough for anyone to wear it comfortably. If anything, the cut along the meandering pattern on its outer ring made him think this was no piece of jewellery at all, but something more cryptic.

"It's Greek" Orin who was the true expert, stated before Chris could.

He was right of course and Chris nodded in agreement. "Yeah," he studied the meandering pattern. "Definitely Greek, early Minoan?"

"Possibly," the Professor remarked and reached for the magnifying glass sitting in its tray on his desk, before picking up the artifact to make a closer examination.

"There appears to be some kind of inscription on the inside edge but we can't decipher it," Julia volunteered. She noted Orin's brow arching in interest as he held it beneath the glass.

"So why am I here Miss Pemberton?" Chris asked her while Orin conducted his analysis. "The Professor mentioned you asked for me."

She turned that aloof expression on him once again and Chris realised that as attractive and beautiful as this woman was, there was something about her that put him on edge. His instincts for trouble had saved him on more occasions than he could count and right now, Julia was setting off all kinds of alarm bells in his head. There was more to her than she was letting on, of this he was convinced. He just didn't know if it was dangerous.

"Your reputation precedes you, Mr Larabee," she offered her well-practised explanation with ease. "You're known in antiquities circles as a man who is able to acquire items often considered out of reach and more importantly, keeping them from those who exploit them. I am sure you are aware the Nazis have been scouring the globe lately, acquiring objects that supposedly have supernatural properties. Hitler is a believer in the occult."

Chris and Orin exchanged glances before he responded. "I've heard."

"My employers would prefer the nature of this particular piece be investigated by someone reliable who isn't likely to sell it off to private collectors. I'm led to believe that is you."

There was a double meaning in almost everything she said and while his instincts did not warn him of danger, at least from her, there was no doubt in his mind whatsoever she had an agenda she was keeping secret. Despite her attempt to flatter him however, Chris also detected a faint hint of sincerity in her words but still, there was something about her that bothered him.

"I'm no grave robber or double-crosser Miss Pemberton, but me and my men aren't charities either. We have a living to make."

"Of course," she nodded expecting the issue of money to come up eventually. "We are willing to pay you very well."

It was at that moment Chris realised she knew exactly what it was she handed to Orin.

"Oh my God," Orin Travis exclaimed almost on cue.

Chris shot her a look of suspicion, while she wore one of smug satisfaction. Who the hell was Julia Pemberton, he asked himself silently before turning to Orin who had lowered the artifact to the table, an expression of wonder on his face. "This is the Circlet of Amalthea?"

"It is what was my employers were led to believe when we acquired it."

"The Circlet of Amalthea?" Chris stared at Orin. He knew of the classical reference to Amalthea of course. In Greek mythology, she was either a goddess or a she-goat, depending on which text one read, who nursed the Olympian Zeus as a baby and protected the future ruler of the gods from his father Cronus, who already committed infanticide by swallowing his other siblings.

"Yes," Orin nodded. "The Circlet of Amalthea is one of the key pieces needed to finding the Aegis of Zeus."

Now that was something Chris did recognise. "You mean the one carried by Perseus? The shield?"

"It's more than just a shield,' Orin elaborated. "According to legend, was covered with Amalthea's hide and immune to all weapons. He who carried the shield couldn't be defeated in battle but there's more to it than that. The shield was given to Perseus by Athena. When he was done with his quest to kill the Gorgon, he returned it and Medusa's head to Athena who mounted it on the face of the shield. As a result, was the shield not just invulnerable, it became capable of turning armies into stone."

Something flashed in Julia Pemberton's eyes. It was so subtle Orin hadn't seen it but Chris who was a master at reading body language caught it immediately. The Professor's final statement had the effect of something prodding her in the ribs and Chris wondered why it bothered her so much. Suspecting she would not explain herself even if he asked, Chris set aside the observation for the present and returned his attention to Orin.

"And the circlet?" Chris was fascinated by the story even if it was just a legend and then again, he thought almost on reflex, his ability to accept the supernatural was a little more flexible after what took place in Eridu.

"Well according to this inscription, which is written in a form of proto-Koine, that's an ancient Greek dialect," Orin raised his eyes to Julia in explanation before continuing." Only a man of courage may pass through the test of Cetus to claim the Skin of the Goat in the House of the Cursed."

"Well that sounds decidedly ominous," Julia frowned. "What is the test of Cetus?"

"If I remember right, Cetus is a sea monster," Chris remarked. "The skin of the goat is obviously the Aegis but what's the House of the cursed?"

"I have no idea," Orin leaned back into his chair. "However, I can tell you how we could find out."

Both Chris and Julia stared at him but it was Chris who spoke first. "How?"

"Heinrich Schliemann wrote in a paper a few years before his death, that a Greek artisan named Kephalon was reputed to have created a mosaic mural of the Aegis's journey from Olympus to Sarpedon and a final resting place that is not named, but is somewhere beyond the Atlas Mountains."

"Where is it?" Julia inquired, realising she was becoming caught up in this nonsense but then again, remembered how real this ‘nonsense' was to Hitler. If the bastard thought he might have an edge on his enemies by supernatural means, there was no halting his ambitions of conquest.

"The Serapheum of Alexandria."

"Shit," Chris swore under his breath and eased back into his chair. He knew precisely where it was and while it was not impossible to reach, it would be an arduous journey nonetheless.

"The Serapheum?" Julia stared at both men, finding her lack of knowledge in the subject galling. She was accustomed to having a handle on most things and making herself proficient in the subject she was not. In this conversation, she was learning just how far out of depth she was. "What is that?"

"It's an annex of the library of Alexandria."

Julia's eyes widened. "You mean the ancient Great Library? The one in ancient Alexandria?"

"The same," Chris confirmed. "Unfortunately, it sank under the sea about a thousand years ago and is under a hundred feet of water."

"Bloody hell," she cursed.

"The Serapheum itself is intact so the mosaic is probably still there. Depending on the glazing techniques, the tiles should be in good shape. We would need diving equipment but not those clunky suits. A Frenchmen developed a new kind of suit recently," Chris mused.

"You mean the Le Prieur breathing apparatus?" Julia stared at him, starting to see where he was going with this. "You want to make the attempt using his equipment?"

"If it's the only way of finding this thing, yeah," Chris nodded, not realising he had planned to go after this artifact until the idea of breaching the Serapheum entered his head.

Orin on the other hand never had any doubt Chris Larabee and his team would be embarking on retrieving the Aegis. The man was a natural explorer and there was enough mystery around the Aegis to prompt his interest. Not for the first time, Orin was glad to have helped Chris on the path to his true calling. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking that perhaps we ought to take a trip down to Egypt," he grinned.

This could not have worked out better if she had planned it. As expected the man had taken up the challenge because that was what was at the heart of him and to be honest, hunting ancient treasure in the service of king and country was not unattractive to her as well.

"In that case," Julia smiled, "I believe my employers will be willing to agree to engage your services to retrieve the Aegis, with the understanding it will be donated to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens after sufficient study is conducted. I am authorised to pay you the going rate and any expenses you might incur."

Somehow, he had a feeling it was always her plan to do so but made no comment on this. Whatever her agenda, he would go along with it for the moment because a job was a job and this one was pretty exciting.

"Miss Pemberton," Chris returned her smile with a faint one of his own. "You have a deal."

"You!"

"You!"

The two words were spoken together with the percussive effect of two cymbals slamming against each other. Josiah Sanchez was on his feet, glaring accusingly at the woman who just accompanied young Master Recillos to his mother. The lady with her wild blond curls had recognised Josiah just as instantly as Josiah had identified her as the crazy dame who nearly ran him off the road a short time ago.

"Where did you learn to drive!" Josiah demanded, furious that not only had she almost killed him with her reckless behaviour, but she was also driving Inez's son at the same time. In the two months since they had come to know the lady, Josiah had decided he liked Inez very much and felt obligated to look out for her the way Roberto, his old friend, would have done if he still lived.

"Where did I learn to drive?" She stared back at him indignantly, "where did you learn to drive? A convent? I've seen nuns who walk faster than you drive!"

Meanwhile oblivious to the argument Josiah was engaged in, Buck Wilmington was still reeling from the bombshell that was just dropped on him by the appearance of the young boy who was looking rather contritely at his mama at the moment. "You knew?" He glared at Ezra who was rather enjoying the human drama playing out before him. "When did you know and how come you didn't tell me?"

Ezra took a sip of his cognac and broke into his trademark dimpled grin, complete with gold tooth gleaming. "Now what fun would that have been? I much rather enjoy the manner in which the truth was revealed to you just a moment ago. I do not believe I have seen you so stupefied with shock since you discovered Marlena, the songstress at that cabaret in Montmartre was a female impersonator. What was his name . . . ?"

"Marvin," Nathan chimed in, approaching the two and joining in Ezra's laughter as Buck turned a shade redder. "What's going on?"

The gambler glanced in the direction of Inez who was apparently reading the riot act to her young son who was taking his mother's scolding with his head hung low in penitence. "Oh, that's Inez's boy?"

"You knew?" Buck straightened up, wondering if every one of his friends knew the object of his affections these last two months came with an accessory no one had seen fit to tell him about.

Nathan pulled up his seat and cast a glance in the direction of Josiah who was having a rather heated argument with a pretty blond woman with curls so wild, they bounced each time she moved her head to talk. "Sure, I did. That's what happens when you have a conversation with a woman that doesn't involve you trying to get a date. You learn things."

He flashed Buck his most shit-eating grin as Buck joined them at the table looking quite stunned by this turn of events.

"Ms Recillos is a widow Buck," Ezra pointed out. "Her husband, the late Mr Recillos died in an accident some years ago, leaving Inez to raise young Roberto on her own. He joined her in Albuquerque only a few weeks ago and it appears he is having some difficulty making the adjustment."

Inez had ceased berating her son and was now hugging him close, a gesture that drove away the sombre expression on his face and replaced it with a happy smile instead. Clearly, his mood was lifted by his mother's embrace indicating all was well between them again. The lady looked up and noted the argument still taking place between Josiah and the woman who brought Roberto to her, deciding in an instant she wasn't getting into the crosshairs of that mess and approached Ezra and the others at their table.

"Everyone, this is my son Roberto," she introduced. "Roberto, say hello to pappy's favourite customers. That is Ezra, Nathan and Buck."

"Greetings Master Recillos, how are you this day?"

The boy seemed a little shy but he answered. "Okay."

"Hey there little fella," Buck smiled warmly, understanding now why Inez had rebuffed him the way she had. She probably didn't want to scare him off if he knew she had a kid.

Not that such a thing was possible anyway. Buck liked children and he had adored Adam, Chris's son. He had mourned the child after the fire, not as much as Chris had mourned of course, but it had hurt Buck to know that sweet little boy who ran after him and called him ‘Uncle Buck' was no more. Now that he knew the truth about Inez's situation, all it would take to win the lady's favour was to charm the son.

It was the perfect plan.

"She's insane!" Josiah returned to the table in the huff, the woman following him closely.

"Don't blame me if you drive like an old lady!" She bit back.

"You ought to know!"

Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth to sputter her outrage when Inez wisely stepped in. "Audrey, thank you for bringing Roberto here, I swear he'll never do that again."

The woman glared at Josiah once more, before facing Inez, trying to forget the unpleasant encounter with this boor of a man and focus on the child she had brought to his mother. "Well," she collected herself, her cheeks still flushed with ire. "It's not that I don't mind Roberto's entrepreneurial spirit but playing marbles to win lunches is not proper behaviour."

With the exception of Josiah who was still seething at the woman, all three men had to bite down to stifle their laughter. As Inez continued to discuss the situation with his teacher, Ezra leaned over to Roberto and whispered quietly. "Young man, I think you and I will get along famously."

Chapter Six: Pursuit

Surrounded by the Spanish-styled architecture of the Alvarado Train Station, Vin Tanner held the bouquet of roses surrounded by baby's breath as he waited at the platform for the train to pull in. It was approaching late afternoon and the platform was busy with travellers getting ready for their journeys to begin. They checked their watches, counted their luggage and like him, repeatedly looked up to see the progress of the train's arrival at the platform. The silver coloured Zephyr had come into sight, gleaming under the bright New Mexico sun.

As Vin bounced impatiently on his heels, waiting for the locomotive completing the final leg of its journey from the East, he tried to temper his impatience at how long it was taking, aware he only got this way when Alexandra Styles came to visit.

It had only been a few weeks since he last saw her, when the Millie had to make a refuelling stop in New York, giving him the opportunity to drive up to her college to see her. They'd spent the whole day together, finally consummating their relationship in a wonderful night where he discovered she was made for him because in her arms was where he was meant to be. Vin was the first for Alex so he was gentle, ensuring she had no reason to regret the decision to be with him because, at the core of him, he knew she was the love of his life.

As the train announced its approach followed by the screech and hiss of its brakes when it came to a complete stop, Vin retrieved the piece of paper from his favourite leather jacket and examined the travel details he'd jotted down during their last phone call. As soon as he read the number of the train car, he started walking along the platform, becoming lost in the bodies beginning to disembark from the locomotive. Brushing past the initial rush of travellers, Vin navigated the sea of passengers including women tugging unruly children, men rushing past with rolled up newspapers under their arms or clutching cases and the tourists who were gaping at everything as if they were on some wild adventure in the desert. Vin paid little attention to any of these travellers, interested in only one person.

"Vin!"

She was still perched on the step of the train, holding on to the handrail and waving at him from her elevated position, her face showing that radiant smile possessing so much power over him. Seeing her, Vin broke into a grin himself and quickly hurried forward as Alex stepped onto the platform and made her way to him, ignoring the frowns she was getting when she brushed too close to people for their liking. She was wearing a pretty pink dress with white gloves and a sun hat, looking utterly radiant as always. They met halfway, greeting each other in a passionate kiss that had Vin sweeping her off her feet and twirling her around once, much to the amusement and reproach of those walking by.

For a few seconds, the world melted away and Vin soaked in her perfume, the touch of her full lips against his and the heat of her body against him. He wondered how he managed to get through the past weeks without her. Ever since they met, he had felt this connection to her, like she was the love of his life in any lifetime, and there was some cosmic pull to each other that transcended all reasonable sense.

"How are you doing Darling?" He asked once he set her down again, realising they needed to behave a little better in public, not like a couple of lovesick teenagers.

"I'm good but I missed you," she admitted smiling at him, still able to taste him on her lips. While they had disengaged from each other's embrace, Vin's hand remained coiled around her waist.

"Well I guess I missed you too," he joked even though the flowers said otherwise. "Here, I got you these."

Noticing the bouquet for the first time because she had eyes only for him, Alex accepted the floral arrangement with delight, especially when roses were her favourite. "Vin, they're beautiful. Thank you." She leaned forward and sealed her gratitude with a kiss.

"You're such a romantic Vin," Mary Travis announced herself as she appeared behind the couple, having fallen behind just enough to allow the duo to have their passionate and heartfelt reunion. The cynical, blond journalist had to admit she was smiling at their affectionate greeting and almost felt a little jealous if not for how happy the two looked to be in each other's company again.

"Hey Mary," Vin greeted the woman, trying not to be embarrassed by her observation. "If I'd known you were coming, I'd gotten you something too."

Although Vin thought devilishly, he might risk the punch in the jaw and make the suggestion to Chris. His best friend's behaviour around this woman was often more entertaining than tickets to a movie. Chris's steadfast denials he had no interest in the fair Miss Travis had been a source of great amusement to the rest of the seven. For some reason, the blond journalist was capable of getting under Chris's skin like no one alive.

Mary uttered a short laugh at the thought. "It's alright," she said pleasantly. "I wasn't meeting my fella so I didn't really expect it."

Exchanging a sly glance at Vin, Alex asked with perfect innocence. "So what is Chris up to today?"

Vin barely managed to restrain his laugh and Mary shot Alex a glare that could have incinerated her on the spot.

"Probably tossing small puppies off a cliff," she snorted, lifting her chin up as a show of feigned indifference.

"Nah, he only do that on holidays," Vin winked at Mary, drawing a giggle from Alex. "Actually I think he may be at your pa's this morning. He said something about the Professor wanting to see him."

Now that did prompt Mary's interest. "Oh?"

Vin realised he probably should not have let that slip and had an idea Chris would not be happy to learn he let Mary in on the fact they might have a new job to undertake. Ever since they met, the blond had been trying to finagle her way onto one of their trips, something Chris had no intention of letting happen ever. What they got themselves into sometimes, was simply too dangerous for a woman, no matter how capable she might think she was. In fact, Vin was rather grateful Alex had no interest to tag along on their jobs because he'd spend too much time worrying about her and not on what he was doing.

"Yeah," he sighed, deciding he had gone too far to shut up now. "Not sure what though."

Not wishing to put Vin in an uncomfortable position, Mary did not press him. "It's alright, I'll find out from my father later."

Oh yeah, Vin thought silently, Chris is going to just love that.

Chris Larabee left the Professor's office deep in thought.

After agreeing to take up the job of going after the Aegis and ironing out the details related to the acceptance of th new commission, Chris left the university. Heading towards Paloma's to tell the others they had a new job, he let Miss Pemberton and the Professor to catch up. Fortunately, the woman had left it entirely up to him to retrieve the artifact and return it to the university without any demands to join them. Her employers whom she was careful not to name, had no desire to keep the Aegis for themselves, only wishing for it to be kept from the reach of unscrupulous hands.

Running the laundry list of things they had to do in his head before they left for Morocco, Chris wanted to get a head start as soon as possible. As always, with everything they went after, they needed to conduct research. Furthermore, Julia had warned their competitors for the Aegis might be Nazis and they should take caution if they ran into the bastards. Despite her seemingly accommodating manner, Chris wondered about Julia Pemberton. Dames, on the whole, were easy to read. He usually got a handle on them pretty fast but Julia was a cipher. Instinct told him she was concealing much but he also sensed no danger from her.

Still, there was something about her.

During that incident, the one true unknown, other than the Tablet itself, was the whereabouts of Donald Avery's daughter. They had wondered who and where she was since the daughters of Orin Travis, William Styles, Hank Conley and Donnie Avery were all endangered by the cult's obsession. Julia was the only element that remained a mystery and her sudden emergence now seemed more than just coincidence. As it was, she made no mention of encountering the Erran or knowing anything about the Tablet. Then again, considering how badly the thing had almost ended for not just Alexandra Styles but also his own daughter Mary, Chris could not blame the Professor for not bringing it up.

Chris was heading back to his black Oldsmobile parked in the lot when he spotted them.

They were trying their best to remain unseen, but a trio of men in their thirties, wearing non-descript grey suits that made them look oddly interchangeable, stood out against the backdrop of teenagers. With wide brim Fedoras perched on their heads, their eyes followed him from across the campus lawn. Chris who was more than accustomed to being kept under surveillance, feigned ignorance as he headed towards his car and saw them emerging from their hiding places in pursuit.

Aware they would not make any overt moves towards him until he was alone, Chris was able to reach his car without much difficulty. As soon as he was inside the vehicle, the leader of the Seven opened his glove box to retrieve the Colt peacemaker he kept there, leaving it on the seat within easy reach before starting the engine. In the rearview mirror, he saw them hurrying to their own car, a dark Buick. Aside from the three who had been keeping him under surveillance, there was a fourth man seated in the backseat awaiting the other's return.

If these were Nazis as Julia claimed, then he had to get out of here as quickly as possible. The woman was still on campus and distancing them from her was Chris's priority. Mysterious or not, she was still the client and he wasn't about to let anything happen to her. Pulling out of the parking lot, he kept his gaze fixed on the rear view mirror as they followed him out, leaving a small gap of time to make their pursuit discreet.

Taking the turn into Campus Boulevarde so he could take the familiar journey down Route 47 to Paloma's, Chris maintained a leisurely speed, not letting on he was aware he was being followed. As he drove along the streets flanked by businesses forming a cottage industry of sorts to service students and alumni from the campus, he saw bookstores, malt shops, laundrymats, five and dimes and coffee houses. Breaking up the urban sprawl were the parks where teenagers lounged on the grass or on benches, alone or together, their faces buried in books or enjoying the friendships that came when one was young and everything was new. Chris missed that feeling.

It was clear his pursuers weren't about to make their move while he was in a populated area and Chris knew as soon as he left the city behind and moved to the outskirts were Palomas's was situated, that would change.

He was right

As soon as he turned down Route 47 and the procession of cars in traffic fell away, leaving him alone on the desert highway with only the tumbleweeds and cactus for company, watching on indifferently, they sped up to catch up to him. Chris had more or less expected this and jammed his foot against the accelerator.

The Oldsmobile lurched forward like a racehorse finally let out of the gate. The car surge forward with a finely tuned roar, tearing down the bitumen while the car behind them, caught somewhat by surprise, did the same. The few seconds Chris had managed to speed up gave him enough of a headstart to make catching up to him no easy affair. Not that they didn't try to slow him down. What came next was almost predictable and Chris retrieved the gun occupying the passenger seat and sat it in his lap.

Even over the sound of engines roaring, Chris heard the discharge of a bullet and immediately turned the wheel sharply, rendering the bullet's trajectory harmless as it kept going forward, where it would either run out of steam or strike another target. Chris hoped it was the former. As he sped up, the gunmen continued to fire. He could see their weapons and arms leaning out of the Buick's window, squeezing off multiple rounds.

The leader of the Seven cursed when he heard the shattering of a backlight and the sound of metal being breached. Josiah was going to be pissed. Josiah considered it his sacred duty to maintain all their vehicles and Chris knew any harm coming to them was going to annoy him to no end. Chris continued to weave across the tar road, trying to avoid the shots but knew eventually, one of those bullets would meet its mark. As if taking up the challenge of this possibility, a loud crack was heard as his back windscreen shattered

Suddenly, Chris saw another car approaching them ahead, coming from the opposite direction. As the Red Ford convertible neared, it took the brunt of the gunfire. Chris saw bullets striking the radiator grill while another punctured the hood. The windscreen caught a shell, causing a spidery vein of cracks to form across the glass. The driver, a woman with wild curly blond hair, cried out in fright and as the Oldsmobile and the Red Ford passed each other and Chris, realised she had lost control of the car. The vehicle veered sharply off the road, hitting the embankment hard and kept going, no doubt shaking her good in her seat.

Chris cursed out loud, unable to do anything to help her until he dealt with the men in pursuit. Looking ahead, he saw no other cars approaching down the next stretch of the flat road and realised he was going to have to act fast. Slowing down, even as more bullets ruined the rear of his car and riddled the interior with holes, Chris saw the Buick closing the distance. It crossed over the unbroken lines splitting the road to come alongside him.

Window to window, Chris caught a glimpse of the men so determined to drive him off the road.

"PULL UP HERR LARABEE!"

The order came from none of the men who had tailed at the campus. Instead, it came from the man waiting in the car. Wearing a black leather coat, a black hat and dark eyes that made Chris think of a weasel, The double SS bolts on his collar pin told Chris exactly what he was. With hollow cheeks and a nose that looked like a hooked beak, his unimpressive physical characteristics implied a man who had always been weak, finally given power he used to lord over others.

Chris ignored him. Instead, the leader of the seven picked up the gun he had been cradling in his lap and opened fire. The Buick's window shattered and Chris who did not believe in taking random shots nailed his target on the first try. The man in the front passenger seat jerked once before the window next to him splattered red. The car veered sharply away, as the driver tried to avoid a face full of lead. With that distraction delivered, Chris jammed the brakes hard and brought the Oldsmobile to a screeching halt, leaving burnt tire trails along the road.

The Buick kept going but now it was Chris in pursuit. While keeping one hand on the wheel, Chris used the other to continue shooting. One bullet struck the trunk of the car, the second took out the rear mirror, forcing the men inside it to quickly hit the deck to avoid being sprayed by glass fragments or being shot. As they disappeared briefly from view, Chris took aim carefully, his shooting hand as steady as the one on the steering wheel. This time when he squeezed the trigger, the deafening din of the gunshot was followed by the explosive burst of a tyre.

The car veered sharply as the tyre deflated, tilting the body to one side as it was forced onto its rim and the metal ground against the tar road. Pieces of rubber were shredded away as it continued forward, leaving a trail of sparks behind. Chris watched it swerved towards the embankment, flipping over to its side when it went down the steep slope, before landing on its back like a turtle on its belly. As it floundered against the desert sand, wheels spinning with smoke rising steadily from its upended engine, Chris tossed his gun back on the passenger seat and made an abrupt U-turn, causing his tyres to screech as he retreated back the way he came.

It did not take him long to find the woman who had been caught up in their gun battle on the road. He had to get to her before the men in the Buick regrouped, possibly even getting their vehicle back on the road to come after him again. The cherry coloured Ford had ended up in a ditch, smoke exuding from beneath the hood. The car's driver had stumbled out of the open door and was leaning against the trunk, clutching what was a bloodied handkerchief against her forehead. This appeared to be the most serious of her injuries because there were other smaller cuts on her arms and neck. She appeared dazed and understandably shaken.

At the sight of him, she turned pale, recognising him and his car as one of those responsible for her current circumstances. She looked ready to run when Chris quickly spoke out, understanding her panic but not having the time to chase her if those Nazi bastards got on the road again, or worse yet, had friends.

"I'm not going to hurt you!" Chris called out to her, trying not to appear intimidating as he approached her even though Buck had told him enough times he could scare the shit out of anyone by just staring at them wrong.

"What do you want?" She demanded, not prepared to trust him.

"Just to see if you're okay," he held out his hands in a gesture of calm.

"I'm not fine!" She snapped. "I just got shot at and run off the road! I'm many things right now! Fine is not one of them!"

Chris supposed he couldn't blame her for her indignation. "Look, Miss . . . ."

"King," she returned haughtily. "Audrey King."

"Look, Miss King," Chris decided not to mince words because he simply didn't have time for it and he had no skill charming women the way Buck and Ezra did. "The fact of the matter is, the other men in the car were Nazis and we need to get out of here before they come back and kill us."

She stared at him wide-eyed. "Are you serious?"

"Do I look like someone who has a sense of humour?"

The woman stared at him for a moment before replying. "You have a point. God what a day I'm having! First, I have to deal with some grouch who can't drive, who had the nerve to tell me I'm the one who can't drive, then I get shot at and ran off the road!"

He supposed that did sound like a bit of an eventful morning as he closed the distance to her and extended his hand to help her steady herself. Once she took it, Chris led her back up the embankment to his Oldsmobile. The smoke from the Buick was still in the air, which told Chris the car had not gotten back on the road but that did not mean the men who were driving it wouldn't be heading back in this direction on foot. Audrey was even more unsteady as they climbed up to the road again and Chris had a feeling she might have suffered a mild concussion. His first instinct was to get her to a hospital, and then realised Palomas would be better.

Especially if there were Nazis hunting them.

Reaching the road again, Chris surveyed the area and saw the coast was clear for the moment. However, there was also nothing to stop the men from hijacking any car that happened along the freeway so it was best to make themselves scarce.

"Get inside," he said opening the front passenger door for her to get into the vehicle.

"Is that a gun?" She stared at him after sighting the Colt lying against the upholstery.

"Yeah," Chris retorted, taking the weapon and tucking it in his coat pocket when suddenly the window shattered next to Audrey who uttered a squeal of fright.

"GET IN!"

The trio had made good time, using the cover of the steep embankment to approach unseen on foot. They were using the slope as cover and determined to shoot them down before he and the woman could leave. Chris retrieved his gun and fired a series of shots, driving them back behind the slope as he ushered Audrey into the Oldsmobile. Audrey, properly alert by adrenalin, climbed into the car as Chris continued to empty his remaining bullets in the direction of the enemy as he ran towards the driver's seat.

Jumping into the car, he tossed the gun into Audrey's lap. "Hold this!"

Audrey uttered another frightened cry as more bullets were fired and Chris started the engines to get them out of them before any of them hit flesh. The enemy was still sending a barrage of ammunition their away when the car started, speeding.

All the while Audrey continued to curse at how much worse her day could get.

Chapter Seven: The Den

It was amazing how quickly a place could change.

Two months ago, the space presently occupied by Ezra and his companions was home to out of date menus, broken and dilapidated furniture Roberto intended on repairing but never did, and an impressive collection of cobwebs and spiders. The veneer of dust that covered the place made it appear like the inside of an ancient mausoleum, not a suite of rooms above a rather popular eatery and bar.

While Inez had done little to Paloma's itself, other than improving the cuisine and hiring musical entertainment for the evenings, she used a considerable amount of her inheritance turning the forgotten upstairs floor which in Paloma's unsavoury past had been used as a bordello, into a residence for her and her young son. Even so, the floor space was comparable to the bar below and the cost to fully renovate the upstairs area, even with her inheritance, exceeded her means. However, leaving the other half of the area unattended was not an option when there was a small child roaming the area.

Ezra who was wiser with his investments these days had offered her a solution by offering to renovate the remaining space into a private suite for him and his compatriots to use. Palomas was their favourite watering hole but it was hardly the place to discuss business now that the establishment was seeing more patronage. The arrangement suited Inez who only had one stipulation which under the circumstances was reasonable, and that was the prohibition of entertaining of female company in a less than proper manner. She did not wish her son exposed to that kind of behaviour. Ezra concurred.

The result of their agreement was a suite painted in neutral colours, its oak panelling revitalised and new carpets laid. The fixtures were replaced with brass fittings and an old style western chandelier hung in the centre of the ceiling, providing a warm glow when fully lit. With studded leather wing chairs and sofas, a large table surrounded by stools and a small bar in the corner, Ezra thought it made for a rather nice cigar lounge, though none of the seven were cigar smokers if the truth were known.

It provided them with a quiet place to discuss matters and on this occasion, a place to treat the woman Chris Larabee had rescued a short time ago after her car had been run off the road by Nazis. The same woman, who had left Palomas earlier, after delivering Inez's son Roberto from school and putting Josiah in a mood so foul, they had not seen its like since the war. While the lady was not badly hurt, she was rather annoyed by the fact she was forced to return to this place after leaving it in such a disagreeable cloud.

"I can't believe I'm back here again," Audrey shook her head in disbelief as she sat on one of the leather lounges in what the seven had taken to calling the ‘Den' over Palomas. "I just left here!"

Nathan Jackson was presently treating the woman's cuts from her accident earlier with the rest of the seven, except for Vin, who was at the train station picking up Alex, close by. Most of her injuries were superficial but thanks to the well-supplied first aid kit Nathan insisted on keeping on the premises, the former army medic was able to treat them.

"Here ma'am," JD set down a saucer and cup of tea on the small side table near her. "Miss Inez says its chamomile."

"Oh thank you," Audrey flashed the young man a grateful smile.

"Who is she?" Chris asked, surprised to learn this was the woman's second visit to Paloma's today.

"Roberto's school teacher," Buck explained and then added. "Did you know Inez has a kid? I didn't know she had a kid. Those two," he shot Ezra and Nathan a look of accusation, still smarting from that morsel of information being kept from him, "knew all about it and didn't tell me."

"I knew about it," Chris stared at him in puzzlement. "It's no secret. I knew the first week she got here."

"The first week?" Buck's indignant exclamation made his voice rise a notch higher. "How come I didn't know about it?"

"Did you stop hitting on her long enough to listen to anything she said?" Chris returned, rolling his eyes and wondering why he was still debating the matter with Buck when there were more important things to discuss. "Look, we have a new job and the competition plays rough."

"Rough enough to run a schoolteacher off the road?" Josiah frowned. While he thought she deserved some poetic justice for her behaviour on the highway with him earlier, Josiah had no wish to see the lady harmed, especially not after discovering when she wasn't yelling at him, was rather attractive with those wild, golden curls.

"Nazis."

The word made Josiah forget all about curls and turn immediately to Chris. Buck, Ezra, JD and even Nathan who was tending to his patient, reacted in more or less the same way, turning sharply to their leader.

"Nazis? Here? In America?" Buck asked, no longer sounding like the happy-go-lucky pilot they all knew, and more like the ace pilot who spent much of the war in the air against Richthofen's Circus.

"If the accent of the guy who told me to pull over was any indication," Chris replied, recalling the weasley faced man with the cruel eyes wearing the twin bolts on his collar. "Yeah."

"They've been showing up a lot lately," Josiah remarked. "Argentina, Italy, Madagascar and now here. Can't figure out why they're showing such an interest."

"I am certain none of us will like the answer when it is revealed," Ezra's dislike for the regime showing clearly on his face. "The news I have been receiving from my acquaintances in Europe regarding their activities in the Fatherland is alarming, to say the least. There is currently an exodus from Germany due to the rising anti-semitism there. I do not like what this may mean for the future."

All of them had been through a war and yet there was something about these Nazis that told them there may be a bloody future ahead if the regime's nationalistic views were allowed to escalate. Sabre rattling like this had led to the last war. For those of them who had seen the carnage of the Western Front, who remembered the faces of the fallen who never came home, it was not something they wanted to see repeated.

"So what is this new job, Chris?" JD inquired, deciding to propel his friends past the moment. The youngest member of the seven had come to recognise the shadow that fell upon his older companions at times and knew changing the subject was the only way to combat it and not let them linger in what must be awful memories.

"The Aegis of Zeus."

JD's eyes widened in excitement at that revelation. "The actual Aegis of Zeus? The one carried by Perseus when he was riding Pegasus to go kill the gorgon? That one?"

"You know it then Mr Dunne," Ezra deadpanned.

"Hell yeah!" JD nodded enthusiastically and immediately launched into an explanation. "It's a shield, supposedly made from the skin of a she-goat that belonged to Amalthea the goddess who protected Zeus when he was a baby. It's supposed to be invulnerable and was what Perseus used to fight Medusa."

"That's the lady with the snakes in her hair right?" Buck looked to JD and then Chris. Mythology was never his strong suit, but that much he knew.

"That's her," JD confirmed. "This is great! I can't believe we're gonna get to go after this thing!"

From where he was treating Audrey King, who was no longer lamenting her condition but listening to these strange men with interest, Nathan asked the most obvious question. "Why in the hell would the Nazis want with a shield?" Nathan asked from where he was seated.

"Well they have scoured the globe collecting artifacts lately," Ezra reminded them.

In the last year, particularly in the circles they travelled, they had heard stories of how the Nazis were rigorously pursuing all supernatural and mystical objects. The more steeped in the occult, the more determined they were to acquire the artifact in question. Why, however, was still a mystery since the Nazis didn't appear to be collectors or aficionados of mythology.

"Because the shield can turn armies into stone."

Audrey looked up from her cup of tea, taking a sip after her declaration to see the men in the room suddenly staring at her.

"It does?" JD eyed her with interest, no longer viewing the woman as just an innocent bystander who wandered into their business unwittingly.

"Yes," Audrey nodded, having some knowledge of classical history from her days in college. "According to Duris of Samos, he's one of the more obscure Greek historians," she explained as if this was common knowledge. "After Perseus used the Gorgon's head to kill Cetus the monster, Athena mounted the head onto the shield and made it apart of the Aegis. The reason it's invincible is because the shield behaves the way the Medusa does. All anyone has to do is to flash it at someone and they turn to stone."

"That's a bunch of hooey," Buck snorted, but then again, what he saw when they were dealing with the Tablet of Destiny was enough to make Buck remember not everything was explainable.

"Of course it is," Audrey rolled her eyes. "But if you're wondering why the Nazis would want the thing, that's a pretty good reason. A shield that can turn any army into stone, that's a hell of a weapon to have."

"The lady does have a point," Josiah turned to Audrey, seeing her in a new light other than the annoying dame who couldn't drive.

"Why thank you," Audrey started to give him a look of sarcasm but it was blunted by the rather thoughtful gleam in his eyes which made the further acerbic remark wither in her throat.

It made sense, Chris realised and recalled the expression on Julia Pemberton's face when they were discussing the reason for the Nazis interest in such an artifact. She had reached the same conclusion as this stranger in their midst. Realising what was at stake even if it was superstitious nonsense, Chris decided it was time to act. "JD, you and Josiah take Miss King back to her car when Nathan's done with her and see her home. If it's still there that is."

"Still there?" Audrey's expression became dismayed at the idea that her beloved convertible might be gone. "It means," Chris explained in a gentler tone than he was accustomed to using because Audrey had been thrust into this situation through no fault of her own. "Those men who were shooting at us might have taken your car to get back to town. If not and it's still there, you might need help to get it running again. That was a pretty nasty stop you made after you were run off the road."

Audrey frowned, unable to disagree with that point. Besides, she did feel still a little shaky and would appreciate the escort home and if in the meantime, she could question the boy about what these men did for a living, all the better. Besides, when he wasn't accusing her of driving him off the road like some crazed roadster, she realised she rather liked Josiah's low, rumble of a voice that glided across the skin like silk.

"What about us?" Buck inquired, knowing Chris enough to guess his old friend would have mapped a course of action by now.

"You get the Millie ready and get us clearance for Egypt. We need to go to Alexandria."

"Right," the pilot nodded in understanding. "Shouldn't take more than a day or two."

"The faster the better," Chris added. "Something tells me these Nazis are going to be on us every step of the way. Ezra, I need you to go and find us some diving gear. The kind made by that Frenchman not long ago."

"You mean the Le Prieur breathing apparatus?" Ezra nodded, having read the papers and had briefly considered investing in the technology until he came to his senses. Maude always said gold and the land was the best investment choices, not new fangled gimmicks that would drop in price as soon as the novelty wore off. "How many?"

"At least three."

Ezra took out the small notebook with the leather cover, always concealed in his jacket and started jotting down notes as to where such devices would be acquired and more importantly how much it would cost.

"JD, Josiah," Chris turned back to the duo. "After you drop Miss King off at her house, head to the university. The Professor has got the Circlet, which we're going to need to find the Aegis. While you're there JD, gather any research you can find on the Aegis, I want to know everything about it, every legend, every story, no matter how obscure. Now that I know why this thing is so important, real or not, the Nazis are going to go after it with everything they got."

"You're actually going after the Aegis?" Audrey could not remain silent any longer. Her initial annoyance about all this had dwindled into unmask awe.

"We hope so," Chris flashed her a little smile, seeing the wonder in her eyes and warming to her because of it. "When Vin gets here, Nathan, we'll go get supplies."

By supplies, Nathan knew Chris meant guns.

"So if this thing is Greek, why are we heading towards Egypt?" Buck asked, having no knowledge of any of the lore. Buck lived in the moment and had very little interest in the past unless it was useful to know.

"That's easy," JD piped up before Chris could. "The Serapheum of Alexandria."

Just as he made the statement, the door swung open and Mary Travis stepped into the room, catching the tail end of the conversation. Behind her was Vin and Alex. Raising a brow, she looked at Chris with interest. "You're heading to Alexandria?"

Aw hell, Chris thought silently, suddenly he had a feeling this trip was about to get a lot more complicated.

Even though she had not intended to do so, Julia Pemberton found herself remaining in the company of Orin Travis, far longer than she expected. However, when the old scholar began to reminisce about her father, Julia was compelled to listen. Even though she had avenged him by killing Adashir Shah in Arabia, it did not erase the void left behind by Donald Avery's absence. Her mother rarely spoke about him, mostly because Julia suspected the American Eleanor had married in her youth was the love of her life and she had no wish to upset her current husband, Sean, speaking of him.

Julia listened in fascination and some sadness about a young man who was a trusted and loyal friend, even if he was sometimes a little rigid in his ways and a stickler for detail. There was no doubting the affection and sorrow that still lingered in the Professor's eyes as he spoke about her father and his other friends lost in time. When she finally left the university, leaving the Circlet in the Professor's keeping since he had the security to ensure it remained safe until Chris Larabee came for it, she headed back to her lodgings at the Hotel Andaluz.

Stepping into the afternoon sun, she saw no sign of the Jerries who had tracked her here from Morocco, no doubt under the orders of Isabel Krauss who had no idea what to make of her yet. Julia knew there was every possibility her act of larceny from the Tower at Rabat had caught the eye of those interested in the Aegis. The Nazis were trained investigators and while they may not be able to prove she took the Circlet, they would have questioned those present the day the artifact had gone missing. All it would have taken was one person to remember her red hair and that would be enough for the Germans to track her down.

After all, a redhead in Morocco tended to stand out.

Judging by the tenacity of Nazi agents, she had no doubt they would have accessed customs records to narrow their search of British expatriates visiting the country to locate her. In the end, it did not matter if they had followed her to America because soon enough, they would have another target to focus their attention, one that would give them even more concern than a woman travelling alone. If they followed her to the university, then their first sight of Chris Larabee would have made them forget all about her.

When she appeared on the campus green and saw no sign of the men who had been following her, she knew her assumption was correct. They had gone after Larabee, recognising who he was. The relic hunter and his band of familiars had been traipsing around the globe for the last five years, building a solid reputation that was known throughout the antiquities world. Worse than that, they did not come from academic backgrounds but were military men who had retained their skills and that made them formidable indeed. The usual practice of overpowering bespectacled scholars would have to be abandoned when dealing with a cavalry officer who survived the Great War and kept his men alive to do the same.

Julia almost smiled at the reception Larabee and his friends would give those Jerry bastards the first time they met each other face to face. In any case, Julia was able to return to her hotel without incident.

Entering the suite she was sharing with Francis Riley, a loyal officer of the British Army who served her stepfather Sean Boswell and now did the same to her, with its Spanish style furniture and architecture, she had to admit, she rather liked the decor. There was something decidedly rustic as well as exotic about the style after growing up with the furnishings of the old world, with its Victorian chair or Edwardian desks or Parisian bidet etc, etc.

"Is it done, Miss?"

Riley was seated on one of the fabric wing chairs, reading the local paper when she entered. At the sight of her, he lowered the sheaf of papers and folded it back in place so he could set it down on the coffee table in front of him. He was a good twenty years older than her, with a solid build, dark curly hair thinning in places and wide cheekbones that made him look like a bull, though she would never insult him by voicing such a thing.

"Yes," she nodded tossing her hat onto the table next to the paper, before flopping onto the sofa, shedding the poised, mercurial demeanour she wore for everyone else's benefit. "Mr Larabee is now in the service of his Majesty's government, though he doesn't know it yet. As far as he is concerned, he is working for an insurance company."

Riley almost chuckled at the thought, wondering if she knew that no one in their right mind would believe a woman of her elegance would be a secretary for an insurance firm, not with her manner. She risked of English nobility whether or not she liked to admit it even though she could brawl like a Yorkshire scruff when the mood took her. His old friend Sean had taught her well and though there were occasions when it was Riley who needed her help, he made it his lot in life to see her safe.

"I'm not sure these Yanks will like that much Miss," he said with a little smile. "You know how they feel about the King."

"About the same as the Irish I suspect," she winked at him.

"True that," he agreed. "What's next then?"

"We'll need to confer with our American cousins for some assistance. Fortunately, the fragmented nature of American Intelligence means they'll provide what we need with little interest in what we're doing. I'm certain they consider Hitler's treasure collecting as little more than a lark, which is just as well. I rather their cooperation, than their interference. We'll ask them to grant Wilmington's request for flight clearance as quickly as possible. Knowing Larabee, he'll want to leave as soon as he realises Jerry is onto him."

"Are they?"

"They are," she nodded. "They stopped following me the minute they recognised him."

"Not surprising," Riley shrugged. "He and his bunch of adventurers have developed quite the reputation."

"They have indeed," Julia agreed.

"So what was he like?" Riley inquired, having only seen the man from a distance.

"Capable," she said without hesitation. "Very little gets past him. I am not entirely certain he believed my story. That is why we are remaining at a distance for the moment. We will observe for now, unless intervention becomes necessary."

"As you wish Miss," he nodded in understanding. "Have you met any of the others?"

Julia lapsed into silence for a moment, thinking about the man she had rescued from a mad cultist during the museum attack by the Erran months before.

"One of them. He was a dandy with a hell of a smile."

Riley watched her for a moment as she mined the memory and wondered if she realised she was wearing one herself.

Chapter Eight: Departures

"Not a chance in hell."

"But why not?"

"Because we got a job to do without wasting time, nursemaiding a bunch of women!"

Alex who was next to Vin on the leather sofa watching Chris and Mary doing highlights from Burns and Allen, said sweetly. "Actually, I don't want to go."

"You don't?" Vin said good-naturedly, mostly to distract Chris and Mary from going at it again.

"I'm trying to get an internship in this town, I've got appointments to keep," Alex smiled at him. "Besides, I know how these things go, I have no intention of crawling through scorpions, being flushed out a death trap of some ancient burial chamber, attacked by mummified corpses or being chased out of a crumbling temple by a deluge of sand. I'm sure you'll have a nice time chasing whatever it is you're chasing and I'll see you when you get back."

"See," Chris turned to Mary and straightened up. "A woman with sense."

Mary glared at Alex. "You are dead to me."

Alex shrugged. "But we're still doing lunch tomorrow right?"

"Of course," Mary gave her a look as if this was ever in doubt and turned back to Chris. "I'll have you know you do not have to nursemaid me. You are going after an ancient artifact with Nazis involved. It's a great story!"

"Which I'll be happy to give you the details of when we get back," Chris stated and then added almost as an afterthought, "over dinner."

Mary's eyes widened in surprise and almost smiled at the unexpected invitation, which even Chris Larabee was wondering why the hell he just made. However, the little glimmer of delight vanished in the face of her crusade. "Oh, so I'm good enough for a date but not to go off on one of your adventures?"

Chris threw up his hands in exasperation. "I need a drink," he growled and headed towards the door leading to the main floor of Paloma's.

Mary was not about to let him escape that easily and went after him, with everyone still in the Den staring at them after they left.

"I better get down there," Nathan said rolling down the sleeves of his shirt as he volunteered to run defence so Chris didn't end up drawing his gun. "Gotta say, the woman's got moxie."

"Yeah, good thing I got me a nice, obedient . . . OW!" Vin grunted at the feel of an elbow in the ribs. "That hurt!"

"But not undeserved," Ezra pointed out, smiling at Alex's reaction to Vin's joke at her expense. "So am I to take it you will be moving to this locality in two months?"

"That's right," Alex nodded. "My father knew the sisters at Saint Joseph's Hospital and I'm going to meet their hospital head to apply for an internship there. If all goes well after that meeting, I'll be back here after graduation in two months."

"And where will you be residing?" Ezra inquired, seeing the pleasure on Vin's face at that news. Despite himself, it warmed the cynical gambler's heart to see Vin happy.

Like the older members of the seven, Ezra would always remember Vin as that scrawny little boy who would sit by the fire of their campsite on the Western Front, listening to him talk about the adventures of Hercules and his twelve labours. Ezra never forgot it was Vin who saved his life after he and Chaucer had been hit with artillery fire. While Ezra had been forced to put a bullet in his beloved horse to end Chaucer's suffering, Vin had run off into the battlefield to bring him back a medic, and a best friend.

"Well if I get the internship, I'll be hunting for a flop in town."

"Let me make a few inquiries on your behalf," Ezra offered. "I am certain I can acquire you something that is comfortable and moderately priced."

"Thank you, Ezra," Alex flashed him a smile.

Vin gave Ezra a nod of thanks, knowing his role as chief procurer for the seven was nothing to underestimate. The man had contacts everywhere and Vin could be certain whatever place Ezra found Alex, it would be comfortable and safe. "You sure, you gonna be okay with me going for a few days?"

Like Alex, Vin had hoped to spend the next two weeks together, but his loyalty to the seven would make it unthinkable for him to sit out any job, no matter how much it stung not being with her. Chris and the others were not just his friends, they were his family and he could not let it down.

"Cowboy," Alex touched his cheek. "It's what you do. I'm fine. I'll be here when you get back."

"I am guessing Mr Larabee wishes for your good fortune," Ezra chuckled, wondering if Nathan required support in his efforts to keep the battling duo at bay. It did appear Vin and Alex needed as much time alone as possible until it was time for them to embark on their quest for the Aegis.

"Well, Mary's a reporter, doing an even a tougher job than I have, in a man's world. To be considered half as good, she needs to be twice as better as any man." Alex explained, understanding Mary's desire to go, even if she didn't share it.

"Makes me happier you staying here anyway," Vin admitted. "These Nazis are a nasty bunch. I don't want you anywhere near them."

To that, Alex could not disagree.

As instructed by Chris, JD and Josiah escorted Audrey King back to her car, left abandoned on the side of the road after his encounter with those Nazi agents. Even though Audrey was clearly fascinated by what they did for a living, Josiah could appreciate Chris's desire to keep some distance between the lady and their affairs. Aside from being an innocent bystander who became embroiled in this situation through no fault of her own, Chris did not want the enemy thinking Audrey had some importance to the seven that could be exploited.

Every one of the seven remembered what nearly happened to Alex and Mary during the mess with the Children of Erran and the Tablet of Destiny. The sight of Alex almost being sacrificed to some ancient goddess and the anguish on Vin's face when they were helpless to stop it, was burned into their memories. Enough so that none of them wanted to experience its like again, especially because Audrey had the bad luck to be driving down the same stretch of road as Chris when he was being attacked by Nazis.

It made Josiah understand why Chris was so determined to keep Mary Travis from joining one of their jobs, even as an observer. The seven often ran afoul of some rather unpleasant characters, characters who would have no difficulty using them and the people close to them as leverage. As the only woman among seven men, she was an easy liability to exploit and Josiah suspected Chris's affections for the woman (as much as he might grunt otherwise), would not permit that.

"This is a great car," Audrey complimented, admiring the interior of the car from the back seat of Josiah's Roadster as they drove down Route 47 back to her vehicle. Running her hand over the rich, well-maintained leather interior, it felt like velvet to the touch. "It's one of the 60 series, isn't it?"

JD who had been privy to the arguments between the pair when they first met, stifled a smile with his hand when he saw Josiah throw a glance of surprise over his shoulder at the woman before facing front again, feigning nonchalance.

"That's right, it's a roadster."

"My ex-husband had one of these," Audrey explained. "Unfortunately, he got ours in the divorce. I always liked the wider wheelbase. It made you feel as if you were stuck to the road and nothing but God's own crowbar was going to get you off it."

Once again, Josiah resisted the urge to look behind him but a tug of surprise pulled at one brow. "Sounds about right," he nodded, hiding his own growing admiration beneath a short, gruff tone. "They only made two thousand of the 60 series with the 132-inch wheelbase. I like the big 6 cylinder motor myself," he added, testing her knowledge.

"Does this car have the 3-speed transmission?" She returned, picking up the unseen gauntlet hurled at her feet.

"It does," Josiah answered, satisfied she knew what she was talking about. "I wouldn't have gotten it otherwise."

"Well it's a beautiful car," Audrey complimented and then added. "You have good taste in cars, even if you do drive like an old lady."

This time Josiah did turn to give her a look but when he did, he saw her flashing him a coy smile and realised she was teasing him. Next to him, JD who was riding shotgun covered his mouth discreetly with his knuckles so Josiah would not see the smirk that was stealing across his face.

"Spoken like a woman who's trying to outrun Liz Junek*," Josiah managed a faint smile.

"I suppose I do deserve that," she surprised Josiah by admitting. "I apologise, I was probably going a little fast and I certainly shouldn't have been doing it with little Benny in the car. I do a little drag racing and sometimes, I forget what car I'm driving."

"You drag race ma'am?" JD's eyes widened, never expecting it of a school teacher, especially one who taught little kids.

"A little bit. My ex-husband loved his fast cars and I became used to driving them. When we were divorced, I got his Salmson Grand Sport and I've driven her at Ascot in California a few times."

"Salmson Grand Sport?" Josiah exclaimed, knowing the car well. In its day, it was often raced at the Grand Prix, boasting state of the art automotive technology. While it might be a little dated these days, it was still an impressive vehicle. "Nice car, but that's a dangerous hobby to have," he pointed out, even though he did find he did not disapprove. Being in Mary Travis's company had taught Josiah just what some women were capable of and it appeared, Audrey was shaping up to be of the same ilk.

"No more than what you men apparently do," she pointed out. "Are you really going after the Aegis?"

"If that's what our fearless leader says," Josiah answered and fell silent when he saw the overturned car on the side of the road.

The dark chevy was lying on its side, the smoke exuding from the crash had exhausted itself and now it was just an abandoned, burnt out wreck discarded by those who owned it. Both JD and Josiah scanned the area, to see any signs of the Nazis who were forced to leave the vehicle behind but only saw the empty highway, creating mirages inthe hot afternoon sun

"Oh my," Audrey exclaimed. "That's the car belonging to the men who shot at us."

"Any sign of them JD?" Josiah inquired, glancing sideways to see the younger man reaching in for the gun that was sitting in its holster beneath his coat. When Chris sent them out here, they took the precaution to be armed in case the enemy was still in the area.

"Oh God," the woman shrunk further into the seat, not anticipating the men might still be around.

"Nothing," JD replied after a moment scanning the embankment and the flat terrain surrounding the car as it drove by the wreck, leaving it behind to continue the journey to Audrey's vehicle.

"I guess they didn't care to stick around," Josiah muttered, although why that was, would not at all please Audrey.

Approaching the site where the lady had left her car, they saw the burnt tyre marks across the hot tar road leading into the embankment. Beyond the tar, were the telltale grooves in the dirt, revealing the path the car had taken when it was forced off by bullets. "This is where you got run over?"

Audrey sat up straighter in the back seat and nodded.

Josiah directed the vehicle to the shoulder of the road and brought the Roadster to a stop, even though the engine continued to run. He had no intention of killing it until he knew the Nazis were gone. The last thing he wanted to do was get into a firefight with the fools while they had Audrey in the car, no matter how interesting a hobby she had.

Looking past the slope the Red Ford had gone, they saw evidence of oil smears in the patchy grass and on the dirt but there was no sign of the convertible Audrey had called her own. The second set of tyre marks against the dirt and the crushed foliage leading back to the road painted an obvious picture.

"I think they took your car," Josiah said sympathetically.

Audrey groaned. "Damn it! I love that car."

"They must have used it after their own was wrecked," JD guessed. "Ma'am I'd file a police report. Chances are they're gonna leave it as soon as they get to town."

"Boy's right," Josiah agreed. "Once we get you back home, I'd call the police and report the car was stolen."

"I suppose," Audrey frowned and not for the first time that day, fell back into the upholstery of Josiah's Roadster. "I can't believe the day I'm having!"

The speed in which clearance was granted after Buck lodged the Darlin' Millie's flight plan to Arabia, was surprisingly swift and within twenty-four hours of Chris Larabee's meeting with Julia Pemberton, the seven were ready to leave Albuquerque. Ezra had managed to get his hands on three of the diving devices Chris had asked for and had confessed enough fascination for them for Chris to believe Ezra would be taking the dive to the Serapheum right alongside him. JD would naturally be accompanying him to survey the ruins of the sunken library.

As the last minute preparations to leave Albuquerque got underway, with the seven loading up equipment and supplies, Chris spied Vin making his farewells to Alex and felt a little sorry, the job would take the younger man away from his lady for the next week. However, as Vin had said when Chris suggested he sit this one out, neither he nor Alex would feel right about that. The doctor to be understood how much being apart of the seven meant to Vin and would never interfere with that bond.

Chris rather respected her for that.

Mary Travis, of course, was nowhere to be seen and Chris imagined she was nursing an unholy snit somewhere in town, at his refusal to let her go on the trip. Despite her arguments to the contrary, Chris was absolute on the subject of her joining them for any reason. Firstly because if anything happened to her, he would never be able to face the Professor and secondly, he needed his mind clear and having to consider her safety on a job would do nothing but keep him from doing what was needed.

"I promise I won't be gone long," Vin said to Alex as they stood inside the hangar the Millie called home when she wasn't flying the seven across the globe.

"Hey it's okay," Alex assured him, unable to deny she would be disappointed by his absence but also understanding he was at his best when he was with these men and that would never change. She loved him enough to be able to share him with Chris Larabee and the rest of the seven. Besides, she had her own life to lead as well. When she became an intern, having a largely absent boyfriend would not be the worst thing if the horror stories she heard about an intern's first year was at all true. "We'll catch up when you get back. We can hole up someplace nice and order Chinese food."

"Sounds good," Buck couldn't resist sticking his head behind Vin and grinning at Alex. "We'll send a wheelchair after him if he's gone for more than a week." He winked at Alex and got elbowed in the gut by Vin for his trouble.

"Now, now," Alex said slyly. "Try not to be jealous. I'm sure someday Inez might give you the time of day. Maybe after Roberto graduates from college."

Buck straightened up and gave her a look as Vin started to chuckle. "That was plain low."

"But not entirely untrue," Ezra remarked as he walked by carrying the equipment for the dive including a number of small tanks of compressed air. "Mr Wilmington, do you plan on imposing on Mr Tanner's farewell with his paramour or do you plan on assisting us with our preparations.?"

"Hey I fly the plane," Buck objected to Ezra's inference he wasn't pulling his weight.

"BUCK, WILL YOU MOVE YOUR ASS AND HELP OUT!"

"Hark is that the sound of bluebirds or do I hear the voice of our fearless leader?" Ezra put his hand to his ear and grinned.

"You're all a bunch of kooks," Alex laughed and turned back to Vin. "You got lots to do, so I'm going to go."

"Okay," Vin conceded that much. There was a much to do before they go and Vin didn't feel right not pitching in, even if he had to say goodbye to his girl. Lowering his lips to hers, he gave Alex a final farewell kiss and she returned it with just as much feeling. When she pulled away from him, Vin swore he could feel the ache right down to his toes. "Hey, when we get back, maybe we can go to a hop or something."

Alex flashed him a smile as she turned to leave. "It's a date, cowboy."

As Alex walked past, JD who was carrying a stack of research materials and books, was close on Josiah's heels as the once would-be priest was ferried a small crate of ammunition into the Millie's cargo hold.

"I said I don't want to talk about it." Josiah snapped hoping the kid would drop the idea that had entered his head since they dropped Audrey King at her place in town the day before.

"Oh come on Josiah," JD insisted, recalling the chemistry he'd seen between the two. It was just like how he'd seen it in the movies with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert or even Katherine Hepburn and Gary Cooper. "I think you ought to call her or even drop by. You know where she lives! I mean you could offer to fix her car when she gets it back, or maybe even ask to see her Salmson? You did say it was a nice car. I'm telling you, I think she likes you."

"What's going on?" Vin asked Buck as Josiah tried to flee JD's insistent argument.

"I think the kid's trying to play matchmaker," Buck grinned, wondering if he ought to intervene before Josiah's patience was exhausted and murder was committed. "Seems Josiah might have hit it off with Roberto's school teacher."

"I mean she's a dish, for an older lady that is," JD continued, not to be discouraged by Josiah's denials of interest. "She likes cars, you like cars, it's kismet!"

Josiah shot JD a glare, "Get away from me before I shoot you."

* Elizabeth Junek (1900 - 1994) - The Greatest Female Driver of All Time

Chapter Nine: Stowaway

After the Millie stopped in New York to refuel, it began the long journey across the North Atlantic and quickly encountered some turbulence as it left the Eastern Seaboard behind.

Fortunately after five years crisscrossing the globe, turbulence no longer affected the seven passengers as acutely as before and by now, they had become seasoned travellers who knew how to make use of the time to good effect. Half of the Millie still had bolted down seats but the other had been stripped down to be used for storage or to sling a few hammocks for the long haul flights. One area had been converted into a makeshift study for Chris, so the leader of team seven could conduct his research during flight.

As they left America behind, Chris was in the spot, pouring over the books and research materials studying the lore surrounding the Aegis. He was wearing the steel-rimmed glasses he used for the purpose, having given up trying to hide the fact he needed them at all. During the last year, JD usually joined him in the research although lately, the youngest member of his team had been riding shotgun in the cockpit, where Buck was teaching him how to pilot the Millie.

Meanwhile, Josiah's snores were muffled by the drone of the plane's engines as he lazed comfortably in one of the hammocks, his face concealed by his hat while his half-read copy of Otto Spengler's ‘Decline of Western Civilisation' rested on his chest. Vin was seated next to the crates carrying their weapons, checking each gun to ensure it was functioning properly, while at the same time taking a sip from the flask he kept in his coat during air travel. While the sharpshooter accepted it was a necessary evil, the rest of the seven knew he preferred to stay close to the land.

Ezra and Nathan were engaged in their favourite inflight pastime, playing cards and arguing on just about everything. For those watching, the debate was usually lively and would end up drawing the others into its sphere. On this occasion, JD's failed attempt to convince Josiah to call Audrey King for a date had prompted the two men into a discussion about the current state of their own love lives.

"Oh me and Kellie ain't seen each other in weeks," Nathan declared, shrugging off Ezra's inquiry about the young lady he had been seeing casually some time ago. "Girl wants a commitment, like a man who'll come home to her every day. With what we do? That ain't gonna happen."

"That is true," Ezra conceded the point. "But correct me if I am wrong, I have heard you talking about raising a family someday. One does need a lady for that to happen."

"Very funny," Nathan made a face at him. "Truth is Ezra, I ain't ready for that yet. What about you? You're storing up more loot than Midas, ain't you gonna want to share that with someone?"

"Believe me," Ezra flashed Nathan his trademark grin, "when I meet the future Mrs Standish, she will be in better financial stead than I. After all," Ezra couldn't help but toss Vin a sly smirk on the cusp of his next comment. "We can't all be as fortunate as Mr Tanner."

Vin who was applying oil to one of their Remingtons raised his eyes to them in puzzlement. "What does that mean?"

"It means Alex is rich," Nathan grinned, catching onto Ezra's meaning and joining in the fun. "We can't all land ourselves an heiress. You could end up marrying very well."

Vin turned bright red, having never even considered the possibility. He knew Alex's pa had left her money. The same expedition to Arabia that so blighted his life in the future, had also netted William Styles a considerable fortune which he further cultivated with good investments. As a result, Alex had more than enough money to see her comfortable for some time if she did not live extravagantly, even without her doctor's salary.

In response to the duo's statement, however, the sharpshooter raised his hand to offer a universally known salute involving a middle finger.

They were in the midst of laughter when suddenly a rather violent pocket of turbulent air rocked the plane violently, heaving the deck beneath their feet and causing enough chaos to tip over glasses, a tin canister of gun oil and a large crate which should have been better secured, slid down the aisle. As everyone cleared a path for it to barrel down the length of the plane, the runaway crate came to a halt when it finally hit the back of the still bolted on seats.

"OW!"

All men, including Chris who had emerged from the next compartment where he had been in deep study, stared at each other.

"Did that crate just say ow?" Josiah who roused from his sleep asked.

Chris's face turned dark as he stomped towards the crate which was usually used to keep their life raft, saying nothing. As the rest of the men followed suit, Chris stood in front of the wooden box, staring at it for a moment in silent contemplation before he bent over and flipped it on its side. The lid, usually held in place with nails, fell flat against the floor and tumbling out after it, was Mary Travis.

"Aw hell," Vin facepalmed.

As the rest of the men registered their surprise, Mary looked up into the face of Chris Larabee and tried to offer an adequate response to her act of deception.

"Now before you get mad, I have a perfectly good explanation for this?"

Chris leaned over and helped her to her feet, his expression nothing less than stormy as he took her by the hand and started leading her towards the rear of the plane. "Fine, you can tell it to me on the way to the parachutes."

The rest of the seven knew better than to get in the crosshairs of their leader's fury and stepped back as Mary was towed past them to the cargo hold where the parachutes were stored. While none of them believed for an instant that Chris would toss her off the plane, they were not about to incur his wrath with their interference.

"This is your fault you know." Mary declared hotly.

Chris stopped in mid-step and spun around, glaring at her. "How is it my fault?" The words escaped him in a low growl.

"If you just let me come with you, I wouldn't have had to stow away in that crate!"

"And I told you, no!" Chris bit back, unable to believe she had done this. If anything had happened to the plane, if they had crashed, or they had been delayed anywhere, she would have died without anyone ever knowing what happened to her. "We're going to be running into Nazis! These people are goddamn fanatics and they're ruthless! They don't care who they kill to get what they want and while you're with us, you're a target!"

"I can take care of myself and it's not your responsibility to keep me safe! This is what I do for a living!" Mary protested hotly, even though secretly, she knew he had a point but her natural obstinance refused to allow her to yield the position.

"And whose responsibility will it be to tell your father if anything happens to you? That would be mine!"

Mary cringed at the statement because she couldn't refute him on that point but she was not about to say so either. "He understands the risks I have to take."

"Not on my watch! Now let's go!"

"Go where? You're going to toss me out of the plane with a parachute? We're over the North Atlantic!"

"Then you better pray when you climbed into that crate you didn't throw out the life raft."

After another half hour of yelling and threats of jettisoning their unexpected guest overboard, Chris came to the conclusion that setting the woman adrift in a life raft over the ocean, might not go down well with her father. However, he was not about to allow her to accompany them on this job either and swore the minute they hit England, he was putting her on the first slow boat back to New York, preferably bound and gagged.

As Chris forced a stiff drink down his throat, to calm his raging temper, Mary continued to extol the virtues of her presence among them. The noise alone was enough to make him risk Professor Travis's wrath by locking her in the cargo hold until they got back to America. What was more infuriating however, the others seemed to have no problem with her being on the Millie, other than her effect on him. Finally, Chris decided there was nothing to be done until they return to land so it was best if he made peace with the situation for now.

"I honestly don't know why you're so upset," Mary continued her efforts to convince him she could be of use, even as he stewed in his seat. "I can be useful."

"Fine," Chris sneered. "I'll have my coffee with milk and no sugar."

Mary shot him a positively murderous glare as an invisible facepalm rippled across the faces of the other men present. However, instead of rising to the bait, Mary ignored the taunt, aware he was just mad she got past him and was taking it out on her by being as infuriating as possible.

"Look," she scowled at from her seat. "I have news contacts abroad. That can be useful especially if you have Nazis chasing after you."

She did have a point but hell was going to freeze over before Chris Larabee admitted it.

Fortunately, Vin who was learning how to mediate the prize fights their interactions had become, was quick to voice the interest Chris would not. "Might not be a bad idea. If those Krauts are going to come after us, it might be a good idea to learn who they are to know what we're dealing with."

"We've got Ezra for that," Chris pointed out, not about to concede defeat just yet.

"True," Ezra cleared his throat, hating to get in the middle of all this but it appeared he had little choice in the matter now. "However, I am certain I do not have the resources Miss Travis has access to." Like Vin, Ezra could see just how foul a mood Chris was in and was doing his best to point out any advantages that could be found with the lady being in their presence.

"Exactly," Mary declared, not about to admit she had miscalculated the intensity of Chris's anger when she had snuck on board the Millie. It was not for nothing she earned the nickname of ‘Mad Dog Mary' in the newsroom due to her persistence chasing a story. Her course had seen so clear when she hid in that crate but in retrospect, wondered if she had been trying to prove something to him over the need for the story. However, it was too late now to reconsider her position and so she forged ahead, making the best out of a bad situation.

"For instance, what do you know about Julia Pemberton?"

"Not much. Your father's word was good enough for me."

Although now that he thought about it, her appearance after the mess with the Erran did appear fortuitous. Throughout that entire affair, the fate of Donald Avery's daughter, the first one of Orin Travis's friends to be murdered, remained a mystery. The Professor believed the girl's mother had fled to England with her daughter after Donnie's death and remarried. The Erran had come after Mary and Alex because of their ritual to end the world. Chris had to wonder why they did not attempt to reach Julia who was closer to the Middle East in England, then America.

"My father sees her through the lens of his old friendships," Mary returned. "That may not be wise."

"I trust the Professor's judgement," Chris defended the absent old scholar. He would do nothing else for the commander who had gotten him and his men out of the Western Front in one piece, and not dead like so many others in that terrible war. "She said she worked for a shipping company in London. Besides, I'm not too worried about who she is as long as her cheque clears."

In their line of work, sometimes it was best not to ask too many questions of their clients, although truth be told, he'd never take a cheque from anyone. All accounts were settled in cash when the item being procured was handed over. Those were the terms Chris set at the begining and would never budge on. The rest of the seven knew this but were smart enough not to contradict their leader while he was engaging in his verbal fencing match with this woman.

"You should be interested," she frowned, hating the fact she hadn't prompted his curiosity more than that. "Miss Pemberton works for a small shipping company right? How many small operators have enough money to be able to finance this entire expedition?" Mary demanded determined to prove her worth to him by sheer determination.

"What are you suggesting Mary?" Josiah inquired.

"After my father told me about Julia, I did some checking," she said eyeing Chris smugly, perfectly aware he would not have done the same. "And I did turn up something interesting."

"Alright," Chris let out a sigh, he'd bite just once. Besides, the light buzz of alcohol swirling around his system was making him a little more amenable to listen. "What have you got?"

Mary flashed him a radiant smile and even though he was still really mad at her, he couldn't help but be affected by it. Damn her. Damn her and the topsy-turvy feelings he had in her presence. No good would come of it, he was sure.

"Well apparently there is a Julia Pemberton working at a shipping company in London," Mary said leaning forward in her seat. "Vauxhall to be exact. She's an employee of Messrs Rasen, Falcon Limited. Now other than the fact that it exists, with an office front, it barely manages an income."

Ezra stiffened involuntarily and almost everyone in the cabin caught it.

"Did you say Vauxhall?" He asked, ignoring the eyes on him.

Mary nodded. "Yes, that's right."

"What is it Ezra?" Nathan nudged the gambler to explain.

"It is nothing really," Ezra shrugged, hating to be the purveyor of misinformation especially when he was dubious about the credibility of the source. Not that it mattered now because Chris would want to know whether or not it was legitimate. Still, people tended to talk during poker and Ezra had enough experience to know when someone was lying or not. Even if the information was false, the person reporting it had believed its authenticity.

"Out with it," Chris growled impatiently, deciding if they were going to discuss the subject, they might as well get it all out in the open.

When Chris Larabee used that tone of voice, Ezra knew not to argue and let out a sigh. "Alright then, bear in mind this is an unsubstantiated source, acquired during a rather intense game of poker, in which I was holding an inside flush . . . "

"Ezra!" Nathan groaned, swatting Ezra across the back and then getting nudged in the ribs in kind. The healer knew how to cut off his best friend before the man went on a tangent and ended up getting shot.

"Oh my God, you're all children." Mary shook her head as she stared at their juvenile behaviour and threw a quick glance at Chris to imply she included him in this observation.

"Welcome to my world," Josiah smiled from his hammock.

"As I was saying," Ezra scowled at Nathan. " I was engaged in a card game where my opponent, an army intelligence officer was lamenting the failure of Roosevelt to consolidate our various intelligence communities in one organisation."

"That's true," Mary nodded remembering reading about it in the news. "Congress voted him down on that."

"Go on," Chris urged, wanting to hear more, vaguely aware of the fact the President was in favour of consolidating their intelligence communities due to the growing unrest in Europe. The bill had gone to Congress and had not been passed

"Well the officer had claimed, he wished we were following the example set by our English cousins whose intelligence network was extremely successful, not to mention well organised. So much so, barely anyone knows they exist beyond the fact they are a branch of the Foreign Office, and they supposedly situated in Vauxhall."

"That could just be a coincidence," Vin pointed out.

"Agreed," Ezra nodded, "however consider this. What better way for an intelligence agency and its operatives to remain anonymous than by impersonating an ordinary business, such as a shipping company?"

"You think this Julia is with British Intelligence?" Nathan stared at Ezra.

"It is possible although I would not consider my source on this subject to be entirely trustworthy. He claimed this was all rumour which I took with a grain of salt. However, considering our competitors in this matter . . . ."

"You might be right," Chris finally admitted. "She didn't much care what happened to the Aegis, only that her so-called employers didn't want the Nazis to get their hands on it."

"So we're working for British Intelligence?" Vin looked at Chris.

Chris did not answer for a moment. The truth was, he didn't like working for any government mostly because what they did to acquire some of the artifacts they were commissioned to find, require trampling on laws that some bureaucrat might take exception to. Private collectors didn't ask questions as long as they got what they wanted and universities knew they had little choice in the matter, save sending out their own scholars to hunt down the things. Chris knew of very few who did that, save one lunatic archaeology professor who spent very little time in his classroom, back in the East.

Now with the possibility of involvement of the British government, Chris recalled how quickly they had gotten flight clearance. Chris hadn't expected to be in the air for another day or two, however, Buck had gotten it almost immediately which was surprising in itself. The pilot had believed he managed to sweet talk Louisa at Airspace Control into moving things along for him, but what if it had simply been because the British government had pulled some strings?

"What she like? This Miss Pemberton?" Vin asked Chris. "Could she be a spy?"

"She could be," Chris nodded. When he met the woman, what struck him about her was the care she took to conceal her true feelings. Only once had that masked slipped when they had mentioned the possibility of the Aegis making armies invulnerable. If she was indeed a spy, that would be cause for concern. "Pretty enough."

"Really?" Mary frowned, bristling at his description for some reason.

"Yeah," he grinned, spotting her annoyance immediately. "Prettiest redhead I ever saw, with green eyes like emeralds."

"Emeralds?" Once again Ezra paid attention, remembering a redhead who had come to his rescue during their first encounter with the Erran at the museum. She had come with the most alluring green eyes he had ever seen but was gone the second she concluded her heroics. It couldn't be the same woman, could it?

Suddenly, Ezra was dying to find out.

Chapter Ten: London

"I hate England. If the weather ain't soggier than a wet dog or cold as a witch's titty, everyone talks like they're a drunk Irish preacher and to top it all off, their beers warm."

Vin Tanner dug his gloved hands into his coat and noted the tendrils of cold swirling around his face as he and Ezra walked down the footpath running along Westminster Bridge, so JD could take pictures of Big Ben while they were taking a break in London, waiting for the Millie to get refuelled. After a seventeen hour flight, they needed to stretch their legs and feel ground beneath their feet before resuming their journey to Egypt.

The kid had yet to be jaded by all the exotic locations they often travelled to and one of the first things he'd bought himself was a Beau Brownie camera which he took with him everywhere they went. Since joining them, JD had developed a pretty impressive pictorial record of their travels and the kid had a real eye for it because Josiah often said some of JD's photographs deserved to be in Life Magazine.

JD was oblivious to all this as he continued to snap images of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, craning over the stone edge of the bridge, leaving Ezra to take the brunt of Vin's tirade. The normally unflappable sharpshooter was never good when he was taken out of his environment and England in particular, seemed to push all his buttons. JD suspected it had to do with the number of people crammed into such a small area. He had been the same in New York.

"Worse yet, Alex wants a souvenir. When I ask her what she wants she says ‘surprise me'. What the hell does that mean? I don't know what to get for a girl, other than flowers and chocolates."

Ezra suppressed an amused smile at the younger man's dilemma. From the boy he had been on the Front, Vin had evolved into Chris Larabee's undisputed second. In Chris's absence, Vin was a quick-thinking natural leader who could track prey across concrete and pin a fly between the eyes from a thousand yards away, so it was quite eye-opening to see this bundle of nerves in front of him.

"Never fear Mr Tanner," Ezra said kindly, "we shall go to Knightsbridge."

"What's there?" Vin eyed him suspiciously.

"Harrods."

"What's a Harrods?"

"A big store," JD said helpfully as he walked past the two of them to get a better angle of the House of Commons.

"A store?" Ezra stared at him with reproach. "For shame Mr Dunne, Harrods is not merely a store, it is an institution. The modern version of the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, the Agora of Athens or the Thirteen Factories of Canton."

"Can I just get her a postcard or something?"

Vin would rather face a tribe of cannibal savages than wander through a huge department store with all those people brushing past him, chattering in his ears like a bunch of quacking ducks.

"Postcards are something you give a lady when you visit Niagara Falls. When one comes to England, one ought to aim for something a little more ambitious."

Vin was muttering unhappily to himself when suddenly, he lifted his head and saw two men approaching JD. The kid had yet to notice them approaching him but Vin sized them up quickly. Both stood tall over their youngest member, wearing nondescript grey suits and Fedoras pulled way down low as if they were trying not to be noticed. However, it was the way their coats shifted against their upper body that made the sharpshooter really pay attention.

They were armed.

"Ezra," Vin stepped forward, all traces of the anxious suitor vanishing to be replaced by the former Texas Ranger.

When Ezra looked up, Vin was already on his way to JD with the team's procurer a few steps behind. However, it was not the two torpedoes Ezra was so concerned with. It was the grey Humber that was driving up to them. The car was coming to a gradual stop and the look of the men behind the windscreen bore a striking likeness to the stone-faced duo closing in on JD.

JD lowered his Brownie and saw Vin approach and puzzled at the serious expression on the sharpshooter's face when suddenly JD felt cold steel pressing against his back. He knew immediately what it was and stiffened at the mouth of the barrel planted firmly at the base of his spine. One wrong move and he'd never walk again if the bullet didn't kill him first.

Vin saw the shift in JD's expression and knew he hadn't gotten to the kid in time. The two men behind him had clearly drawn and even though Vin was carrying, he was reluctant to go for his gun. There were too many people around and any gun battle was going to end up with innocent bystanders getting shot.

"What do you want?"

"You will come with us," the man standing directly behind JD spoke. He looked a head taller than the kid, had a passing resemblance to a brick outhouse if the things came with blond hair and watery coloured blue eyes. As he said the words, the grey Humber came to a stop directly next to Vin and Ezra. The man in the passenger's seat was pointing a gun at them through the wound down window. "You will come with us, or we will put a bullet through the boy's back."

"Who you calling boy?" JD glared looked over his shoulder in annoyance only to have the barrel shoved harder in his back, silencing him.

"You seem to have us at a disadvantage," Ezra frowned and met Vin's gaze. If they went for their guns, they'd get JD killed, there was no doubt in their mind of this. As much as either of them might be loathed submitting to the demands made by these thugs, there appeared to be little choice at present. With JD firmly in their power, Ezra sighed in resignation and opened the back door of the car and got in.

Leaving behind the private airstrip at Croydon Airport, Chris strode through the crowded terminal towards the nearest counter selling airline tickets. He had every intention of buying Mary a ticket back to the States and physically strapping her into her seat on the plane to make sure it took off with her on it. Behind him, Mary hurried after Chris, brushing past other travellers, still trying to talk him into letting her stay while Chris, who had her leather backpack, (a rather sensible bit of luggage he thought but would never admit it to her), continued to ignore her.

As they neared the Imperial Airlines ticket counter, Mary was starting to realise her efforts to convince him to let her remain on the Millie was dwindling and with that vanishing hope came her anger at being so easily dismissed. Glaring at the back of his black duster, she finally stopped walking and decided she was not moving one step further.

"Chris Larabee, I will not have you put me on a plane like I'm some badly behaved child!"

Her outburst made him freeze in midstep to turn around. A few eyes paused to stare at her before his glare in their direction sent them scurrying. "Well, you sure behave like you could use a paddling."

Mary scowled at him, "You wish."

Chris's jaw tensed, not at all liking her insinuation that he was hot for her, He was, but that was beside the point. "Don't flatter yourself, I'm not the one who stowed away in a crate."

Mary's eyes widened with indignation and she protested hotly. "I was chasing a story!"

"Sure you were," he uttered those words as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth and then added, "that's what all you dames say before you beg me to take you home."

Mary's jaw dropped open before she sputtered in fury. "Why you arrogant son of a bit . . . "

"Mr Larabee, you will come with us now."

Both Mary and Chris fell immediately silent and turned their gaze sideways to see a familiar but unwelcomed face. It seemed while he and Mary were bickering, the Kraut that had tried to run him over in New Mexico had managed to get the drop on them with several goons in tow. In a sea of bodies, they stood out like unmovable boulders, enclosing Chris and Mary in a ring of stone.

"Aw hell, see what you did!" He swore as he threw the accusation at Mary after giving the Kraut a quick glance.

"Me?" Mary stared at him in astonishment. "How is this my fault?"

"You're distracting!"

"Just because you can't keep your mind focus on anything but how I'm getting to you, don't blame me!" Mary spat back, forgetting for a moment they were surrounded by armed German agents about to spirit them away.

"You've been dogging my heels since I met you!" Chris retaliated when a rather large and formidable matron wearing a red cloche hat and carrying an umbrella ambled past them. Without warning, Chris grabbed her and shoved her directly into the lead Kraut and his gun. The woman uttered an angry howl before all two hundred pounds of her went down, taking the man with her. For a brief instance, Chris had the absurd image of a bowling ball knocking down pins flashing in his head. As she screamed indignantly and while all eyes turned to her and the other Krauts rushing to the aid of their downed leader, Chris grabbed Mary's hand and started running.

"Come on!"

Mary was still shocked by the sudden shift of events but recovered quickly enough when she realised Chris's display had been an effort to distract the Germans so they could get away. At least it had better be. Feeling her arm almost yanked out of her sockets, Chris was dragging her through the crowded terminal, shoving other travellers and airline workers out of their path as they sought to put more distance between themselves and the enemy.

Chris's intent was to get back to the Millie and cursed Mary being with him. He had no problem falling into the Krauts' hand if it could not be avoided but there was no way he was going to let that happen to Mary. He simply wouldn't have it. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw them recovering from his bit of distraction, although he took some satisfaction seeing the matron he had used as his proverbial bowling ball putting that umbrella to good use by clubbing one of the Krauts with it. The others, however, were spreading out, trying to cut them off before they reached the exit leading out of the terminal and towards the private airstrip were the Millie was berthed.

Just as they were about to reach it, three more Kraut stepped through the doorway, scanning the terminal and locking eyes immediately on the two of them. Chris paused in his tracks and searched for another route, knowing he was not about to confront them when they were armed and he was not. Scanning the terminal quickly, he searched for another way out and found it just as he saw them closing in.

Not explaining, he headed towards the small chute in the wall where the baggage handlers were distributing passenger luggage, with Mary's wrist still gripped tightly in his palm. The Krauts had not thought to keep watch on that route allowing them an avenue of escape as Chris shoved and dodged the handlers and the passengers filing past them. Then as if things could not get any worse, someone open fired, turning the entire place into chaos.

One of the Germans had been stupid enough to draw his Luger, firing over the crowd in an effort to clear their path. All this resulted in doing was creating pandemonium as Chris and Mary clambered through the chute, climbing up the ramp. He had to give Mary credit since she was able to keep up with him as they scrambled clumsily up the smooth surface, avoiding pieces of luggage on the way down. As the noise levels rose behind them, a clear indication of what a single gunshot could do in a crowded environment, Chris climbed through the chute to be greeted by baggage handlers. They were unloading a cart holding the belongings of a newly landed craft and stared at him with puzzlement and surprise.

"Don't you have a gun?"

Helping her through the opening, he knew it wouldn't take long for the Krauts to find them again and he needed a fast way back to the Millie. Unfortunately, he could see no sign of any vehicle they could ‘borrow' to escape. Hearing her yap in his ear, he turned back to her and remarked with a growl.

"I try not to be armed when you're around."

"This is hardly the time to be funny!"

"Oh," Chris said as he heard decidedly German chatter coming through the chute. "I think it's a good a time as any."

Without giving her warning, they were off running again and Chris saw that their pursuers had converged into half a dozen men ready to take them to whatever purpose they intended. Whatever it was, Chris had no intention of finding out. Running out of the baggage handling area, he could see open sky outsight and the shrill rumble of airplanes taking out across the field. Suddenly, he spotted something that was a way out, if he didn't get himself and her killed first.

"What are we going to do?" Mary asked, not about to lie that she was a little frightened. While her journalistic nose did sometimes land her in trouble, (mostly with her editor), actual physical danger was new. Although in the fleeting seconds she had to consider the subject in between catching her breath, these occasions seemed to coincide with her proximity with Chris Larabee. The man was simply a magnet for trouble.

"I can't fight them off with you around, so we need to make ourselves scarce. "

Now that they were in the open, the Krauts were no longer holding back and the next thing they knew, gunfire erupted again. This time, there were no warning shots into the sky, but bullets aimed at them. Mary uttered a squeal as she saw one of the metal posts spark after a bullet struck the column of its faded paint. Leading them was the German in the trenchcoat, hollering orders to his soldiers to surround them and cut them off.

"Where are we going?"

"There," Chris gestured ahead.

Mary stared at him. "Are you out of your mind?"

"Nope," Chris brushed aside her concerns, "that's our exit."

The small Boeing 40 sat in the middle of one of the smaller runways, a construct of wood and fabric, capable of reaching altitude with a single engine. Judging by the markings on its fuselage, the craft was used to ferry mail. It was a two-seater, although Chris very much doubted the pilot ever had need of passengers. They raced towards it, weaving across the grass and tarmac, trying to evade their pursuers who were firing at them on mass. Judging by the trajectory of the shots, Chris suspected the purpose was not to kill them but to wound them enough for collection. Whatever it was they needed from him, they needed him alive. He was not so certain that Mary would get similar consideration.

"Get in!" Chris said when they reached the craft.

The Krauts seeing where they were headed were now firing at the plane and one of the bullets tore through the side, leaving a hole in the material. They had to take off before the gunfire did enough damage to prevent it altogether. Without asking permission, he dropped his hands to her waist and lifted her up to the rear pilot's seat. Mary blushed at the contact and if there were time for it, Chris might have made a comment but they were less than a minute away from being caught.

"Can you even fly?" She asked as she climbed into the craft and hastily strapped herself in.

Chris was in the process of doing the same when he tossed her a look. "I don't know," he grinned. "Let's find out."

Mary's eyes widened. "Let's find out? WHAT DO YOU MEAN LET'S FIND OUT!"

Chris didn't answer, strapping himself into the seat before pressing the starter. The propellers started to beat to life, gaining momentum with their familiar whump whump whump sound. Mary saw the Nazis hastening their pace, shooting more bullets. One of them struck a support strut, sending splinters at her. She uttered a cry and kept her head down as she felt the plane beginning to move.

"Oh my God," she whimpered to herself. "We're going to die."

Truth be told, but not to her because Chris was deriving some perverse pleasure in hearing her frightened muttering behind him, he did know how to fly. While he would not even begin to pilot something like the Millie, almost thirty years of friendship with Buck Wilmington had taught him how to acquire the skills necessary to handle a small plane like this. This old biplane was not that different from driving a car. The crash was just a lot worse.

Once the engine was started, the plane lurched forward. Bullets continued to riddle the body and Chris knew if he did not get into the air, they would do serious damage to the craft and he and Mary would be going nowhere. The plane moved briskly across the tarmac, prompting the Nazis to increase their speed in the effort to catch up. Mary had ducked down low, keeping her head down as the glass in front of her cracked with another bullet.

"Will you move this thing already!"

Chris ignored her and kept taxiing down the small airstrip, the mini Boeing picking up speed the further and further they drew away from the terminal and became lost among its newer, larger counterparts at Croydon. Bullets continued to chase them down the tarmac, their pursuers still determined to catch up. Finally, he'd achieved enough velocity and gradually pulled the throttle lifting the nose of the small craft aloft. The front wheel bounced once or twice against the runaway before it followed suit and with a final burst of shrill sound, the engines settled into a more comforting drone.

Behind him, Mary squealed as the gunfire dissipated and the rush of air enveloped there.

"You okay back there?"

"No, I'm not!"Mary shouted over the roar of the wind. "I'm on a plane with an idiot."

Chris managed a smirk. "At least you're not in a crate."

"Oh, you're just loving this aren't you?"Mary glared at him, clutching the sides of the seat so hard, her knuckles were white. "Where are we going?"

"We're going to circle around a bit until I'm sure they're gone," Chris hollered back. "Then I'm going to land this thing near the Millie."

Below them, the landscape was tilting at an angle as Chris steered the plane to continue his flyover of Croydon Airport. London's busy sprawl had given away to the loveliness of the English countryside, full of lush green colours. If one could forget the circumstances forcing them aloft, the whole situation could have been quite pleasant.

"Well do it fast," Mary glared at him, hating to be seen as weak but unable to ignore the queasiness of her stomach. Her idea of air travel was limited to luxurious airplanes with metal fuselage and stewardesses who brought you drinks with ice and shot of vodka. "A camping tent is sturdier than this thing!"

"This won us a war," Chris grinned, enjoying her discomfort very much because she needed taking down a peg or two after her ludicrous stunt of stowing away on the Millie. Besides, Buck would have considered this craft a beauty and in the absence of his old friend, felt the need to defend their instrument of deliverance.

"Whatever," she grumbled, her cheeks red from the cool air and her eyes filled with apprehension.

Suddenly the engine cut out.

Tendrils of smoke began to flow from one of the bullet holes in the fuselage. Its abrupt stop was soon followed by the gradual slowing of the propellers.

"What just happened?" Mary demanded.

Chris winced as he considered what to do next and was struck with one thought as Mary's questions about their situation intensified.

Oh, she was not going to be happy.

Chapter Eleven: Krauss

The instant she walked into the room, Ezra Standish knew they were in trouble.

To be fair, their situation had become critical the moment they were forced into the Humber and driven out of London, into the countryside so picturesquely immortalised by numerous English artists for centuries. Their captors had been reluctant to talk, proving to be more immovable than Vin Tanner during one of his quiet turns, where he would merely nod, utter monosyllabic answers and generally infuriate everyone who tried to get a straight answer out of him.

The men who brought them here, with their indistinguishable suits and their equally bland and impassive expressions had been little more than couriers, incapable of interacting with their packages beyond the duty of delivery. Once they arrived at the gothic manor, with its gargoyles and manicured lawns and Victorian architecture, they were promptly shown into a study that did not look unlike Professor Orin Travis's office at the University. This room, however, was much larger and the decor fitted someone with a fortune behind them and not a scholar's modest salary.

"You notice the eyes follow you," Vin remarked as the sharpshooter observed the portraits of old men hanging from the walls, surrounded by gold gilt frames. They all wore the look of importance and dignity artwork like this was meant to convey, even if it were the furthest thing from the truth. Expensive Persian rugs covered the polished wooden floor and the desk where leatherbound books and a Rodin sculpture sat, was crafted from English oak.

"It's kind of creepy," JD commented and noted the frown crossing the faces of the men standing watch over them, all armed with Lugers and appearing to need no excuse to use them.

"Yes, portraits do have that quality," Ezra agreed as the three of them were tied to chairs, being watched over by a trio of Teutonic guardians. He wondered what they wanted since none of them appeared to be the brains of the operation. In fact, he wouldn't be surprised to learn that they had one mind among them and they needed to share it to be at all functional.

When the door swung open, and the woman made her appearance, Ezra realised they didn't require brains because clearly, she was the one who did all the thinking for them.

She was a tall drink of water, as Buck would say, all angles and hard lines making him think she would be the perfect subject for a cubist. Wearing a well-tailored suit of dark wool with padded shoulders and a thin pencil skirt that flared at the knees, she completed the outfit with a functional pair of single-strap leather heels. Her blond hair was pulled back into a severe bun, and her hazel eyes studied them with the precision of a diamond cutter. Her lithe, slender form, coupled with thin lips and alabaster skin might have made her look delicate, but there was no doubting the authority she wore as prominently as the swastika pin on the collar of her jacket.

"I intended to wait until your leader was here, but it appears we must begin without him." Her voice revealed a thick German accent and made Ezra think of Marlene Dietrich, without the allure or the mystery, since her intentions towards them were apparent.

All three men exchanged quick glances as the same thought flared across their faces. Chris.

"What do you want?" Vin faced her, wanting to get this over with.

"To expedite this matter with the minimum amount of blood loss and unpleasantness," she leaned against the desk, facing them as they remained tied to their seats in front of her.

"That would be our first choice as well," Ezra said smoothly, speaking up because Vin was too honest and direct to be diplomatic which what was they needed if they were to avoid the torture she was labelling the ‘unpleasantness'. "And what would this matter be?"

"My name is Isabella Krauss," she introduced herself. "I know who you are, so introductions are not necessary. You work with Chris Larabee in the acquisition of rare and precious objects. Usually, antiquities of value, from hard to reach locations. At present, you are in pursuit of the Aegis of Zeus, an object we wish to acquire. You three are here to help me convince Mr Larabee it is in his best interest if he continues his search on our behalf."

"Good luck with that," Vin snorted under his breath but was still loud enough to be heard.

"For your sake, you better hope otherwise," she warned, not liking his dismissive tone.

Ezra shot him a look before addressing the woman again. "What my associate is trying to say, albeit a little less tactfully than I would prefer, is that Mr Larabee has entered an agreement with a client already and he does not like breaking it for any reason."

"We would, of course, compensate him handsomely," Isabella turned her attention away from the coarse American with his slouch hat and typical American arrogance, to his more erudite companion.

"I'm afraid it is not a question of money," Ezra shrugged because he knew like Vin and JD, Chris didn't just consider it an agreement but a word given. While a quaint notion in Ezra's opinion, for Chris Larabee, when a man had nothing else in this life, he at least had his word and such oaths when entered should be adhered to at all costs. "Mr Larabee has given his word to the client, and that exceeds any trappings of fortune."

"That is unfortunate," the woman retreated behind the desk, her gaze shifted behind them, and she nodded slightly. The two guards who were stationed at the door now took up flanking positions next to them. "I did not wish to resort to extreme measures, but the Fuhrer will have his prize."

Before Ezra could speak, a fist lashed out and struck him across the jaw, just as one dug into Vin's stomach. Both men uttered soft grunts of pain while JD sat in the middle, struggling against the ropes binding his wrists so he could do something to help. Unfortunately, there was little or no slack, and he only ended up having the rough hessian fibres dig into his skin, refusing to yield.

"Stop it!" JD shouted. "Chris won't give you what you want! You can beat and torture us all you like, and the only thing that's going to do is piss him off!"

"I see," she signalled at the two men who were performing the nastier aspects of this interrogation, causing them to retreat. "You're right of course. Mr Larabee won't be convinced by just a few bruises and broken bones. We must give him a very compelling reason to accept our offer. We'll send him one of your eyes."

JD's heart clenched in his chest so hard it felt as if a fist had reached through his ribs and squeezed. Next, to him, Vin and Ezra's reaction was even more extreme. She uttered her order without batting an eyelid, still wearing that expression of icy cold satisfaction on her face. At the corner of his eye, one that might soon be plucked out, he saw one of the Krauts moving in, brandishing a switchblade that was more than equal to the task.

"Leave him alone!" Vin snapped, struggling so hard against the ropes he could feel blood oozing from the skin rubbed raw at his determination to break free. "You do this and Chris will never help you! He'll kill you!"

"I'm sure," Isabella answered, unaffected by the threat and prompting the henchman to proceed.

"Miss Krauss," Ezra sputtered, trying to think of some way to save JD from this grisly assault. "I'm sure we can be reasonable about this."

"The German people have been far too reasonable about everything. We are no longer interested in reason, we only care about results, and we will do what is necessary to get it, without minor concerns about who might care or what anyone else thinks. Our Fuhrer has freed us from such constraints, and our Reich will last a thousand years. However, it will not get done by diplomacy or reason, it will get done because we have the will to do what is necessary."

Then to the man standing over JD, she ordered. "Proceed."

"Goddamnit!" Vin swore, almost lifting his chair off its legs to save JD but he was shoved back against the floor by a powerful hand while being held back by a gun. JD was trying not to show fear, but the size of that six-inch blade was playing havoc with his composure. He was scared and had good reason to be. He was seconds away from being blinded. The third man had taken up position next to Ezra, the barrel of his Luger brandished as a warning to the gambler what would happen if he tried to move.

JD closed his eyes, refusing to look even though he suspected, he was going to get an extremely close view in a second. He felt hands touch his skin and flinched, wanting to plead for them to not do this because as a scholar, his eyes were everything. Even the loss of one was too much, and as his eyelid was pried open, the column of metal blade became his entire world.

Don't scream, don't yell, he told himself. Don't give the sons of bitches the satisfaction.

Of course, Vin and Ezra at this point had become very vocal, but the woman knew what she was doing, this would give Chris more than pause, this would send him into a frenzy and who knew what decision he might reach to save them from further mutilation. JD was panting in fear, his resolve to be strong crumbling as he saw the point of the knife coming at him and the face leering with almost sadistic pleasure at the horror about to be inflicted on him. At her desk, Isabella Krauss watched impassively as if she were waiting in line for coffee.

Suddenly without warning a single gunshot was heard.

The bullet came through the window, puncturing the glass and then the forehead of his would-be eye gouger. The back of his skull exploded spectacularly, sending a spray of blood across the front of the desk and over Krauss's face and shirt. She jumped back in her chair, startled by this sudden assault as her henchman sunk to his knees and fell forward into JD's lap, allowing the younger man a macabre glimpse of the man's freshly vacated skull.

"What . . . ." she started to say when a second shot was fired, and this one took out the man standing over Ezra, who collapsed just as quickly from another deadly headshot. He fell on his side, landing on the carpet soiled by his blood and brain matter.

Vin wasted no time, jumping to his feet and swinging his chair around hard. The legs swatted the Luger out of his guard's hands, and the gun went flying across the floor. Vin knew what a high powered rifle sounded like and though he had no idea who it was who had come to their rescue, he was not about to waste the opportunity to escape.

Outside, the sound of gunfire broke out. This time, it wasn't a rifle but rather the staccato rhythm of a machine gun. If he didn't know better, he would have said it was a Tommy gun or something similar. In either case, it was unleashing a barrage of holy hell outside the walls of this room. Bent over, while still strapped to the chair, Vin turned his head into a battering ram and ran straight into the disarmed man. The Kraut stumbled backwards from the collision and took Vin with him, crashing against the floor in a heap.

Meanwhile, Ezra was also on his feet, but he was heading towards that massive oak desk because the woman had now recovered from her shock and was searching for a weapon, presumably one from the dead men. Ezra was not about to give her the chance. He swung the chair he was tied to against the sturdy desk with all the force he could muster and felt the wood beneath him give. Her eyes narrowed at his efforts as Ezra tried again, this time putting more power into the swing, until the chair crumbled around him, loosening the ropes around him and allowing him to slip them off. She got to the gun first however and turned to shoot him when a new voice entered the fray.

"I just as soon as you didn't, Miss."

The middle-aged man who stepped into the room was one none of them recognised. His Irish accent revealed his Celtic origins, and he stood taller than Buck and had a frame that would have matched Josiah's easily. Armed with a Thompson machine gun, he aimed the weapon at Isabella while turning to the men held captive. "Come on lads, we can't stand around here all day. These Krauts never travel in small numbers. We've got to go."

Vin who was in the process of shedding the remnants of broken chair, got to his feet, not about to question their rescuer after what had almost happened to JD. The kid was still in his chair, no doubt thankful that he was still in possession of both his eyes after what this bitch almost done to him. Giving the man a nod of thanks, he ended his confrontation with the German at his feet with a well-placed kick across the face that knocked him out cold.

"Who are you?" Isabella demanded.

"Never you mind," he said coolly. "Come on lads!"

Ezra shook off his surprise and hurried to JD. "I am not one to refuse the kindness of strangers," he declared as he started untying the younger man.

"No kidding," JD finally managed to speak.

"This is not over," Isabella spat angrily, "We will have the Aegis!"

Vin took a step towards her, but the stranger halted him in his footsteps. "She's not worth it lad, and we don't have the time."

Vin glared at her and said coldly, "next time,"

With that, the four men hurried out of the room.

Emerging into the hall with their mysterious new ally leading the way, they had taken no more than two steps before gunfire erupted in their direction. All four men took refuge behind the marble columns against both sides of the wall before returning fire. Vin had liberated a Luger from one of the Krauts earlier and immediately returned fire, giving Riley the opening he needed to unleash another hail of bullets from the machine gun. The enemy, nowhere as heavily armed, were forced into retreat as vases and sculptures perched on their pedestals exploded spectacularly when struck.

When the path appeared momentarily cleared, and they continued to make their escape, Ezra saw the handiwork of their rescuer before his timely arrival into the room where they were held captive. Bodies were strewn intermittently across the polished floors and expensive rugs while bullet holes ruined the wooden wall panelling and upholsteries. The man had laid down a wall of gunfire to reach them, and anyone who got in his way paid the ultimate price.

"Who are you, Sir?" Ezra managed to ask as they crossed the meandering hallways and corridors to reach the wide staircase with its ornate wooden banister, leading to the entry hallway.

"Riley," the man glanced over his shoulder before facing front again, scanning their environment for any assailants waiting to ambush them. "I work for Miss Pemberton."

"The client?" JD exclaimed in surprise, finding his voice again. "She's here?"

"Aye," Riley nodded when they reached the marble of the manor's ground floor and the front door he had come through, remained splayed open, revealing the evening outside.

"Who made the shot?" Vin inquired. Being a sharpshooter, he knew it couldn't have been Riley who pulled the trigger that saved JD from being horribly maimed. That shot had been made from a distance and the time between its delivery and the outbreak of machine gun fire was too narrow for it to be the work of one person. Whomever this Riley was, he wasn't alone in this rescue.

"That would be telling," Riley grinned when they approached the open doorway.

As soon as he stepped out, more gunfire erupted, driving him backwards, almost running into Vin as bullets chipped at the masonry of the doorframe, covering the floor in fine dust and small fragments. Riley wasted no time shooting again, and Vin took cover on the opposite side, trying to give the man what protection he could with his dwindling supply of ammunition. He could not see how many shooters there were but judging by the intensity of the shooting, he counted at least three men. Amidst the roar of gunfire, voices barked urgently.

"Snell! Snell! Sie sind hier!"

Except for JD, all three men had spent enough time in the war to know someone outside was rallying the others.

"Is there another way outside?" JD asked.

"I do not like our chances if we go back and finding an alternate route out of this place," Ezra frowned when suddenly a loud roar filled the air, muting the sound of gunfire temporarily. It took him a moment to realise it was the sound of someone gunning an engine. As the roar intensified, it broke into the rumble of a car speeding towards them. Tyres crushed gravel as the twin headlights lit up the path in front of the door. They pierced through the descending darkness of the night and made everyone in its glare flinch and look away.

The four-door Morris 10 might have been black or blue, it was difficult to say, but its wire wheels came to a screeching halt next to them, creating a small cloud of dust behind it. Stopping directly in front of the doorway, the vehicle's sudden arrival halted the shooting and gave the men trying to escape the opening needed to get past the barrage of gunfire in their direction.

"Get in!" Riley ordered, hurrying to the vehicle he appeared to have been expecting and pulled open the back passenger door, his eyes surveying the area to ensure no one else took shots at them while he ushered the others through.

"Go JD!" Vin shoved the kid through the opening, and JD just about jumped onto the back seat and scrambled across it when the shooting resumed.

"Hurry!" Riley barked, and Ezra went in next, taking note the driver was now returning fire, just as Riley was doing with his seemingly inexhaustible Tommy gun.

Vin was the last to enter, his eyes darting over his shoulder at the way they had come because there was no way to be sure Riley had gotten all the men in the building or prevent others from sneaking through the back way to ambush them. His sixth sense told him as a bullet shattered the rear window of the vehicle and took out one of the side mirrors, they still had a fight on their hands.

He was right. Through the shadows behind him in the extended doorway, he saw the slender shape of Isabella Krauss peering over the corner, her Luger aimed not at him but Riley.

"Watch out!" Vin grabbed the man and yanked him clear as the bullet fired and struck the car door. If he had been standing there, it would have gone straight through him before it hit metal and would have likely killed him. Swinging around on reflex, Vin emptied the remaining bullets in his gun just as quickly, and he was a damn sight more accurate than she was, driving Isabella back the way she came.

"Stop mucking about and get your arses in here NOW!"

The decidedly feminine voice barked with extreme irritation, and Vin did a double take when Ezra caught him by the arm and pulled him into the back seat just as Riley flung open the front side door and climbed into the car. No sooner than both doors slammed shut, the engines roared to life with an accelerator being jammed hard. The Morris leapt forward violently, as more bullets were fired against its now ruined body. The car sped through the gravel driveway, sweeping past a disapproving menagerie of topiary animals, gaining speed as it raced towards the main gates leading off the estate.

Vin looked through the broken rear mirror and saw the faint silhouette of men running after them, attempting to give the car chase, exhausting what was left of their bullets even if the vehicle was soon beyond their reach. The sharpshooter's keen eyes were paying attention to every shadow and tree as they drove off the estate and he wondered briefly who its owners were and made a mental note to find out. For now, he turned his attention to whoever was driving.

"That was a timely bit of rescue Miss," Riley grinned.

Julia Pemberton cast a glance at the back seat, her emerald eyes moving across the stunned faces of the men staring at her and paused when she reached Ezra.

"Well Mr Standish," she smiled. "It looks like coming to your rescue is becoming a full-time occupation."

Chapter Twelve: Free Fall

"Switch?" Buck Wilmington asked Josiah Sanchez as they stood beside each other, lowering the pencils they had been using to scribble on their notebooks.

"Yep," Josiah nodded and handed his over.

The curious exchange went unnoticed by the other pilots standing in line, themselves engaged in thoughts about what needed to be done for their own trips as they all waited in one of the hangar offices at Croydon airport, allocated for private air travel. Unlike the main terminal, this area did not host as many travelers crisscrossing the floor in search of tickets, luggage, gates or loved ones. Instead, there were pilots, mechanics an, air services crew going about their business or waiting in line to lodge the appropriate paperwork to get on with their journeys, or in their case, refueled.

While the rest of their comrades were scattered across London, eager to escape the confinement of the Millie for a few hours before they resumed the long flight to Egypt, Buck devoted himself to getting the Millie ready for the next leg of their trip. Aside from refueling, there was the necessary paperwork to complete prior to their departure since they would be crossing at least four different countries before they reached the African continent.

Fortunately, Buck had Josiah to keep him company during this tedium just as he had done when they were still in the Air Aero Corps during the war. As always as Buck plotted their course with Josiah doing the same, before the exchange of notebooks would confirm each other's calculations. As he took Josiah leatherbound notebook, ignoring the older man's other writings which included the odd attempt at prose, he was satisfied to see his numbers matched the mechanic's.

"Alright then," he looked up at Josiah and handed the book back and reclaimed his own, thumbing through the pages a moment later to the lists of airfields and airports between Croydon and the Aegean Sea. "A full payload will get us as far as Belgium. I'm thinking Liege. From there, I say we avoid the direct route and head to Switzerland via France. With who's after us, I think missing Germany might be a good idea."

"I hear you," Josiah nodded in agreement with that plan. The group had traveled to the Rhineland before this but lately, the mood in the country was increasingly ugly and Josiah's instincts told him it was only going to get worse. The clouds looming over the world stage was taking on a shape Josiah hadn't seen since before 1914 and it worried him what that promised for the future.

"We'll take the route across . . . " Buck started to say when his words were muted by the sound of gunfire shredding the normal chatter within the hangar.

Chris, Buck thought immediately.

When he met Josiah's eyes, Buck saw the would-be preacher making the same leap. Without saying a word, both men broke away from the seemingly unmoving line and headed towards the wide doors. Their departure prompted the line to break formation even further as the sound of gunfire continued to burst through the air, followed by the inevitable commotion caused by a crowd in a panic. As they emerged into the sunlight, they saw people rushing out of the terminal building in all directions.

When they were able to filter through the cacophony of noise confusing their ears, both men who were season combat veterans were able to determine from the random bursts, the shooters were on the move. Behind them, the rest of the line had scattered, some to investigate and others because they had loved ones waiting for them in the terminal building. The result was all the same, chaos.

"You think he'd head back to the Millie?" Buck asked as he started jogging back to the terminal, hoping to find Chris.

"Yeah," Josiah nodded. "He wouldn't try to fight them if Mary is with him."

Buck had to concede the point to Josiah there. Chris Larabee might have been pissier than a burro with a stick up its ass because of Mary Travis's uninvited presence on board the Millie, but beneath that anger was genuine affection. If there were Nazis after them, Chris's priority would be getting her to safety. At that moment, entering the field of his peripheral vision, Buck sighted a biplane making a rather clumsy attempt to take off. The pilot observed the departure with concern because it was clear whoever was riding the stick wasn't doing it well and would most likely get themselves killed if they weren't careful.

It took a further second for Buck to recognize the pilot in the cockpit.

"Aw hell!" He exclaimed horrified and immediately started running towards the craft before it gained too much speed, offering no explanation to Josiah as he left his comrade behind.

"What?" Josiah stared blankly at the back of Buck's flight jacket before hurrying after him, confused by the man's sudden change of direction, not to mention the urgency in his steps.

"That's Chris!" Buck shouted, waving at the aircraft making its way across the runway.

Josiah's eyes followed the plane rolling across the tarmac, pursued by a handful of men who were making no effort to hide the menace in their intentions by the barrage of gunfire they were sending at it to halt its departure. Each bullet that tore into the fuselage or wing made the mechanic winced because he knew just how fragile biplanes were to gunfire. He had seen the wreckage of enough downed planes during the war to last him a lifetime.

"Can Chris even fly?" Josiah hollered after Buck as they both saw the plane gaining takeoff speed the further across the runway it got, even as it was chased there by bullets.

"Fly yes!" Buck shouted, not looking at Josiah because he hoped to reach Chris before the dang fool actually got airborne. "Land, NO!"

"What the hell is he thinking?" Josiah cried out, not expecting an answer but got one nonetheless.

"Oh I'm thinking he's trying to impress a girl," Buck growled.

Before Josiah could comment, the roar of engines behind them, this one from a more terrestrial vehicle, filled their ears. Both men paused long enough to look over their shoulders to see a Willys MB Jeep closing in on them, with Nathan Jackson behind the wheel. The healer hit the brakes just as the car rolled by them causing the tyres to screech in annoyance at the lack of a gradual stop.

"Get in!"

Buck jumped in first, followed by Josiah before the pilot gestured Nathan to get moving. "After that plane!"

Nathan stared at the biplane whose nose had just lifted off the ground and was taking the rest of its bulk with it, confused by the order but obeying it nonetheless. When he'd hastily ‘borrowed' the jeep (actually took without asking), he intended to get to the terminal building and help Chris. Now Buck wanted him to chase after a small plane, a plane with at least a half dozen men chasing it . . . .oh hell, his eyes became saucers when the reason became clear.

"Oh Lord, is that Chris?" Nathan asked abruptly putting the vehicle into gear before it lurched forward, nearly sending Josiah to the tarmac from the back seat.

"Yep," Buck nodded. "Those Nazis bastards have him on the run."

"But he can't fly!" Nathan burst out, wondering if Chris was insane.

For the second time, Buck shouted exasperated. "Fly yes! Land no!"

"Oh Jesus Christ!"

"We wish," Josiah grumbled and then brightened up when he saw what Nathan had quickly dumped into the backseat of their misappropriated vehicle when he left the Millie. Picking up his Tommy gun, he primed the weapon readying it for a fight.

The gunfire continued with unrelenting intensity and each bullet made Buck's stomach hollow because he was all too aware the plane Chris and Mary were presently occupying was made of fabric and light-weight balsa. It would not stand up to the assault of gunfire for long. The plane was now in the air and soaring towards the clouds, leaving behind the gunfire riddling its fuselage with holes. The Nazis were continuing to shoot, refusing to give up even as the plane soared higher into the air.

"Sons of bitches are going to make that thing crash!" Buck swore as Josiah handed him his Remington.

"I hear ya!" Nathan shouted and sped towards the men who were still firing at the plane.

Chris's assailants, suddenly aware of the vehicle bearing down on them, turned sharply in the direction of the jeep. Seeing two thousand pounds of metal about to run them over made them alter the trajectory of their gunfire and both Josiah and Buck ducked when the bullets pinged holes in the hood and cracked the windscreen. Nathan managed to avoid getting hit by crouching behind the wheel for cover.

"You two gonna do something or are you going to get me shot!"

Josiah and Buck exchanged irate looks before Buck sat up and returned fire, scattering the men in all directions across the tarmac. Josiah added his fire to the deadly barrage, giving the enemy further incentive to abandon the airfield. As they hurried away, uttering distinctly German curses, Buck knew they would be back and probably in numbers. Until the Millie was refueled and in the air, they were in danger.

"We've got to get refueled and off the ground," Buck stated the obvious as the Nazis disappeared from view, taking advantage of the numerous buildings across the airfield to make their escape. "They'll be back."

"Oh we got another problem," Nathan said as he continued to drive and Buck realized he wasn't heading back to the Millie, he was driving off the airfield.

"What?" Josiah was almost afraid to ask.

Buck followed Nathan's gaze and saw the trail of black smoke tracing a line across the sky. It was bleeding into the clouds from the wounded biplane and forced Buck to reach only one conclusion.

The plane was going down.

"You want us to do what?" Mary Travis stared incredulously at Chris Larabee through the cockpit glass separating them, trying to be heard over the sound of wind roaring loudly in their ears. Her face was almost entirely covered in her blond hair, now freed from its confining bun and swirling about her head as if her golden locks had suddenly taken on a life of its own.

The plane was going down. Mary wasn't a mechanic but she knew they were in trouble. The fact the propellers were no longer moving and they were exuding a thick trail of black smoke behind them, seemed to confirm this fact. Chris had disappeared into the aviator's cockpit for a moment and then emerged carrying something that looked like a knapsack until she realized what it was and decided then and there, he had lost his mind, or she had for ever thinking it was a good idea to stow away on the Millie to begin with.

"Jump," Chris repeated himself and saw her balk at the suggestion. Unfortunately, they were out of options. Any chance of a smooth landing, even if he knew how to make one, was gone. It had gone the moment the enemy bullets had penetrated the fuselage and undoubtedly struck some vital part of the craft manifesting in the unhealthy sputter of the engine they were now hearing.

"You're insane!" She barked back, mostly because she was terrified at the idea of what he was suggesting. Breaking her rule to not look down, the patchwork landscape that bore a striking resemblance to Aunt Adelaide's quilt seemed far too close for her liking. "I'm not doing it!"

Chris, who had no patience with female histrionics right now, replied without humor. "Fine, you stay, I'm leaving."

With that, he proceeded to slip the parachute straps over his shoulders.

Mary's jaw dropped in outrage. "You can't just leave me!"

Despite himself, he couldn't help flash her a somewhat smug grin. "Oh, I'm sure you'll get yourself out of trouble. You're a gal who can take care of herself remember?" He winked at her for effect.

"Why you egotistical, chauvinistic, boorish, arrogant son of a bitch!"

"Keep going," Chris ignored her tirade and continued to buckle up, making certain all the fastenings were secure for what he was about to do. "You're really making me want to take you with me."

For all his feigned indifference, Chris knew they were on the clock and there was no way he was leaving her behind, even though she was proving quite spectacularly she had a mouth that would put any longshoreman to shame. The plane was still level for the moment because it was high enough to ride the currents but eventually, gravity would win out and then nothing would keep them aloft. The plane would descend, most likely turning into a spiral that would keep them from making the jump, or worse yet, lose them too much altitude for the chute to do them any good.

"I won't go!" She continued to rant, mostly out of fear and because at the moment, jumping was more terrifying than riding the plane to its fiery fate. "I'm not jumping out of this plane wearing that . . . that..contraption!"

"You won't have to wear one," Chris said with a perfectly straight face. "There's only one chute and I'm wearing it. You'll just have to hang on."

"WHAT?"

As she descended into complete and utter panic, Chris decided this was about as much time as he was wasting on this argument. Climbing out of the aviator's seat, he stepped onto the supporting plane of the lower wing and gestured at Mary to do the same. She was still cursing at him, making disparaging remarks about his parentage and offering suggestions about what could be done with parts of his anatomy. Despite this, he could see her terror, it radiated off her with every angry word she hurled in his direction like a goddess hurling thunderbolts.

"Mary, come on!" He barked finally, his patience exhausted at last. They had to get off this plane and they had to do it now.

"I won't do it!" Mary shook her head like a petulant child. "You can't make me!"

"Then give my regards to the afterlife," he said turning away.

With a wail of defeat, she threw up her hands while shaking her head in disbelief at the situation she was in. Mary took the hand he offered and climbed out of the cockpit, submitting to her fate like a woman being walked off the plank. Only when Chris took her hand did he realize just how scared she was by how hard she was trembling.

"Look, if we die, at least we'll go together," he said hoping the joke would ease her tension somewhat. It did not.

"Oh my God," she continued to lament, "I'm going to die and the last person I'll be with is a moron!"

Of course, she had to do this, there was no other way and they both knew it. As adventurous as Mary was, there were limits to her bravado and jumping off the plane was something she would never dream of doing under any circumstances, even with the right amount of alcohol. Panic written on all over her face, she offered no protest when he turned her around and pulled her to him. The straps had enough slack to accommodate a large man and would have no trouble if they were pressed against each other, back to chest.

As he fastened her securely against him, Chris ignored Mary's continued ramblings about the death she perceived was coming to claim her for sins including her idiotic act of stowing away and stealing from her father's liquor cabinet when she was fifteen. When the nose of the plane dipped sharply, Chris knew they had run out of time. It was now or never.

"I've got you," he promised her. "No matter what, I'm not going to let you go!"

Mary craned her neck and looked at him at that statement. "I'm going to hold you to that but if you get us killed, I'm going to be really mad!"

She was making no sense but she was too terrified to care.

"I'll keep that in mind!" he smirked and was heartened by the fact she managed to give him back a nervous smile, even though the terror in her eyes was still present. "Ready?"

"NO!" She wailed before closing her eyes shut.

Chris decided not to waste any more time before she spiraled into complete hysteria. The plane was angled even more precariously and Chris knew they were seconds away from a treacherous corkscrew spin. Taking a deep breath, while keeping his arms secured around her waist, he ignored the ground beneath them and allowed the rushing wind to help things along when he stepped off the edge.

Mary's scream filled his ears almost as loudly as the rush of wind as they both tumbled away from the plane. For a few seconds, the world was a spinning dervish of color as sky and ground created a kaleidoscope of confusing images before their eyes. Chris fought the disorientation even as Mary continued to scream. Fumbling for the ripcord, he dearly hoped the parachute could hold both their weight or else this was going to end rather badly.

Pulling hard on the handle, Mary's scream reached another octave when they were both pulled backward by the release of the chute. Whether or not she knew it, he was holding his breath in anticipation of how the chute would handle once it was fully exposed to the currents. Telling her right now that it might not be capable of holding them both would probably serve little purpose other than to drive her into further hysteria.

However, when the chute was fully expanded, assuaging the turbulence of their plunge from the plane into a brisk but safe descent, Mary's screams faded and Chris realized the contraption, as she put it, was managing to keep them both from a tragic end, he relaxed a little. As they descended into the landscape below them, Chris started to enjoy the moment with the wind rushing against his face and the opportunity to enjoy the sensation of her warm body pressed against him.

"See, this wasn't so bad!"

"We just jumped out of a plane! Nothing about this is good!" She said hotly, although the fact they were not free falling to the earth, certain to pulverize every bone in their bodies, was a good sign. Still, until she reached the ground, she was taking nothing for granted.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Chris smiled faintly, admiring the view now it was possible they would reach the ground alive. Tightening his grip around her waist, he had to admit, there were worst ways to die than with a beautiful woman in one's arms. "I could get used to this."

"If you had just wanted to get fresh with me, a John Wayne picture would have done!"

"John Wayne picture?" Chris craned his neck so he could catch a glimpse of her face. She still wore that worried expression, indicating the view down had done nothing to calm her fears.

"Yeah," she nodded, opting to close her eyes because looking at the ground was making her ill. "I like westerns."

"Never thought of you as a girl who liked cowboys."

"I don't like cowboys," she muttered, her hands clutching his arms tightly as if letting go would send her plunging to the ground and certain death. "Just gunslingers."

Chris had to laugh. " Why Miss Travis, I had no idea you were partial to the bad element."

Chapter Thirteen: The name is Pemberton, Julia Pemberton

Once they left the airfield, it wasn't all that hard to find Chris Larabee at all.

For starters, Mary's screaming was loud enough to give an air raid siren a run for its money and secondly, the plane spiralling out of control, tumbling to the earth with a tail of black smoke was not easy to miss even in the grey English sky. For one heart-stopping moment when Buck saw the plane spinning through the clouds, he was once again over the skies of France, trying to stay alive when Richthofen's Circus was shooting down friends like fish in a barrel.

Now, as he gaped at the bi-plane heading towards its doom in that familiar corkscrew pattern, he felt as if he were reliving the horror of knowing a friend was about to die and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. It couldn't end like this, not for Chris Larabee. There was still too much ahead for them for one of their number to be lost.

"Look!"

It was Nathan who managed to tear Buck's horrified gaze away from the aircraft that was less than a minute from reaching the end of its journey in the large stream at the heart of the Beddington Farmlands. The jeep they had ‘commandeered' (okay stolen), had left the airfield and was driving across the numerous empty fields to keep up with the biplane. The Nazis who had forced Chris and Mary into the air had temporarily given up the chase but Buck knew they would be back soon enough. It wouldn't take much for the Krauts to find out where the Millie was berthed.

"Thank Christ!" Buck exclaimed when he saw the parachute appearing through the clouds like a flower blossoming at dawn. As it continued its descent, Buck saw two figures attached to the harness beneath the billowing silk and guessed immediately it was Chris and Mary eluding a fiery death.

"Can that thing hold both of them?" Nathan asked nobody in particular as he drove across the empty fields adjacent the airfields, taking the most direct route to their beleaguered friends.

"It can," Josiah nodded, familiar with the devices himself although he was never confident their construction was at all sound, certainly not enough to entrust a pilot's life to one. During the war, he'd seen the crude attempts to perfect the devices and hoped to God the one Chris and Mary were using was more sophisticated and better designed. "They're supposed to carry the weight of a heavy man so Chris might pull it off since Mary probably doesn't weigh much."

"Yeah, but I'm guessing she ain't too happy about it," Nathan grimaced watching the slow drift of the parachute to the ground. Right now, he didn't want to be in Chris's shoes for all the money in the world. Judging from what they knew about the dame, she would be plenty mad before they reached land.

"That way!"

The parachute was coming down beyond the field they were presently crossing. Leaving thick, muddy trails in the mud as they drove across the damp English countryside, the jeeps roar felt incredibly intrusive against the serenity of the picturesque landscape. Nathan made a beeline towards the descending chute, following Buck's directions while keeping his eyes on the progress of its journey. The Jeep rumbled unhappily across the wet and uneven terrain, crushing vegetation and splattering mud in all directions including its painted finish.

"Everyone, head down!" The healer warned when the jeep approached the thicket separating one meadow from another. They would have to go through it to reach Chris and Mary.

"Hell," Buck grumbled, doing exactly that as Nathan ploughed straight through the dense shrubbery, fighting off branches and twigs clawing at them as they tore through, taking broken leaves and other bits of fauna with them.

However, once they reached the other side, the jeep suddenly swerved hard to avoid the large flock of Rough Fell sheep occupying the field they just entered. Both Buck and Josiah were thrown sharply to one side of the vehicle, slamming against each other at the hard turn. Buck had to grab hold of the handrail to avoid being thrown off the thing.

"What the hell?"

"SHEEP BUCK! SHEEP!" Nathan growled answering Buck's indignant cry as the walking sweaters, with their curled horns and their black and white faces, scattered in all directions by the sudden intrusion, their large, woolly bodies waddling ridiculously about as they brayed fearfully in protest of the metal monster invading their peaceful home.

"Watch out!" Josiah warned.

In front of them was a particularly large, irate ram with impressive horns curled about his head as if it were the helmet of some Norse Viking god, about to wage Ragnarok on their asses. Instead of fleeing, this particular ovine stood his ground, going against type. Refusing to run to safety, the creature (called Sir Percival by his owner), considered it his sacred duty as one of his breed, to defend his keep and charged, having every intention of ramming the jeep.

"What's that crazy thing doing!" Nathan swerved to avoid the animal, having no wish to harm it but it was good intentions lost on Sir Percival. The ram continued to give chase, determined to give the what for to the interlopers who had shattered his flock's pleasant afternoon and scared his ewes and lambs.

"I don't know but he's gaining," Josiah muttered looking over his shoulder unable to ignore the humour of the situation as Sir Percival ran after them, braying what Josiah was certain sounded like the war cry of angry Scots just before they trampled the English army into the mud.

"Will you get us out of here!" Buck shouted at Nathan, unable to believe they were getting run off by a sheep of all things!

"Hey, you want to get in front here and drive?" Nathan bit back, trying to navigate across the field with its loosened earth thanks to the grazing and traffic of the flock occupying it. "This ground is wetter than one of your dreams about Inez! If I ain't careful we'll get bogged and then that crazy animal will catch up to us!"

"Alright, alright," Buck conceded the point until what Nathan said registered. "HEY!"

The Willys B continued across the field chased by Sir Percival who refused to let them escape, before Nathan finally slammed through another hedge, this time, finding himself on the narrow strip of road that was a staple of the English countryside. As the jeep sped away from the invaded domain of Sir Percival, the irate ovine brayed angrily at them in parting, vowing in its ancient tongue they were all marked enemies of the Rough Fell Clan of the Primrose Farm fiefdom for all time.

Completely unaware of the blood feud his comrades had entered with Farmer Buckett's flock of sheep, Chris and Mary watched in fascinated horror as the bi-plane went to its fate in the large stream inhabited by numerous species of birds and waterfowl. The waterway, though significant in size was not terribly deep and the impact on the plane was nothing short of catastrophic. The only consolation they could take from the utter ruination of the craft which crumpled from the nose up was the fact it had not harmed anyone in its final landing.

It was not to say the denizens of the stream were entirely thrilled by the crash since they took to the air to escape the flying machine's turbulent descent. The frame of the aircraft, what remained of it, broke into three large pieces, with each one being claimed by the stream as dark water swirled over it in an exultant exclamation of victory over the invader. What flames managed to ignite during the impact, now gasped its last as the water choked away its life. All that remained was the dark smoke seeping through the few fissures of unsubmerged metal.

With the plane's fate now settled, Chris turned his attention to getting himself and Mary on the ground. The woman had said little as she clung to him, probably feeling decidedly uncomfortable by their close proximity to each other. Chris couldn't say he found the experience unpleasant because he could smell perfume in her hair and the heat pressed against his chest was soft and welcoming despite her accusations he was a rat bastard and a sexist pig.

He might be all those things but Chris knew with smug satisfaction she liked him.

"Chris, we're landing!" Mary's fearful gasp broke through his thoughts.

They were about fifty feet off the ground and descending fast. There was really no way to control where they landed but Chris was grateful it was going to be in one of the empty meadows beyond Croydon airfield. The strong currents had lessened their intensity the closer to the ground they got and by the time the field came into view, they were coming down at a rate that though quick, was nowhere as dangerous as it could have been.

"It was bound to happen sometime," he deadpanned, trying to remember what he read about landing in one of these things. True, he never intended to do half the things he read, but he did retain enough to know what to expect. "It's just something you got to do to get to the ground."

"THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR HUMOUR!"

Chris grimaced at the sharp shriek in his ear. "Just calm down and remember to roll when we hit the ground. Keep your legs bent."

"Oh my God," she started blubbering. "I am never going to stow away ever again."

"Yeah right," Chris snorted, more amused by her foxhole promises than the belief she could ever keep them.

Wrapping his arm around her waist, he pulled her close to him as the ground rushed up to meet them. Leaning into her ear, he said in a calm, soothing tone. "Mary, we're going to be alright, I promise."

Instead of cursing at him again she nodded, her blond hair rubbing against his chin in a manner he rather liked. "I'll hold you to that promise Chris."

They were now twenty feet above the ground and being swept across the field by the wind, capturing the attention of the dozen or so cows watching their arrival with curiosity.

Unlike their more militant neighbours, the cows of Upton Farm were starved for entertainment and in between their observation of Sir Percival's battle of wills with Gwaine the Sheepdog, Alfie the Goose and the antics of Postie Rob, they were always looking to be amused. The appearance of the strange big bird with the four legs and the rather shrill squawk looked good for a few minutes of occupation during an otherwise uneventful day.

Chris and Mary drifted over the meadow covered by marigold, cornflower and scorpion grass before finally touching down. Bending his knees and ordering Mary to do the same, the landing was rough as he expected with both of them rolling across the damp grass, narrowly missing some cow pies as they tumbled to a stop, becoming entangled in the silk and cord of the parachute. For a few seconds, neither of them spoke as they both absorbed the realisation they were not only on the ground again but alive and in one piece.

"Mary?" Chris asked when he sat up a moment later.

Mary did the same and looked at him strangely, just before she threw a right hook into his jaw.

Chris felt against the grass, surprised and impressed by the force behind that punch. His chin stung as he sat up and stared at her in question when without warning, she grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and pulled him to her in one swift movement. Taken completely by surprise, Chris felt her lips pressed against his and wondered would there ever be a day when he knew what the hell was going on in this crazy dame's head.

"Has anyone told you how foreplay is supposed to work?" Chris asked when she pulled away.

"Oh just shut up," Mary growled and pulled him to her again, deciding to show him just how happy she was to be alive in the simplest way possible.

In a car speeding away from an almost gothic English manor, escaping a sadistic Kraut doctor and her villainous cadre of Nazi henchmen, Ezra Standish found the whole situation somewhat surreal. Months ago, he'd glimpsed a mystery woman with the loveliest face he'd ever seen, seconds after she came to his rescue, only to have her vanish a moment later. In the weeks that followed, he often thought of her and those amazing green eyes, like pieces of emerald in the sunlight, wondering if he would ever see her again.

Seeing her now, the architect of the timely rescue from their earlier predicament, Ezra had to wonder at what point, the world had started surprising him again.

After dramatically revealing herself to him, the titian-haired beauty went back to the business of making good their escape. As Ezra stared with his mouth open, she drove away into the night, leaving behind gunfire and the enemy determined on bending Chris Larabee to their will. Surrounded by the thick shrubbery that flanked almost all tiny English roads, devoid of street lights and interspersed by road signs that were probably installed by the Romans, the Humber raced through the darkness leaving the enemy behind.

"You know her Ez?" Ezra heard Vin's whisper coincide with a gentle nudge in the ribs.

"If the lady coming to my rescue during our initial encounter with the Erran at the museum constitutes as knowing her, then I must say yes."

Vin could tell Ezra was just as puzzled by her appearance as he was about being rescued by the client who until now only Chris had met. She certainly knew how to handle herself if one were to go by her actions so far. Vin recalled the discussion on the Millie about Julia Pemberton and supposed she really could be a spy.

"Thanks for the save ma'am," Vin said gratefully, despite seething over the peril they had narrowly escaped.

One second more and it was JD who would have been affected most profoundly. Even now, as Vin glanced in his direction, he saw the kid was still somewhat shaken by what had almost happened to him. Unlike the rest of the seven, JD was relatively new to this life and the danger that came with being a soldier of fortune. Vin suspected it never felt as real as it did when Krauss's torpedo had come at him with a knife.

"My pleasure Mr Tanner," Julia cast him a quick look. "I had hoped you were able to extricate yourselves from your circumstances but once Mr Riley and I saw that you were outnumbered considerably, it was time to act."

"How long were you keeping us under surveillance Miss Pemberton?" Ezra wondered how they had missed seeing her and concluded she was damn good at it since her appearance had taken them completely by surprise.

Julia smiled to herself as she kept her eyes on the road. "Long enough. I saw no reason to interfere in how your group dealt with the arrangement I entered into with Mr Larabee, however," she tilted her head slightly in JD's direction,. "I was not going to idly sit by and watch Mr Dunne be maimed."

"Yeah," JD found his voice at the mention of his name. "Thanks for that ma'am."

"It's my pleasure," she said kindly, shifting her attention to the vehicle's mirror to ensure no one was following them.

Her caution prompted Vin's awareness of danger and he stared out the back window of the Humber to do the exact same thing. The lack of street lights along the narrow road meant they were shrouded in pitch black darkness save the headlights guiding them through the narrow English road. Judging by the abundance of empty fields and the absence of buildings Vin realised they were in a location remote enough to ensure their bodies were never found if that Kraut bitch had decided to kill them.

"Are you saying you made the shot that saved Mr Dunne?" Ezra blurted out in sudden realisation.

"Aye she did," Riley grinned, always pleased to see his partner getting the due she deserved. "Miss Julia's mighty handy with a rifle."

"No kidding," Vin smiled, appreciating a good marksman or in this case, markswoman when he encountered them.

"It was most impressive," Ezra agreed but forgot for a moment Julia Pemberton's sudden arrival into their world, when he saw through the dim light of the vehicle, the expression on JD's face.

Being the excellent study of human behaviour that he was, Ezra could see the boy was shaken to the core by what had taken place in the manor. In their line of work, injury and death was always a possibility but even Ezra had to admit, having someone threaten to pluck out one's eyes when as a scholar sight was everything, felt exceptionally cruel.

"JD, are you alright?"

"Sure I am," JD shrugged, feeling defensive at the question and hating it that he felt this way. More than ever, he wished Buck was around because Buck would have understood what he was feeling. After all this time, being a part of the seven, JD thought he was ready to cope with anything but the horror of what had nearly been inflicted on him had gotten to him more than he cared to admit. He knew he was going to be spending many nights, seeing the glint of that blade in his dreams.

Both Vin and Ezra saw he wasn't alright at all and while Ezra hid his anger behind his usual gambler's facade, Vin's similarly unflappable composure was lowered to reveal his fury.

"Who was what crazy bitch?"

"You mean Krauss?" Julia asked, not looking over her shoulder at him.

"Yeah, Krauss." The sharpshooter's voice was cold as ice. It wasn't often Vin let anyone get under his skin but being forced to sit by helplessly as that woman intended to do JD grievous harm was more than he could stomach.

"She's one of Hitler's inner circle," Riley explained for Julia who was concentrating on getting them back to London, specifically Croydon Airfield where their plane awaited as quickly as possible. "Since the Nazis came to power and Hitler started collecting antiquities, Krauss has been in charge of almost every expedition launched. Rumour has it, she's related to Reinhard Heydrich and is a fanatic. She's a staunch believer in all of Hitler's propaganda, especially this whole business of a thousand-year Reich."

"It's why they're collecting objects of supernatural power," Julia added. "They think the possession of such objects will aid their longevity."

"You mean they actually think the Aegis will be able to turn armies into stone?" JD blurted out, slowly recovering from his earlier trauma. "It's just a story though. Even if we did find it, it's gonna be a rusty old shield.

"Oh come now Mr Dunne," Julia countered smoothly, still facing front. In the distance, they could see lights from houses blinking into view. "We all know that there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Take for instance the Tablet of Destiny. That was certainly not as benign as it appeared, was it?"

Suddenly Vin sat bolt upright.

"It was you," he stared at the back of her head in wonder. "You were the one who took out that son of a bitch Shah?"

Of course, it made perfect sense, Ezra realised now Vin made the deduction. It was why she was at the museum that night. Someone like Julia Pemberton, who was able to follow them from America without giving herself away would be aware of the Erran and the threat they posed to her personally. Had she done then what she did now? Keeping them under observation, stepping in when needed to save them? At the crucial moment when the seven thought all was lost, the mysterious sniper had killed Adashir Shah, the leader of the cult and caused enough disarray for them to break free.

"Let us say Mr Shah owed me a life and I chose that moment to collect."

"That was a hell of a shot wasn't it?" Riley smiled like a proud father. "I didn't think she could do it over that distance but she did away with that murderous heathen nicely."

"It sure was," Vin agreed, his admiration for the lady increasing. That shot had not only saved the seven but it had freed Alex from a fate worse than death. For that, Julia Pemberton would have his eternal gratitude.

"So what is your next step, Miss Pemberton?" Ezra hated to think they would go their separate ways now he had a name to that lovely face. "Now that you have freed us from our captors."

"I hired Mr Larabee and the rest of you to do a job, Mr Standish," she glanced over her shoulder, long enough for those amazing eyes to touch his like a caress. "Whether or not the Aegis is a story or a hunk of corroding tin, my employers have no wish to see it in the hands of the Nazis. We are going to have enough difficulties with them in the future. The last thing we wish to do is allow them to gain possession of props to fuel their propaganda."

"You think this is going to end in a war?" JD looked at her and the idea of another conflict, one that was just as terrible as what the others had lived through, filled him with dread.

Julia knew the winds of war were brewing, slight as they might seem now. Those in the intelligence community knew what undercurrents were swirling about Europe at present and none of it amounted to anything good. With the breaking of the Treaty of Versaille and Churchill's rather chilling view of Hitler, war was a possibility. However, that was a discussion for another day.

"I'm hoping it does not but right now, we are returning you to your aircraft. I assume Mr Larabee will be beside himself trying to determine your whereabouts at present. Once we get there, I suggest we depart these shores sooner rather than later.."

"Aye," Riley added his voice in agreement. "Krauss knows where you are and she'll be coming. Best place for us to be is in the air, ahead of the mad bitch."

"Us?" Ezra stared at her and then at Vin because they both knew, another woman joining their party was not going to impress their leader, even if she was writing the cheques. Then again, she did save their asses in Arabia so that did sort of earn her a place on the Millie on this occasion.

"Of course," Julia said as London welcomed them with open arms in the form of its widening streets, increased traffic and bright lights. "I do have a vested interest in this affair."

Ezra wondered if it was wishful thinking she was looking at him when she said those words.

Chapter Fourteen: Human

There was only one thing to do when everyone returned to the Millie. Leave.

In light of their experiences with Nazi agents, there could be no other choice in the matter. No sooner after Nathan, Buck and Josiah found Chris and Mary on Upton Farm surrounded by cows (who looked oddly entertained by the humans), they headed straight back to the Millie and found to their relief, the Nazis had yet to track them back to the hangar. Chris wanted them to leave immediately so Buck returned to the business of refuelling the Millie while they tried to figure out where Vin, Ezra and JD had gone. With JD's penchant for playing tourist, they could be anywhere.

By the time the sun had set on the day, Chris feared the worse, imagining the Nazis had somehow managed to get their hands on the trio and were doing God only knew what to them. As it was, the remaining members of the seven were maintaining a vigil in the hangar, armed and waiting for an attack by the agents who tried abducting him earlier. Their focus seemed centred upon capturing him alive but if they had Vin, Ezra and JD in their power, they might not need to.

Staring through the open doors of the hangar into the night, Chris watched the planes departing the airfields of Croydon, growing more and more anxious as the duration of his comrades' absence lengthened. It was clear something was wrong because Vin would know better than to let JD and Ezra stay away from the Millie this long. While JD could easily lose track of time when he was in a new city, and Ezra lost any good sense when he got near a poker table, Chris could always rely on Vin to keep his head.

The fact they were not here, made Chris imagine the worst.

"Chris," Mary spoke to him, emerging from the cargo ramp leading into Millie's hold. She was carrying two cups of coffee that immediately sparked his interest when the aroma wafted in his direction. Since returning to the Millie, neither had spoken about what took place between them in the field. While it was little more than a brief exchange of passionate kisses, it still left an air of unspoken tension between them.

"You out here to keep me company?"

Mary gave him a look of infinite patience. "Not with that gun in your hand."

"I don't know," he managed a faint smile as he took the cup she offered. "I kind of think I need to be armed whenever I'm around you."

"You're a regular Groucho Marx," she stood alongside him and stared at the view. "I can't help it if you're always two steps behind me."

"I'm not two steps behind you," he protested immediately, although to date, it did seem like she was capable of getting the better of him. Every time he told her not to do a thing, it was almost guaranteed she would. "You're just sneaky."

"It's my job to be sneaky," she smiled at him sweetly.

"Yeah," he conceded defeat. "I noticed that."

"What are you going to do if they don't come back?" Mary asked, able to see beneath his stoic facade there was real worry about his friends. Mary didn't relish having to tell Alex if anything happened to Vin. Mary and the soon-to-be doctor were best friends since they came into each other's lives again and she knew just how devastated Alex would be to lose Vin so soon after they found each other.

"If they don't come back, we'll be hearing from those Nazi bastards. Sure as hell, they want something. If they do have Vin and the others, they'll be using the bargaining point."

"You think they want the artifact?"

"Possibly," Chris nodded but was not entirely sure it was just the Circlet of Almathea the enemy was after. It probably played a part but not the whole reason. "I'm not sure . . . ."

The twin strobes of headlights flashing in both their faces disrupted Chris's words as he and Mary winced at the glare and turned away.

"Get to the Millie!" He barked at her and Mary nodded quickly not about to argue when the sound of the car's engines filled the hangar and alerted the rest of the men to danger. As she hurried up the ramp, she was met halfway by Buck who was carrying a short-barreled shotgun in one hand.

Chris took cover at the side of the hangar door, prepared for trouble if it came tumbling out of the vehicle. Buck immediately took position on the other side, ensuring Chris was covered. While they could not see Nathan or Josiah, they could hear the footsteps behind them and the cock of steel catches of guns primed for use.

The car, one they did not recognise, did not waste any time coming to a halt with a sudden screech. It stopped with its side facing them as if baring its polished flank was a gesture of subservience. It took but a second for Chris and Buck to recognise the familiar face of Vin Tanner peering through the glass of the side passenger window.

"It's Vin!"

Buck's loud voice echoed through the hangar, disarming the others immediately.

Vin was the first one out of the car, perfectly aware of what kind of reception they were liable to get considering how overdue their return was. The sharpshooter knew his best friend well enough to know Chris would be chomping at the bit by now at their absence and be liable to shoot first and ask questions later if the person to emerge from the car was someone he didn't recognise.

"Vin!"

Buck stepped out first, never one to hold back as he approached the younger man and was further relieved to see Ezra and JD stepping out of the car behind him. However, his broad grin faded when he glimpsed something on JD's face he couldn't place. Resolving himself to investigate further later, Buck turned his attention back to the safe return of their number.

"Where the hell have you boys been? It's mighty rude of you to make us worry after you!"

"Sorry mom," Vin quipped and noted Chris's expression, knowing it well. It was the same one the man wore whenever the ten-year old he had been was forced to ride into battle with them on the Western Front. "We ran into some Kraut trouble."

"You okay?" Chris asked quietly and once again, he could see nothing but that scrawny kid wearing a soldier's uniform, covered in mud and blood.

"We're fine," Vin assured him, knowing how much feeling there was behind those two words.

"They seem to be everywhere today," Josiah answered, he and Nathan joining them. "We've had our own problems with them."

"They cause much trouble?" Vin asked, forgetting his own experiences for the moment.

"That's a long story," Nathan shook his head, having no way to condense the chase across the terminal, the runway, the fields, the SHEEP and finally finding Chris and Mary in a field with a whole bunch of bored bovines.

"What about you?" He directed the question at Vin though his gaze was taking note of Ezra opening the door for the driver of the vehicle.

"Just as long," Vin shrugged. "But it could have gone pretty bad if it wasn't for some friends." The sharpshooter's gaze moved to the new faces emerging from the Humber.

"Mr Larabee," Ezra spoke up, "I believe you two have already met but Buck, Josiah, Nathan, permit me to introduce Miss Julia Pemberton, our client."

A short time later, they were gathered in the main cabin of the Millie, getting caught up on each other's adventures for the day. Chris listened to Vin's recounting of what had almost been done to JD with silent rage, something Buck was incapable of hiding. The ladies man and pilot was properly infuriated by the threat made against their youngest member, retreating to the cockpit with JD to channel his outrage by readying the Millie for departure.

With an idea of what the Nazis wanted of him now, not to mention what they were willing to do to ensure his cooperation, Chris decided they needed to stay ahead of the bastards at any cost. Furthermore, the revelation of Julia Pemberton's presence seemed to confirm his earlier suspicions about the woman. Despite feeling mild irritation at being shadowed by yet another woman all the way from America, Chris was able to overcome it after learning how she saved his friends from torture or worse. Not to mention, she was the mystery sniper who gave them the advantage during their final confrontation with the Erran in Arabia.

"So Miss Pemberton," Chris said to the woman seated in one of the seats of the Millie's passenger cabin. "You coming with us?"

Julia who had not intended to join the men on their journey exchanged a quick glance with Riley. At a glance, Chris saw the same kind of communication he normally shared with Vin, passing between them. Whatever relationship she had with this man, it was clear Julia trusted Riley implicitly.

"I had not intended to," Julia answered honestly. "However under the circumstances, I think it might be prudent. My employer's connections may assist us in our efforts to keep one step ahead. Especially once we arrive in the East."

Chris gave her a hard stare. "And who would that be?"

Julia shrugged, supposing there was no concealing it now and perhaps if the men knew the stakes, they might be motivated to keep one step ahead of Krauss. "His Majesty's government."

"So you are British Intelligence," Ezra standing next to Chris stated, unsurprised not merely because of their earlier discussion about the lady's origins but also by how resourceful she had been.

"I won't go into detail but let's just say we work for the Foreign Office and leave it at that."

"Just as long as the cheque clears," Chris replied, deciding in the scheme of things, it mattered little. After Krauss's attack on them, the least Chris could do was to keep the Aegis from the woman's hands and would put a bullet in her the brain if she threatened him and his kind again.

"If she gets to go then I do too," Mary stated, deciding this would be the perfect opportunity to bring this up since she had no intention of going home, not after hearing British Intelligence was involved. Her mind was practically discombobulating from the sheer juiciness of this particular story.

"Absolutely not," Chris said automatically, not about to be swayed on this point, even if he did get to first base with her out in the field. "It's too dangerous."

"I can handle myself," Mary bit back.

"Fine, when we get up into the air, you can show me how well by jumping out of the plane again with a parachute."

Mary glared at him, feeling a little incensed that he was still behaving like a chauvinistic pig after what they shared and then realised, the shift in their relationship might make him even more intractable on this point. Unfortunately for him, she was just as stubborn and was not about to be sent home like a misbehaving child.

"I'm going." She stated with a tone that implied there was no room for negotiation about this and he was just going to have to live with it.

"No, you're not," Chris bit back, feeling his own ire provoked, even if he had the sneaking suspicion, he might have already lost the argument here. But hell, he was a man not accustomed to going down easily. "If I have to strap you in a Pan-Am seat myself, you're going home."

"Look, you know and I know I'm going. Let's just get over it and have a nice flight." She smiled sweetly.

As they launched into another session of bickering, Julia who saw no surprise on any of the faces around her and downright amusement on Riley's, leaned over to Ezra.

"What's going on here?" Julia whispered at the gambler.

Ezra met her lovely face with an unrepentant grin. "Unresolved sexual tension."

The Millie cleared the English Coast, crossing over the Channel towards Belgium an hour later.

Thanks to Julia Pemberton's connections, they were able to gain flight clearance in record time once the refuelling of the Millie was complete. As of yet, the Nazis had not made a reappearance but with Vin, Ezra and JD's escape, Chris estimated it wouldn't take long for them to appear again. It was now clear the only reason they held off this long was because Isabella Krauss believed she had leverage to coerce Chris to her will while she had captives. Now this was no longer the case, the German agent would resume her pursuit of him.

As in recent months, JD took the co-pilot's seat when the Millie left the runway of Croydon airport. However, unlike previous occasions where JD would fill the air with questions about what Buck was doing behind the controls, or chattering enthusiastically about the exotic location they had just left behind or were heading to, the kid was oddly silent. Even though he went through the motions of assisting Buck with the takeoff, the pilot could see the younger man's mind was nowhere in the cockpit.

Buck made no reaction to this behaviour until England was behind them and the course was set for Belgium. Having heard Vin's account of their captivity, Buck could tell JD was shaken by the whole episode, though he was trying very hard to hide it. The pilot knew JD sometimes felt lacking in their company, feeling his sheltered upbringing could not possibly match the experiences the rest of them shared collectively. Whatever JD himself felt, Buck knew he touched something in all of them, something that recognised he was a missing part of their number and deserved his place among them.

"You want to talk about it?"

JD lifted his chin and stared at Buck for a few seconds, so lost in thought he almost didn't realise he was being spoken to. When it did register, he blinked and looked away, facing the dark sky beyond the cockpit glass.

"Nothing to talk about," he shrugged. "I'm fine."

"Are you? Really?"

Buck's tone was devoid of disbelief but he didn't think for one second the boy was fine. He spoke without the usual teasing he sometimes employed to roast the kid. JD didn't need that right now, he needed to talk. They all saw how affected he was by what happened but Chris had left it to him to broach the subject with JD because he knew the kid best.

JD met Buck's gaze at the question and saw nothing but the paternal concern JD had no idea he so craved until he met the man. "I'll be okay."

Yet even as he said the words, he knew he was anything but that. Krauss had scared the hell out of him and for the first time, he considered the life he was embarking upon by being one of Chris Larabee's relic hunters. It wasn't just that she intended to harm him. Hell, he'd been through worst situations helping Chris navigate some of the death traps they'd been forced to traverse to retrieve an artifact, but what happened tonight affected him on a level he hadn't expected. She had threatened to take his eyes and the idea of what that could mean for the rest of his life was so terrifying, JD couldn't even imagine it.

HIs entire life were books and what he could learn. No matter what hardships life threw at him, JD had always been able to take comfort in the written word, to lose himself in a story, a piece of history or even a riddle to be solved, and forget everything else. When he saw that knife, inches away from his face, its polished metal blade gleaming in the light, it felt like some demon winking at him in amusement, just before it took your soul.

"Spooked you huh?" Buck guessed accurately, seeing it on his face.

JD opened his mouth to protest, ready to deliver a sharp rebuttal to the comment when he realised what was the point? Falling silent for a few seconds, he gathered his thoughts and his nerve to speak.

"I feel like a coward. Nothing happened, I'm fine, I shouldn't be feeling this way."

"Being scared doesn't make you a coward JD," Buck said kindly. "Only an idiot ain't afraid of consequences. What we do is dangerous. Today you figured out just how much. I can't say what you ought to do with that but if that makes you take things a little bit more seriously, that can't be a bad thing can it?"

JD had to concede the point to Buck. "I thought for a moment what it was like to be blind and I didn't think I could stomach it, to not be able to do for myself, to never be able to see anything again. I know it didn't happen and it's silly but I got here because of what I know and what I know came from books. When I thought I was going to lose that I was ready to say anything. I can't shake how that feels."

"JD," Buck stopped him. "It ain't silly. I don't think anyone of us wouldn't have felt differently in the same situation. The fact is, you didn't say anything or give that bitch what she wanted."

"I might have," he admitted shamefully. "When I saw that knife I wasn't sure."

"Who is?" Buck shrugged and then took a deep breath. "JD, all I ever wanted in life is to be exactly where I am right now. In my own plane, in the skies, sailing across the sky. First time I saw a plane fly, I knew what I wanted and I never let anything stop me from getting it. I breathed flying from that first day. Hell, it would even chase me in my dreams."

JD listened, a little puzzled by the admission but willing to hear Buck out to gain context. He wasn't surprised by the revelation though. Buck may have been a shameful skirt chaser but the minute he got behind the yoke of an aircraft, he was home, they all saw it.

"When I fly JD, it's like I'm where I belong and if I can't do it anymore, I don't think I could stand it." Buck stared at JD in the eye to show the scholar he meant it. "First time I flew recon in the war, I was in this Bristol F2, which was nothing more than balsa and paint. I flew past enemy lines and up there, far away from the Western Front where men were dying like flies, you make the mistake thinking you're goddamn invincible, nothing can touch you."

JD didn't speak, listening to Buck's story intently, suspecting the point to this tale was the proof otherwise.

"Next thing I knew I got in the crosshairs of Richthofen's flying circus. I was no older than you JD and I thought I was going to die. I thought the Red Baron had got me in his sights and no one got away from that son of a bitch. I'm a good pilot, maybe one of the best but I'll tell you Manfred von Richthofen was THE pilot. Almost everyone who went up against him, died. I thought I was going to become another one of his kills."

"What happened?" JD asked, unable to imagine the happy-go-lucky pilot that afraid of anything.

"I was lucky, it wasn't him. It was a flyer from his squadron so I managed to get by him, but there was a minute there JD when I was so scared I thought maybe I ought to give it up because as beautiful as the skies are, I could die up here. At that moment, I would have made any promise to walk away with my life."

JD blinked and looked away. He didn't speak for a moment, ruminating on Buck's words. Yeah, he was scared, terrified of what nearly happened to him but worse than that, would be the loss of his friends, the men who took him into their circle and made him apart of their brotherhood. Losing that might even be worse.

"I just wanted you to know," Buck clamped his hand on his shoulder, "we've all been there and we understand. Don't feel bad because you're just as human as the rest of us."

"Thank you Buck," JD said quietly. "Thanks for telling me."

"Anytime kid," the older man said smiling. "Anytime."

Chapter Fifteen: The Deep

Mary Travis stood against the railing of the ‘gentlemen's yacht' procured by Ezra Standish shortly after their arrival in Alexandria, staring into the crystal blue ocean of Ageeba Beach. The shore in the distance revealed a tropical paradise one would find on a postcard from some exotic location, with crisp white sand that stood in stark contrast to the shimmering water. This was a place you'd imagine you'd find girls in hula skirts, not a forgotten corner of the great Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, now weathered into non-existence by time and history.

Beyond the shore, concealed by the tall row of palm trees, was the town of Marsa Matruh. During Alexander's time, it was called Amunia and in the days of the Ptolemies, it was called Paraitonion. Here, was the ruins of the great temple of Rameses II and beneath the waters of this lovely beach was the last remaining annex of the Great Library of Alexandria. Constructed before Cleopatra became the last of her dynasty, the Serapheum was intended to preserve what remained of the library, then falling prey to Romans and later to Christians.

On this day however, it was the keeper of the only remaining clue to the location of the Aegis.

"I'm certain he is alright," Julia Pemberton said leaning against the railing of the forty-eight-foot beauty of polished wood and twin diesel engines. The craft, called the Maverick, possessing a spacious wheelhouse, a saloon below deck and two berths, had become their temporary refuge since arriving in Egypt.

Mary tensed at the comment, having no desire to be caught exposing her true feelings for Chris Larabee to anyone. She supposed it might have been a moot point, but pride demanded she kept the non-secret for as long as she could. Watching the woman strolling down the deck, Mary thought she looked like Katherine Hepburn, with her fiery red hair, tailored slacks and loose white shirt, a contrast to her own one piece bathing suit.

"I'm not worried," she feigned indifference. "Even before I met the jerk, I researched him and his group. I know what they get up to on their hunts."

Of course, this was probably the first time he had gone diving with Ezra and JD wearing a contraption that looked all too fragile for the purpose it was intended. While Chris had assured her Le Prieur's open-circuit system was less cumbersome than conventional diving gear, Mary was by no means assured. There was none of the protection provided by a normal diving suit and he, Ezra and JD had gone into the water just wearing swimming briefs. Despite the attractive view, Mary was still anxious.

Julia tried not to smile at the woman's obvious evasion. Since she joined Mr Larabee and his team of adventurers in search of the Aegis, the interaction between him and Mary was almost a Lombard movie farce. Then again, she had no right to chide the woman since she had not liked the idea of Ezra Standish joining the underwater expedition either, though her feelings on that point were still unformed. He intrigued her and had done so since she first spied him at the museum in Albuquerque. "Of course," Julia said with a perfectly straight face.

"Ah what do you know," Mary made a face at her, perfectly aware Julia was seeing right through her denials, before breaking into a good-natured smile. "You know, the last time I saw you, you were in a bassinet and I was barely out of diapers."

"Well I am afraid I remember none of that," Julia smiled back before facing the ocean, her emerald coloured eyes hidden beneath her sunglasses. She sometimes found it jarring to remember she had been born American when everything about the land of her birth was erased by her very English upbringing. "But I am glad to finally get the chance to catch up. My mother rarely liked to speak about her life in America, possibly because it was too painful to remember my father, so I know very little about him."

"I understand," Mary nodded. Donald Avery was killed six months after becoming a father by the Children of Erran, a doomsday cult. "I can't say I remember much about that time, but I do know it hit my father, William Styles and Hank Conley quite badly. They were never the same after that."

Indeed, Donald Avery's death had revealed to the remaining members of the tight-knit circle of friends they were being hunted by the Erran and eventually it was only her father Orin, who was left.

"It can't be easy outliving one's friends," Julia had understood as much when she spoke to Orin at the museum. The sadness at being the last man standing affected him profoundly, especially when he told Julia about Donald. It was clear just how much he missed the friends of his youth and it quashed any residual feelings of guilt she had at ending Adashir Shah's life once and for all.

Not that there was much of that.

"How long has it been?" Vin Tanner announced himself, joining the two women at the rail maintaining their vigil. Next to him was Buck Wilmington, who was just as worried for JD as Mary and Julia were concerned for Chris and Ezra. Below deck, Josiah and Nathan chose to stave off their anxieties for their friends by playing cards with Riley.

Vin was no fan of the ocean, or that matter any large body of water. Having spent most of his life inland, swimming was not a pastime usual for him and he was unashamed to admit, he was not good at it either. Now he wished it were otherwise because he would prefer to be at Chris's side during this expedition to the Serapheum, instead of cooling his heels on this fancy boat.

"Fifteen minutes," Julia answered promptly.

Buck uttered an annoyed grunt. "Still don't like the idea of them going down there with a tank of compressed air strapped to their backs. "Anything goes wrong, we wouldn't have a net fine enough to pick up the pieces."

Both Mary and Julia turned to him sharply.

Reacting almost on reflex, Vin flicked the back of Buck's ear with his fingers.

"Ow! That hurt." The pilot grumbled and tossed Vin a look. "What's that for?"

"For scaring the womenfolk," he shifted a sidelong glance at Julia and Mary who despite varying degrees of effort at concealing it, were worried about the expedition beneath the sea.

"Oh," Buck stiffened in annoyance at his lack of sensitivity. "I'm sure they're going to be okay. There isn't much Chris and Ezra can't handle."

Buck hoped those weren't famous last words.

The last time Chris went diving, it was while wearing a conventional diving suit, salvaging the spoils from a sunken Phoenician galleon off the Mediterranean coast. It was one of the few experiences Chris swore off ever doing again. Aside from feeling as if he were dressed in a suit of armour, he was limited in his explorations because he was tethered to the vessel they charted by the air hose vital for his survival. The inside of the suit was unbearably hot and he had climbed out of the thing smelling like the innards of a gym bag that had been left in someone's locker for all too long.

This experience was vastly different.

Surrounded by the sapphire beauty of the sea, he was free to move wherever he wished. Wearing a harness across his body that held oxygen tanks to his back, the mask across his face revealed the world around him in all its spectacular glory. Meanwhile, Le Prieur's breathing apparatus allowed him to draw air through his nose and mouth. His movement through the water was further aided by the flippers on his feet, making him feel like a fish as he swam towards the ruins not far away from their present location.

Above them, the silhouette of the Maverick, along with the illumination of the afternoon sky told them how far away they were from the surface. Next, to him, JD and Ezra remained within his line of sight. Indeed, his instructions to his comrades, in particular JD, was pointed. As much freedom as they were afforded thanks to this new diving equipment, they were traversing an alien environment they had little experience with. If any of them encountered trouble, the consequences could be fatal if they were on their own.

Thanks to the mask and the clear waters of Ageeba Beach, the outline of the Serapheum could be seen in the nearby distance. Little else about the structure was discernible since it was almost entirely encased in barnacles, coral and other ocean vegetation. An entire ecosystem had come to life around the ancient monument with fronds of sea anemone waving at the shoals of fish shimmering past them. Large groupers that looked like old men with a long way to travel on foot, puffed by with blank interest in the vibrant colours of the ocean bed.

Chris wished he could capture the glorious tableau of sea life as they swam across the coral, sending fish swimming away in fear from the unfamiliar creatures in their midst. All three men were armed with blades while Ezra carried a fishing spear in case they encountered anything down here that took a deeper interest in them. Careful to remain a safe distance above the coral which would cut them to pieces if contact was made with bare flesh, the trio headed toward the nearest opening they could find, once they became familiar with navigating through the water.

As always JD learned fast. Youthful excitement had him pulling ahead until a sharp tug on his flipper and the infamous Larabee glare making it through Chris's mask, told the young man to slow down. Ezra, on the other hand, was scanning the area as Chris led the way, making sure they weren't caught unawares by the predators in the deep. He spied the sinister stare of a moray eel watching them from its crack in the reef and a manta ray shifting the sand off itself in a huff at their passing, but so far the idyllic landscape remained just that, idyllic.

The entrance or a window, it was difficult to say at this point because it was covered in almost two thousand years of coral and ocean flora, appeared to be little more than a dark fissure in the coral encrusted walls. Approaching it, Chris flicked on the dive light he brought with him and shone the beam into the ragged hole. A school of clownfish scattered at the illumination and revealed a chamber large enough for them to enter.

Chris went in first, ignoring the claustrophobic feel of the place as he followed the chamber to its end. Like its exterior, it was covered with sea moss and pitted from erosion and salt. Through the deterioration, Chris did see faint outlines of art, some managing to stand the test of time. The letters were in ancient Greek and Chris looked over his shoulder to see JD pausing to study them before he was prompted by Ezra to get a move on. The air was finite and neither Ezra nor Chris wish to be down here when that supply was exhausted.

As they swam deeper into the submerged structure, the evidence of collapse was clear by the broken fragments of wall, the jagged sections still standing and columns crumbled up into uneven loaves across the floor. The slabs of marble paving remained mostly intact while the passage they were entering, clearly a hallway of some kind emptied into a larger room. More sea life began to shift in the darkness, some none too happy by the penetration of light into their safe, dark space and reacted to the strobes in the extreme. Some rushed away in fear, while the more brazen of them attacked the light, bouncing off the glass like moths before Chris shooed them away.

By now, Ezra and JD had turned on their torches and the combined beams of light illuminated the room they had just entered. It was large with high ceilings and while there was damage from its unceremonious end in the sea, it remained as it had stood thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The walls were covered with algae and seaweeds, corals and barnacles but there was no denying what this place was.

A library.

The shelves that once contained the most extensive collection of writings in the history of civilisation were devoid of any works. Each man felt a profound sadness knowing the scrolls, recreated from the books of every ship sailing into Alexandria, did not survive the sea. No doubt, traces of them might still remain on the floor of the library, lost within the layers of moss and sediments across the slabs. A few tables and chairs remained scattered throughout the room as well as pieces of broken pottery, most likely oil lamps peering through the mud on the floor.

While still keeping his comrades in sight, JD swam to one of the mosaic-covered walls. Aiming his torch against the tessera made of glass, shell and ivory, he sought out the reason for their journey here. Opening the knapsack he brought with him, the youngest of the adventurers produced the underwater camera with its Boudain housing and the magnesium flash he would need to record their discoveries here. Unfortunately, there was no way for him to use his notebook in this environment and while his memory was astonishingly good, he did not wish to rely solely on it.

Using the series of hand signals they agreed upon before making the dive, Chris gestured at Ezra to keep a vigil on the entrance to the room while he joined JD in examining the walls for the mosaic created by the forgotten artist Kephalon. Ezra gestured his understanding with a nod and tightened his grip on the fishing spear before swimming through the darkness, his presence marked by the strobe of his flashlight.

The mosaics taking up most wall spaces, revealed various scenes from the ancient world. Even though colour tended to bleed away at this depth leaving most things blue, Chris thought they were breathtaking. Similar to the Mosaics of Delos where the Hellenistic world was so strikingly depicted, the Serapheum's version was also quite impressive. Images of classical mythology, including a rather gruesome image of Prometheus bound to his scab of rock for the sin of gifting fire to humanity followed one after the other as Chris charted the wall. Other depictions were more pedestrian, such as the view of the Serapheum in its glory. One piece revealed Alexander the Great taming his horse Bucephalus.

A tap on the shoulder reminded him they were here for a purpose and their oxygen supply was too precious for him to be wasting it gawking like a teenager. Turning to the hand that touched him, he saw JD gesturing for him to follow. Despite where they were, Chris could see JD's enthusiasm through the swirl of floppy hair in front of his face mask. The kid was holding the camera Chris was assured would be worth the pretty penny they paid for it in their hunt for the Aegis.

Reaching the section of wall JD had swam to and had resumed studying, Chris followed the beam from JD's torch. When Chris was close enough, JD pointed to the tessera in front of them. Flashing his own torch against the faded surface, the light revealed Kephalon's surviving work. While time had taken the lustre of the tessera, it had blunted none of its power.

Perseus's profiled image was staring into some depicted horizon. The great hero was astride the horse Pegasus, soaring against a tiled blue background intended to be the sky. Beneath him were the ranges of a mountain, one whose shape and peaks were detailed enough for Chris to believe the artist was describing a specific place, not somewhere random. Leaning closer, his breath sounding louder in his years as bubbles floated in front of him from each exhale, Chris wondered where it was and hoped the inscription would shed some light on its location.

Just as the thought crossed his mind, a burst of light startled him. Bubbles frothed in front of him and he turned to see JD looking a little apologetic. The young scholar was using the underwater camera to take shots of the scene for study later. The magnesium flash had temporarily made it as bright as day in the dark chamber and eclipsed the light of the torch for a brief second before the darkness encroached on them again.

Another burst of magnesium created brilliance, resumed the valiant effort to penetrate the dark and for the next few seconds, technology fought nature for dominance as JD took as many pictures as he could with his camera. Once they were on the surface, he could develop them and they would study it in safer surroundings. As JD continued his work, Chris raised his watch to his wrist and saw the time was running out on their oxygen supply. In the corner of his eye, he could see the light of Ezra's torch from the entrance, watching their backs as instructed.

Then it started blinking on and off and Chris knew immediately they were in trouble

While Chris and JD were engaged in their study of Kephalon's mosaics, Ezra was keeping a vigil on the chamber to ensure nothing larger than an angelfish made an appearance. As he made his own explorations of the chamber, though not straying far away from the entrance as Chris instructed, the gambler had to admit, he found this method of diving to be very pleasing and was fascinated by the remains of the underwater ruin. When this scavenger hunt was done, Ezra made a mental note to find out what he could about recreational diving. It was certainly a pastime he could enjoy.

Studying the broken fragments of ceramic on the floor, he noted something catching the gleam of his torch and drifted to the slabs to pick it up. The mud and moss swirled free as he lifted up the object and found it to be a cup, no doubt fashioned from bronze and encrusted with sediments. It would clean up nicely after some well-deserved attention Ezra thought. He slipped it into one of the compartments in the belt pack he wore around his waist. Once he tucked away his prize, Ezra returned to his examinations, eager to see what other trinkets he might salvage from this expedition, anything to keep his mind off the redhead on the boat.

Since the lady had come to their rescue and revealed herself to them, his interaction with her had been minimal mostly because his heart beat just a little quicker in her presence. For the last few months, the memory of those amazing eyes and copper coloured hair had been a fantasy he played with often. Despite his cynical nature, Ezra was a romantic and there was something about her that told him, she was someone who could matter to him. If he were not so private about matters of the heart, he would have been tempted to ask Vin if this was how it felt, to meet someone and know immediately, she was your soul mate.

Julia Pemberton made him think that way.

Ezra was also certain his infatuation was not one-sided. Shortly before he made his journey into the sea with Chris and JD, she had seen him off on the deck. Though she wished him well with typical British aloofness, Ezra saw the concern in her eyes. He knew right away she did not share her feelings readily and realised they had that much in common but her entreaty to him to be careful was full of emotion. If he had been so vain, he might have tried to draw it out of her, but they were both creatures of privacy and knew such an attempt would be a mistake. The lady would tell him she cared in her own good time and Ezra knew the value of patience.

The shimmer of silvery scales through the darkness tore his attention away from thoughts of Julia Pemberton and Ezra flashed his torch in its direction to see a shoal of fish swimming through the entrance. Light bounced off their striped bodies as they swam gracefully through the blue water, their speed making Ezra think they were zebras moving across the savannah. There was something about these fish that sparked a memory and for a few seconds, the gambler simply stared, trying to nail down why and then he remembered.

Pilot fish. They were pilot fish, which meant . . . .

Through the black, he saw the shark's white body swimming into the chamber. Almost eight feet in length, two things jumped out immediately. First, the size of its dorsal fin which was larger than most of its cousins across the globe, the second was the sheer bulk of it. Suddenly, Ezra felt extremely conscious of the fact the only weapon he had in his arsenal was a spear and against a creature who could move through this environment with far greater ease than him, it felt somewhat feeble.

A primeval fear, one that harkened back to the first caveman who came across a predator in the dark, gripped him and Ezra's terror made his gut clench. Killing the light immediately, Ezra's first thought was to make a wild dash for Chris and JD, to warn them of the danger. No sooner than the thought crossed his mind, Ezra dismissed it. The beast had yet to see him but the instant it did, it would attack. It took him a moment to identify the type of shark it was before concluding it to be a white tip shark. While his knowledge of ichthyology was not expert, Ezra knew enough to know this species to know it was responsible for more deaths than any other shark species.

Ezra remained very still, hoping his lack of movement and the darkness might shroud his presence from the creature but that would be of little help to Chris and JD, who were still oblivious to the imminent threat approaching them with dead eyes and serrated teeth. Thinking fast, he turned the flashlight on and off repeatedly, signalling in morse and hoped it would be enough.

All it did was tell the shark exactly where he was.

Chapter Sixteen: JAWS

Someday, Ezra thought when he saw the shark turning its soulless eyes in his direction, someone was going to weave a tale of great fiction from the situation he presently found himself.

The shark's silvery white body turned and stark terror filled him as he saw the upside down harlequin smile part to reveal a row of sharp serrated teeth. His first thought was to flee but then what? The predator about to rip him apart was surging through the water with graceful speed, while he was attempting to escape through the same environment like a clumsy intruder.

Searching desperately for an alternative that did not allow him to fight the beast, Ezra searched the area around him for refuge and saw only the tables left behind when the library descended into the deep. Swimming towards one before the creature intercepted, he wondered if Chris had seen his warning and gotten JD clear of the place while the shark's focus was on him. Reaching the table, he had less than a second when the predator closed in.

Ezra flipped the table on its side and was rewarded by the impact of the shark's nose against the wood. The power of the creature drove him and the table backwards and in the fleeting moment before he felt the collision of metal against the stone, supposed he ought to be grateful the table didn't snap in half. As it was, the tank against his back made a loud clang and another thought struck him, what if the thing had been damaged?

These split-second thoughts had little time to coalesce because the shark was still coming. Ezra saw it quickly recover from his earlier action and was swimming through the water again, its jaws widening as it prepared to ram the table once more. Somehow, Ezra knew the wood would be incapable of withstanding a repeated assault. The serrated teeth seemed even more menacing and reminded Ezra of the spear he was holding.

Ducking behind the table like a shield when those teeth were upon him, he felt the shockwave through the wood as the nose of the creature struck it like a wrecking ball. A loud crack was followed by the table's surface giving way and saw the pale colour of the bark when it was split. Raising his eyes to see through the cloud of bubbles, the wide mouth opened and Ezra never thought it was possible to feel this much fear. He lashed out, driving the sharp point of the spear into the beast's cartilage hide.

The shark retreated immediately from the pain, the massive body shaking like an eel as a shudder raced across its length from head to tail. A trail of blood followed its withdrawal diminishing almost immediately by the ocean current. Ezra took a moment to seek out Chris and JD and was grateful when he saw only murky blue water. If they knew of his situation, they were would likely have switched off their torches the instant they saw his signal.

While he was no martyr, he hoped they had not stuck around to try and save him because in this watery environment they would be just as disadvantaged as he. He had no wish for them to face this monster in its domain and end up the same way if it was his fate to meet his maker this day. In any case, he had no more time to debate the matter because the shark had recovered from the surprise attack and was now coming after him, no doubt filled with fury and aggression. He had no doubt if he failed against this creature's attack, he would be ripped apart.

CLANG!

The sound was so loud and jarring, Ezra reacted to it as swiftly as the shark with the great beast turning its bullet-shaped head in the direction from which the sound came. Another loud clang followed the first, giving both Ezra and the shark a clearer idea of its source. His heart froze at the realisation it was coming from the direction of where he had last seen Chris and JD. As he looked its way, he saw a flashlight come to life, flickering on and off in a sequence that repeated itself in the three seconds it took for him to comprehend what it meant.

GO.

The message was no doubt from Chris Larabee who was giving him the opportunity to escape with his life. For a second, Ezra almost refused until he realised staying would mean disobeying Chris's order and after their service together for so long, the gambler was too conditioned to ignore it. Swearing inwardly, he did what Chris demanded and took his chance when the shark went towards the source of the noise, hoping that if he got to the boat, he might think of a way to help Chris and JD.

Because until then, they were on their own.

When Chris saw Ezra's light flicker off, he realised immediately they were in trouble.

How much trouble didn't fully reveal itself until he saw the shoal of pilot fish and caught on even quicker than Ezra, what the appearance of the creatures meant. Pilot fish and sharks shared one of nature's oddest relationships where the tiny fish fed off the excess flesh around the apex predator's mouth, keeping the shark in question free from parasites. It was also a good signal to any human in the water that if pilot fish was about, it was time to get out of it.

The white tip shark that entered the chamber was more than large enough to deal with the humans in sharing the space and Chris swam to JD the instant the lights had dimmed on Ezra's torch to warn the kid of what was coming. JD was still taking his pictures when Chris's arm on his shoulder made him turn sharply.

His questioning look reached through the mask and remained long enough for Chris to point out the shark presently trying to make Ezra Standish a meal before it was replaced by one of panic. Bubbles produced from his rapid breathing immediately covered his face and Chris had to put both hands on his shoulder to calm him down because hyperventilating whilst underwater with a diver's mask was almost as damaging as a shark attack.

With growing horror, Chris saw Ezra who had reignited his torch so he could see the large creature attacking him, being slammed against the wall and knew constant pounding like that was going to cause serious injury to the gambler if he didn't get eaten first. Even more alarmingly than those two possibilities was the fact Ezra might damage his oxygen tank and run out of air while down here. Perfectly aware of just how vulnerable they were here, Chris knew Ezra needed a distraction to get away..

Thinking quickly, he searched the floor for something to use to draw the shark's attention and sighted the outline of what appeared to be a bronze candlestick against the floor. Swimming to it, Chris picked up the ancient relic, creating a cloud of mud and algae to swirl around his fist, before swimming to JD. Tapping the camera, he gestured quickly to the kid what needed to be done and hoped JD understood or else he was going to be just as screwed as Ezra if they didn't do anything.

JD nodded, his fear apparent on his face but the kid was too stubborn to let it get the better of him.

Still clutching the candlestick in his hand, Chris swam to a fallen column, its shaft almost two weed wide and started banging it against the ruined marble. The sound was loud enough to capture the attention of the shark immediately and it halted in its attempt to reach Ezra. Once it turned, Chris flickered the torch on and off, delivering his short message to Ezra, hoping the gambler was smart enough to guess what he was doing and clear the hell out.

He didn't get a chance to find out because his distraction had succeeded spectacularly, prompting the great fish to swing around, sourcing out its newest target. Chris immediately switched off the torch and got down low, ensuring the column provided him with cover as he saw the fish swimming towards him. The shark's black button eyes which were the perfect reflection of the creature's sometimes soulless visage sought out its prey.

Chris stopped breathing, further masking his presence and looked up to see the black silhouette passing over him in the water. Like Ezra, Chris's heart was pounding, the way any lesser creature would do when faced with the animal occupying the top of the food chain. Man without his technology was at the mercy of an apex predator like any other creature in the wild. As it passed over him, Chris pushed up from the ocean bed, his blade brandished.

It slid into the belly of the creature all the way to the hilt, with pulses of blood flowed like tendrils through the blue, creating a mist of red that diminished quickly in the deep. The shark reeled in agony, its body twisting in reaction before it sought out the source of the attack. Before it could do so, JD under instruction swam out from his hiding place, his camera held in a white-knuckled grip. Not that Chris could blame him. Facing this monster would not be his first choice either.

Nevertheless, JD carried out his part of the plan despite his fear and considering all the things Chris had asked of him in the last year since the boy joined them, Chris had to admire his guts. Fear, like every other obstacle in JD's life, was a thing to be hurdled, not to shrink from.

The first burst of light from the flaring magnesium flash bulb filled the space with such brilliance, even Chris had to look away. For a brief second, the space between man and shark was illuminated so brightly, it felt like they were only a few feet from the surface of the water, not dozens deep, in a chamber on the sea bed. The shark recoiled immediately, it's sensitive eyes flooded with the glare. The conical head turned and Chris hoped the punishment they were inflicting upon it would be enough to force the creature to leave and not piss it off even more.

It circled the space where JD had been, trying to regroup after the bright flare, a mist of blood still drifting beneath its body where Chris had stabbed it. JD was trying to get to the exit out of the chamber as Chris ordered but was soon faced with the shark coming in for another run at the younger man. JD raised the camera at it again, setting off the magnesium lash a second time and once again, lighting up the room with its white-hot brilliance.

This time, the ploy worked better and when the shark circled once more it went further afield. Chris waved JD towards the entrance and the both of them surged through the water, reaching the narrow passage leading back to the surface. Of course, they were outrunning a predator that could move a great deal faster than they did in this environment and JD's supply of flashes for his camera was not infinite. If they could leave the structure before the creature discovered they were gone, they might have a chance of surviving the next ten minutes.

Ezra was nowhere in sight and Chris hoped to God the gambler had gotten back to the boat with the opening Chris had given him. If the man was still in the library, Chris did not even want to think of what would happen when the shark found him.

Even with the weight of the tanks against their backs, adrenaline was making them move through the water with speed, leaving a trail of bubbles behind Chris knew the shark would hone in on soon enough. Both of them were swimming neck and neck when they saw the outline of the entrance to the passage suddenly appear, giving form by the sunlight outside the walls of this sunken ruin.

They were almost to the entrance when suddenly both men were thrown sideways against the walls of the chamber when the shark swam right between them. Chris bit down on the mouthguard of the breather he was wearing when he felt the pain of his brush with the creature. The shark's cartilage scraped his side and he saw a light cloud of blood as skin was broken. Knowing there could be nothing worse than bleeding with a shark in the water, Chris ignored the consequences to himself and sought out JD.

JD had not been hurt, even though he was swept against the wall and was fully aware when the shark turned and came at them head-on. He had two bulbs left in his flash and his fingers fumbled to replace it as the creature closed in. Lifting up the camera as its jaw widened, JD set off the flash again and once more, that brilliant glare filled the space between them. This time, the effect was much worse because they were in a narrower space.

The creature's conical snout veered away at the last minute, colliding hard against the wall in its effort to escape the intense light. Taking advantage of its present disorientation, JD swam towards Chris who was trying to put as much distance between himself and JD. Like Chris, JD knew that while he was bleeding like that, the leader of the seven was a beacon to a hunter who could smell blood at one part per million, and reportedly had the ability to sense heartbeats in water. Unless Chris got out of the sea fast, his blood would lead the creature straight to them.

They were at the ragged opening into the library and even though the faint light penetrating that doorway, they could see the shark's reaction to the blood. It was going to catch up to them in seconds. What came next was pure inspiration and part terror. Pulling out his diver's knife with its formidable blade, JD ignored Chris's puzzlement before he slammed the hard still point into the shaft of the tank.

It didn't penetrate at all, barely a scratch but the second try yielded the results needed. Ensuring his grip was on the strap of the harness holding the tank to Chris's back, he saw Chris's eyes widen and knew the shark was about to reach them. Despite this, Chris allowed JD to make one more attempt, showing the young man even in these possible last seconds, he trusted him.

The rupture was small but it was enough.

Chris was suddenly pushed forward, propelled by the compressed air escaping from his tank thanks to the puncture JD had put in it. As he sped through the ocean, JD held on to Chris and was taken along for the ride as the older man, realising what JD had done ensured they headed towards the Maverick whose outline they could see on the surface of the water. Looking over his shoulder, JD saw the shark had emerged from the sunken library and was giving chase. The puncture in Chris's air tank had widened the gap between prey and predator for them to have a chance of making it back to the boat alive, but that margin was narrowing.

The shark, already stinging from its wounds and attracted by the scent of the prey's blood water in the water, was not about to give up the chase. As the oxygen rushed out of the puncture in a jet of bubbles, both men aided the journey through the water by swimming harder than they had in their entire lives. Fleetingly, JD prayed Ezra was on the boat by now, because if he was still down here . . .

The thought was too terrible.

The hull of the boat came into view and JD could see the shimmering shape of the others standing at the edge, searching for them. The view was still too obscure for them to make out who was who, but knowing they were there was enough. Behind them, the shark was closing the distance as the supply of compressed air in the oxygen began to dwindle and JD knew if it ran out before they reach the ladder to the deck of the boat, the beast might still get its meal.

Out of nowhere, an arrow surged through the water and struck the creature on the broadside of its head. The point of the arrow dove in deep and once again, a mist of blood oozed of into the water. Another arrow followed the first, this one lodging itself in the shark's dorsal fin. They were close enough to the surface for the arrow to retain enough of its velocityto be damaging. The same could not be said if bullets were fired instead. WIthout seeing it himself, JD knew it was Vin Tanner on the deck of the Maverick, using the bow he loathed everyone calling Clara, giving them this respite.

The air finally gave out within a few feet of the stepladder leading to the deck of the Maverick. Not that it mattered because Josiah and Buck were already there, reaching for them when they neared it. Both men reached into the sea and hauled Chris and JD out, helping their climb up the rungs before they collapsed on the deck. As expected, Vin fired one more arrow at the shark, before lowering Clara and turning his attention back to the others.

To JD's utter relief, he saw Ezra was there.

The gambler was seated on one of the wooden benches along the port side deck, attended to by Nathan. The healer was examining the dark bruise along the back, no doubt where Ezra was slammed into the wall when the shark had driven him into it along with the table Ezra had been hiding behind. Leaning against the railing and watching them both was Julia Pemberton and JD had the impression by the way her attention was fixed on them, it was real concern she hid behind her sunglasses.

At the sight of them, the gambler was on his feet, dismissing Nathan's entreaties to sit down with a wave of his hand.

"Mr Dunne, Mr Larabee," Ezra approached them with clear relief on his face. "I am gratified to see you both in one piece."

"Same here Ezra," JD smiled. "Thanks to you. If you didn't warn us . . . ."

"I believe considering you both availed yourself to my escape, we are even."

Anything else he was going to say was overshadowed by Mary's exclamation of horror at the sight of Chris on the deck, his torso swathed with a towel to stymie the blood flowing from his side scraped raw by the brush of shark cartilage.

"Chris!"

Her heart froze in her chest seeing the crimson stain spreading across the towel, the blood no longer held at bay by the ocean pressure. Her cry succeeded in propelling Nathan forward, the healer forgetting all about Ezra as he pushed past them to reach Chris.

"Good Lord!" His eyes widened with similar shock.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Chris winced at both their reactions knowing it was a little bit more serious than his casual dismissal might imply. Still, he knew the injury looked worse than it was and Nathan always reacted this way when any of them were injured. As for Mary, Chris thought it was actually rather nice to have a woman fuss over him again. Of course, he would rather face that shark instead of telling her such a thing.

No matter what Mary Travis might tell herself about Chris Larabee, the journalist could not deny she cared for this man deeply, even when he was being a chauvinistic ass. Seeing the towel stained with blood, struck cold terror into her heart and reminded her most sharply, what kind of life he led and how much danger he faced on a daily basis.

"You idiot!" Mary dropped to her knees next to him, her ire provoked by her concern. "Haven't you faced enough scary things to learn how to get away!"

"Not that many," he turned to her. "I still got you dogging me."

Mary threw up her hands in exasperation while the men around her tried not to snigger.

"Why do I bother?"

"I'm sure Mr Larabee is fine," Julia assured Mary as she stepped forward, seeing through Mary's bluster to recognise what she was masking. In truth, when Julia had seen Ezra Standish climb out of the water alive but somewhat bruised, she had felt a little of that herself.

"Idiot," Mary cursed again and leaned forward to plant a quick kiss on his cheek before they exchanged an affectionate glance.

"I'm okay," he assured her once more.

"You better be. I won't have you ruining my story by dying."

While Chris and Mary shared their moment, with Nathan continuing to treat the leader of the seven, Vin joined the group after chasing away the shark, last seen cursing underwater sporting an arrow through its dorsal fin, having returned Clara to her case. Vin instructed Josiah to get moving, wanting to take the craft back to shore in case Chris needed more help than Nathan was capable of provider. The sharpshooter neared JD and Ezra instead, wanting to get the details on their expedition to the Serapheum.

"How did it go?"

Julia who was also very interested in the answer listened closely from her spot by the railing.

"I cannot say," Ezra answered truthfully, aware JD had taken a few pictures when they were in the library but could add nothing more on whether or not the journey had been worth the price they had almost paid. "I was too busy trying to keep myself from being devoured."

Inwardly, Julia stiffened at how close that had come to becoming a reality.

"I got what we needed," JD said to Vin, lifting the camera as proof of his success. Aside from capturing what they needed from Kephalon's work, the flash had saved all their lives. "As soon as I develop the film and translate what's on it, we'll know where to go next."

Vin stole a glance at the ocean surrounding them and hoped wherever they ended up next, it was drier.

Chapter Seventeen: The Eye of the Storm

"You should be resting."

Across the smoky glow of the candlelight on their table in the cocktail bar of the Paradise Inn, Mary Travis stared at Chris Larabee reproachfully. Surrounded by lavish furnishings and draperies of white and gold, a crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, illuminating a painting of the Muses in classical style. On the floor of Valencia marble, were two dozen or so tables occupied by guests of the hotel who were waiting to take up their reservations at the five-star restaurant. In the centre of the room, a crooner accompanied by a ten-piece orchestra belted out Eddy Duchin's latest tune.

"You are my lucky star
I saw you from afar
If Garbo is a glamorous creature
You're a four-star feature
Though you are never seen
Up on a movie screen
You are my Shearer, Crawford, Hepburn, Harlow and my Garbo
You are my lucky star . . . "

"Stop nagging at me and drink your champagne," Chris ignored her and listened to the music. Even though his side did still feel a little sore, Nathan had swaddled him up good, and the pain was dulled enough by now for him to tolerate it. Besides, how often did he have to entertain a gorgeous dame with eyes for him (despite her claims to the contrary) in a fancy place like this? Until JD could develop the images he had taken of Kephalon's mural and examine them, there was little for them to do and since it appeared the Nazis had yet to catch up to them, there was no reason they couldn't take a little R and R.

"I am not nagging you," Mary made a face in his direction but picked up the flute of sparkling champagne. She had to admit Chris wore the black tuxedo expected of guests in this establishment very well. For a chauvinistic ass, he could be damned dapper when the mood took him, and she could not deny she was more than a little smitten, even if the realization galled her to no end. "I'm just worried. You were wrestling with a shark only a few hours ago."

"I wouldn't call it wrestling. More like getting my ass out of its way before I got eaten."

"That does not make me feel any better," she grumbled.

"Come on," he got to his feet and held out his hand. "Dance with me, Miss Travis?"

Mary looked up at him and flashed him a little smile. "Why do I put up with you?"

Chris took her by the hand, feeling a little pride when all eyes followed her across the dance floor. That glorious hair of hers hung around her shoulders like a cascade of gold, and she was dressed in a silvery, halterneck dress which emphasized her peaches and cream skin. He liked it even more when she offered no protest since she expressed her feelings for him quite clearly in that field outside Croydon.

"My charm and wit," Chris remarked, sliding an arm around her waist as they began to dance.

"Or the temporary leave of my senses," she returned smoothly but did not resist as they started dancing.

Chris hid his satisfied smirk, aware it would only serve to poke the bear of her feminist outrage. Sweeping his gaze across the room, he saw Buck working the bar, the big man playing up his devil-may-care pilot's persona to charm a few of the ladies present. A trio of them surrounded him, listening avidly to Buck tell God only knew what tall tales. Vin had opted to stay in the hotel room with JD, the young sharpshooter having no intention of getting into a 'monkey suit' as he called it, unless it was unavoidable. Julia Pemberton's offsider, Riley had volunteered to keep an eye on JD as well.

While there was no trace of the Nazis having followed them to Marsa Matruh, Chris did not wish any of their company to be alone at any point during their time in Egypt. After what happened in England, Chris was not about to risk anyone's life by being complacent. Even though he appeared to have recovered, Chris could still see what had almost happened to JD left its mark upon the young scholar's psyche. Enough so that when Chris ran into Isabella Krauss, he would be as merciful to her as she had intended to be to JD.

Surveying the room as was his habit no matter what the situation, he saw Josiah sharing a table with a rather attractive brunette in her forties. Both were engaged in conversation, and Chris wondered if JD would desist in badgering the former seminary student about Audrey King if he knew Josiah was capable of finding female company all on his own. Nathan on the other hand, was probably with Ezra and Julia, whom the gambler was trying to deny fascinated him, at the hotel's gaming tables.

At least Chris could be assured Ezra wouldn't lose the Millie in one of his games.

Returning his attention back to the woman in his arms, he couldn't help being intoxicated by the scent of her perfume which felt like a mixture of roses and some other element he couldn't name but was nevertheless pleasing. Sarah used to like roses, he thought absentmindedly and quickly put the thought out of his head. It had taken him a long time to accept she was gone and he needed to move on. Never was that more apparent than when he met Mary, and now they were here, he wasn't about to backtrack. Sarah would have been the first one to tell him to start living again.

"So is this what you expected when you stowed away on the Millie?"

Mary raised her eyes to him and sighed. "You're never going to let me forget that are you?"

Chris pretended to think and then replied with a grin. "No."

She rolled her eyes. "Well I didn't expect to be so hands-on in your adventures, and I could have done without falling out of a plane or being chased by Nazis, but all in all, you do know how to show a girl a good time, Mr Larabee."

"I try. So what happens after you write your story? You going to vanish on me back to New York?"

"It's what I do Chris," Mary met his gaze, sensing despite his light tone, there were deeper depths to his question. "However, I am the best kind of girlfriend."

Chris crooked a brow and stared at her in question. "Really?"

"Yeah," she smiled. "The kind who's not waiting for you to come back from whatever insanity you and *Sunshine Sammy, Mickey, little Farina and the rest of the gang are getting up to. Neither of us are the settling down kind, are we?"

Not any more, Chris thought. She was right. He liked his life, travelling across the globe with men who were his brothers, chasing treasure that most people were convinced were fiction. It was a good life, one that had given him and the rest of the seven, purpose. Chris was in no particular hurry to see that change, and he had a feeling, she was gripped with the same passion in her work as a reporter, he would not take that away from her, any more than she was hesitant to stake a claim on him. It was enough that they cared for each other.

The future was history yet to be written, and Chris was happy to let it unfold in its own time.

Ezra sat across the table and stared at his opponents.

He was in the eye of a storm, in a place of calm devoid of the chaos elsewhere. Sounds had diminished into nothingness, the clinking of glasses, the chatter of voices and the distant music penetrating the walls from the other rooms in the hotel. All he could see was the table, the faces of the opponents with their thin masks hiding nothing and of course, the cards. In his mind's eye, he saw every play, calculated every probability and read the outcome in the orchestra of tics, twitches, and blinks escaping with a held breath or a random exhale.

There were three other opponents at the table, and Ezra had deemed all but one to be of any real threat. The Turk with his crimson red fez, with twirling moustache and cream white suit. He reeked of exotic oils, too much cologne and the slight whiff of a Turkish cigar. His portly gait straining the buttons of his ornate vest, he admired Julia who was sitting on Ezra's right with more interest than Ezra liked. Of course, he couldn't blame the Turk's attention because she was rather stunning in the satin green dress with the scallop neck, that brought out her emerald coloured eyes.

Next to the Turk was someone Ezra knew Maude would have taken particular delight in crushing. Dressed impeccably in a tuxedo with tails, the man introduced himself as Danforth Barrineau and spoke with a decidedly Charleston twang. He eyed Nathan who was sitting next to Ezra at the table with obvious disdain but was not brave enough to express his displeasure at sharing the gaming table with a negro. Just as well, Ezra thought, shooting a man in the kneecap was no way to end an evening.

That left the Englishman.

Like the rest of the men at the table, save the Turk, he was wearing a tuxedo although his was completely black. With a thick moustache and a face lined with too many years in the sun, most likely India, his speech indicated he was born to a title. He indeed carried himself with the airs and graces of someone who never had to worry about money because it was probably too vulgar to concern oneself with. Despite the fact he was quite vocal in his opinions, Ezra had learned quite quickly, the man was the most formidable talent at the table and was the one to offer him serious competition.

"So you don't think we'll get into another war?" Nathan asked, played out of the game some time ago and staying for the conversation.

Major Crittendon snorted at the notion. "I can't see White Hall stupid enough to get us entangled in another foreign mess. I'm certain this business with the Germans will pass. Hitler is a bombastic fool whose rhetoric will eventually wear itself out. I fought in the last war, and there was enough bloodshed on both sides for anyone to want a repeat of such a conflict. I served in Gallipoli."

Gallipoli.

Both Ezra and Nathan knew it well. Taking place before the entry of the United States into the Great War, the Entente powers attempted to weaken the Ottoman Empire by attacking them on home soil. The beach landing was so poorly thought out, thousands died by day's end. Ezra who had run into a few of the 'Anzacs' later on in the war, discovered the deep animosity felt by the Australian and New Zealand armed forces who thought they were used as cannon fodder by the English.

"Mr Standish," Julia spoke up, clearly sceptical of Crittendon's assessment of the German situation, "you and Mr Jackson served in the war, did you not?"

"We did ma'am," Nathan nodded, giving her a little smile because he'd caught on to the fact she disliked Crittendon's viewpoint of German aggression and Nathan had to admit, he agreed with her considering their experiences with the Reich of late. "Ezra was cavalry, and I was in the 92nd Battalion. We ran into each other during the Oise-Aisne Offensive."

Crittendon's eyes widened in surprise. "That was a nasty business. Heavy casualties indeed."

"I didn't think n . . . I mean coloured soldiers were allowed to serve in the war? I thought they had you boys working in the kitchens or cleaning floors." Barrineau's voice oozed with contempt at the idea of Nathan serving alongside any white soldier.

Ezra's kept his focus on the cards and Crittendon, but he did manage to respond, putting a kibosh on the tension he could see in Nathan's shoulders at that obvious disparagement. "On the contrary, the 92nd was one of the few coloured regiments serving on the front. Furthermore, if not for Mr Jackson here, who was a field medic, I would have died during that particular campaign."

"Oh my," Crittendon exclaimed. "You are most fortunate then."

Ezra shifted his gaze sideways long enough to brush against Ezra and added, "I am indeed. I owe Mr Jackson my life."

"Here, here," Crittendon raised his glass of whiskey in a toast to the healer.

"But you do not think another war is coming?" Sayid, their Turkish opponent who imbibed only water, asked.

"Not at all," Crittendon said confidently, and from the corner of his eye, Ezra saw the spark of disbelief in Julia's eyes.

Growing a little weary of listening to Crittendon's opinion on everything from the impossibility of another war and the 'Indian' problem currently taking place in the sub-continent due to the antics of Mahatma Gandhi, Julia excused herself to use the powder room. Unfortunately, Crittendon's attitude was not a surprise to her. England was reluctant to entertain the idea of another war after what the last one had cost them in lives.

Still, Julia was a realist, and she knew the sun was setting on the British Empire. The Great War had fractured it with Australia and New Zealand declaring independence, and India's was not a question of if but rather when. Even in this part of the world, the Arab states, expecting their freedom following the war, were simmering at the broken promises of independence. All it would take was another war and the British Empire as it was in Victoria's day, would fall. Oh, England would still exist, but it would never be what it was, and she had a sneaking suspicion, it would be the Americans taking centre stage.

It was a great deal more palatable to her than a world taken over by the Reich.

Those who knew better were watching with growing horror, the rapid growth of Germany's industrial and military powers. Little more than three years ago, Germans were walking around carting wheelbarrows of devalued currency. Next year they would be hosting the Olympics. Germany's prosperity would be awe-inspiring if it were not for the fact it was being generated by fascism.

War was coming, and like India's eventual independence, it wasn't a question of if but rather when.

She was about to slip into the small hallway leading to the powder room when out of the shadows of a tall, Doric column, a man stepped out and jabbed a gun against her spine. She stiffened, about to react when she saw he was not alone and with the barrel pressed so hard against her skin, she could not risk trying to disarm him. One pull of the trigger and she would be cut in half.

"I would not move Fraulein," the man with the leather coat and the weaselly eyes warned.

"I wouldn't dream of it Herr Mahler," Julia returned coolly and noted a slight stiffening behind her as he reacted to the knowledge of his identity. Without missing a beat and mostly to off balance him, Julia continued to speak. "You're Hermann Mahler, born in Stuttgart in 1890, to parents Edith and Heinrich Mahler. You were educated at Heidelberg University until your expulsion due to poor academic . . . "

"Silence!"

Julia allowed herself a satisfied smile when she saw the men standing with him suppressing their amusement at that little morsel of information. Mahler was a typical SS thug, a small man elevated to power because of his ability to discard morality and possessed the willingness to indulge his most sadistic pleasures. The SS had become home to men with dangerous ideas, finally giving leave to act upon their worst impulses thanks to their sycophantic worship of a mad man who believed himself a god.

The hallway leading to the ladies powder room intersected at the end to another corridor, one leading out of the building. Julia had no intention of going anywhere with him. Fortunately, he had ushered down the length of the narrow passage, which allowed no more than two men to stand abreast of each other. It kept them from rushing at her.

"You will come with us," he barked, his voice now laced with anger and she had no doubt he was salivating at the thought of getting his hands on her and back to Krauss.

Krauss.

Was she here? If Mahler was here, then Krauss would not be far behind. She had to warn the others.

"You don't have to shout," Julia replied coolly. "There is no reason why we cannot conduct ourselves like civilized people."

"We will show you what civilized people do Fraulein, soon enough."

Not if she had anything to do about it because at that moment a champagne cork popped somewhere and the sound was just loud enough to be distracting. The split-second Mahler took to crane his neck in reaction was all she needed. Julia spun around, just as his eyes snapped front and pulled the trigger. She tilted sideways sharply as she went for the gun. Gripping his wrist as he fired the bullet, she shoved the barrel of the gun towards the wall.

The explosion of sound was amplified by their narrow surroundings and felt a dozen times louder in her ears, serving its purpose as a signal flare to Ezra and the rest of the seven presently in the gaming floor and the cocktail lounge. Mahler attempted to break free of her grip as the second man next to him moved to grab her. Julia stopped Mahler's dead in his tracks with an upturned palm connecting with his Adam's apple. Mahler dropped the gun immediately, both hands clutching his throat as he sunk to his knees.

The second Nazi coiled his arms around her shoulders like a snake, trying to restrain her and barking German profanities in her ear at the same time. As he gripped her tight, Julia saw the third man approach, gun in hand and kicked out her foot with a well-practised move that sent the weapon flying across the hallway. Glaring at her hatefully, she saw his fist clench in readiness to strike her, but once again, she was ready for him.

As soon as he was in reach of her legs, Julia pulled in her knees, using her captor's coiled arms for support. Kicking out, she planted both heels in the remaining man's chest and pushed back. Julia and her assailant were forced back against the wall hard. Bouncing off the hard surface, she used the momentum and flipped him over her shoulder. He tumbled against his partner.

While they became a tangle of limbs for a few seconds, Julia saw Mahler going for the gun, having recovered enough to make an attempt at it. She rushed past the two men and threw a forward kick at his face and felt confident she heard the crack of his jaw. He rolled on to his back, clutching his face, just as she sighted Ezra and Nathan at the end of the hall.

"Julia, drop!"

Without question, she ducked down low as Ezra produced the derringer hidden beneath the sleeve of his tuxedo jacket. The bullet though small, boomed loudly and Julia cast a glance over her shoulder to see one of her attackers sink to his knees, the very prolific bullet hole in the centre of his forehead oozing with blood before he fell forward.

"Miss Julia, are you okay?"

Nathan was at her side offering her his hand. Their arrival prompted the remaining assailants to leave, no doubt to regroup since their attempt at a covert abduction had failed. The remaining thug dragged Mahler to his feet, and the duo hurried away as Ezra fired the remaining bullet in their direction.

A sharp scream followed as Mahler clutched his bleeding ear in pain as he was ferried away.

"Thank you, Mr Jackson," Julia said gratefully at the timely rescue.

"Mr Jackson is known for his fortuitous arrival at the most inconvenient times," Ezra flashed the healer a grin and then regarded Julia with more than a hint of gratitude at her having emerged from the attempted kidnapping unscathed. "Are you alright, my dear?"

"I'm fine," she gave him a little smile. "That was an impressive shot."

"Terrible," Ezra frowned. "I was aiming to kill him."

* Members of Our Gang - 1930 serial.

Chapter Eighteen: Das Boot

"So, you been working long with Miss Pemberton?"

Francis Riley, or simply Riley to those who knew him, lifted his eyes to Vin Tanner at the question. He liked the younger man because Vin was nowhere as loud or obnoxious as most of the Americans he encountered tended to be. Riley suspected that might have something to do with wealth breeding arrogance. After all, it was mostly the rich who could afford to travel abroad these days. Then again, arrogance did not limit itself to the American aristocracy. The English could teach master classes in arrogant and snobby behaviour.

Still, no one was perfect, except the Irish.

"Almost five years." Riley addressed Vin's question after a moment. "Her father asked me to keep an eye on her. Sean had promised her mam that she'd be safe. It seems Ellie wasn't all that convinced Julia entering the Service was the best idea."

Vin raised a brow and was about to ask Riley who ‘Sean' was when he realised Riley was talking about Julia's stepfather, not Donald Avery who died when she was an infant. "That's a big favour."

"Aye," Riley nodded. "But when a man saves your life more than a dozen times over, he gets to ask big favours. Sean and me served in Africa during the Boer Wars. He was my commander, and over time, we became good friends. When he joined Cummings at Vauxhall, he asked for me. I wasn't settling well into civilian life with my dear darlin' wife having just gone to heaven, so it was just what I needed to get on with things."

"Sorry to hear about your wife," Vin offered the obligatory remark as it was the proper thing to do. "But I can understand about favours like that. All of us here, except JD, we were on the Front."

"Dirty place to be," Riley nodded, having read the dossier on Chris Larabee's group well before meeting them in person. "But a foxhole is the place where friendships are built or die. You were just a wee lad, weren't you?"

Vin cracked a grin at his description. "Wee and scrawny but I didn't have no place else to go. Didn't like the idea of an orphanage much, so I signed up, pretending to be twelve or thirteen when I was really ten. Somehow manage to convince the recruiter I was just young looking for my age. Still, when I got to France, Chris was madder than spit. He was ready to send me home."

Vin's expression grew thoughtful, remembering Chris Larabee's face the first time he realised Vin was one of his recruits. After the lieutenant had overcome his outrage, Chris looked him in the eye and without Vin needing to say a word, understood what he was sending Vin back to might be worse than the Front. All it had taken was one moment of connection and Vin knew there and then, whatever happened later in life, their two fates were bound together. At that instant, Vin knew where he was meant to be.

At Chris Larabee's side.

"I'm guessing he didn't," Riley surmised, noting Vin's pensive mask.

"Yeah," Vin nodded slipping out of the past back into the present to make contact with Riley's eyes again. "Chris, let me stay and assigned me to look after the horses. I wasn't in the war as long as they were, but it was bad enough."

Riley had no doubt of that.

He spent the war in the trenches, peering across the barren death of No Man's land, through rows of barbed wire where flowers ought to be growing. He'd gone over the wall at Marne and at the Somme. Even now, he shuddered at the sight of a muddy field, revisited by images of faces half buried in the muck, the cold damp air left behind by the dense fog and the ground slick from rain and blood. So many friends had died, some he still mourned, others who were just faces but he remembered what they looked like when he saw their bodies.

"Can't disagree with you there," Riley stared into the amber depths of the whisky lolling about his glass, the memory forcing him to take another sip. Once the taste of malt burned down his throat, chasing away the past into the dark places of his soul, he decided a change of subject was needed. "Thankfully, I don't have to do much running after Miss Pemberton. She can take care of herself, and she does quite well in this game. To look at her, you think she was one of those useless society ladies, but she's smart and has a real knack for this kind of work."

"Not to mention a hell of a shot," Vin raised his glass at Riley in a toast to the absent lady.

"That she is."

Suddenly, Vin sat bolt upright in his wing chair. Even though it was fired three floors down, Vin knew the sound of a gunshot in an instant. Almost reflex, his hand reached for the gun on the side table before standing up. Riley did the same, having missed the sound of the gunshot but not Vin's reaction to it. The young man's sudden shift was all the prompt the Irishman needed to retrieve the gun resting its holder beneath his coat.

When the second shot fired, both men heard it.

"Check the door," Vin waved his gun at its direction, already on the move towards the bathroom door behind which JD was conducting his bit of photographic magic.

Riley nodded, taking the direction which was sound in his opinion. While there was a chance the shots might have nothing to do with their situation, he was nowhere that optimistic. It was more than likely Krauss and her dogs had tracked them down to Egypt and were causing mischief. Right now, they held all the cards, the Circlet of Amalthea and Kephalon's mural. The Nazis getting their hands on just one of the Seven would undo all that. Short of going down to the Serapheum herself, it was easier for Krauss to snatch one of them to get the information instead.

"JD!" Vin thumped on the door loudly. "How far are you from being done?"

"I'm on the last one now! Were those gunshots?"

"I reckon. Finish up and then start packing. I got a feeling we're gonna be missing our complimentary breakfast tomorrow."

As the gunfire drew the understandable attention of everyone, Ezra's quick examination of the gambling floor, saw croupiers waving in the hotel's security in their direction. Men wearing uniforms and severe expressions scanned the room with hawkish eyes, and Ezra knew immediately, he had no desire to be interrogated by any of them. Quickly holstering the derringer into its place beneath his sleeve, he promptly fabricated the story he would tell when they got here.

"Mr Jackson," Julia spoke up instead. "I think you ought to let Mr Larabee know the situation."

"Oh if I know Chris, I think he'd be perfectly aware of the ‘situation' without me needing to tell him. That pop gun of Ezra's made a hell of a noise. He'd have heard it from the restaurant."

"It is not a popgun . . . " Ezra started to protest when Julia cut him off.

"In any case, I think you ought to go tell Mr Larabee. It's a good idea we leave Alexandria promptly. Mr Mahler was here, and he rarely travels anywhere alone."

"Mahler," Nathan threw a glance at the corridor the man used to escape. "That's the one Ezra shot?"

"That's right," she moved away from them and stood over one of the dead bodies, just long enough to retrieve the corpse's gun. "Come on," she gestured to Ezra. "We don't have much time."

"For what?" Ezra stared at her blankly.

"To catch up to those men of course," she gave him a look as if he were a dullard, before turning on her heels and hurrying down the same route Mahler had taken.

"The Nazis?!" Ezra and Nathan exclaimed in unison.

Julia did not answer because she had already covered the length of the corridor, skipping over the bodies of the dead goons Mahler had brought with him as if she were tiptoeing through the tulips. Armed with one of their guns, she had no intention of slowing down, sickened by these attacks on her expedition and was determined to give Chris and the others time to get ready to leave Marsa Matruh.

Realising she wasn't about to stop to explain and unprepared to let her go anywhere by herself, especially if she intended to pursue her would-be abductors, Ezra uttered a groan of exasperation knowing he was going to have to go after her. "Nathan, tell Chris what we are doing. Once I catch up to our client, we join you at the Millie."

"Ezra, you can't go off on your own!" Nathan countered, unhappy about the idea but in retrospect, realised it might be a good idea if Ezra made himself scarce anyway. The man had just killed two people, and even if it was in defence of a lady, was going to have to explain himself to the authorities. Nathan would rather he not be present for that.

"Do not fret. I have no intention of having you exercise your questionable bedside manner on my person for any reason. Besides, the lady is our client, allowing her to embark on this foolishness alone would hardly do justice to our reputation, would it?"

Nathan wasn't convinced but complied nonetheless. "Alright, take care, and we'll see you back at the Millie. Don't go doing nothing stupid."

"I take umbrage . . . ."

"Just go before you lose her!"

"Yes, of course," Ezra nodded, remembering himself before running after trouble in the form of a titian hair spy.

A few seconds later, he emerged into the night air and scoured the area for Julia. It did not take him long to locate the woman. A dazzling redhead was not someone easily missed. Julia was surveying the street outside the hotel when Ezra reached her. A flare of headlights caught both their attention, followed by the sleek body of a black Mercedes sedan screeching off into the night, its crimson blinkers marking a trail through the darkness in its wake. Julia paused long enough to note Ezra's presence before she started moving, searching the sidewalk running along the hotel for a vehicle she could ‘borrow'.

"Miss Pemberton, this is not exactly the wisest course," Ezra warned as she moved at a brisk pace, still in search of a ride.

"We've been dogged by them since America," Julia replied and then broke into a smile when she spotted the perfect vehicle for their pursuit. "I want to know if Krauss is here, and if she is, we need to slow her down."

"Well I credit your enthusiasm," Ezra called after her, suddenly struck with the premonition he would always be one step behind this woman. "Perhaps we should have gathered reinforcements before mounting such an expedition. Like Mr Riley, for instance?"

"Oh Riley is used to me going off on my own," Julia stopped and turned to him. "Here, hold this."

She thrust the Luger in her grip at him and then turned to a dark green Indian

parked along the pavement. Before he had any chance to stop her, she threw her leg over the seat and straddled the bike, her dress hiking up above her knees as she did so. Turning to him as she revved the engines, Julia asked with a little smile. "Coming?"

"You cannot be serious," he gaped at her.

"Fine, stay behind," she returned, and Ezra saw a hint of disappointment in her eyes at his apparent hesitation. "I'm going after them."

Ezra uttered a string of curses that brought a smile to Julia's face before he climbed onto the seat behind her.

"Why Mr Standish," she smiled as she faced front again, her eyes fixed on the Mercedes diminishing headlights. "Language."

Even though the sight of a gorgeous redhead and a sophisticated (in Ezra's opinion) gentleman on an Indian should have drawn attention, Julia managed to maintain her pursuit of Mahler through the streets of Marsa Matruh without detection. Arms around her waist, with her hair flowing in his face, Ezra thought absurdly if there weren't Nazis in front of them, this would be a rather pleasant evening out. He could smell the light whiff of t

perfume in her hair and wondered what sort of shampoo she used on those titian coloured locks.

"Where do you think they are going?"

His voice was barely audible over the sound of the motorcycle's engines and the wind rushing past them. As they weaved in and out of traffic, Ezra had to admit this mode of travel would not be his first choice. They weren't even wearing helmets! Traffic around them, was fortunately light even if he disliked being so close to some of the cars zooming past them. They had left the more fashionable areas of the town and were heading towards the outskirts if the rapidly thinning sprawl of building was any indication.

"There's only one thing in this area," she gestured to the ocean ahead.

Fast approaching the water, Ezra caught the distinct whiff of salt air mixed with diesel as the first of the ships docked along the harbour became visible. They were a motley collection of fishing boats and the kind of trawlers one would expect from a small town like this. It wasn't until the warehouses and shipping offices surrounded them that Ezra sighted something else a few hundred feet away from the shore. The sight of it was enough to stun him into silence, and he stared at the thing, recalling how he thought the Maverick had been impressive. Compared to what he was looking at now, the yacht seemed like a rowboat.

"Oh my God."

"Yes," Julia's eyes narrowed with calculation, knowing what it was immediately and broke off her pursuit of Mahler. Suddenly catching up to the Nazi was no longer her priority. Instead, she diverted the bike off the road, using the small alleys between the warehouses on the docks to make their approach to the water a little more discreet.

"That is what I think it is, is it not?" Ezra inquired as he studied the bullet shape craft lying half submerged in the waters along the coast, appearing like a leviathan bathing in the moon's twilight glow. Instead of a mast, standing above the wave and foam deflector that also housed the primary hatch was the main and secondary periscopes. The crowning achievement of this construct was, of course, the familiar flag that Ezra suspected would chill the bone for the next decade. The swastika.

Julia killed the engines of the Indian when she brought the cycle to a stop next to a shipping office flanking the dock. A few sailors and dock workers were about, oblivious to the sight of the craft as if its appearance was commonplace. She wondered if the Germans had managed to keep the construction of these behemoths a secret because no one would expect it this far away from the Fatherland. Then again, they had been underestimating the Germans a great deal lately.

"It's a U-Boat."

"I thought they were bound by the Treaty of Versaille prohibiting them from constructing such weapons."

Even as he said it, Ezra knew treaties meant nothing to unscrupulous men. For the first time, the war he feared might happen had become more than a discussion point. Suddenly, it felt uncomfortably real.

"We know they are arming," Julia explained as she started moving towards the dock, using the shadow to make her advance. Ezra followed her, not about to let her go anywhere near that monstrosity alone, now he sighted it for himself. "However, the powers that be are terrified about another war, so they are doing everything they can to avoid it. At home, Churchill is the only one who believes it may not be possible."

"Pacifism is the breeding ground of subjugation," Ezra frowned, no longer questioning her on where she was going, only that he was sticking to her. Of course, if she intended to go anywhere near the submarine, he had every intention of putting her over his shoulder and carrying her back to the hotel. After all, even Ezra had to concede sometimes, Chris Larabee's method of dealing with spirited women had its advantages.

As expected, once they got a clear line of sight of the docks and the submarine, using the shadows of the building to make their observations, they saw the Mercedes driven by Mahler parked haphazardly along the street running past the dock. The man was still holding his ear, his face etched in pain as he jogged down the wooden boards of the pier, toward a group of German soldiers who were obviously awaiting his return.

Although it was difficult to make out what they were saying, even if Ezra's German was rusty, it was apparent Mahler was not happy. No doubt, he wanted his pound of flesh for the injury caused by Ezra's derringer.

"I do not like the sound of that," Ezra commented as he stood behind Julia watching the scene.

"I don't blame you," she agreed. "I'm certain Mahler's calling for reinforcements."

"We need to leave the vicinity immediately," he dropped a hand to her shoulder. "Come my dear. I think it is time we made our rendezvous with my associates and the Millie."

Julia didn't speak, choosing to examine the dock thoughtfully. "Not yet," she said with a little smile when she spotted what she was after. "We need to slow them down first."

"Slow them down? Ezra's eyes widened. "My dear, that is not exactly a Buick. We cannot let the air out of its tires. What do you propose to do?"

Julia turned to Ezra and smiled. "Trust me."

Ten minutes later, Ezra was convinced Julia Pemberton was insane.

Surrounded by the chugging of the small diesel powered tug bouncing across the soft swell of the coastline, he could see the lights along the shore beckoning him like a sensible wife trying to keep her husband from doing something stupid. On the small deck behind the flywheel, drums of fuel stood proudly like soldiers about to march into enemy fire. Not for the first time, Ezra wondered what the hell he was doing on board this craft, when marching into enemy fire was something he was painfully familiar with.

Ahead of them, the U-Boat loomed ominously close to them, the soldiers patrolling the length of the craft had yet to notice the danger bearing down at them at ten knots. Why would they? Who in their right mind would attempt to attack a U-boat less than a mile away from the shore? Facing front at the woman steering the craft, Ezra suspected his entire relationship with Julia, such as it was, was going to involve him running after her from one dangerous situation to another.

Shortly after uttering her enigmatic statement about trust, the lady led him to the docks where she paid a somewhat stunned tug boat owner for his craft with a pair of diamond earrings before casting off. The tug, most likely a rescue vehicle of some sort, kept a few drums of gasoline on hand to aid crafts stranded off the coast. As the Anemone headed towards the U-boat, those drums were going to be used for an action far from its original purpose.

"This is insane!"

"Of course it is," Julia flashed him a radiant smile, noting despite his protestations (and there had been a few), Ezra Standish was still too gallant to let her embark on this action alone. In fact, she rather loved the idea he was willing to indulge her despite his obvious reservations. "They won't see it coming."

Ezra had to give her that.

In truth, however, they did see it coming. Once the tug's lights reached the hull of the submarine, the soldiers on watch immediately began waving the craft away, shouting warnings it was on a collision course. The tug continued forward, chugging indifferently as it went to its fate, ignoring them like its captain was presently doing.

"Julia," Ezra placed his hand around her arm. "I do believe it is time we were going."

Especially when he could see the gap between the David and Goliath of sea craft narrowing.

Julia could not disagree with him on that point and forced the throttle to maximum, increasing the chug chug chug of the engines to a dull drone where the pistons were firing so rapidly, they were now one long rumble of sound. Even though they were seconds away from a collision, she did feel the need to do one thing.

Ezra's eyes widened with mild surprise when she leaned over and planted a soft but passionate kiss on his lips. She tasted sweet and exotic all at the same time, feeling his head with visions of crazy adventures and the sensation of being caught in a whirlwind. Considering what he did for a living, this was a rather impressive feat. Before he could respond, she was on the move again.

"Come on!"

Grabbing his hand, Julia started running, prompting Ezra to keep pace with her as they ran along the length of the boat, jumping over the short rail at the edge of the craft when they reached it. Both of them plunged into the dark water, as the fever pitch of German voices and the sound of a siren screaming in warning became muted once they were submerged.

It took but a second for Ezra to break water, and when he did, he saw Julia swimming away and decided it was prudent to do the same. The tug boat reached the hull of the submarine a few seconds later, the ear-splitting sound of the impact ripping through the night followed by the inevitable explosion. The fireball illuminated the sea with its amber colour, and though there was no chance in hell the collision would destroy the sub, Ezra knew Julia's intent was never that. It was to slow the craft down. However, the Nazis intended to maintain their pursuit, it would not be by sub, at least not for a few days.

Catching up to her, he saw Julia had paused once she swam far enough away to admire her handiwork.

"Miss Pemberton," he said, watching the chaos on board the damaged sub ensue. "Is life with you always this interesting?"

"Mr Standish," Julia winked. "We're just getting started."

Chapter Nineteen: Mural

Within the hour, the seven and their entourage were once again in mid-flight.

Leaving the hotel and Alexandria seemed the most prudent thing to do once it became clear their whereabouts were no longer a mystery to Isabella Krauss and her Nazi henchmen. Ezra and Julia made their soggy return to the Millie, docked at the airfields of Mersa Matruh, where their companions awaited them impatiently. Once Chris Larabee got through yelling at them, proving he cared little for the fact Julia was their client or a master spy, the plane took to the safety of the air. No matter what the financial arrangement, Chris tolerated no one risking themselves unnecessarily, least of all a woman, no matter how resourceful she might be.

To her credit, Julia listened patiently to Chris's tirade nonplussed by any of it. Ezra suspected Julia sensed Chris's concern for her safety extended beyond their business relationship and was somewhat touched misplaced as it was. Riley, whom Ezra thought might have objected to Chris reading the lady the riot act, made no comment and Ezra wondered if his silence was due to his agreement with Chris about Julia placing herself in danger. While he might have been accustomed to the peril his young partner courted, he was no way comfortable with it.

Once Chris learned there was a U-boat, even a damaged one, in play, Chris wanted them away from Mersa Matruh as soon as possible. The air was the safest place to be at the moment until they decided on a safe haven to determine their next move. Fortunately, Buck who made it his business to study the maps of the area suggested the Siwa Oasis.

Six hundred miles inland, the Oasis was as its name suggested, a fertile basis boasting several clear springs, surrounded by the Western Desert and was one of the most remote locations in Egypt. Peopled by an equally elusive race called the Berbers or Siwi, it was also home to the Temple of Amun-Ra. It was a good place for the Millie to set down so they could consider their next move without fear of pursuit. With a cargo hold containing additional caches of fuel, the detour was worth it to give JD the time he needed to study Kephalon's mural in greater detail.

Two hours later, they set down in the Oasis of Amun-Ra, on a flat, stretch of desert surrounded by dunes and beyond the notice of the indigenous Siwi. Overhead, the canvas of stars was like diamond dust scattered across the sapphire silk sky. The air was balmy and in the distance, they could see the sway of leaves from the palm trees surrounding the oasis. If not for the enemy they were escaping, it would be a rather pretty place to visit.

"So what have you got for us JD?"

The question came from Buck who had emerged from the cockpit to take a seat in the main compartment, joining the rest of their rather large group. They were all scattered across the compartment, either on seats, crates or in Josiah's case, his hammock, waiting for JD to take centre stage and reveal his findings of the mural some of them had risked their lives to reach.

Unaccustomed to being the centre of attention as he was, JD made a valiant effort to not look as nervous as he felt. A smile of encouragement from Josiah and a prompt from Chris by the way of a nod, forced JD to set aside his anxieties and get on with it. Besides, he knew what he was doing and was confident of what he uncovered in his examination of the mural.

As JD stood up in front of them, Chris couldn't help but feel a surge of pride in the young man. He was no longer that awkward kid who joined them a year ago. He had solidified his place among them, making them wonder how they were ever whole without his presence in their lives.

"Okay," JD dispelled the last of his nervousness with a loud exhale and began distributing the collection of photographs he managed to develop before their hasty departure from the hotel. "You all know these are the photographs I manage to take of Kephalon's mural, down at the Serapheum. I think I managed to get enough information before we had to get out of there."

"No kidding," Vin drawled. "You almost got eaten by a fish, like that Jonah guy."

"Do not remind me," Ezra made a face, convinced he would be seeing the damn shark's upside down clown's grin in his nightmares for some time. "I may never go into the water again."

"Go on JD,' Chris prompted, wishing to hear what JD had found as he examined the photograph the scholar had distributed among them.

Studying the photograph in his hand, he was able to see in greater detail what he had only managed to glimpse fleetingly whilst in the Serapheum, before the shark made it necessary for them to leave the premises. Now that he had the opportunity, Chris was able to take in the details of Kephalon's mural, given greater clarity thanks to the wonders the flash had done to the image taken.

"It does look striking," Mary commented, leaning over his shoulder to get her own look of the mural.

"It certainly stood the test of time," Josiah drawled, taking in the photograph he was holding.

Chris could disagree with neither of them. Despite the grainy quality of the image, it was still clear enough for Chris to see details in the mural he had missed when they were in the Serapheum. Taking a prominent position in the centre of the wall was the hero Perseus, immortalised in mosaic. The ancient slayer of Gorgons was astride his horse, the winged steed Pegasus soaring through the clouds, with the ocean beneath him and the stars above.

Protruding from the ocean behind him, were two rock formations, each carved with the face of a lion. Above Perseus, the details of the night sky had been degraded by time, but Chris saw the clusters of stars he was convinced was the constellation of Cassiopeia. The Aegis wielded by Perseus was unmistakable. While the photographs depicted the shield in black and white, Chris remembered the mythological shield had been gold when he saw the mural for himself. While its design was no different than any other shield of the Hellenistic period, what made it distinct was the Gorgon's head emblazoned across its face.

Medusa's terrible visage stared back at Chris, the snakes that made up her hair was spread out like a venomous crown and even in this limited depiction, she appeared rather ghastly. It was indeed a face that could turn a man to stone, Chris thought silently. Looking away from the shield, he noted Perseus was carrying a rather odd looking dagger. Not at all like the artistic creations of the day, this dagger was crude in its design. It resembled a jagged piece of rock, not the weapon of a demi-god. Framing the mural were words written in mosaic and it took a few seconds of study for Chris to realise the language was similar to the inscription on the Circlet of Amalthea.

As if resding Chris's mind, JD began his explanation with the words Chris had been attempting to decipher.

"As you can see," JD started speaking to his audience. "The writing captioning the mural is some form of proto-Koine. Initially, I thought it might be the narration of Perseus's story, but studying this a little more, I think it's an attempt to hide the location of the Aegis in plain sight. There are too many elements that might be construed as markers for where the Aegis landed for me to think anything else."

"What about those two formations? They look like mountains," Nathan remarked.

"I don't think they are," JD answered. "I think they might be a reference to the Pillars of Hercules. Back then, he was represented by lions a lot. After he killed the Nemean lion, it sort of became his sigil."

"The Pillars of Hercules," Chris sat up, having heard that reference to describe something else. Searching his mind, it came to him in a second and he looked sharply at JD. "The Straits of Gibraltar?"

Grinning at Chris's speculation aligning with his own thoughts on the subject, JD nodded. "I think so, I think he was leaving behind the Straits of Gibraltar."

"That's a fair distance from the motherland," Riley commented, "even with a flying steed."

"Are we assuming Perseus actually crossed such vast distances on a winged horse?" Ezra asked, unable to keep the scepticism out of his voice.

"Hey, we've seen some pretty strange stuff the last year, whose to say whether all this is fake or not."

Vin's reminder immediately sent their minds back to the incident with the Children of Erran and the Tablet of Destiny. Even though the idea of a stone tablet being able to uncreate the world seemed preposterous, there was no denying the supernatural forces at work when the ritual to bring Tiamat was finally set in motion. Although Alex feigned ignorance when asked if she remembered what part she played in Tiamat's resurrection, Vin knew what he had seen that day. Something powerful and dark almost claimed her soul, they all saw it. Such an experience made the sharpshooter a little more open-minded when it came to the fantastic.

"That's true," Mary nodded in agreement, singularly grateful she had avoided Alex's ordeal since she was one of the two potential receptacles for Tiamat's return to the world. "Although, this could all be symbolic right JD?"

"Yeah it could," JD nodded, although, like VIn, he was not about to discount the possibility of the supernatural. "Anyway," he got back to his explanation of Kephalon's mural. "The text is a verse and . . . ." he reached for the notebook on the chair next to him and leafed through the pages between the worn leather jacket, "It runs something like this."

The shield of the God of Gods, Crafted in Almathea's honour, Borne across mountain and sea, Set deep beneath the world, To be hidden from the sun, Shiver at its name, Pray that it is forgotten, For Ceto's daughter in death, Still lives beyond release, With sisters of her blood, Beneath the Serpents Head, Far beneath the sun.

"Well that doesn't sound ominous at all," Nathan broke the silence once JD finished his translation.

"Ceto's daughter," Chris mused. "It does relate to the Medusa which fits the mythology of the Aegis."

"What about the sisters of her blood?" Julia asked JD.

JD scratched his chin contemplatively before replying. "Well depending on which text you read, Medusa is meant to have sisters. I mean you gotta remember, stories change from the telling. According to Ovid, Medusa got the way she was because she was raped by Poseidon and turned into a Gorgon by Athena who was outraged by the desecration of her temple."

"Wonderful," Mary frowned, wondering why all these stories always involved some hapless female being punished for a man's rampant lust.

"Another story, this time by Hesiod," JD continued, "has her being the daughter of Ceto and Phorcys, two primordial sea deities, though not true Oceanids born from Tethys and Oceanus. According to that legend, Hesiod, she was the oldest of three Gorgons, the others being Euryale and Stheno. So this verse might be referring to them."

"What about the Serpent's head," Josiah spoke. "What does that mean?"

JD fell silent for a moment before venturing a guess. "I can't say for certain but that could refer to a marker to where the Aegis actually is. I know in one of the texts, Kephalon's belief the Circlet of Amalthea is necessary to reach the Aegis, the Serpent's head could be a doorway or something."

"Without a point of reference," Chris frowned, "it doesn't help us."

"No," JD agreed. "But I think the sky above Perseus might be an effort to give us a general location."

"Our difficulty lies in the unfortunate reality the mural in its current state, is simply too degraded to give us accurate information," Ezra pointed out. "While I laud Mr Dunne's photographic mastery, we were fortunate to get a glimpse of what we are able to see as it is. Even when we down in the Serapheum itself, there was enough deterioration of the mural to ensure if Kephalon did indeed intend to point the way to the Aegis, the ravages of time saw to it his message was lost."

Buck Wilmington had not spoken for a good few minutes, staring at the picture handed to him by Nathan once the healer was done studying it. While most of it was the usual ancient hooey they had to sift through during their expeditions, something about the image of Perseus caught his eye. Buck stared at the mosaic depiction of the Greek hero, standing proudly with the Aegis on hand, Pegasus beneath him but it was that damn dagger that caught his attention.

As a pilot, cartography was one subject that was vital for him to know in detail. The business of being able to navigate using only instrumentation meant the difference between life and death during the war. Considering some of the places they journeyed since embarking on this life, Buck's own homework studying the region they were flying into was as vital as Chris and JD's studies.

"JD, how good were the maps during Perseus's day?"

All eyes stared at Buck because the question was completely out of character for their pilot and lovable rogue, especially when asked with such purpose. Buck's expression was serious as he waited for his answer and Chris realised Buck had something on his mind.

"Uh, it's tough to say Buck," JD admitted honestly. "Perseus is one of the oldest Pan-Hellenic figures in mythology. We're looking at least a thousand years before the start of the period at 350 BC. Why?"

"I want to know just how far their maps went. Did they get this far out?"

"If they did, they'd be extremely vague," Chris added his voice, wondering where Buck was going with this. "What are you thinking Buck?"

"Okay," Buck said standing up, "so let's assume cartography wasn't that great back then and even if it was, they might not have come out further than the immediate area surrounding Greece."

"Well the Phoenicians were great sailors," Chris countered. "They might have charted the areas beyond Asia Minor. There's claim some of them even made it to North America."

"Why do you ask Buck?" Vin prompted, wanting to hear Buck complete his thoughts because Vin had a feeling they were on the cusp of revelation.

"It's this picture," Buck handed the photograph to Chris and walked away from the group, disappearing into the cockpit for a second leaving the others staring at each other in puzzlement at what the big man meant by that elusive statement. The photograph looked no different to them, beyond JD's explanation but each of them wondered what it was Buck was seeing that they couldn't.

"What do you think he's spotted?" Mary turned to Chris.

"I'm not sure," Chris shook his head. "But he doesn't get this excited over something unless it's important."

"Or has a great set of gams," Josiah couldn't help quip.

As he said those words, Buck returned with an unrolled map in his hands and Chris suddenly had the idea Buck might have cracked this mystery.

"Okay," Buck looked up at them from the map he was scanning, half opened in front of him. "If JD is right and they didn't have maps that far back, there's no way they could have known what was in Perseus's hand. "

"You mean the dagger?" Nathan looked at one of the photographs again.

"Is it a dagger?" Chris realised where Buck was going with this. "We think its a dagger but what if it's something else?"

"Something else? Like what?" Vin asked, certain Buck already knew and had needed the map to confirm it.

Rolling the scroll across the nearest table wide enough for him to spread it out, they saw the map was one of Buck's aeronautical charts the pilot used for their travels across the globe. This one showed the familiar lines of the North African coast, the North Atlantic ocean as well as the Mediterranean.

"Like this," Buck produced the magnifying glass in his pocket and aimed it above a small speck in the middle of the ocean, off the coast of Morocco. "When I was searching for a place to land the Millie, I was trying to find someplace remote so we could lay low for a while. I was thinking maybe Funchal off the Portuguese coast, but then we were talking U-boats, so I figured an island might not be the best idea. Anyway, I saw this little place and didn't pay it much mind, noticing it only because it looked to me like bird crap on a windshield."

"Wonderful imagery there Buck," Ezra winced. "There are ladies present you know."

"My delicate feminine sensibilities will cope," Julia smiled in amusement. "Please continue Mr Wilmington."

"Yes," Chris flashed Ezra a dark look for interrupting. "Go on."

"Well look at it Chris," Buck pivoted the angle of the map and handed the leader of their band the magnifying glass. "Don't it look like that damn dagger?"

Chris didn't answer for a moment, studying it carefully through the convexed lens of the glass before he raised his eyes to JD and indicated the young man come forward. JD took a step closer to the map to take a look for himself as he gripped the handle of the brass magnifier. Leaning down, JD lapsed into similar silence as he made his study.

"What do you think?" Chris prompted after a long pause, aware Buck and the rest of the group were hanging on in anticipation of his view point.

After a second, JD straightened up and exchange a glance with both Buck and Chris respectively. "I think he could be right. The detail is pretty exact."

"I'm telling you," Buck insisted. "That's it. I know maps, and that ain't no dagger, that's this island here."

"Is it possible?" Josiah asked the two experts in the room.

Chris shrugged, allowing JD to answer that question.

"It's possible. According to legend, Perseus had travelled as far west as it was possible to go at that time after slaughtering the Medusa. He tried to find safe harbour on the way back to Seriphos to deliver the head to Polydectes and landed in Libya I think, where King Atlas lived. Atlas was the guy with the golden apples and was in fear of a prophecy that a son of Zeus was going to steal one of them."

"Wasn't that Hercules?" Vin piped up, remembering the stories Ezra used to tell him about that hero's labours when he was a kid around the campfire on the Western Front.

"Yeah," JD nodded. "Right prophecy, wrong son. Anyway, he was such a dick about it to Perseus, Perseus ended up showing him the Gorgon, turning him into the Atlas Mountains. If Perseus got out this far, it's possible he could have happened along that island as well. He might have figured it was a good place to stash it once he was done with it."

"So what is this place called and how soon are we leaving for it?" Ezra asked, now that it was becoming clear they had a destination to reach.

"The Desertas Islands," Chris answered giving Buck a smile. "As soon as you're ready Buck."

"Hell I was born ready," Buck grinned, pleased his hunch might have paid off. "Besides, I'm always ready when I'm thinking about meeting any lady with two sisters."

"Oh lord," Nathan rolled his eyes. "Buck, if these ladies are there, they're gonna turn you into stone."

"Never happen," the rogue grinned happily as he headed back to the cockpit. "I'll charm them with my animal magnetism."

"Oh yeah," Mary snorted. "That will work."

Chapter Twenty: Serpent's Head

Without Pegasus to get them there, reaching the Desertas Island was just as difficult as it was in Perseus's day.

Thanks to the rocky terrain and high cliffs, it was impossible to land the Millie on the chain of islands and the only approach possible (without a flying horse), was by sea. Considering there was a U-boat at the disposal of their enemy, this situation did not please Chris much and hoped the headstart they had on the Nazis would suffice in helping them reach the Desertas without incident. As it was, the Millie was forced to set down in Madeira, far enough from the Portuguese coast to be remote, but close enough to be considered its territory.

Landing at Santa Cruz's Aeroporto da Madeira at the eastern edge of Madeira, the airport was barely functional with Buck worrying the short runway might have been too much for the Fokker F20. Nevertheless, they landed without any trouble thanks to his expert handling and once on the ground, both Chris and Julia wanted to move quickly. Whether or not the Nazis had agents in Portugal, the Reich's reach seemed to be everywhere these days, neither wished to remain in place long enough for word to get back to Krauss at their location. Madeira wasn't that small, and it wouldn't take long to determine where they were headed in their search for the Aegis.

To this end, Ezra procured them a sizeable motor tug with a diesel engine that was nowhere as luxurious as the yacht they chartered in Egypt. Used by large fishing parties or sightseers wanting to take a private tour of the archipelago, what the Magellan lacked in refinement, it made up for in practicality. Perched at the rear of the craft were two motorised canoes capable of holding their sizeable group and their equipment when they reached the shore.

A few short hours after arriving in Madeira, the Magellan set sail for the Desertas, with the tug chugging along quite reliably even though it marked its progress with loud belches of diesel laden fumes that made Ezra wince. Meanwhile, Vin ensured they had enough ordinance for a fight, convinced their next encounter with the Nazis would require it. They were too close to the Aegis for the sharpshooter to take chances.

It was a sentiment Chris agreed with entirely and would have preferred Mary to remain on the mainland if Madeira could be considered such a thing, but predictably the lady was adamant she was coming along. Despite himself, Chris had to admit he had grown accustomed to her presence on the expedition, even though it would take all the wild horses that ever existed, to drag that bit of truth from him.

Even during the flyover Buck made over the island, they saw how inhospitable the place was to humans. While there were sparse vegetation and apparently some local fauna in wild goats and the monk seals that came to its shores on occasion, the island was oddly empty. Covered in hills and a coastline that was mostly cliff, a few stretches of beach allowed for a shore landing. The rest of the coast abutted the ocean with high, treacherous cliffs and rocks to ensure any approach would have to be conducted with extreme care.

As they skimmed the coastline looking for a place to anchor, Chris imagined these islands must have been a favourite for pirates hundreds of years ago. There were enough narrow coves concealed by the cliffs to hide any modestly sized craft.

Even though the sun was blazing high on what promised to be a sunny day, there was something ominous about these islands. Its remote location so far away from the civilised world put Chris on edge for reasons he could not explain. Absurdly, he thought it resembled a half-submerged beast, lying still in wait for prey to swim too close. Chris was by no means a superstitious man, and even after everything he'd seen, he often landed on the side of the sceptic, but everything about these islands reeked of menace. He just didn't know how.

"Well Chris," Mary stood alongside him as the Magellan continued its search. "You certainly know how to take me to the best places."

"You wanted to come," he threw her a sidelong glance, taking a moment to admire those spectacular legs barely concealed in a pair of white shorts. She'd give Gyspy Rose Lee a run for her money.

"Oh I do, but we'll talk about that when we get to a nice hotel."

He cracked a grin at that. "Miss Travis, are you always so forward?"

"When I need to be."

Mary wasn't about to apologise for her manner. She was a thoroughly modern woman even if the world as not ready for such independence from the fair sex. However, now they almost at the cusp of another set of dangerous circumstances, Mary wanted to take the opportunity to discuss a few things.

"So what now Chris?"

Chris continued to face the island, allowing the sound of lapping ocean against the hull and the chirping of sea birds to help him contemplate his answer. Aware she was a creature of impatience, he did not allow too much time to lapse because he knew her query was not about what they were going to do in regards to the Aegis, but their blossoming relationship.

"Well you're not the settling down kind are you?" He met her blue-grey eyes pointedly. "Not that I want you to be, I suppose. You know the life we live. We're not around a lot, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that to change. You have your life in New York, and I don't want you to stop being who you are on my account."

"No," she agreed with him on that observation. "I'm not ready to settle down, but that doesn't mean I don't care. I do. I suppose if this is to go any further, we'll both need to make a little accommodation, if not a life change."

"Just the moments?"

"Yes, that will do," she agreed with a little smile, understanding his proposal in that simple word. When they saw each other, they would be together, but when it was time to do what they were both best at, both would simply walk away. Neither were children, and both understood adult relationships did not always have to end with ‘they lived happily ever after'.

Once the agreement had been made, Chris leaned forward to seal the compact between them with a kiss, knowing it was the best solution for right now. As much as he was ready to be with her, a part of him still felt tethered to the wife he loved and lost. Sarah and Adam were very much in his heart, and though Chris was willing to move forward, closing the door on his grief if not the memories, would take time.

"Chris!" Vin hollered before their lips could touch and Chris gave the sharpshooter a look of annoyance as the younger man made his way towards them unaware of what he was interrupting.

Vin had spent most of their hour's journey in the wheelhouse with Riley who had some experience with the high seas. The sharpshooter seemed excited, and Chris flashed Mary a look of apology before he broke away again and faced Vin.

"What is it?"

"I think we may have found something," Vin gestured for him to follow as he headed to the front of the craft once again.

"Something?"

Chris really hoped it was not a German U-boat.

Rounding a particularly impressive cliff wall, they were confronted by a fissure barely large enough for the Magellan to enter. Almost entirely bathed in shadow, barely any light was able to penetrate the narrow passage because of the high walls of rock on either side. If one didn't know better, it would appear as if God himself, decided to split the mountain in half with a chisel. However, it was not this that capture the attention of his comrades.

With jagged stalactites of limestone covered in moss and algae hanging from its roof, to the opening resembling the maw of that great beast Chris had thought about earlier, the grotto was carefully hidden in the deepest part of the fissure. Unless one was staring directly down its gullet, the rocky alcove was easily overlooked. Then again, how often did the Desertas have visitors? There were no settlements on any one of the island chains, and the only inhabitants appeared to be its native fauna. As Chris and the others stared over the rail of the ship, there was no mistaking what shape the grotto had chosen to take and seemed in keeping with the legends surrounding the Aegis.

A serpent's head with its jaws widened, ready to swallow any visitors whole.

"Well that doesn't look ominous at all," Mary remarked feeling a shiver run down her spine at the sight of it. The narrow passage into the grotto provided excellent acoustics for the wind to utter a low whine that sounded like the howl of an animal gasping its last breath.

Chris couldn't disagree with her there, but there was no avoiding their journeying to the place. If this was where the hunt for the Aegis took them, then that was where they were going. He supposed if there was some consolation, he did not think any U-boat would be able to fit through the fissure in the event the Nazis tracked them here.

"Vin, tell Riley to take us in there."

"Sure about that?" The sharpshooter asked surprising Chris by the question.

Vin was seldom unsettled by anything. Yet right now, that ordinarily unflappable mask felt thinner than usual. Since reconnecting after years apart, Chris knew very little got to Vin. He took most things in stride, and it was this reasoned approach to everything that made him such an excellent lieutenant. Chris had to wonder if Vin really sensed trouble, or perhaps the younger man caught the feeling from him. They were so attuned, it was not a preposterous assumption.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "Let's get this done."

Upon reaching the grotto, they learned it was merely the opening to a subterranean waterway, no doubt running beneath the mountain of rock that made up most of the island. Keeping the Magellan as much out of sight as it was possible to do so, the group entered the serpent's maw by canoe. With Chris in one craft and Vin in another, they crossed the stone threshold. They entered the stygian cavern feeling as if they were journeying into the underworld when the reassuring sunlight disappeared from view.

Once they sailed deeper into the cavern, the light of the sun was replaced by the iridescent sparkle of glow worms, numbering in the thousands it seemed, living in the crooks and crannies of the stalagmites hanging of the cathedral-like ceiling. The creatures illuminated the overgrown moss and ferns dangling above them with bright light and banished the bats attempting to sleep, to the far corners of the cavern. Beauty in such an unlikely place captured the attention of the travellers who spent a good few minutes admiring the unspoiled magnificence of the natural world.

"So what can we expect next?"

Julia, who was seated next to Mary in the middle of the canoe, asked the question of Chris. The leader of the seven was sitting up front with JD, while Ezra and Nathan manned the outboard in the rear.

Ezra, who was trying hard to pay attention to steering the craft instead of gawking at the titian-haired goddess who snared his affections, answered her. "I believe Mr Dunne is best able to answer that question."

JD raised his eyes from his notebook at the mention of his name. Using a flashlight to read the scribblings across the paper, JD had jotted down notes from the hours he spent on the Millie, studying every snippet of useful information he could glean from the books about the Aegis.

"Well to tell the truth ma'am," JD confessed closing the leather bound book and slipping it into his coat pocket. "There isn't really a lot of factual data regarding the Aegis and Perseus. A lot of these myths come from classical poets of the time, and each of them had their own way of interpreting the story. It's hard to nail down what's actually real and what's literary license."

Julia was still smiling at the way JD called her ‘ma'am' and was touched at how apologetic he seemed at being unable to provide her with an answer. She could well understand why these seasoned and hardened band of veterans had taken the young man to their hearts.

"I suppose not much has changed in two thousand years," she gave Mary a little wink since the blond was immersed in the literary world more than anyone else.

"Hey, don't blame me," Mary immediately rose to the comment. " I try to write as factually as possible. If I can't prove it, I don't write it."

"And if that don't work, she stows away in crates."

"Quiet you," Mary bit back at Nathan, but was nevertheless smiling at the healer. "Not my finest hour, but I'm here."

"No kidding," Chris couldn't help tease, himself grinning at Nathan's well-placed remark.

"The way these things happen Miss Julia," Nathan explained. "Is we follow the rabbit hole for as long as it goes and that usually gets us to the next clue."

"Unfortunately," Mary added, "the rabbit hole can some times produce giant scorpions, death traps and drugs that make you think you're fighting zombies."

"Zombies?" Julia's eyes widened and had to look at Ezra for confirmation.

"Produced by an ergot derivative according to Alexandra Styles," Ezra explained. "Still, I rather be in a drug-induced hallucination then being the main course at a jungle feast,"

Ezra could still smell that soup.

"Or be expected to play stud to an entire village of Norwegian Amazon women," Nathan couldn't help but announce since they were on the subject of the more unusual incidents in their expedition.

"Must you remind me?" Ezra groaned and wondered if he would be remiss if he shoved Nathan off the boat.

"What?" JD laughed out loud, joined by Julia and Mary, who were reduced to soft giggles at that revelation.

"Hey, come on now," Nathan nudged him in the back. "Ain't nothing to be embarrassed about. Some men would think that was a sweet deal."

"True," Ezra agreed and noted the look of affection coming his way from Julia, despite her amusement at his embarrassment. It was a nice feeling. "In any case," he turned his attention back to JD. "We decided to keep it to ourselves or Mr Wilmington would never have flown us out of that blizzard,"

Another burst of laughter followed, but Chris was no longer paying attention to the banter between his comrades. His gaze hardened as he observed the current swirling around the canoe and the speed at which they were travelling. Looking across the narrow gap between his boat and the one being led by Vin, both men noticed the same thing. They were moving faster. A lot faster than what the outboard motors on their canoes were capable. Studying the water through the light of the torch he was holding up, he saw the undeniable pace of the current.

The glow from above allowed him to see the continuing outline of the cavern they were sailing through but little more than that. The flashlight did a little better, revealing the passages continuation and the waterway travelling through it but offered no illumination on what they were sailing towards. What he could hear and it felt some distance away, was the rushing of water.

"Can you hear that?" Chris called out, silencing the chatter on both boats immediately.

"I can hear it!" Riley answered before Vin could.

"What is it?" Mary asked immediately, apprehension dripping from her voice. The blond woman knew how these things went, and since it was some time since their last perilous escapade, she supposed they were due.

"Nothing good," Chris deadpanned and then hollered, not just to Ezra but to Josiah who was at the rear of Vin's boat. "Kill the engines!"

Both men complied immediately, bringing an abrupt halt to the outboards directing both their crafts. When the motors of each stuttered their last smoky belches, neither canoe stopped moving. If anything, it appeared the currents were gaining momentum, and they were moving faster than ever, with no signs of slowing down. As they were swept further down the waterway, the ominous sound of rushing water continued to grow, until its rumble was pressed up against the walls of the cavern, overwhelming them with their roar.

Frothy foam appeared on the water surface, a further indication of the imminent peril they were about to face though its form remained elusive for the moment. Beneath the canoe, chop increased, and both crafts were now subject to the turbulence that accompanied it. With no idea where they were headed because the black ahead looked like oblivion, Chris assumed the worst and acted accordingly.

"Slow us down!" Chris barked at his men prompting JD and Nathan to immediately snatch up the oars and begin paddling, hoping to slow them down or at least get them to the cavern walls so they could decide what came next. Correspondingly, Riley and Buck were doing the same on their canoe.

The action seemed futile because their efforts were like trying to sweep the sand off a beach. Both canoes were surging through the water now, pulled along the currents towards the source of that mighty roar Chris was sure were rapids, waterfalls or worse yet, whirlpools. Mary and Julia were trying to maintain their calm but despite their ability to handle most things (except maybe premature departures from bi-planes), the apprehension on their faces was apparent.

"CHRIS!"

Vin's voice forced his eyes front again, and he looked up to see the torches finally giving light to their predicament. The cavern had suddenly forked into two separate tunnels. Both of them possessing their own kind of peril with one route continuing into the darkness, while the other appeared to be the edge of a waterfall and with no idea how far the drop was going to be, Chris knew that way was to be avoided at all costs.

"Try and veer us to the right!" Chris shouted as both Nathan and JD paddled even more furiously, fighting the powerful currents dragging them toward the cascade.

Vin Tanner could only watch helplessly along with Buck, Josiah and Riley as the canoe carrying their companions headed directly for the waterfall. They were the closest craft to it, and not even JD and Nathan's effort to steer the boat in a diagonal direction could alter their course. In an attempt to avert the disaster coming at them, Ezra had restarted the outboard, hoping the motor might give the craft the boost it needed to reach its sister ship.

"Gimme some rope!"

It was a long shot and he knew it. Maybe they could tether one canoe to another and drag it towards safety. He looked over his shoulder and saw Josiah scrambling for the rope. The former seminary student was no longer bothering to operate the outboard on their craft, realising it was a moot point considering the strength of currents. He found the length of rope among their equipment and quickly tossed it to Vin who caught it with one hand.

The Texan having spent enough time on ranches after the disbandment of the Texas Rangers office he was apart of, had no trouble configuring the rope into the lasso he needed.

"CHRIS! CATCH!"

"Boy, we may get pulled in with them," Riley advised, not liking the idea of abandoning the other craft and Miss Julia to what was coming, but he was also a realist. In his game, he had to be.

"I don't give a damn!" Vin snapped and threw the lasso as far as it would go. Chris had gone to the nearest edge to grab it when it came his way. The rope sailed across the space between the two canoes, and there was a moment when the hope in Vin's chest swelled so large, he believed Chris might actually catch it.

Except he didn't.

The rope landed in the water a few feet before Chris's outstretched hand before sinking into the depths as surely as Vin's hopes. Chris gave Vin a look across the distance, one that assured him they would be fine until the canoe sailed out of reach and down the waterfall.

Then Vin was sure of nothing at all.

Chapter Twenty-One: Siren

"CHRIS!"

Vin's voice was swallowed up by the roar of rushing water when the canoe was directed down the left passage, leaving the fork and the rest of their comrades behind. As the sharpshooter's cry was muted behind him, Chris recalibrated his focus on where the canoe was headed. JD and Nathan had all but abandoned the attempt to steer their way out of trouble with oars, while Ezra was ensuring the girls were okay where they were. Even though both women claimed to not need a man's help for anything, Chris looked over his shoulder long enough to see Mary's apprehension and knew he could rely on Ezra to ensure they were safe.

Facing front, he aimed the torch and saw the edge approaching with terrifying speed. The wall of blackness beyond the pool made Chris fear the worst, but the strength of the current ensured they would be meeting it head-on. The darkness prevented him from seeing just how much of a drop they were going to experience and his efforts to answer that question with the narrow beam from the torch was next to useless.

"HOLD ON!"

The warning came just as the nose of the canoe passed over the edge and pierced the empty space beyond. Chris braced himself by gripping the sides of the narrow craft and planted his feet against the wooden deck. The canoe tipped forward sharply, prompting gravity's pull on all of them. Mary uttered a short cry of fright, while Ezra spat a profanity that was not at all in keeping with his erudite speech.

Craning his neck forward, Chris glimpsed the first view of what lay below. Much to his relief, the plunge downward was nowhere as lofty as he feared. It was no more than twenty feet, even if their landing was going to be rough. Their equipment began to slide across the floor of the boat, and Chris did what he could to secure the torch and the knapsack containing the circlet and other survival gear.

"Hang on to the guns!"

Nathan was shouting at JD and Chris was grateful the healer made the demand before he could. For his part, Chris had coiled one strap of the knapsack with his foot, ensuring it went nowhere without him. Below them, he was now able to see more foamy water as they were bathed with the light spray of the rushing currents. Wiping his face, he steeled himself as the canoe tipped all the way over and they were falling.

The bow of the canoe hit the water hard, soaking Chris as it disappeared beneath the depths for a few seconds before its construction forced it afloat again. As they were all splashed with water, the deck of the boat was similarly doused, but not enough to capsize them, much to Chris's relief. The canoe shook off its ordeal after a few seconds, though its occupants did not recover as quickly before it sailed away from the plunge pool and continued onward, albeit across calmer waters.

"Everyone alright?" Like Chris, everyone was soaked.

Mary was running her fingers through her golden hair combing out the water, while Ezra was frowning at the destruction of another suit. Nathan was checking their ordinance while JD was patting down his coat, ensuring his notebook was where he left it. Julia Pemberton appeared the calmest, even though earlier on, Chris was sure he saw fear on her face too. Then again, he could confess to the experience himself.

"We're okay, Chris," Nathan assured their leader. "Me and JD managed to keep the guns from going over, but I'm worried what the wet might have done to them though."

"Can't be helped," Chris shrugged, not liking the idea of being unarmed while down here either, however, there was nothing to be done about it.

"I wonder where the others are," JD cast a look from where they came and saw nothing but the waterfall. There was no sign of the other canoe and no sounds echoing from that upper chamber to indicate how far away their comrades might be.

"I don't know," Chris frowned unhappily. "Let's just hope whatever they run into, they can handle it."

"Vin will keep them safe," Nathan said confidently, aware his sentiment was shared by both Ezra and Chris. That young kid who tagged behind them on the Western Front had evolved into one of the most capable men they knew, and each of them was proud to have played some part in it.

"No doubt," Ezra nodded and then regarded himself with distaste. "For once, just once, I would like to embark on one of these escapades that do not leave me scurrying for my tailor. Seawater will not do well on this fabric."

Julia smiled in his direction, "don't worry, you still look smashing even with the look of a wet hound."

"Well your taste can't be faulted," Ezra threw her a smirk, appeased by her compliment.

"That's one way to put it," Nathan rolled his eyes, now checking the ammunition.

Of course, the healer knew just how much Ezra liked the woman and was pleased to see she was one who could match Ezra wit for wit. Ezra's problem with the opposite sex had always been boredom. While he treated every woman like a lady, the dumb ones didn't last long with him. It wasn't just that he liked them classy, he liked the ones who could match him intellectually, which in Ezra's case was formidable.

"Chris," Mary scootched over to him. "Where are we headed?"

"I'm not sure," Chris confessed, aiming the torch which took a few shakes to get working again, at the path ahead.

Fortunately, the darkness that followed them down this new chamber began to diminish and as they sailed further along the subterranean channel of water with the glowworms making their appearance once more, bathing the place with a luminescent glow. It would be quite beautiful if it weren't for the fact they had no idea where they were or what had happened to the others.

The walls flanking them were smoothed, implying the water level had once been higher, and Chris wondered if Perseus had made this journey and how had he done it. Keeping his torch aimed ahead, Chris suddenly sat upright when he saw what appeared to be a wall, blocking their progress any further. Searching the tunnel, he realized there was no other way for them to progress if they did not get through it and the unhappy possibility they might have to return the way they came loomed in his mind.

"Oh hell," Nathan grumbled, seeing the impasse they were fast approaching.

"It seems we might have taken the wrong route," Ezra commented. "Mr Tanner and the others might be closer to the Aegis than we are."

"No kidding," Chris grumbled, until they drew closer and closer to the wall and they saw that it was not a wall at all, but a door.

The seam that split the wall in half was covered by moss and algae, but as they closed in, they saw patterns the slick green growth concealed. Only when it was bathed in the light of the torch, did the decidedly man-made design take on greater definition. Though barely discernible, thanks to the ravages of time, the carved lines revealed a great temple, it's architecture was in the design of those from Classical Greece, with two figures poised on either side of what appeared to be an orb. One was the image of the Gorgon, the snakes coiling around the lady's head, their carved image looking somewhat unearthly with the green growth around it. On the other side, was the unmistakable image of the monstrous progeny of Pasiphae and the white bull denied sacrifice by Minos to Zeus.

"What's that in the middle?" Mary indicated the orb between the two mythological creatures.

Chris studied it for a minute, trying to guess what it could be. While he was not the scholar JD was, Chris Larabee had a knack for solving ancient riddles and this one, jumped out at him almost immediately. "I need the Circlet."

"It couldn't be that simple, could it?" Nathan asked as Chris bent over to remove the knapsack strap coiled around his ankle. Lifting it up, he began rummaging through the contents within the canvas, searching for the acquisition made by Julia Pemberton that started this search for the Aegis.

"I doubt anything about this will be considered simple," Ezra commented. The trouble with sealed doorways wasn't that they were locked to intruders but rather because they were hiding something far worse.

"Attaboy Ezra," Nathan gave him a look. "Don't trip over your optimism."

Chris ignored them both when the nose of the both finally reached the door, and the craft came to a sudden stop. The soft impact of wood against stone sent a jolt through all of them before they were able to move again. Chris climbed as far along the tip of the canoe as he could, without landing in the water, before he pressed the ancient piece of gold into the grooves of the carved orb. To no one's surprise, it fit perfectly and allowed Chris to twist it into place.

"It's a key!" JD exclaimed, having seen this type of mechanism before.

No sooner than he made the comment, a low, grinding sound screeched into being, making them all wince. The sound of rock against rock was teeth chattering, but they bore it because what followed was the whine of an ancient mechanism forced out of its hibernation to fulfil out its purpose. To Chris, it didn't seem too dissimilar from the large pistons of a steam train just before it left the platform.

As the door parted, the vegetation encrusting the seam of rock was torn apart, while the ceiling above them shook loose cobwebs, specks of dirt and even some of the glow worms clinging to the jagged roof. They disappeared into the dark water, their luminescent body marking their descent. A few bats, unhappy by the shudder running throughout the passage took flight, driving Mary and Julia to crouch down low to avoid them.

"Ezra, Nathan," Chris gestured at the oars, thinking it was a miracle they had not been lost during their plunge down the falls.

Light poured through the open door, not just from the glow worms living in the ceiling but also from the tall mushrooms growing out of the rock walls. Some almost a foot high, their dome-shaped heads radiated with amber light, while chanterelles fanned out with equally bright colours. Ferns and other creepers waved them by, as they used the cracks of the stone walls for purchase, some with leafy appendages that did not fit their subterranean surroundings.

Even the dark water beneath them shed its sinister cloak as the canoe sailed forward on currents of vibrant cerulean. The water was so crystal clear they could see the marine life going about their business languidly, indifferent to the strange new arrivals above them. Silver and gold bodied fish swam beneath them, navigating the anemones clusters and coral beds.

"Well this is unexpected," Ezra was first to comment. Previous experience made him believe they would be confronted by something dark and terrible once they slipped through the wall and drew closer to the Aegis. This approach seemed far too easy for his liking.

"Yeah," Chris replied, feeling the same suspicion. This was too easy, and just because it looked pretty didn't mean it wasn't dangerous. "Everyone, keep your eyes open. Julia, don't let Mary touch anything."

The look Mary shot him could have killed him dead on the spot.

"Hilarious Chris," she saw Julia stifling a little smile and grew more annoyed. "There's nothing to touch."

"I'm sure you'll find something to catch your interest," Chris winked and faced front again.

Like before, there was nothing but an underground waterway, with walls enclosing them on all sides, and the only way out was to keep going forward. Reflections in the water bounced off the walls, adding to the unearthly look of the place. While it was all pretty, all Chris could think of was one word, repeating itself over and over again in his head.

Flypaper.

JD was quickly sketching one of the fish he saw swimming along with the canoe. The animal obviously found the boat as fascinating as they found it's presence. He'd never seen a fish like that and wondered what species it was. It looked like a goldfish, but there was something different about it that fascinated the scholar. With a pencil, he began sketching the creature, wishing to show it to Orin Travis when they got back to civilization. Once they'd recovered the Aegis that is.

The fish continued to swim, and as Chris paid attention to where they were going, JD continued to sketch, even if the light was dim and he'd end up wearing glasses if he kept this up. Leaning forward to get a closer look, he admired the graceful way it shimmied through the water, the different shades of colour that rippled through its body as it moved. It was shaped like a bullet with a long flowing tail that trailed behind the animal as it glided through the darkness. It was almost like the hair of a beautiful girl swaying in the wind.

The shape began to change, and JD blinked, feeling his eyes drink in the sight of the fish that was now a lot bigger than he thought and upon closer reflection, didn't look like a fish at all. The tail flowed like the red hair of a Celtic maiden and her legs . . .

Legs?

JD blinked and looked again and saw nothing but a fish, swimming curiously by the boat, investigating them in its own way. Shaking such foolishness out of his head, he went back to sketching, giving the creature's body definition when he glanced at it once more. The fish had disappeared, making JD frown because he hadn't quite gotten it all down yet. Leaning across the edge of the canoe, he tried to see if he could find it again when all of a sudden, the water came out to greet him.

It was shaped like a hand.

JD could see fingers, long, slender ones, reaching for him. A watery digit extended towards him, daring JD to make contact. For a few seconds, he simply stared at it, mesmerized by the dance of colour and light, unable to do much else, even called the others for help. All he could do was reach out and touch the hand beckoning him for connection. When he made contact, the water felt cool and inviting, and when JD followed the hand into the underground sea, he saw a face staring at him.

Her dark hair was swirling around her pale face, bathed in the same aquamarine hue that radiated off the walls of the passage. Dark eyes stared at him with lips so red, he could see the colour of them through the greenish hue. As he stared into her face, he heard her sing. The words were familiar and stabbed at his heart, even after a year since his mother's passing. JD had a feeling he would miss it for the rest of his life.

While the moon her watch is keeping All through the night While the weary world is sleeping All through the night O'er thy spirit gently stealing Visions of delight revealing Breathes a pure and holy feeling All through the night

She sang that song to him all his life, and as he listened to it now, sung so sweetly in his ears, he started to weep in despair, wanting the anguish to stop and willing to do anything to see it happen, even die, completely unaware he wasn't alone.

Even as she spoke to him, stroking his brow while he lay curled up in a ball, feeling so dirty, he could hear distantly the song playing beyond the walls of the room.

Focusing on the tune playing on the phonograph in the saloon downstairs was the only way he had been able to keep from screaming at her, or worse, killing her. In what was left of his ruined psyche, a tiny voice was telling him she had not known how badly it would go, what payment that son of a bitch would demand and it had been his choice to pay it.

What else could he do? She was his mother!

He thought he could bear it. He thought he could save her and he did, even as he washed the blood and slick off him, even when he doubled over the wash basin, throwing up until there was nothing left. Even as the pain wracked his body, he knew he had delivered her and yet in her salvation, their relationship was effectively destroyed forever. He knew he would travel with her no more, that their time as a mother and son team of grifters was over. He had no wish for this life, not after seeing what it cost.

When you're all dressed up and no place to go, Life seems weary, dreary, and slow. My heart has ached and bled for the tears I've shed, When I've no place to go unless I went back to bed.

"My Darlin' boy," she wept openly and if he had bothered to look, would have seen she was displaying more emotion than he had ever seen her show before. Her words had little effect on him, not after what her reckless pursuit of a con had led them into. Led him into, the thought bitterly. Even now, he could smell the stink of the man, the pain that tore through him like a knife through hot butter. Even now, hours after the fact, he still felt like he wanted to die.

Even though he was seventeen, he had known a risky venture when he saw it, but Maude did what she always did in such situations, exactly what she wanted. William 'Reddy' Griffin wasn't just some rich fool who could be taken in easily, he was a mobster from New York, and no sensible grifter would take the risk of trying to swindle one, except for Maude of course.

"I didn't know! I wouldn't have let him near you if I knew!"

It had been all Ezra could take. The next thing he knew he was running out of the room, running towards the first enlistment office he could find, to escape the shame. All the while thinking of the song that had been playing when he left her for good.

I've had a sad, sad life and whenever I go To that peaceful spot where the violets grow, Upon a nice white stone will be written below: "He was all dressed up and no place to go."

"Mary. We're in trouble."

Mary was kneeling over Chris Larabee trying to shake him back to coherence. A few seconds ago, he had dropped to his knees, becoming unresponsive as he became lost somewhere in his mind, somewhere he appeared trapped. The expression on his face was one of anguish and seeing his pain, made her heart ache in frustration because she couldn't free him from it. Across the length of the canoe, Chris was not alone in his misery.

Nathan's hands were in the water, reaching for something that wasn't there. His face, like Chris, was one of grief and sorrow and Mary couldn't imagine what trauma he was suffering because she did not know him that well. While Nathan had proven himself to be a kind, compassionate soul with a dry, biting wit, she knew from conversations with the rest of the seven, he kept his past a secret, much like Ezra, which was likely why the two men got on so famously.

"Kathy!"

Like Heathcliff, Nathan was crying out for someone who was not there and yet was unable to see the ones who were.

"I know that!" Mary declared, annoyed at Julia's statement of the obvious.

"I don't mean these men," Julia returned promptly. "I mean them."

Mary looked up to see where Julia was pointing. Emerging from the water, surrounding the canoe were at least a dozen women. They were naked, with green hair clinging to their bare shoulders. Their yellow serpentine eyes glared at the two women who escaped their siren song and parted their blood red lips to reveal rows of serrated teeth.

Yeah, Mary thought to herself as the sirens approached, Julia was right. They were definitely in trouble.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Soft Places

It was the same, every damn time.

Whenever Chris Larabee vanished from sight, presumably to face some danger without him, Vin Tanner felt like he was ten years old again. No longer was he the accomplished sharpshooter or Texas Ranger. Instead, Vin became the frightened child who managed to lie his way onto the Western Front. In that muddy carnage, Vin found the one person he loved almost as much as his ma. From the moment Chris understood he had run from a place as brutal as the front lines and allowed him to remain with K-Troop, Vin loved him.

These days, the strength of that affection was expressed in the camaraderie they shared, but Vin still never forgot what it was like to look up into those ice coloured eyes and know with complete certainty, this man would always keep him safe. Vin was an adult now, and yet deep inside him, he was still a hair's breadth from descending into panic whenever he saw Chris ride off without him.

Just like it did when he was a kid, his chest would tighten with the fear Chris would die in the trenches with so many of the others on the front and Vin would be alone again. Chris had given Vin this family that wasn't just him. It was also Ezra, Nathan, Josiah, Buck and later JD. If it weren't for the authorities getting their hands on him after the war, Vin had no doubt, Chris would have adopted him.

It was why seeing Chris disappeared down that waterfall filled him with raw terror.

"CHRIS!"

Vin shouted into the darkness and received no answer but the constant roar of the churning waters. The strong currents dragged them away from the fork, giving Vin no chance to do anything to help the occupants of the other canoe. Their own was being spirited down a different path, one that gave them no hints as to the fate of their friends.

"Vin, they're gone!"

Vin was about to turn on Buck savagely when he realised Buck didn't mean dead, just momentarily out of reach. Buck was too optimistic to think anything else. Biting back the harsh words he was about to utter, Vin remembered himself. Gritting his teeth, he retreated behind the stoic mask he sometimes wore like a cloak of protection.

Buck was right, they were out of sight for the moment, that's all. Besides, Vin reminded himself Chris Larabee did not get into situations he could not get out of, and that the man could take care of himself. Whatever it was, Chris and the others were facing, Chris would be alright. He had to be.

Right now, they were in a situation no less dire. Despite the divergent path their canoes had taken, with Chris's party having the worst of it, he, Buck, Josiah and Riley were still headed down a subterranean river whose end they could not see. With each side of the passage a wall of rock, there was no place to put to shore, and if they wished to find Chris and the others, they had to continue ahead, even if it took them deeper underground.

"Alright, alright," Vin considered what came next now that he was in the mind to ponder the question. "We can't help them until we figure out where we are ourselves. At this point, let's just assume they've gone a different direction, and not anything worse than that."

"Too right lad," Riley nodded, offering the sharpshooter his support with that affirmation. Like Vin, Riley did not want to think the worst because if he did succumb to that fear, it would be of help to no one. Miss Julia wasn't just his partner, but family.

"Yeah," Buck agreed, embracing the belief wholeheartedly as only Buck could. "They're fine. Ain't nothing Chris can get into, he won't be able to get out of."

"Okay, then. The first sight of land, we get out? You all fine with that?"

"Sounds good to me," Josiah drawled, appearing even more stoic than Vin could manage on a good day, confident the young man whom they all watched grow up, would once again prove their faith in him.

"The only trouble is," Buck pointed out as they continued paddling down the waterway, carried by their own steam and the currents, "is we don't got the circlet or JD."

Scanning the smooth walls of the passage, damp with moisture and reflecting the luminescent glow of the critters above them, Buck forced his worry for JD down the same place Vin kept his concerns for Chris.

"If we get to the Aegis, we won't have the least bit idea of how to reach it, and you know how these things always go."

"Can't argue with you there," Josiah admitted having five years of experience to look back on. "There's always something lurking in the dark, waiting to take a bite out of us."

The suggestion made Buck stop paddling immediately to crane his neck over the side of the craft and scrutinise the water more carefully. He tried to see if anything was lurking in the depths that might be waiting for a meal to show up on a canoe-sized platter. Fortunately, the crystal blue water revealed nothing except the exotic and colourful marine life. Satisfied for now, they were not venturing into the lair of some creature looking to eat them, the men paddled, ignoring the planet-size hole left by their absent comrades.

They continued this way for another thirty minutes, surrounded by limestone walls on either side and no sign of any land that could allow them to put to shore. Even the rushing hiss of the waterfall diminished into nothingness, and there was only the gentle lapping of water against the hull keeping their voices company. As their descent continued, there was a feeling they were passing from one realm to another, as if the fork was not a simple fissure in the rock, widened by millions of years of erosion, but a soft place.

A drunken Arab once told Vin there were places where the veil between worlds was not as immutable as one believed. The sharpshooter dismissed this as a tall tale until a few months ago when he stood there beneath the Saudi sky and watched a goddess attempt to take the body of the woman he loved. At that moment, Vin was willing to believe anything.

All their patience was beginning to crack when suddenly, something appeared ahead of them that was more than just darkness and water. The light beckoned them forward and as they neared it, saw the illumination coming from two burning torches, the firelight dancing off the slick reflection of the walls. Both were mounted against a facade of sandstone built into the limestone around them. Flanked by the torches were a set of doors, with huge brass knockers, each in the shape of a bull's skull.

Six feet of floor separated the water from the door, with an edge dropping two feet down after the final paved slab. Water sloshed against the sandstone, creating amber lines against the tan rock. Barnacles skirted the surface before disappearing entirely into the drink. The clarity of the water allowed them to see the green vegetation clinging to the stone, swaying with the currents in their featherlike grace.

"Well, this don't look ominous at all,"

Buck's comment mirrored his own, but Vin knew they had little choice in the matter. There was no way ahead unless they went through whatever awaited them behind those doors.

Ten minutes later, they were out of the boat and standing in front of the massive doors, each man sufficiently armed for whatever lay ahead. Like the knockers, the design against the gold-plated door was definitely Grecian in origin. Vin did not need to be the expert Chris or JD was to recognise the style, which seemed to figure the bull quite prominently.

"Bulls," Josiah commented to no one in particular. "If we were after the Aegis of Zeus, this might be the place. Bulls were said to be his sacred animal. They sacrificed the things to him all the time."

"How can an animal be sacred when they're being sacrificed?" Vin asked that somewhat valid question. The sharpshooter disliked the idea of any animal being killed for no good reason. Eating was one thing, but the foolishness of murdering them to appease indifferent gods was a waste.

"They were all mad bastards back then," Riley commented. "Them and their heathen ways."

"Yeah," Buck snorted. "Us good Christian folk never did anything like that, except maybe burn witches at stakes."

Any comment Riley or Josiah was about to make in defence of their religion was promptly silence when a loud creak ripped through the air, and the doors jerked into movement. All four men took a quick step back as the doors swung out, widening just enough for them to enter. Vin exchanged glances with his friends, all of whom recognised a trap when they saw one.

"Should we?" Buck had to ask because what awaited them might not be something they could survive.

"Ain't got much choice," Vin stepped forward, his Colt firmly in his grip as he stepped through, hoping whatever was on the other side would help them find Chris and the others.

The stone floor continued beyond the threshold of the door, forming part of the hallway that was the same width of those high doors. Like the facade, the walls were constructed of sandstone, with artwork so well preserved it might appear as if the artist just painted it. Immortalised in vivid colours, were the pantheon of Greek Gods, Zeus with his thunderbolt, Athena with her shield, Poseidon with the half body of a fish and Aphrodite gloriously naked.

The hallway was illuminated by torches placed at regular intervals along the walls, providing a soft, amber glow reminding Josiah Sanchez of a church. There was no doubting the splendour of the architecture and the former seminary student had to wonder how this place could exist, remaining as pristine as the day it was built. Age had not affected any of the artwork, nor were the corners draped with threads of cobweb. Even the floor revealed the absence of any dust. It was as if the place was trapped in time, unable to move beyond the moment.

It gave him the chills.

"There's darkness here," Riley voiced his reservations, the Irish brogue adding to everyone's anxious nerves.

Vin ignored all this, focussed only on one thing. To reach Chris, they had to get through this place. All other considerations were unimportant in the face of that goal. He led the way, grateful for the Tommy Gun slung across his shoulder, insisting on taking it because there was a chance they could run into Nazis with similar ordinance during this expedition. When it came to enemies with guns, Vin did not believe in moderation.

At the end of the hallway, were another set of doors, although these were half the size of the version that gave them entrance into the passage earlier. Once again, when they approached, the doors opened of their own accord, but unlike the chamber they were now in, what lay beyond was bathed in dim light. The dry, stale smell of something old and long since drained of all moisture, wafted at them.

"We're going in there?" Buck was the first to say it.

Vin walked through without a second thought, his flashlight lighting the way, while assured his friends would be right behind him.

"Of course we are," Buck muttered under his breath before adding louder, "Vin, hold up will you!"

The pilot rolled his eyes in exasperation, unsurprised by the sharpshooter's behaviour. The kid had more courage and loyalty than sense. However, Buck had no intention of letting Vin go anywhere alone, even if he was acting like a pig-headed mule. Hurrying after Vin, he cast his eye back to the others just long enough to gesture to Josiah and Riley to follow him into the darkness. Switching on their torches, they had no sooner crossed the threshold before the door slammed loudly behind them.

Josiah was the first to swing around and make an attempt to open it once they were sealed inside. To no one's surprise, it did not budge. Whatever force allowed them entry had no desire for them to leave and Josiah frowned, aware that loud clang signalled the trap they knowingly entered, had just been sprung.

"No surprise there," Riley shrugged.

"Everyone, keep your eyes open," Vin warned as they started moving again."This place don't look as friendly as the one before."

"You got a strange idea of what's friendly," Buck grumbled, hating the idea they walked in here in the first place but chagrined at knowing there was no other path they could take.

Unlike the hallway behind them, this was bathed in darkness. Their flashlights provided some definition, but the darkness shrouding them was not just the lack of light. There was a hidden menace in the black that permeated off the wall, like a slick, oily residue no one dared touch. While the other corridor was wide, this one was narrow, and the masonry lacked the polish of sandstone. This corridor looked as if it had been carved out. A light covering of moss and lichens clung to the stone, while cobwebs dangled from the roof.

The corridor was also narrow, barely six feet across, forcing them to walk two by two.

"I got a bad feeling about this," Josiah remarked, seeing the spider retreating up the wall at the sight of them. Things were living in here, he thought silently. He could hear the chirps and skittering of insect chitin against the rock.

The foul smell which initially reminded Vin of the stale water one might find beneath a forgotten well, evolved into something rancid until it was enough to force the tracker to breathe through his mouth to tolerate it. The further in they journeyed, the stronger and more revolting the stench became and yet Vin was sure there was a familiarity to it.

"What is that stink?" Buck blurted out, never one to hold in a thought. "Smells like something died in here."

The three men who had been on the ground during the Battle of the Somme immediately looked at each other as Buck's statement prompted their memories. Vin had no doubt, if Nathan Jackson were present, the healer would have picked up on it sooner, but unfortunately, Nathan was somewhere else in this underground world, while they were left to fend for themselves, stumbling in the dark, trying not to wake a dragon.

"What?" Buck saw his three companions go suddenly still.

"Everybody," Vin spoke, his too-soft voice almost a whisper, "quit talking."

"Why?" Buck hissed but made sure he did it quietly to not ignore Vin's warning.

"Something is dead down here," Vin started moving again, this time a good deal more cautiously. "A lot of somethings."

"If you've ever been on the battlefield lad," Riley explained just as quietly, "you'd know the stink of a hundred bodies after a day in the mud."

Buck froze inwardly at the answer. During the war, he'd seen the aftermath of the battles fought by the infantry divisions, the thousands of bodies lying across the plains, pounded by artillery, footprints both animal and man, into mud. The fear he felt wondering whether or not Chris, Ezra, Nathan and Vin were down there among the dead, was nothing in comparison to actually being a part of it on the land.

The passage suddenly made a sharp turn and headed off to the right. Following it, they discovered this one wasn't as long as the previous corridor and ended at a juncture revealing access to three others, all in different directions. Something about the configuration bothered Vin, but before Vin could form the answer, he took a step forward and felt a loud, crisp crunch beneath his boot. Until now, Vin had aimed his torch ahead, paying more attention to where they were going instead of what was underfoot. There didn't seem the need when they identified the rock floor upon first entering these catacombs.

The crack used the acoustics of the corridors to leave their immediate vicinity, making the sharpshooter frown as he lowered his torch to his feet. What he saw sent shivers of ice racing down his spine. Examining the rest of the floor, Vin's jaw tightened at what he had erroneously believed to be the gravel produced by a carved passage like this.

It was bone.

Lots of bones and judging by the fragment of jaw he saw lying against the dust, he now knew to be the desiccated remnants of offal left behind from Christ only knew how long ago, they were human. Vin could see the curve of a rib, the oddly shaped pelvic bone and fragments teeth.

"Jesus Christ . . . ." Buck whispered, his face ashen even if Vin couldn't see it.

"He's got nothing to do with this," Josiah examined the remains now as well.

Riley was not interested in the bones, but he was listening keenly while he swept the torch's light across the immediate area, ensuring nothing crept up on them while they were holding position for the moment.

Vin dropped to his knees to pick up what appeared to be a femur, ignoring the revulsion of handling the remains of what used to be a living, breathing person like himself. What a terrible place to die, he thought, at the bottom of the world, in the dark. He wondered if the collection of bones meant this poor soul had not died alone or had they been the last in a long line of grisly deaths.

Using the light of his torch, he studied the marks across the yellowed bone in his hand, examining every aspect of its texture and once again, feeling his horror ratcheted up another notch when he realised what he was looking at. Clenching his jaw, he lifted his gaze and saw Josiah conducting a similar study of a smaller bone, this one appeared to be a metacarpal.

"You seeing what I'm seeing?"

"What?" Buck demanded, never being comfortable with places that kept the sky so entirely out of view. This place had already put him on edge, but this latest discovery was straining his ability to maintain his calm.

"These are teeth marks," Josiah answered grimly. "I think these people were eaten. Some of these bones were gnawed."

"Christ."

Riley's simple exclamation was all the prompt Vin needed to straighten up. "We got to get moving, we can't stay here. We'll head back the way we came and figure something else out."

"What? Why?"

A loud, unearthly bellow answered Buck's question. The sound was so thunderous it felt as if the walls had shuddered at its roar. The smaller denizens of the passage, living in the moss and cracks, scurried back to their hiding places, their departure evident by the silence that fell over them all. Only the roar continued, closing in on them.

"Come on!" Vin prompted everyone in the direction away from it. "Keep moving."

"Hold on Vin," Buck snapped, not wanting to run blindly ahead with no idea where they were going even if he agreed wholeheartedly with getting away from whatever was making that racket. "We got to think it through or we're going to get lost in this maze."

"It's not a maze!" Vin snapped, jumping a little when another roar chased them down the corridor. "It's a labyrinth."

Chapter Twenty-Three: Delirium

Mary still had trouble processing what was approaching the canoe as the currents around them suddenly ceased, and they were floating in a stationary position. The trap they had unwittingly entered was now sprung, and the hunters were about to collect their trophies. Fighting all logic and common sense, telling her she could not possibly be seeing what was closing in on the canoe, the terror gripping her heart had a more visceral piece of advice.

They're coming.

"You know how to use this?" Julia asked, rifling through the cache of weapons Chris Larabee and company had brought with them to face whatever dangers lurked in the shadows where the Aegis was hidden.

Mary's answer when she took the Browning semi-automatic pistol in her hand was to release the slide and then the safety. "Can't be the daughter of an ex-cavalryman and not know how to shoot a gun. It's just un-American."

Julia flashed her a smile of amusement despite their present circumstances, arming herself with an M720 semi-automatic shotgun, and keeping the S2-200 machine gun within reach. She had an idea of what these things surrounding them were, but Julia had no intention of letting them get near any of the men. As it was, she was uncertain whether or not the fugue state they were gripped in could be broken, but it was a puzzle that could be unravelled after she dealt with the present threat.

"They're after the men," Julia declared, having retained enough about her classical studies to know her cryptozoology with some expertise. "I think they're sirens."

"Sirens?" Mary's eyes widened and saw the ring of unearthly flesh closing in around them. Of course, what else would they be?

"According to the legends, they're supposed to lure men to their deaths by singing songs of such despair, the men were useless to stop them when the sirens came on board to tear them apart."

Julia saw the first one of the creatures nearing the canoe and promptly lifted the barrel of the shotgun she was wielding. Pulling the trigger, she hoped the sirens might be frightened off by 20th-century weaponry.

BOOM!

The sound was like the bellow of an enraged God. Inside the close confines of the underground passage, it made the walls quake and jolted everyone present, including the men in their company lost in their delirium. The creatures halted in their advance for a second, before the slits of their reptilian irises contracted with calculation and what hesitation they felt was overcome by the thirst for blood.

"Oh, crap!" Mary cursed as she realised she was going to have to fire on these creatures since the last hope of avoiding a fight faded with the sound of the gunshot blast. Taking aim, the mythological women showed no fear facing the gun barrel and Mary wondered if it was because they were impervious to bullets or had no idea what she was holding in her hand was a weapon.

After all, it was probably the Bronze Age the last time they were afforded a meal.

"At least!" Julia bit back just before she opened fire.

The first bullet tore through the chest of the siren closest to the canoe. The gunshot penetrated the creature's flesh with a spurt of dark blood, splitting her face with a grimace of agony that appeared even more grotesque when those sharp, needle-like teeth were revealed. She staggered in pain, her scream becoming lost in the shrieks of outrage. Those voices, so debilitating to the male of the species, sounded to Mary and Julia like sharp, savage screeches.

She sunk into the dark water, prompting the others to come forward, their movements marked by the swirl of foam around their bodies as they advanced. Mary saw another reaching the canoe from the corner of her eye, its claw-like hands attempting to climb on to the boat. Chris was still on the floor, the expression on his face so anguished she could not bear it, and it infuriated her that he was suffering so. Without even knowing what was in his mind's eye, she suspected it had to do with the fire that took his wife and child.

"Bitches."

Mary promptly shot the encroaching siren through the skull. The creature's hand whipped back like elastic before she fell back first into the drink. Another deafening boom from the shotgun had Mary turning sharply to Julia, who was shooting at the monsters seemingly unperturbed by the insanity of their present situation. Then again, with what Julia was combating these days, Mary knew not all monsters were mythological. Some became that by embracing ideology. Yet another siren disappeared under the water and Mary was starting to think they might survive this situation when one of the Oceanids bellowed loudly in a call that seemed to draw the attention of the others.

The words to Mary sounded like gibberish and for an absurd moment, Mary thought they resembled the high-pitched squeal of dolphins. Whatever the strange vocalisations were attempting to convey, all of a sudden, the creatures suddenly dove beneath the water. For a few seconds, only the diminish chop of their departure remained visible, but the sirens themselves were so far unseen. Raising her eyes to Julia, she dared to hope this might be over, that the weapons they were carrying might have scared he things away.

"Where did they go?" Mary asked, trying to keep the hope out of her voice. Fear had made her an optimist.

"Not far I think," Julia swept her gaze across the surface, trying to see the creatures who should have been clearly visible in the crystal coloured water. Strange how it was now dark and impenetrable as if the mood of the sea changed to suit the needs of the predators living in its depths.

The pause though temporary, gave Mary some time to examine Chris who was muttering incoherently, although she managed to make out a few sentences.

"I can still smell them in the ash . . . ."

Oh God, Mary's heart clenched in sympathy, imagining what horror he must be seeing. She knew he cared for her, but Mary was not so foolish as to delude herself into thinking she was the love of his life, nor would she ever be. That distinction went to the woman who had borne him a son, the love of his youth lost in a cruel blaze. She brushed his brow gently, wishing to soothe him his torment, knowing this could only end if they got away from here.

"What do we do?" Mary looked to Julia, who appeared accustomed to handling dangerous situations.

"We leave," Julia stated without hesitation. "While they're deciding how they're going to deal with us."

No sooner than the words left her lips, the canoe began rocking perilously. Below their feet, they could feel the heaving of unseen assailants against the underside of the boat. Mary gripped the side of the craft to avoid being tipped over while Julia clung to the heavy casing of the outboard motor. Water started sloshing against the hull and into the canoe as the turbulence grew more violent. Their enemy was renewing their attack from a different direction to avoid their guns.

"They're trying to capsize us!"

"I got that!" Mary bit back. None of the men seemed aware of what was happening, still trapped in their delirium and Mary supposed that was some consolation. If she and Julia failed to stop these monstrous women, being oblivious while they were being torn apart might actually be a small mercy.

From the corner of her eye, Mary caught sight of something emerging over the edge of the boat. Turning around swiftly, while struggling to maintain her balance despite the rocking beneath the craft, Mary managed to squeeze off a shot. The bullet tore through the wood, spitting splinters into the water and at her, before nicking the enemy's ear. The siren uttered a piercing scream of pain as she shrank away from the canoe, clutching her ear as dark, goopy blood oozed over her fingers.

Meanwhile, Julia was attempting to start the outboard, determined to leave the area. If they could escape the clutches of these sirens, perhaps the men would snap out of their tortured state and regain their senses. As the thought crossed her mind, she glanced at Ezra, who was burying his face in his hands, his whole body shuddering as he sobbed. What in God's name was he seeing?

It was an odd feeling that came over Julia Pemberton when she first saw Ezra Standish.

Whether or not he knew it, he was the most striking man on the floor of the museum, that night in New Mexico. Not only was he wearing a well-tailored suit exuding elegance instead of vulgar wealth, he also moved effortlessly through the patrons, charming men and women alike. Julia, who often encountered such specimens in her line of work was untouched.

Until he smiled.

He was already beautiful, but the man wore that damn dimpled smile so well it would tempt even the most chaste of women. Yet through the facade of that smile, she noticed something else and that cemented her attraction to him. In his sea-green eyes was loneliness on a profound level. She knew without ever meeting him, even when he was surrounded by friends, Ezra still felt alone. Upon meeting him, her belief in this deepened because it looked as if he didn't feel worthy in their company, as if something about him made him less. It touched her.

Tugging hard on the pull cord to kick start the engine, her attempts to do so were interrupted by the glimpse of a hand reaching across the edge of the boat, seeking out and finding J.D Dunne. Without thinking twice, Julia crossed the narrow space to the young scholar, presently curled into a ball whimpering, and brought the butt of the shotgun down. Bone shattered beneath the weapon, forcing the raptor-like hands to shrink back with a scream of pain like a banshee's cry.

Not that she had time to see where the creature had gone because something else was attempting to climb into the canoe, this time trying to reach Nathan Jackson. Swinging the gun into position, Julia didn't waste time with threats. She aimed high and nearly blew the siren's head off its shoulders with one well-aimed shot. The explosion of sound cut off any cry of agony the intruder might have made and resulted in a bellow of fury from the others.

In retaliation, the sirens beneath the boat attempting to capsize it, renewed their efforts pushing hard against the underside of the craft until Julia could feel the pounding against the wooden floor through her boots.

"Get us out of here!"

Mary had just enough time to shout before she was reloading her gun to resume firing. She fired into the dark sea, now aiming at things she couldn't even see, hoping she would get lucky with one of the shots. Beneath them, the pounding grew more fierce, with the canoe rocking dangerously from side to side, amidst the splashing water around them.

Julia resumed her efforts to start the engine when a particularly sharp jolt against the craft, made the deck heave suddenly. She barely managed to stay upright, but no such luck was with Mary. With horror, Julia saw Mary Travis lose her footing and plunge headfirst into the water, impacting the surface with a loud splash before she disappeared into the now dark depths.

"MARY!"

Mary did not hear Julia's panicked cry. All she heard was the tremendous splash of water as she fell in, followed by the muting of all sound by total submersion. Once again, as Mary descended into the depths, momentarily stunned by her abrupt change of circumstances, she wondered where the crystal clear water had gone because all she could see now was blackness. Terror filled her, knowing what was swimming down here and felt a surge of relief when she realised she still had a death grip on her gun.

It was just as well because swimming into view, were the sirens.

Their limbs almost appeared green as they glided past her, their visage even more fearful in the emerald gleam of the water. The irises of their serpent eyes had widened until they were almost black, and as two of them closed in on her, bearing those terrible teeth, Mary reacted instinctively and fired. The bullet's power was severely diminished in the water, but the siren was close enough for it to penetrate before its velocity slowed to ineffective levels.

It struck the creature in front of Mary in the chest, propelling her back into the darkness from where she had come. However, no sooner than that one threat was dealt with, Mary felt the pain of teeth sinking into her shoulder. Opening her mouth to scream resulted in salt water rushing down her throat and for a second, she could do nothing as nails clawed at her and that biting pain intensified, until it provided Mary with the clarity needed to fight back. As it was, she was starting to run out of oxygen, and if she did not break surface soon, she would drown down here.

Reaching around, Mary dug her nails into her attacker's skull and felt revulsion when her fingers made contact with stuff that didn't at all feel like hair, but the slimy texture of seaweed. Biting back her disgust, Mary pushed on until she felt skin and dug in. Pulling back, she was sure she pried a bit of the siren's skull back. Slamming the gun in her hand against the creature's forehead, the metal made a dull thunk against bone.

A small mist of dark blood swirled between them, intermingling with the red of her own wound. Mary struck her again, this time, dislodging her completely. When she pulled back, Mary spun around and fired. This bullet caught the siren in the forehead and Mary saw her dark eyes roll back into white as the life drained from her. No sooner than the siren started to sink, Mary kicked hard, propelling herself to the surface. Overhead, the light of the glow worms on the ceiling led her to air like the stars to lost sailors.

"MARY!"

Julia was torn between going after the blond woman or defending the men in the canoe. Thankfully, she was not required to make such a terrible choice when she saw Mary's blond hair appear through the water. The journalist appeared in one piece, but that was blood Julia could see staining the shoulder of her blouse. Mary quickly sought out the boat and started swimming towards it when she realised where it was. Almost on cue, the sirens moved to intercept her.

Using the same marksmanship she used to dispatch Adashir Shah, Julia took careful aim with a handgun and cleared the woman's path to the boat. Firing at the creatures that would attempt to waylay her, Julia put down enough suppressing fire to let Mary reach the canoe. Some of her shots hit home, the others merely served to chase the enemy away.

Mary reached the canoe and pulled herself into the craft, landing like a fish on the deck. Panting from her exertions, Mary looked at Julia.

"Can we please leave now?"

"Well now that you're done with your little swim," Julia managed a smile, the levity hiding just how relieved she was to see the journalist alive.

"Very funny," Mary gave her a look and then fell silent because the creatures were surfacing, all of them.

Julia saw the sirens surrounding them in all directions, the losses to their number, making them doubly determined to get their prey. They were about to converge on the canoe, ensuring it went nowhere and Julia found herself thinking fast, trying to find a way out when suddenly, she saw something that was swiftly improvised into an idea.

"Mary, come up here. I need you to start the boat on my signal."

Mary saw the gleam in Julia's eyes and recognised the possibility of a plan when she saw it. Her shoulder was still stinging with pain, and she could feel her blood pulsing with each movement, but Mary nevertheless scrambled to her feet. Adrenalin propelling her forward, she crossed the length of the boat and took Julia's place at the outboard.

In the meantime, Julia was unscrewing the cap on one of the spare jerry cans of fuel the company had brought with them on this expedition. The combustible liquid had been strapped securely to the hull of the craft and had ridden the rapids with them when they descended the waterfall. Once exposed, she flung the content around the boat, splashing some of the liquid on the creatures closing in on them, as well as across the water. The oily residue immediately created rainbows of colour across the surface. Julia used every last drop and in good time because the sirens had reached the boat. Digging into the inside of her jacket, she produced the box of matches and praised Ezra Standish's personal deity, Lady Luck for keeping them dry.

"NOW!"

The order was punctuated with the strike of a match.

Mary yanked the pull cord hard and prompted the outboard into its sputtering rumble. As it came to life, Julia tossed the match. The gasoline across the surface and splattered against the creatures ignited with a spectacularly large whoosh of sound. As the cavern ignited with bright amber light, the sirens shrieked in terror as the fuel on their skin burst into flame.

"GO! GO! GO!"

The canoe was moving even before Julia started shouting. Pushing the throttle to full, the craft lurched forward sending Julia to the deck rump first. She landed hard as the boat pushed its way through the sirens, now diving under the waves to avoid the still burning fuel, while others did the same to extinguish the flames burning them alive. Their shrieks reached crescendo and Mary was grateful she was seated near the motor because its roar went a long way to muting those terrible sounds as they sped away from the scene.

Julia grimaced as she tried to stand up, her behind aching from the awkward landing. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the flames diminishing, the more distance they put between themselves and the sirens, the amber glow of the gas-fuelled fire contracting swiftly into black again. With any luck, the creatures would give up any idea of a chase, after incurring such losses to their deadly sisterhood.

"Are you alright?" Julia turned to Mary, who was still manning the outboard, remembering the blood she had seen on the woman's shoulder earlier but had no time to investigate because they were under siege.

Mary lifted the collar of her shirt to investigate the extent of the injury and winced at the gruesome teeth marks left by the creature who attacked. Although the skin was discoloured around the bite, and the pain was considerable, she knew it was a superficial injury.

"I'm okay," she answered. "How are the men?"

Julia was nearest to Nathan. Kneeling over the healer, she wondered who this Kathy was he seemed to be pining for. Whoever the lady was, it appeared Nathan was as tortured over her as Heathcliff on the moors. She shook him, hoping the action might dispel the delusion the man was presently trapped.

"They're still under the influence of those creatures," Julia shot a dark glare at the direction they had left the monsters. "I think we might need to get them further away to break them free of whatever it is they're experiencing."

"You know, the more I travel with these men," Mary sighed, "the more impossible the things I'm seeing."

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Julia shrugged, unable to deny she had seen some odd things these last few months. "I imagine after seeing Tiamat almost returned to Earth, sirens seem par the course."

Suddenly, behind them, they heard the moan of someone who sounded like he was waking up from a particularly nasty hangover. It took a moment for Chris Larabee to sit up shakily, before realising he was wet, and the floor of the canoe had taken on water. Puzzled, he saw the state of his comrades before shifting his piercing gaze, now sharpening into focus with the realisation some calamity had occurred, at the two women present.

"Mary is that blood?" His voice rose an octave once he realised what that stain on her collar and shoulder was. "What happened here? What's wrong with Ezra, Nate and the kid?"

Mary and Julia exchanged glances, but it was Mary who answered. "It's a long story, and after we're done telling it, you will never again say bringing a woman on your adventures is a bad idea."

Chapter Twenty-Four: Labyrinth

When Vin Tanner was what he called a 'little fella', he made the best and worst decision of his life.

Running away to an enlistment office, he wound up in the middle of the Western Front, surrounded by blood and carnage that was almost too much for his ten-year-old mind to process. If not for the fact he had run straight into Chris Larabee, Vin had no idea what would have become of him. Adopted by K-troop, Vin followed Chris around everywhere, and whenever he was absent, it was Ezra Standish who kept him close.

Although Vin never said it out loud, his affection for Ezra was damn near equal to Chris. Upon learning he could not read, Ezra made it his business, in between card tricks and combat action, to teach him. There were nights around the campfire when Ezra would sit by his side, and they would read books that only young boys could love. He learned to read from Call of the Wild, Time Machine and Treasure Island.

His absolute favourites, however, were the Greek classics.

Vin would fall asleep listening to Ezra's voice reading him stories about great heroes, performing incredible feats of bravery, fighting fantastic monsters. The stories inspired his imagination and did what Ezra expected it would, made Vin want to read more about them. The books Ezra gave him were lost now, and Vin remembered how heartbroken he was to leave them behind when he made his escape into the arms of the Navajo after the war.

Still, every one of those tales lived in his memories, Hercules and his Twelve Labours, Jason and his Argonauts and of course, Theseus and the Minotaur.

It was why the instant he heard that loud bellow echoing down the long narrow corridors with pulverised and fragmented bones scattered across the ground, Vin understood where they were.

"You think this is that Labyrinth?"

Josiah threw a glance at Vin as they retreated up the corridor they had just taken to make their gruesome discovery, still stunned by the possibility of what Vin was suggesting. Unlike Buck, Nathan and Ezra, Vin was not one to make wild exaggerations, and upon hearing the proximity of that roar to their present location, Josiah suspected Vin might be right, even if it did seem absurd.

Before Vin could answer, the walls around them began to move, sliding effortlessly back and forth, as if they weren't carved out of stone at all. They glided across the floor smoothly in stark contrast to the grinding screeching through the air. The wall flanking them on the left suddenly hooked abruptly into a corner, and the narrow tunnel ahead was severed in half by another section cutting them off, turning the corridor into a fork going in both directions. Each newly created route ran into the darkness, offering no clues as to what lay ahead.

"What the hell just happened?"

Buck's demand mirrored all their confusion, but Vin knew the answer. The labyrinth was moving. This maze intended to keep them disoriented so they would be unable to get their bearings or more importantly, incapable of escaping. Whatever force controlled this place, it was determined they keep their appointment with the creature calling this lair home.

"It ain't gonna let us out."

"It?"

"Don't you know the story about the labyrinth lad?" Riley's head turned left to right, looking as if he were about to cross the street.

"Of course, I do!" Buck said with irritation, before the full implications of that sank in, coupled with the repeating roar of a creature whose voice felt like thunder, quaking the walls as it closed in on them. "Are you telling me that an actual man is running around with a bull's head, eating people?"

No one answered Buck, because as incredulous as it might seem to them, it might be true.

"This way."

Ignoring the speculation and focussing only on the threat, whatever it might be, Vin gestured to the others to follow him. He had no idea whether or not it was the right route to take but staying put when something was hunting them, and Vin did not doubt this was exactly what was happening to them, was a terrible idea. They needed to keep moving to stay one step ahead while they searched for a way out.

More and more bones appeared in their path, crushed underfoot as they ran down the corridor, only to find it twisting and turning so sharply, it was impossible to keep track of their route, let alone escape. The walls were moving around them, sliding back and forth, barring access points, opening up new ones. From the corner of Vin's eye, he could tell the walls were shifting like sand, and they were being herded towards the source of that roar, growing steadily louder as it closed in.

It occurred to Vin, no matter what they did, escape was impossible. If Ezra was here, he would have coined their situation perfectly and called it what it was. Playing with a stacked deck.

Vin came to an abrupt halt as he saw another corridor suddenly become a fork and the maze once again forced them into another direction. Their torches were the only illumination in this labyrinth, and Vin had no doubt the bones they were standing on, belonged to folk who were doing the same thing they were right now. Running until exhaustion or the thing living within these walls caught up with them and meted out their grisly end.

"To hell with this."

Vin did not move any further. Instead, he reached over his shoulder and retrieved the Tommy gun waiting patiently for its owner to come to his senses. "I'm done running. If they want us to meet this thing so bad, then I say we give them what they want."

He swept his gaze over the faces lit by flashlight and saw the effect of his decision in their eyes. Buck was nodding, Josiah managed one of those faint smiles that told everyone who knew him he agreed, and though he did not know Riley that well, Vin saw the man was reaching for his gun in solidarity of his bold plan.

"Sounds like a plan," Buck agreed, cocking his shotgun. Buck preferred this than trying to outrun something determined to catch them. If they were going die for their trouble, Buck preferred doing it while fighting.

Around them, the corridors continued to change their configuration even more furiously as Vin slapped a magazine into his gun to make it ready for the impending confrontation. The walls were being shuffled in the same way a poor gambler would do when he was desperate to win. The unseen mechanism moving the walls were increasing their pace as if realising the game had changed, that the quarry was no longer acting like prey, but a force preparing for a battle.

The bellows grew louder as the enemy closed in, the roar growing indignant at their audacity to fight. Perhaps the chase was part of the ritual, Vin thought as he felt the rumble beneath his feet with each thunderous roar. The walls seemed to reverberate with the sound, and the sharpshooter had to wonder how many souls had utterly lost their senses because their fear had overtaken them.

Fear meant little to men like them, not after the war. Not when one stared down guns, watched an army on horseback, or running through a field of artillery fire. Systematic, institutionalised violence practised by the Great War made what appeared now seem rather benign to Vin. Finally, he paused to catch his breath and conclude what was coming was just another enemy.

Then he saw it.

In his head, he knew what a minotaur looked like. Pictures books and statues had given him a clear idea of the half-man-half-bull creature that hunted the mythological Theseus in Classical Greek literature. After seeing Tiamat descend from the heavens to claim Alex's soul, Vin thought he was beyond the ability of the supernatural to be stunned, but he was wrong.

Armed to the teeth and poised to unleash an unholy barrage of gunfire at the slightest provocation, Vin, Josiah, Buck and Riley realised their hunter was about to make its belated appearance. The shudder the four adventurers had believed to be the vibration of its furious roar through the stone was, in fact, the result of impact tremors from something very large and ancient.

It stood almost twelve feet tall, towering over them so much it appeared as if the sharp point of it's horns, not unlike the kind belonging to the longhorns Vin encountered ranching in Texas, were in danger of scraping the ceiling. As it stomped forward, the corridor seemed to widen as if it was doing so to accommodate the new arrival. Its torso was human, with bulging biceps and arms that looked like tree trunks. The Minotaur wore a leather tunic over its broad chest, and there were vambraces on both its arm. It wore breeches like a man and at its hip, was the scabbard of a blade but its feet were cloven hooves. Clutched in its meaty grip was a double-headed axe like those carried by Vikings.

And it carried the head of a bull.

Yellowed irises as large as fists glared at them from an undeniably bovine head. Each breath escaped it like a pant, and absurdly, there was a ring through its nose. Its jaw parted slightly revealing powerful molars and sharp canine teeth for rending flesh.

"Mother of God . . . " Riley whispered.

"No."

Its voice was the stuff of nightmares, a deep gravelly sounded spoken from the bottom of a well where the dark things thrived, and doom lurked in the shadows. Each man froze at the sound of it, felt it run up the length of their spines, wrapping them in icy tendrils of fear. Somehow, its ability to speak made it even seem more monstrous if such a thing was possible.

"Son of a Queen."

"You can talk?" Vin managed to say because no stories he read ever mentioned the Minotaur being verbal but then those had been fairy tales. This was the terrible reality.

"I can speak the language of the prey," it said, pulling back its teeth in what was almost a smile, revealing those ivory white teeth that gleamed in the darkness. "Now, why do you stand still? You should run. You taste so much better when you run. It salts the meat."

It was Buck who pulled the trigger first.

The shotgun blast struck the beast in the chest, driving it back a step from the force of the explosion. The Minotaur staggered. For a few seconds after the ringing of the gunshot in such close confines diminished from their ears, they almost believed they would find the creature lying in a puddle of its own blood. Except it wasn't. It shook off the blast like a dog shaking off water after coming in from the rain.

"Your weapons have changed, but I have not. You are in my snare, my labyrinth, little prey. Here, you are all my sport."

That was all Vin was prepared to listen to before he opened fire, unleashing a hail of bullets.

The echo of gunfire throughout the narrow corridor made the noise created by the shotgun blast earlier seem like a squeak. Adding their fire to Vin's own, the others followed suit, unleashing a tidal wave of bullets that should have killed the thing where it stood. The creature reacted to the artillery, its body jerking about like a marionette because its size couldn't shield it from the explosive force of the bullets, but as they continued to shoot, it became apparent none of the shells were penetrating its hide.

"Why isn't it going down?" Buck swore, continuing to shoot until his shotgun was exhausted and he needed to reload.

The gap in the wall of gunfire was all the creature needed to retaliate. With far more speed than one would attribute to a being of such size, it recovered from the fire without a scratch and hurled the massive axe at Buck's direction. The weapon moved through the air with a swoosh, not unlike a gust of wind, spinning through the narrow space between the Minotaur and its victim.

"BUCK!" Vin shouted and leapt forward without hesitation. Tackling Buck to the ground, the great axe flew over their heads and through the space where Buck's head would have been. It continued spinning through the air like a Catherine wheel before it struck rock with a loud, sharp clang making them all wince.

"We got to move!" Vin barked, taking note the creature was stomping its feet as if it were preparing itself for something. It took him only a split second to guess what. The sharpshooter had spent enough time around animals to recognise a charge when he saw it. No sooner than the thought crossed his mind, the Minotaur lowered its head, aiming those formidable horns in their direction.

"Get out of the way lad!" Riley shouted at Vin.

Both Josiah and Riley were continuing to shoot, trying to bring down the giant but it shrugged off their bullets as effortlessly as it did before. Snorting loudly, the Minotaur's low guttural growl promised nothing but menace. It ran towards Buck and Vin. At that moment, Josiah abandoned any idea of shooting the creature and instead, put his shoulder down and made his own charge at the beast.

He struck the Minotaur hard enough in the side for the human-bull hybrid to be knocked off course briefly. Raising its monstrous head, it uttered a furious howl before its swung one of its limbs and swatted Josiah aside as if he were an errant child. It was jarring to see Josiah, who always felt like a hulk of a man to Vin, being dispatched quickly. Equally alarming to the sharpshooter was the hard thud of Josiah's head against the rock wall. Unfortunately, he could do little to prevent it as he was busy hauling Buck to his feet.

Meanwhile, the Minotaur, utterly unaffected by the attempts of the prey to stop it, resumed its advance on Buck and Vin. Once again it lowered its head, eager to gore them with the sharp points of its horn, its yellow eyes gleaming with menace as it stomped its feet to resume its charge towards them.

Buck snapped out of his disorientation long enough to see the beast coming at them, and the malevolence in its eyes was enough to get him moving again. The two men bolted out of the creature's path at almost the last minute, narrowly avoiding the sharp horns that smashed into the rock. The Minotaur fell backwards, staggered temporarily by the impact, allowing Vin and Buck to regroup with Riley who was helping Josiah to his feet.

"Josiah are you alright?" Vin asked hastily.

"Nothing's broke that won't heal," the older man gruffed, wiping the blood from his forehead. "That is if we get the chance."

Vin thought quickly. The creature was still recovering from the collision with the wall, but Vin had a feeling even if they ran, the force guiding this maze would ensure they would be led straight back to the Minotaur. Worse than that, they weren't being hunted by some mindless monster. The thing could speak, and it appeared to be smart, smart enough to use the labyrinth's tangle to its advantage. No, running was pointless, they had to kill it.

"'I'll tell you, lads, if I hear it saying Fee-fi-fo-fum, it'll grind the bones of an Englishman, I'll be offended. I'm Irish." Riley declared, hastily reloading his gun for another round of fire.

"Yeah that would piss me off too," Buck managed to say. "What's the plan, we can't keep firing at it, bullets aren't doing anything against it. "

The Minotaur was already shaking its horned head to dispel its daze state. With a snort of indignation, possibly at being thwarted by what it considered prey, it retrieved the axe partially embedded into the wall. Broken bits of stone and dust drifted away from the fissure the axe created, and the beast turned back to them with nothing less than murder in its eyes. It meant to have all of them for their bread if Riley's use of the vernacular could be employed. Vin knew their guns would be useless to stop them.

Their guns . . .

"I got an idea," he spoke up suddenly. "Distract it, do whatever you got to do but keep his eyes off me."

"That's not a plan!" Buck shouted as the Minotaur ran at them again.

The four men scattered in different directions. Riley found himself running into a wall that wasn't there a moment earlier. He almost collided with it head first and had just enough time to look over his shoulder to see the axe blade swinging in his direction. Dropping to his knees, the powerful blade swiped the air over Riley's head as he scrambled away from the Minotaur, but the creature was quick and was over him a second later, about to bring down the axe on his head.

"Get clear!" Buck shouted and fired at the minotaurs head, point blank.

The shotgun blast did not kill the creature or blow its head off as it would have done to a normal man, but the sound and the buckshot did cause it to stagger backwards giving Riley enough time to get on his feet and escape. This time, Buck was ready for the creature, having formed a partial plan of attack with Josiah when they came to Riley's aid.

Buck continued to fire, using the blasts from his shotgun to drive the Minotaur into retreat. While the bullets might not penetrate its supernatural hide, they did have enough explosive force to affect the creature nonetheless. The Minotaur bellowed in outrage at the prey putting up such a formidable fight even if they all knew it could not last indefinitely. When their ammunition ran out, so would their luck. When the audible click signalling the spent chambers of the weapon reached his ears, he saw the Minotaur flinging the axe at him.

Buck sidestepped it, but before the Minotaur had a chance to close in, Josiah took up the fight once again, using bullets to keep its focus on him and away from Buck who was now reloading his gun. Riley, understanding the tactic was adding his fire to Josiah's. However, this time, the creature was no longer retreating. It had adapted to the effect of the new weapons. The guns, like all the weapons used against it before this day, not forged by a god or a titan, were no longer capable of halting the Minotaur from its purpose.

"This is pitiful!" The Minotaur growled, swinging his axe again, this time at Josiah.

Josiah jumped back, feeling a wall too close to his back and realised he was about to be cornered, tried to get past the beast. As it prepared to deliver a killing stroke, Riley jumped up and grabbed the massive arm, trying to halt the axe from connecting with any part of the former seminary student. Furious at the intervention, the beast felled the Irishman in a single backhanded blow, sending Riley rolling across the floor like a dervish.

Meanwhile, Buck who reloaded his shotgun, prepared to shoot again, waiting only for Josiah to get clear to avoid accidental fire. As Josiah did just that, hurrying to Riley to ensure the man was unscathed by the tumble he'd taken, the pilot found himself facing the Minotaur head-on, armed with a gun he knew would do little to harm it. Buck pulled the trigger again, but as expected, the blast did little to halt the creature's progress. Now that it was aware of what the gun could do had braced itself to take the hit. It faltered but a second and was on the move again with the axe still clutched in its fist.

"Your weapons are useless," the Minotaur gloated as it raised the blade again.

"Maybe they are," Buck bit back, "but this wasn't about hurting you."

The Minotaur paused a moment, puzzled by that statement when suddenly, it saw movement at the corner of his eye and shot Buck a look of anger, realising what his words meant at the last minute.

"This was about distraction."

The pilot saw the Minotaur starting to turn when suddenly, the point of a blade sliced through the front of the beast's chest. The point pushed past the leather, spurting blood in all directions. The creature threw back its massive head and uttered a scream of agony that seemed to rock the entire cavern. Its arms became outstretched when it spasmed, allowing the large axe to fall from his grip, the blade digging into the earth. As it sank to its knees, Buck saw Vin Tanner standing behind the Minotaur, having ended the beast with its own knife.

The Minotaur stared at Buck a minute longer, still stunned at being bested by prey and there was dying to come. When it did fall flat against the stone floor, its eyes had rolled back into death and saw nothing more.

Vin, who had used the distraction provided so painfully by the others, had come to the realisation that only the beast's own weapon was capable of ending its life. When Buck had been laying down his suppressing fire in shotgun blasts, Vin had taken the opportunity to sneak up behind the creature and steal the knife hanging from its sheath and put it to good use.

"Nice work," Josiah said limping towards Vin as the blood spread across the floor around the Minotaur's body.

"Well," Vin drawled, "if there's one thing us Texans know how to do, it's how to handle steer."

Chapter Twenty-Five: The Aegis

"How bad is it?"

Chris Larabee asked Nathan Jackson as the healer tended to the wound on Mary Travis's neck. Even though the injury was superficial and the lady herself had assured him she was okay, his jaw still clenched at the sight of the discoloured flesh, not to mention the bite marks on her skin. Of course, voicing his displeasure would only result with Mary embarking on some feminist tirade at being able to take her licks like anyone else. As it was, there was going to be no living with her after she and Julia Pemberton had saved their asses from the mythological sirens who nearly ripped them apart.

"Like the lady said," Nathan did not look at Chris as he swabbed the injured flesh with iodine, the sting making Mary wince in reaction. "It looks worse than it is. I'm just cleaning it up to make sure it doesn't get infected. Human bites are poisonous as hell."

"You are assuming what we just survived was human?" Ezra countered, his normally mellifluous voice bearing a hard edge ever since they emerged from their delirium.

"Who knows," Chris shrugged refusing to admit it as evident as it might appear.

After the supernatural forces they encountered during the affair with the Tablet of Destiny, Chris could never be sure of anything again. One thing for certain, if the sirens made a repeat appearance, the encounter would end very differently. Secretly, he was properly outraged at the creatures for using his dead wife and son against him, and while he wasn't sure what the others experienced, Chris did notice the return of the dark shadow in Ezra's eyes, the one the gambler wore much during his first few months on the Western Front.

Thanks to the sirens, whatever demons Ezra had been outrunning caught up with him again.

Julia who was seated next to Ezra reached the same conclusion when she saw the diminishing light in his sea green eyes, and though it went against the grain of her very English upbringing, she couldn't bear it. Threading her fingers through his discreetly, she squeezed gently telling him in her way, she was there for him.

Ezra raised his eyes to her at that small gesture, pleasantly surprised enough to flash her a dimpled smile. Once again, Julia felt a surge of warmth spreading through her heart.

"Now there's my smile."

"Not much of one," Ezra sighed but secretly admitted he liked her claims of ownership.

"Are you alright?"

"I shall survive," Ezra nodded and raised her hand in his lips to plant a kiss against her knuckles. "Thank you, Julia.

"Hey look," J.D. who was at the head of the canoe suddenly sang out to the others, his voice echoing through the darkened chamber as he interrupted their tender moment.

After Julia and Mary sped them away from the sirens, the canoe continued its journey through the underground sea, now winding into a river, into the depths beneath the island. For an absurd moment, Chris wondered if they had not found the entrance to the Underworld where Hades and Persephone ruled and Cerberus, the three-headed dog was waiting to shred them to pieces. After all, the ancient Greeks believed the entrance to the Underworld was an actual place, and one could enter it merely by stepping through its gates.

Chris tried not to worry about Vin and the others, hoping the rest of his friends were not encountering similar dangers as they just had with the sirens. It was clear they had crossed a point of no return after meeting the mythological creatures. While the glow worms continued to provide guidance to the travellers making this journey into the forbidden, the terrain seemed to be changing. What had become familiar since their tumultuous drop down the cascade was now evolving into something ominous.

Previously, the walls of the subterranean chamber, smoothed by erosion over thousands of years, slick with moisture and covered with moss and lichens were now craggy and sharp. The feeling they had ventured into the mouth of some dark, terrifying creature with a mouthful of sharp teeth made a powerful resurgence. Flanking them on either side of the canoe, were spiked, jagged rocks and the petrified remains of coral. Adding more to the effect, like bits of meat clinging to teeth, was the detritus of rotting weeds, broken pieces of disintegrating wood and stray objects that were no doubt the remains of other ill-fated voyagers.

"I guess we weren't the first ones to try this," J.D. remarked, turning a shade paler when he recognised some of those broken pieces of woods bore the curved shape of a boat's hull. "I wonder if they made it?"

"The Aegis is still unclaimed," Ezra stated, not liking the sudden shift in the atmosphere of the place, not that it was a bed of roses previously. Relying on his gambler's instincts to guide him, everything about this new leg of their journey felt fraught with even more danger. "One would assume not."

"Ezra's right," Chris spoke up after conducting a similar survey of the terrain. The blackness ahead seemed endless, and Chris hoped the route to the Aegis was not a one-way trip. Finding it would mean nothing if they couldn't get out again. "It's been here for nearly two thousand years. Stands to reason someone would have made a try for it."

"Like them Nazi bastards," Nathan added as he continued tending to Mary's shoulder, taping down the gauze across the wound with tape. "Besides, it's better if we found it, especially if it's capable of what they think it does."

"Surely you do not believe it can turn armies into stone,?" Ezra eyed his usually logical and reasonable friend with some surprise.

"Belief is a powerful thing Ezra," the healer gave Mary a nod he was done. "It doesn't have to work for them to believe it will make them invincible."

"He's right," Julia added. "Hitler has spent a considerable effort since he came to power acquiring objects like these, all to reinforce his desire for a thousand year Reich."

No sooner than Julia completed that statement, the darkness ahead diminished with an amber glow becoming brighter as they approached its source. The earlier blackness retreated into the walls, seeping through the rock until they saw, at last, a short stretch of shore. The beach was covered with small stones and pebbles, hiding what sand there might have been on this sudden coastline.

That was not what caught their attention, however.

It was the collection of boats. Some were run aground, others were trapped on the reef, having drifted there after years of centuries of neglect. A few were complete wrecks, with gaping holes in their cracked hulls and barely held together by nails and ropes while their sails hung slack on the tilted masts, covered in cobwebs and dust. Every craft visible bore the signs of time and deterioration.

"Jesus," Nathan whispered.

"There's so many," Mary leaned over the canoe for a better look, her brow furrowed in similar shock.

As they drifted by one of the vessels against the rocks, J.D. noted the design of the horse-head prow and identified it immediately, familiar enough with the culture of mariners who constructed it. "That one's Phoenician."

"Yeah," Chris agreed, recognising the prow and then gestured to another craft, one that had made it all the way to the shore, with its curled prow and the animal motif on its faded canvas sail. "That's Roman."

"There are dozens of them," Julia surveyed the shore and felt a chill run down her spine. Had all these people come for the Aegis?

"Yes," Ezra nodded grimly. "And none of them left."

There was only one path leading away from the shore once the canoe reached the pebbled beach. It was an entrance covered in vines and moss, seemingly untravelled for centuries if the thickness of the vegetation was any indication. As always Chris led the way to the paved stone floor appearing beneath their feet once they crossed the threshold, leaving the beach for a larger chamber constructed of sandstone. The vast hallway was empty except for the tall statue whose subject could not be mistaken for anyone else.

The Medusa.

Carved from dark stone, the image was more sensuous than it was terrifying. The beauty of the woman had been captured, even if the more nightmarish aspects of her persona remained, such as the flowing hair of snakes. Her face was one of loveliness and bore a look of serene elegance. Her modesty was kept with scales across her breasts before her slender waist tapered into that of a snake, with tail curled in a single coil. She stood ten feet tall, indifferent to their presence, the guardian to the mouth of a stairwell, whose steps descended into a lower level.

Etched into the floor before the steps were letters in ancient Koine script which J.D. promptly translated for the benefit of the others.

Here lies the legacy of Phorcys and Ceto's seed.

"I guess this is the place." The scholar remarked after he completed his translation. Staring down the dimly lit flight of steps, J.D. wondered how there could be light down there. Then he remembered this was how it always started before they ran into something wanting to eat, kill or skewer them for intruding upon its bastion.

"The legacy of Phorcys and Ceto's seed?" Nathan was never a fan of the classics. He prefered contemporary works from authors like Twain and Wells. His role in the group did not require him to possess the same expertise as Chris and J.D.

"Supposedly the parents of the Medusa," Chris explained for the benefit of those who did not know. Casting his ice coloured eyes down the shadowy flight of steps, he was once again revisited by his earlier thoughts of gateways leading to the Underworld. This one certainly felt like the path taken by Orpheus to retrieve his beloved Eurydice.

"Well, this does not at all look ominous," Ezra's sarcasm withered in his throat as he stared at the sculptured face, wondering what sin this woman was guilty of committing to having been treated so unkindly by fate.

"Let's do this," Chris started his descent, wanting this over and done with as soon as possible. Even though he had spent years chasing after antiquities the last five year and was accustomed to the danger, something about this entire situation felt worse. There was a malevolence lurking in the shadows, waiting for them to step into its trap the closer they came to their prize.

He had not taken more than a dozen steps forward when his foot struck his path that made a loud, clanging noise upon impact. The sound startled the others, freezing them in their tracks in case what Chris encountered was life-threatening. The dim light down the stairwell had shrouded the object until he was on top of it, but now that he was paying attention, Chris could see the shape of it across the stone tile.

It was a sword.

In fact, it was the first of many. The weapons were scattered across the steps, not just swords, but knives, maces, bows and arrows, discarded for reasons that prompted Chris to tighten his grip on his gun. He spotted a shield lying against the floor and recognised its classical Greek origins. Judging by the dust accumulated across its face, and the impressions left by its rim, Chris guessed quickly it had been sitting here since ancient times.

Studying them carefully, something J.D. said in Egypt suddenly surfaced in his mind. Now that it had emerged, was screaming so loud, he could not hear anything else. He thought of those boats at the shore, abandoned because their owners never returned to claim them or the numerous weapons he and the others could now see.

Medusa was dead, the existence of the Aegis proved that, but Medusa was not the only child of Phorcys and Ceto was she?

What had J.D. said? Medusa had sisters, Stehno and Euryale. They were Gorgons too, and unlike Medusa who was mortal, as made painfully obvious when Perseus took her head, they were immortal. Even as the possibilities crossed his mind, Chris knew it was insanity. It had to be. The idea was too ludicrous to entertain and yet, seeing those weapons at his feet, the margin between madness and truth became wider than the Grand Canyon.

"Pick up any shields you see," Chris ordered promptly, having a premonition of what they were going to find even if logic continued to rail against the idea. Then again, he and the others were almost murdered by the sirens of myth a short time ago. Even if it turned out to be for nothing, Chris saw no reason to ignore precautions.

"Excuse me?" Ezra ever the doubting Thomas reacted immediately. "Mr Larabee, we have guns . . . "

"It's not for the protection Ezra," Chris bit back. "It's for the reflection."

"Aw hell," Nathan hissed once the implication of that statement set in. He wasted no time shifting through the cache on the floor, finding what he needed a few steps behind Chris. Wiping its surface with the sleeve of his coat, he saw the gleam of old metal revealing just enough shine to be used as a mirror. The others were doing the same, while Julia lifted a sword or rather a short dagger to eye level in examination.

"Chris, you do not seriously think we will encounter . . . " Ezra couldn't even say it.

"Why not?" Julia countered, "you forget what we just fought. As impossible as it seemed, those women were sirens."

The smart play would be to leave, Chris thought as he finally reached the foot of the steps. However, as much as he worried they might encounter actual Gorgons, another part of him refuse to give up the idea of the Aegis. Until he peered through the doorway at the bottom of the stairs and stared into the room beyond it.

If Chris thought seeing the boats on the beach was eerie, then what was in the large hallway he just entered, made his blood run cold.

The hallway was wide enough to need thick columns the width of tree trunks to hold up the roof. Across the domed ceiling was a stunning mural of the Olympian gods in all their glory, against the backdrop of Mount Olympus. The painting, like the others on the walls and the artwork on the columns, was painted with stunning, vibrant colours and appeared as if they were freshly painted. Their detail was illuminated by the flame torches hanging against the columns with the smoky texture of the air masked by the strong scent of hyacinth.

But it was only the statues Chris could see.

There were dozens of them, life-sized sculptures carved from stone. They were statues of men from several different cultures if the clothes they were wearing were any indication. These stone warriors were clad in all manner of dress, from togas to breeches, adorned with helmets and armour. They were portrayed in a run or lying prone against the floor, their hands shielding their eyes in desperation. Some brandished their weapons to strike, and some were caught merely standing in place. Yet they all shared the same look on their faces.

Terror.

"I'm starting to think this is a terrible idea," Mary remarked as she and the others followed Chris deeper into the room, navigating past the statues she knew were not really statues, even if none of them dared to voice it.

"This is your expedition, Miss Pemberton," Ezra turned to Julia and saw her emerald eyes surveying the scene with similar anxiety creeping into her face. No matter what Julia thought she knew or what she believed, Ezra could see she was scared. The self-assurance she possessed in being able to cope with any situation was being left tattered because what they were seeing couldn't be what they suspected, even if it seemed obvious.

"We're already in the belly of the beast," Julia finally spoke, "I don't think a retreat is any longer an option."

Chris was listening to the discussion, but he was already looking ahead, beyond the statues to what lay at the head of the room. Flanked by two taller statues, one of Athene and the other Chris recognised as Poseidon, was an object propped on a wooden mount, covered in silk. From the shape beneath the red fabric which seemed to shimmer even though there was no wind in this place, Chris knew immediately what was beneath it. It was the Aegis.

"That's it, isn't it?" J.D. asked him, the younger man's voice was almost a whisper.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "I think it is."

"How can you be so certain?" Ezra inquired, incapable of reaching such a conclusion without a tell.

"Because if the legend around the Aegis being able to turn whole armies into stone is true, then it has to be hidden. Medusa's head was supposedly used as the boss on the face of the shield, so anyone handling it couldn't stare directly into it. Until it was used against enemies, it had to be covered up, or innocent bystanders would wind up being turned into stone."

"Wonderful," Ezra rolled his eyes, questioning himself again why they were still on this fool's errand when the words' legend', 'myth' and 'supposed to' were quickly evolving into fact. The statues around them were not carved. Each one appeared as if their subjects had been dipped in stone, and the only conclusion left, was the one he could not accept.

"We can't even be sure we've got the right shield?" Nathan said dubiously as Chris approached the mount on which the Aegis stood, eyeing its two guardians. Athene stood proud and tall, garbed in armour as a goddess of war ought to look, with her owl perched on one shoulder and sword held high in another. Poseidon was similarly armed with a trident while the lower half of his body was that of a fish.

"Unfortunately no," J.D. answered for Chris who was already investigating the mount on which the Aegis was displayed. The silk seemed to ripple with movement when the leader of the seven approached it, almost as if it was anticipating the contact with excitement. "Unless we look at it directly and considering all this," he gestured to the statues with a little smile, "I'm happy to not try."

Mindful of not touching anything after her previous experience in an ancient cavern, Mary was examining one of the statues. Like all the others, the expression on the faces of the stone figure revealed a thousand kinds of horror and she prayed, this was some artist's twisted idea of a joke and not the depiction of someone in the last moments of his life. She stared at the statue/corpse for a moment, feeling a chill run down her spine before she glanced at Chris to see what he was doing.

Mary knew without doubt Chris would go where angels feared to tread to get the Aegis. It was not in his nature to shirk away from danger, even in a situation where a gorgon might come into play. She supposed it was why she was so attracted to him. And also the reason she wanted to drop kick him to Timbuktu.

"Such pretty golden hair."

The voice came out of nowhere and was whispery like the cobwebs that hung from some of the statues. It moved across Mary's skin like molasses and made Mary stand ramrod straight at the hearing of it.

"It reminds me of the sunlight, in the days before the Heir of Argos sent us here."

The sentence ended with a rattle.

"Who's there?" Mary asked, her voice catching. She knew who it was of course, even if her reason balked at the suggestion. Yet the fear still set into her bones felt like a blight given sustenance to spread over her.

She heard the slow drag across the floor, of something large moving closer and in her mind's eye, she imagined its long, serpentine body slithering across the stone as only a creature like it could do. Mary wanted to turn and look, but these stone bodies ensured she must not. If she did, she would never leave this place alive.

"You have a woman's wisdom," the voice said silkily. "Not at all bearing the impetuousness of men, like these fools here."

Mary did not have to see her to know the voice was gesturing to the stone figures before them. "They come in here, seeking to take the Aegis, thinking it will grant them power and fortune. All it brought them is the living death."

"Living death?" Mary almost turned at that. "What does that mean?"

"It means my dear child," the voice spoke with triumph, "none of them are dead. They're simply trapped in stone. They know all that is happening around them, but they can do nothing. That is the penance for those who try to take my sister's head out of this place."

"Your sister?" Mary whispered, realising her guess earlier was the truth.

They had just entered the lair of two living gorgons.

Chapter Twenty-Six: The Void

When he woke up this morning, Vin Tanner never imagined part of his day would include slaying the Minotaur.

As he stood watching the widening puddle of blood around the fallen creature, he felt his head swim a little at the unreality of it all. The Minotaur lay still at their feet, the handle of the sword sticking through its chest, standing upright as if to mark the place where the beast had died. Once again, Vin reminded himself of what transpired when Tiamat descended from her home in oblivion to steal Alex's soul. What all of them saw that day was no illusion, no trickery capable of being explained away hours after the fact. He remembered how Alex had looked when Tiamat's essence was in her body and knew without any doubt if she had not been freed - there would be no world left behind.

Around them, the world seemed to be waiting in silent anticipation for what came next. Even the walls sliding and shuffling to and fro earlier, were now frozen in place as if they were just as stunned by the killing blow. For a few minutes after the creature was ended, time stood still to allow everyone present to catch their breaths as the crimson halo of blood slowly soaked into the earth.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Buck Wilmington finally spoke, unable to bear the silence or the sight of the monstrosity in front of them. When they were trying to escape the thing, there had been little time to think about anything else other than escape, but now that the danger had passed for the moment, Buck's sensibilities were beginning to fracture. They had just killed a creature whose very existence was obscene.

His words followed the loud crack of stone breaking. It jolted them out of their silence, drawing their eyes to the source. A wall had fissured and was soon crumbling. The thick dark line of the break ran across the stone like a vein surfacing on skin. Moving from one slab to another like a spreading malignancy, they could only gape as the walls began to crumble and the chunks of rocks striking the floor seem to shatter it.

"Aw hell!" Vin cursed realising in a split second this whole place was constructed and maintained for its lone occupant, and now that it was gone, there was no reason to exist. "MOVE!"

"Move?" Buck demanded as Vin started running in the opposite direction of where the floor was giving away. "Where?"

"Anywhere! This place is about to go!"

None of it made one bit of sense, but what about any of this did? Vin sprinted away from the Minotaur, glancing over his shoulder long enough to ensure Buck, Josiah and Riley were still with him. As he did so, he saw it was not just the walls behind them that were starting to crumble but the floor beneath them, and as the chunks broke away, he realised the entire construct around the Minotaur was being dismantled. With the destruction of their present reality, what lay beneath them was not the reassuring innards of a mountain, but black oblivion.

"Jesus Christ!" Riley exclaimed as he saw a section of floor at his left flank caving away and as it broke apart, what lay beneath was emptiness. The Irishman had no idea what would happen if they tumbled into that abyss with the disintegrating labyrinth, but it was not a question he needed answering.

"I'm pretty sure he's got nothing to do with this," Josiah panted as he raced forward, a few steps ahead of Riley. As they ran past the flanking walls of the maze, they saw more and more fractures appearing in the stone, the sound making them wince as the breaks became so numerous, the wall could no longer stand, and they were coming down like someone was lowering the curtains on this act of the play.

Dust rolled towards them with each shattered wall, and as everything began to disintegrate, only the blackness remained, reminding Josiah of the slick left behind by an oil spill. The ground beneath them began to quake, warning them the rock was going to give way. It prompted them into sprinting because they were now aware they were running for their lives and faltering might doom them to the bottom of an abyss that may have no end at all.

Vin led the way, uncertain of where they were headed, only that they had to keep moving. Sparing a second to look over his shoulder to ensure his company were still behind him, the sharpshooter wasn't about to leave anyone behind in this place. The walls crumbling had outpaced them now and what Vin saw in front of him was no longer the labyrinth that tried to trap them here to become a feast for the Minotaur, but the empty spaces between realities.

Navajo medicine men who were able to cross the three realms (the Lower, the Middle and Underworld) spoke of the dark things that lived in this in-between outside of time. Vin never put much stock in any of that, but he knew this was where they were the minute they entered the labyrinth, and if they did not escape it now, they would never leave it. The idea of never seeing Alex again, of never being with her, the way he had in the last four months, filled him with fear he never thought possible. As the world crumbled away, he saw something ahead as improbable as the rest of their present situation.

Steps.

Suspended in mid-air, the steps were little more than slabs of stone, but they were ascending in a wide corkscrew formation that would carry them above the destruction of the maze if they chose to use it. Considering their choices at present, Vin was not about to ignore the lifeline thrown in their direction. Heading towards it, he saw Buck directly behind him, with Josiah and Riley a few paces after that.

Beyond them, the labyrinth was all but gone and what remained, was dark emptiness so pervading it chilled Vin to the bone. If the medicine men were right, the soft spaces between the worlds were not empty. Terrible things were lurking here, and he and his friends had to leave before those very same things discovered there was fresh meat to be had. Creatures with teeth who wouldn't just tear flesh but rip apart one's soul like it was a succulent morsel to be savoured with each bite.

"FOLLOW ME!"

Vin reached the staircase first, and as he stepped on it, he ignored the fact it was being held up by nothing. Hurrying up the steps, he cast another look over his shoulder and saw Buck falter. The pilot was trying to process what he was seeing because this was too much after the Minotaur. Buck dealt in things he could see. He was used to calculations, wind speeds and lift, tangible things quantifiable in science, not this situation where nothing made sense.

"BUCK!" Vin snapped him out of his hesitation. "Come on!"

Buck blinked away his doubt at that sharp rebuke and started moving again, ignoring the steps were being held up by nothing and around them, the maze had almost completely disintegrated and all that was left in this place, was the staircase leading upward. Facing front, he kept his eye on Vin, putting his trust in the younger man who always seemed to know what he was doing, because the men of K-Troop, not to mention him and Josiah had helped Vin become strong.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"

Riley's shocked utterance mirrored their own feelings at the impossibility of their situation as they climbed up the stairs, leading upwards through the black. Behind them, there was no longer any trace of the maze. It, along with the labyrinth, was completely gone now. All that remained was the void and the steps keeping them from becoming lost in it.

"Where are we going?" Buck hollered at Vin, though he suspected the sharpshooter had no idea himself.

"Anywhere, as long as it ain't here!"

Josiah had somehow ended up in the rear as they ascended the steps, keeping watch on Riley whose very Catholic sensibilities was being challenged by what they were experiencing. The former seminary student could understand the man's conflict when everything he knew about the world was being tested. However, Josiah had faith in things other than God, and that was in the friends he shared his life with and in particular, the sharpshooter leading them to safety.

Breathing hard, he paused a moment to catch his breath, having no wish to linger on these steps even if they did appear to be rather sturdy, for something that was hanging suspended in the air with no visible means of support. As he did so, he was able to hear for the first time, something coming from the emptiness he had not noticed before. After the destructive roar by the disintegrating maze had diminished, there was nothing but their own heated voices to be heard.

But now there was another sound.

It was a light buzz that was growing in intensity; the more he listened to it. Josiah stared into the darkness, trying to source out which direction it was coming from and frowned when he was unable to do so. Sweeping his gaze across the blackness, he decided to hone in on it and felt his heart turning to ice in his chest because he could feel dread creeping up his spine.

"Josiah, what is it?" Vin demanded, having seen Josiah had stopped climbing.

Josiah looked up at Vin. "Can you hear anything?"

Everyone fell silent at that question and Vin who had better senses than any of them after a youth spent hunting and tracking with the Navajo shifted his attention from their flight up the mysterious steps to their surroundings. There was nothing but the void now the maze was gone, with their torches providing the only illumination allowing them to see where they were going. Listening carefully, he soon reached the same conclusion, that whatever was making that insistent buzzing was getting louder and . . . he realised with a surge of terror, closer.

"MOVE!"

Vin paused long enough to say before he was barking at the others to get moving again. He had no idea what was making the sound, but it was coming for them, and Vin just knew that whatever it was, may just be worse than the Minotaur. Hastening his pace, Vin was running up the steps, two at a time, hoping the others followed his lead. Buck was right on his heels and glancing back, he saw Riley's gun was firmly in his grip. Josiah was also brandishing his weapon, expecting trouble.

"What do you think it is Vin?" Buck asked, sensing the younger man had an idea by how urgently he barked at them to move.

"Nothing good," Vin replied, scanning the path ahead to see where the stairs might lead and then to his relief, sighting a pinprick of light that could have been the sun for what it may represent. "I think I see the way out!"

"Thank Christ!" Buck remarked as the buzzing continued to get louder and louder, sending chills of ice running up his spine. Yeah, Vin was right, whatever it was, it was nothing good.

It was Josiah who saw them first.

When the labyrinth collapsed, taking with it the torches illuminating the place, they switched to their flashlights and Josiah had waved it into the darkness, in the hope it would also help him to see what was coming. In retrospect, he rather wished he had not done that. If asked to describe them, Josiah would not have been able to do so. All he could see was the slick reflection of their skin against the dim light of his torch, that and the teeth.

In fact, they were almost nothing but teeth. Long, serrated things that chomped up and down as they closed in, their mandibles moving rapidly in anticipation of the feeding to come, gnashing in a frenzy of ravenous need. Josiah could hear the buzzing so loudly, the sound filled his world, and suddenly he wondered if Purgatory was like this, an oblivion where creatures like this awaited to tear you apart.

"Get a move on, man!" He felt Riley gripping his arm, snapping Josiah out of his temporary daze, just as the creature, whatever it was reached him.

Without thinking twice, Josiah fired his gun. The bullet entered the space between those teeth, and the screech it uttered seemed to send the others into a frenzy. Until Josiah pulled the trigger, he had no idea he had been holding the weapon so tightly his knuckles were almost white. The thing retreated, but the others were moving in, spreading out like a swarm of bees about to overwhelm them with numbers.

Hurrying up the stairs as Riley fired over his shoulder, Josiah could see the creatures coming out of the darkness, attempting to halt their progress towards the light. The boom from the weapon was so loud, it seemed to scatter the swarm of snapping teeth, but like the tide on the beach, the retreat was only temporary, and they were closing in again. Breathing hard as he sprinted up the stairs, Josiah never felt his age more profoundly than at this moment, because his heart was pounding in his chest so hard it might burst.

When a set of teeth appeared at the corner of his eye, he had just enough time to turn around and fire. The bullet splintered the thing's teeth, causing it to screech in pain as it disappeared into the darkness but another closed in from an entirely different direction, their movement not unlike that of angry vultures swarming its prey. Josiah felt is fetid breath in his nostrils seconds before the mouth opened and a tongue, long and thick like a python, slithered at him.

Without warning, the air exploded with the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun. Looking up, Josiah saw Vin was holding position, ordering the others to keep going as he unleashed a barrage of gunfire at the swarm, delivered courtesy of his Tommy gun. Buck was adding his shotgun to the fight, and the combined firepower of both was enough to get Josiah moving.

"MOVE YOUR ASSES!"

Buck hollered at him and Riley, and Josiah needed no more encouragement than that, confident these two men would have his back as they had done so many times in the past. He scaled the stone steps, the torch still in his hand to light the way, with Riley only a few paces ahead. Gunfire and screeching pain rang in his ears but Josiah no longer paid any attention to it. The way out of this hell was just ahead, and once he reached it, Vin and Buck could leave too. He was not delaying their departure any more than he had to.

Vin slapped another magazine into the Thompson machine gun at the same time Josiah and Riley ran past them. The creatures, whatever they were, were being held at bay, possibly because the weapon used against them sounded almost as fearsome and loud as they were. If death had no meaning for them in this place, it would not take them long to discover that bullets were finite. Buck was blasting away while he reloaded, giving him the short respite he would have to reciprocate soon enough.

Glancing over his shoulder, Vin saw Riley and Josiah closing in on the fissure of light, praying it would take them out of this place back to the world they knew, and not someplace worse. He supposed at this moment, they didn't have much choice in the matter. All he cared about right now was staying alive long enough to get there.

"Reload!" Buck shouted at Vin in warning as the last of his shotgun shells flew into the darkness.

"I got ya," Vin shouted back. "Get going, I'll cover you!"

Buck hesitated, not liking the idea of leaving Vin behind until he realised he needed to get to the light so he could cover Vin's retreat to it. Swearing under his breath, he started up the steps, taking note of the things coming too close to him, and feeling their movement through the air against his skin. One of them came out of nowhere, and Buck ducked as it passed over his head, before it exploded in flight, the result of Vin's bullets ripping it apart.

Breathing hard, he stole a look over his shoulder and saw Vin backtracking slowly and then ahead to see Josiah and Riley had reached the top. The light was pouring out of what appeared to be a fissure against the black canvas. Impossibly, he thought he sniffed the scent of salt air and that only hastened his pace because it struck him what it was.

The ocean.

"Come on!" Buck heard Josiah calling after him, spurring him to move faster. He was doing it while attempting to reload the shotgun, wanting to give Vin his escape when the time came. Abandoning the torch because he needed both his hands, he watched the strobe light tumble into the darkness only to have their unseen assailants flying after it. A second later, the illumination vanished utterly, and inspiration struck the Millie's pilot.

These things were attracted to light.

It was how the damn creatures had found them in the first place. It was the light from their torches! In this all-consuming blackness, the flashlights would have been like beacons, attracting them in the same manner moths were drawn to the flame.

It gave Buck Wilmington a plan.

"Josiah, we need the flare gun!" He bellowed over the sound of the Thompson's gunfire.

The Coston flare gun had been in the canoe, and though it seemed unlikely they would require it during the search for the Aegis, every member of the team knew the prudence of being well prepared and using the resources on hand. It had been a habit ingrained in all of them from their time on the front. On this occasion, Buck had seen Josiah pack the wooden case in his backpack before leaving the boat at the shore.

"The flare gun?" Josiah exchanged a puzzled look with Riley. "Why?"

"These things are attracted to light!"

That little bit of knowledge was all Josiah needed to connect the dots of Buck's plan. The light of understanding flooded the would-be preacher's face, and he was reaching around for the pack even as he turned to Riley, who was similarly enlightened.

"Cover me!"

"Aye," the big Irishman nodded, ready to protect Josiah while he did what was needed.

With Josiah working quickly to provide them with a distraction, Buck turned his attention to Vin who was making slow progress up the steps because of his efforts to keep the creatures away from them. By now Buck had reloaded his shotgun and was in the position to give Vin the time the younger man needed to get away from those accursed creatures. When he pulled the trigger, the powerful blast scattered the swarm.

"Vin, get up here now!"

Vin didn't argue with Buck's order, ceasing fire immediately and sprinting up the steps, two at the time to close the distance to the pilot. Behind him, he could hear the creatures screeching, and their snapping teeth felt so close, Vin swore he could feel their rancid breath on the back of his neck. Without knowing how he could be so sure, Vin knew the click click chatter of their teeth would be following him into his dreams for some time.

Then without warning, the sky came alive with the bright glow of a flare. It streaked across the black like someone had sliced the velvet canvas with a knife. The flash moved through the darkness in a neat arc before erupting spectacularly into a burst of light that resembled like fireworks. For a brief moment, its brilliance brought some much-needed beauty to this desolate void.

The instant the flare appeared in the sky, the creatures immediately forgot about their prey and flew after the flash. It would not take the things long to discover they were chasing fool's gold, but the precious minute they were distracted, would be enough.

"VIN!"

"I know, I know!" Vin shouted back at Buck, running at top speed now, forgetting about the creatures and their ravenous desire for his flesh. "The rest of you get going!"

"Not a chance in hell!"

If anything happened to Vin on his watch, Chris would never forgive him and Buck wouldn't blame him. "Josiah, Riley! You two go on! We're right behind you!"

Josiah nodded, disliking the idea of leaving but knowing it was now or never. Gesturing at Riley, the two older men climbed up the last few steps and disappeared into the light, hoping where they ended up was nowhere like this place. Buck watched them vanish before he raised his eyes to the flare and saw that it was quickly being enveloped by the dark. The creatures had reached the flash and would know in a second they were duped.

No sooner than the thought crossed his mind, the buzzing grew louder again, and Buck knew they were coming back.

"COME ON!" Buck shouted as he heard the rising tempo of those gnashing teeth.

"Get going, old fella! I can keep up!"

"Real funny Junior!"

Both men raced up the last few steps just as the swarm closed in on them. Whether or not the creatures could follow them through was not a question they had time to consider before they jumped through the fissure. All they knew was the white glare was going to swallow them whole.

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Gorgon

The Aegis.

Chris Larabee circled the shrouded shield resting on its mount, marvelling at the fact this had been sitting here in this place, before the birth of Christ. As mythical objects went, there was none so fantastic as the shield carried by Perseus, fashioned from the hide of a goat belonging to a goddess, bearing the standard of a creature capable of turning men into stone. This was the shield carried by the Goddess of War and left here because its power was simply too much for any mortal to wield.

His reason warred with the superstitious belief this object from the past was capable of transmuting flesh to stone. Even as he stood in this chamber filled with statues he knew in his gut were not sculpted by an artisan, the notion of what might have crafted them was too terrible to entertain. Yet there was no other conclusion and his senses, so relied upon throughout the years to keep him and his friends alive, was screaming at him with desperate warning. There was danger, and it was so close, it was breathing down his neck.

"Everyone, keep your eyes open. Something is in here with us."

"I concur," Ezra answered automatically because their leader was correct. The feeling of dread was so thick in the air; they all felt suffocated by it. If fear could be a tangible thing, then at present it was wrapped around them with serpentine coils as live as the Medusa's hair.

Chris came to a stop behind the shield, examining the object that was almost entirely sheathed by a thin layer of red silk. It's satin material provided enough details in the contour for Chris to know he was standing behind it. Lifting the material carefully, he marvelled at how soft the fabric felt to touch even after centuries on this place. There was only a light coating of dust resting against it, and it drifted into a small cloud at the disturbance.

Raising the cloth higher, Chris saw the back of the shield. It was smooth and highly reflective, almost like the mirrors of ancient times, with two straps of leather riveted with brass bolts. The enarmes were designed to be slipped over arms for better control, and Chris admired the artistry, thinking how well it was crafted considering the techniques used would be regarded as primitive in this day and age.

"This is it," Chris confirmed to the others who were watching. "It's the shield."

"We're just going to keep it covered?" Nathan asked, wondering if they were letting their imaginations run away with them, by the care they were taking not to provoke a myth.

"I am in no hurry to disprove whether or not the Aegis's power is a legend," Ezra shot him a look. He glanced at Julia and noted her expression was a little pale and realised despite her self-assurance, the sinister feel of the chamber had gotten to her, and he instinctively took her hand.

She met his gaze in gratitude, emerald pools filling up with emotion and Ezra knew, he just knew right there and then, those eyes would have power over him for the rest of his life. Any lifetime, he thought absurdly. There may be women after her, there were certainly many before, but in this one moment, he knew she would be the only one that mattered.

Was this how Vin felt when he ran into Alex? Ezra wished the sharpshooter were here so he could put the question to him.

"Hey," JD suddenly spoke up. The scholar was waiting to approach Chris ready to hand the folded leather satchel stored in his pack, to carry the Aegis on their journey out of this place, when he noticed something. Sweeping his gaze across the faces of those present, JD realised they were so busy with the Aegis; they did not see one of their number was missing. "Where's Miss Travis?"

The question made Chris freeze immediately, and he raised his chin, his green eyes taking on their icy gleam as he scanned the room for Mary and saw no sign of her. Her absence struck cold fear in his heart, and he was about to lower the silk over the Aegis when he saw something in the reflection that made him forget all about finding Mary, at least for the moment.

The face of a woman was staring at him.

It was not Mary's face, but it was beautiful, nonetheless. Elegant features, with intelligent dark eyes and a headful of squirming snakes. Their eyes touched each other in the reflection, and upon that contact, he heard the sound that made his stomach heave and threaten to crawl up his throat in sheer horror.

A single rattle.

Growing up in Arizona, Chris was more than familiar with the sound of a rattlesnake, and as he stared into the face, suspended directly above him, he didn't even need to look up to confirm what she was. Breathing hard, he resisted the urge to look over his shoulder because to do so was to end up like the rest of the poor souls who wandered into this place and chose to satisfy their curiosity.

"HIDE NOW, AND FOR CHRIST'S SAKE DON'T LOOK AT HER!"

Chris slid his arm through the enarmes of the shield, needing it now not because it was the prize they had ventured into this place to find, but because it's reflective surface was all that was keeping him from ending up like all the others statues.

JD stumbled back from Chris, colliding with the stone figure behind him, one of a Greek warrior, whose mouth was agape with horror, capturing his last moment of existence in the flesh, when JD saw something lower itself from the ceiling. He saw her in profile, the squirming snakes, the elongated body shaped like a snake, even the tail that tapered into the familiar shape of a rattler. It took an instant for his mind to process what she was, and he immediately looked away, feeling a sudden wave of empathy with the stone image he had just bumped into.

"She's here!" JD warned the others in a shout and then remembering something else. This couldn't be the Medusa, his frantic mind told him. She was dead, but Medusa had sisters. Euryale and Stheno. His mind quickly surfaced the memory of the legends surrounding Perseus. They had chased the hero after he'd stolen their sister's head. Could they have retrieved it and brought it here, even after it was grafted to the Aegis?

"Everyone get out of here!" JD shouted a warning at the others, "there's two of them!"

As he shouted, the Gorgon turned her head in his direction, and JD had less than a second to look away. Her existence alone solidified his belief these figures had been men once and if he didn't act really fast, he was going to end up like them. Ducking behind the statue he had collided with, he stood behind it and raised the shield Chris had made them pick up and stared through it. The fearsome creature in the reflection had turned in his direction when he had cried out, giving Chris just enough time to get past her.

The leader of the seven was racing across the paved floor, with the Gorgon in pursuit while pulling back the string of a bow. As she aimed at Chris's back, intending to bring him down with an arrow, JD thought quickly. Pulling out his gun, he pointed the barrel at the far wall and pulled the trigger. The boom of the gunshot was loud enough to startle the Gorgon in her tracks, enough for her to turn sharply in its direction.

Chris didn't know who had fired the shot, but he was grateful for it. He heard the slithering behind him and knew she was in pursuit, not to mention moving fast. Not being able to look over his shoulder was a decided disadvantage and Chris had no idea how far behind him the thing was. Furthermore, he had not missed JD's warning that there were two of them. Of course, they would be. The Gorgons were a trio, with Medusa being the youngest of three sisters. The oldest being Stheno followed by Euryale.

When her reflection showed her veering away from him, Chris risked looking over his shoulder and saw JD had fired the shot, giving him the breathing room he needed to get past her. She headed towards the wall where the bullet had impacted, and Chris took the opportunity to backtrack and get JD. His first impulse was to find Mary, but his fierce desire to protect JD as well as keep the kid close got the better of him.

"Thanks, kid," Chris said upon reaching him.

"Chris," JD let out a sigh of relief. "You're okay! There's two of them? What are we going to do? We can't even look at them!"

"Calm down for starters," Chris could see the fear in the boy's eyes and frankly Chris couldn't blame him. The situation before them was wholly impossible by every science they knew, but the Gorgon was here, and she was after them. Their incredulity could wait until after they dealt with the creature.

"We've got to get her from behind. I'm going to lead her away, can you sneak up behind her?" Chris wasn't sure if JD could do this, but he could not see where Ezra and Nathan had gone with Julia, so the kid was all he had. If this were Vin, he would have felt more confident, but JD had been proving himself this past year, and Chris had to believe he could do this.

"I can try," JD admitted, not about to hide how frightened he was, but the fear of the Gorgon was nothing in comparison to fear of disappointing this man. "Chris you gotta make sure those arrows don't hit any part of you. The Gorgon's blood is poisonous, and they used to dip their arrows with it."

Once again, Chris marvelled at what that formidable intellect of JD's was capable of containing, especially when they needed it. "I'll remember that, but you remember this. If you can't make the kill, you pull back, do you hear?"

"Yeah," JD nodded understanding completely. "What's your plan?"

Chris told him.

"There's two of them!"

That was all Ezra Standish needed to hear. Not bothering to offer the creature a second look, because the descending figure of scales and writhing hair was enough to make him spin on his heels, grab Julia's hand in his and start running. "Nathan, we cannot look at them directly!"

"No shit!" Nathan snapped, already wondering how the hell they were going to kill these things coming if he and Ezra couldn't look at it directly. Raising the shield he had taken, he lifted it directly in front of his face as he moved, trying to catch a glimpse of the creature they were running from, while at the same time not cracking his head open by running into the stone statue.

"Really Mr Jackson," Ezra frowned as he sought a place to put Julia while he attended to this situation with the rest of his comrades. "Language!"

"I'll live!" Julia rolled her eyes in exasperation, more concerned with the Gorgons stalking them, then the assault on her delicate feminine sensibilities.

Coming out of the shadows, Mary Travis appeared. She looked as white as a sheet but nowhere as paralysed by fear as she ought to be. She was holding a shield, using it to look behind her as she hurried to the rest of her friends. "Will you three shut up! She's right behind me."

"She?" Ezra managed to say when he saw something flying out of the darkness. It was small and fast, giving Ezra only a second to process what it was. Without thinking twice, he yanked Julia behind a column just as it passed her shoulder. Nathan lifted his shield just in time, and the arrow bounced off it with a loud clink, the tip no match for the strength of the steel.

"Take cover!" Ezra barked and all of them scattered, seeking out hiding places amongst the doomed seekers of the Aegis. He did not see where Nathan or Mary went as he dragged Julia behind what appeared to be the statue of a Roman soldier, complete with helmet and plume riding its crest. The soldier had drawn his sword but never got any further than that before he was turned to stone. His cloak, hanging from his back, had become a good place for cover when Julia and Ezra stood behind it.

"Come now," the voice wound through the statues, reaching them like dark tendrils of poison. "Do not make this any more difficult on yourselves than it has to be. Stheno and I will find you, just as we found the others who dared to violate our sister's tomb and defile her body."

Julia's eyes widened at that eerie voice, and Ezra thought her lips parted to speak, but he shook his head and told her to remain silent.

The Gorgon was attempting to bait them into giving away their position. There were too many shadows and corners for them to take refuge in this place with its stone menagerie and dim light. They heard her serpentine body moving across the floor, the scraping as scales rubbing against the stone and knew she was approaching. From where he was hiding with Julia, he saw Nathan behind a column, eyes fixed on the floor, trying not to look at what was coming down the aisle between them. Mary was crouched on the floor, looking like just another fallen statue.

BOOM!

They all jumped, startled by the sound of the gunshot and their movement, slight as it was, allowed the Gorgon to hone in on their position immediately. Ezra stiffened, torn between the desire to run and the reason that implored him not to because this would be a terrible idea. In the end, he pulled back further behind the statue, feeling Julia shift with him and waited.

Ezra watched the Gorgon's reptilian body slither past them, trying not to feel utter revulsion at this half-human-half-reptilian monstrosity. She was scanning the place like the hunter she was, trying to see them in the dim light, her hands clutching her bow and arrow, poised to pin her target the instant she caught sight of them. Without warning, she lifted the weapon and unleashed an arrow. A second later, a scream followed and to Ezra's horror, he saw Mary tumble out of her hiding place, an arrow protruding from the middle of her thigh.

The Gorgon immediately closed in, and Ezra knew if it reached Mary Travis, Chris Larabee was going to lose another woman he cared for. The gambler was not about to let that happen. Giving Julia a look to stay put, he emerged from his hiding place and produced his derringer from beneath his sleeve, firing a single bullet he hoped would blow the demon's skull apart.

However, as he emerged, the snakes on her head seemed to hiss even louder, telegraphing the danger to her with their own eyes. The Gorgon spun around as Ezra fired, and the shot that should have entered the back of her head went through her shoulder instead. Uttering a howl of pain, she snapped her head in his direction so fast, Ezra knew merely turning his head away from her was not going to save him.

He was going to die.

"HEY!" Nathan Jackson shouted, and the creature snapped her head in his direction, only to see the spinning shield flying at her. She had just enough time to process its approach before it slice through her flesh. A shriek that sounded like a banshee's wail screeched through the air and Ezra, who had dropped his gaze to avoid looking at the Gorgon only raised his head when he saw the shield slamming into one of the statues, becoming embedded in the stone.

It was only when he heard the thud of a body against the ground did Ezra dare to look. Her tail was still twitching, and her arms flailed about as if what remained of her refused to believe she was dead. Black blood spread across the floor, filling the air with an odour so rancid, it made Ezra's stomach turn. Lying face down, the Gorgon's head lay a few feet away, having rolled to a stop at the feet of her victims.

The snakes that had nearly ended him were dangling lifelessly from her skull, just as dead as the rest of her.

"That was a hell of a throw," Julia managed to say, unable to move her eyes away from the corpse now that it was safe.

"I concur, Mr Jackson, "Ezra stared at his best friend, thinking once again Nathan had saved his life. "I had no idea your skill at horseshoes could transfer so well."

"Me neither," Nathan answered, appearing a little shellshock his desperate attempt to save his best friend's life had actually worked.

The healer's train of thought had taken a life of its own once he heard Mary's pained cry. All he knew was he had to get to her and was in the process of thinking how to do that when Ezra made his bid to keep the Gorgon away from Mary. When the thing had turned in Ezra's direction, Nathan stopped thinking and just acted.

"Can I get a little help here!" Mary snapped, realising it was safe to look up now she could see the headless body not far from where she was lying.

"Yeah," Nathan snapped out of his shock and hurried towards the downed woman, his instincts to heal, making him forget his astonishment at what he had just done.

"Ezra, there's still another one of these things here," Julia replied as she saw Ezra approaching the severed head carefully, before draping his coat over it. Legend had it the Gorgon's ability to turn victims into stone continued even beyond its death, so Ezra was taking no chances.

"I know," Ezra nodded grimly and decided they had to get moving to be of any help to Chris and JD.

Chris had never run so fast in his life.

All he knew was he had to lead the Gorgon away from the others. Since he was carrying the Aegis, the creature seemed to focus her attention on him, and as expected, when he emerged from his hiding place, taking the winding path between the sisters' past victims, he never felt more vulnerable in his entire life.

Forcing away thoughts of Mary's safety from his mind at the moment, Chris knew he would be no good to her unless he could reduce the numbers of Gorgons hunting them. These things had done nothing in the past two millennia except wait for treasure hunters to come after the Aegis, only to be added to the grim collection of statues in this chamber for all time.

Chris had no intention of meeting his end that way.

Jumping over the obstacles in his path which included the artifacts left behind by the dead, including swords and other discarded weapons, he could hear the Gorgon behind him, her elongated body sweeping the objects aside with clatter and banging as she moved past them. He had no idea where JD was but hoped the kid was staying put until it was time to act. As he closed in on the doorway from the shore, he could smell the salt air in his nostrils and feel the breeze sneaking through the entrance.

"Do you think leaving this chamber will save you?" The voice behind him taunted.

Her words sent ice through his veins for it was spoken with the voice of a corpse trapped in the bottom of a well, trying to talk through the water rotting its flesh.

Chris didn't answer her, not about to parlay with a creature whose mere gaze could end him. Instead, he remained focused on his course and only changed direction when heard the familiar snap of a bowstring being released. Having spent some time with Vin's Navajo family, Chris recognised the sound. Dropping down low, he saw the arrow sail over his head, disappearing into the darkness beyond.

Reaching the shore, he was confronted again by the graveyard of boats. Now that Chris knew what happened to their masters, their neglect felt even more profane. Chris didn't waste heading towards the canoe. Instead, he jumped onto one of the ancient boats, something Egyptian if the markings on the faded sail were any indication. The craft had been run aground, whether by design or time, who could say.

Another arrow was shot, this one struck home, and Chris uttered a cry of pain as it penetrated his shoulder. For a second, the agony was so blinding he almost lost his footing, but the Gorgon's triumphant laugh compelled him to keep running. Reaching the final boat, Chris plunged head first into the water, allowing the cool to soothe his injury and give him a momentary respite.

Meanwhile, following instructions, JD waited until the Gorgon moved past him before emerging from his hiding place. With his rifle in hand, JD stalked the creature, ensuring she didn't see him, while he maintained a view of her back as she chased Chris out of the chamber. He wondered which one she was, Stheno or Euryale. He supposed it didn't matter, either were just as deadly.

After glimpsing the sight of a living legend like the Gorgon, JD had come to the realisation that science was only the beginning of knowledge, and the mysteries of the world, so often counted as superstitious nonsense, existed in a realm by themselves, one he could no longer ignore. Following the trail left behind by the Gorgon, the drag marks across the dust covered floor, JD knew he would never dismiss anything as nonsense again.

When he heard the splash of water, JD knew that Chris had managed to carry out his part of the plan and as he stepped through the entrance, saw the Gorgon approaching the edge of the shore, surveying the river for any sign of her prey. Using the cover of the doorway, JD raised his gun and took careful aim, remembering everything Vin Tanner taught him and squeezed the trigger. The explosion of sound made the Gorgon turn. Her reflexes were stunningly fast, and instead of striking her head, her tail lifted at the last minute, the rattle tip taking the bullet.

The Gorgon uttered a cry of pain before she swung around, forcing JD to retreat before he could see how much damage he'd done if any at all. "Where are you? You miserable insect!"

JD swore under his breath because his bullet had been intended to end her, but now she was coming for him, and all he could do was retreat into the chamber, hoping to become lost in the shadows cast by the statues. Dropping to the ground, he could hear that rattle along with the drag of her body, as she closed in on him.

"Where are you little mouse," she sneered. "Do you think you can kill Stheno after true warriors have failed. I have put armies to the stone. What do you think you can do?"

She was close now. He could hear her breathing and his own stilled. Trying not to panic, JD sought a path past the woman and saw none he could take that wouldn't put her right in her crosshairs. Maybe if he remained where he was, she wouldn't . . .

"There you are."

JD closed his eyes, determined not to open them, no matter what. One look into her face, and it was over. The slithery sound of her body across the ground had stopped, and he could hear her loud breath in his ear. Crouched down low, he was like a penitent man begging for forgiveness from a creature that knew no such thing as mercy.

"Look at me boy," she commanded and her voice as almost sweet. "Look at me, and it will end quickly."

"Sorry ma'am," he managed to say despite his fear. "According to a friend of mine, real men don't end anything quick with a lady."

She uttered a brittle laugh and replied, "you are spirited boy, but in the end, you all go. We are forever, and you are just like all the others."

JD could not see the hand reaching for him, but he knew she was about to grab him and force him to look into her face. He'd fight it, but somehow, he didn't think it would do any good. How hard had the men before him fought? It had turned out no better for them. Why did he think he was going to escape when they hadn't?

"Maybe," Chris Larabee said having snuck up behind the creature using the distraction JD had unwittingly provided. "And maybe not."

The Gorgon started to turn around, but she never had the chance. The ex-calvary man swung the sword belonging to someone who was most likely dead in the chamber beyond. It was a single swipe, but it did the job. The blade sliced cleanly through her neck with such force; there was no time for her to utter any last words. In fact, the only creatures making any parting statement were the snakes passing for her hair. They writhed and spasmed with that brutal cut before going limp. Her head tumbled through the air, before landing on the ground with a sickly squelch and rolling into the darkness. Chris made no effort to see where it ended up. Instead, he lowered the sword, grateful the deed was done until he remembered JD.

"JD!"

For a second, Chris was gripped with the terrible thought he hadn't reached them in time, that the worst had happened to JD. When he concocted his plan, it was with the hope the kid would never face the Gorgon head on, let alone be caught in a cat and mouse game with her. If anything had happened to JD, Buck would never forgive him, and Chris would never forgive himself.

"I'm okay," JD sang out and stopped short at the sight of Chris who was still carrying the sword, with the Aegis still concealed with the red silk, secured firmly with a knot. The man looked like some ancient warrior who had just risen from the sea.

"Alright," Chris, let out a sigh and turned back to the chamber. "There's one more of the things in here. I say we go find the bitch and get the hell out of here."

JD was not about to argue with that.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Firefight

Daylight.

It flooded his eyes a second before his shoulder met dirt. Despite the rough landing that sent pain throughout his body at the impact, Vin Tanner didn't mind one damn bit. Above him, blue skies held court to white clouds sailing languidly across its expanse told Vin they had passed through the eye of the needle from whatever realm they had just been. Beside him, he heard Buck uttering a groan at his own similarly abrupt landing and when Vin lifted his head, realised they were lying on the ground on the top of a mountain.

Surrounding him on all sides was the ocean the seven sailed to reach the Desertas islands, and the ground he was presently lying against, was its tallest peak. By the positioning of the sun above, Vin knew it was past midday and the amber veil rising from the horizon heralded the evening to come. Blinking away the sunspots in his eyes, Vin sat up shakily, his head still spinning at how they came to be in this place, when his last recollection was of the big black emptiness and the things lurking in it, in pursuit.

"You okay lad?"

Vin lifted his eyes and saw Riley extending a hand towards him to help him to his feet. The sharpshooter was still unsteady enough to accept the offer, and he saw Josiah giving Buck the same assistance. Rubbing his eyes to clear his muddled thoughts, Vin nodded in gratitude to the older man and surveyed their surroundings.

As seen earlier, they were on the top of the tallest point in the islands, on a patch of green that was framed by a ring of rocks, spaced an equal distance from each other to indicate immediately the formation was not natural. Vin recalled seeing Stonehenge, having been dragged to the place by Josiah and Nathan when they first visited England. It was a miserably wet and gloomy day, but Vin had to admit, the site bore a remarkable similarity to the formation in front of them now.

"We just showed up here?" He asked Josiah and Riley, who were first through.

"Yeah," Josiah nodded, staring at a fixed point over the edge and not looking at them. "I think this place was how they got in our out of whatever craziness we just experienced."

"Soft Places," Vin mused, recalling that Arab's description.

"Soft places?" Riley stared at him, still trying to wrap his mind around what they experienced. His very Catholic upbringing told him such places could not exist, but he had seen enough in the last year to have such steadfast beliefs challenged.

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "Navajo medicine men say its the spaces between worlds, like the hollows between walls."

"Normally I say it's hooey," Buck rubbed the back of his head, "but after what we just went through, I'm just going to call it weird shit and leave it at that."

"You've got a way with words," Riley managed a smile. "But right now, it will do."

"What about Chris and the others?" Buck asked, and even though he did not mention him by name, it was JD whom Buck was most concerned about. As it was, he still grappled with the horror of what they witnessed in that dark abyss. Buck did not know which was worse, the Minotaur or the nameless terror that had almost torn them apart a few minutes ago. The idea that JD could be facing something far worse in the search for the Aegis was more than Buck could stand.

"Chris Larabee can take care of himself," Josiah assured the pilot, perfectly aware the source of Buck's anxiety was JD. Chris Larabee could handle any situation, of this Josiah had no doubt, but JD was still a novice to this life he'd taken up when he signed on with them. While JD proved himself on many occasions, the truth of it was, JD still had a lot to learn. "And anyone else with him."

Buck blinked, realising Riley was similarly concerned about Julia Pemberton, whom all three of them understood by now, was not just his partner but also his friend. There was no mistaking the almost paternal affection Riley had for the lady.

"Yeah, we shouldn't worry," he said, slapping Riley's arm with assurance. "I'm sure that little lady is fine."

"Of course she is," Riley shrugged, feeling a little embarrassed his concern for Julia was noticed. "I sometimes forget she's saved my arse more times than I can count, but I promised her Da to keep her safe. After what we just ran into, I'm praying to Jesus she and your lot haven't run into something worse."

"Yeah," Josiah frowned at the thought because if Chris was still on the trail of the Aegis, that was a genuine possibility. "We gotta have faith brother. Faith in them."

"Damn straight," Buck added his voice to Josiah's comment and took it to heart himself. The older man was right, he had to have faith in Chris, Ezra and Nathan to get JD, Mary and Julia back to them safely.

Vin however, did not weigh in.

His silence drew Josiah's attention, and as the one-time man of God stared at the sharpshooter, Josiah noticed Vin had not even registered their conversation. Instead, as Josiah approached Vin, who was standing with his back to them, he saw Vin's gaze was fixed on the ocean beyond the stone ring surrounding them. Now that Josiah took a closer look, he realised Vin's expression was grave. After what they had just escaped, Josiah couldn't imagine what could be the cause until he saw what Vin was looking at.

A German U-boat.

"Hell," Vin cursed. The one glimpse of that metal leviathan was more than enough to chase the residual effects of that Other Place from his thoughts as a more grounded enemy appeared before their eyes.

"What?" Buck immediately snapped to, and both he and Riley joined Vin and Josiah at the edge.

The U-Boat was holding the position a short distance from the bow of the Magellan, the tug Ezra had procured them to get here. A trio of inflatable boats was spreading out from the submarine with one heading directly for the Magellan while the others continued towards the island. Each vessel was occupied by at least a half dozen men, and though he couldn't see her, Vin knew Isabella Krauss was with them.

"Well, I suppose it was too much to hope they wouldn't find us," Riley sighed. "I'll bet a year's pay to King George that one of their bastard spies spotted us when we landed in Madeira. They've got people everywhere these days."

"Doesn't matter," Josiah shrugged. "They're here, and they know so are we."

"So what do we do?" Buck asked, shifting his gaze to Vin. "We still got to find Chris and the others."

Vin dropped his gaze to the ground, wanting badly to go find the rest of their company but the truth was, they had a more pressing problem to deal with. Those Nazis were going to scour the island until they found their quarry. At this point, the most sensible thing to do was to run but running meant leaving their friends behind, and with a submarine, any distance they put between them and the island was a moot point.

"We fight."

"Fight?" Buck gave him a look. "You sure?"

"We can't run, that thing will blow us out of the water even if we managed to get to the Magellan and there's not enough island for us to hide out for long. Besides, if Chris and the others get out the same way we did, they're going to end up in the hands of those bastards. They ain't seen us yet, and we got the high ground so I say we reduce their number while we can."

"He's right," Riley nodded in agreement. "That model U-boat holds about 25 crew. If we can cut them down to size, they won't have enough men to sail out of here, and we might stand a fighting chance against them."

"It's a plan," Josiah nodded in approval. "We still have a decent amount of ammo. We used most of the smaller stuff while we were in the maze."

It was true. They expended a lot of firepower with their small arms because of the lack of time to reload, but they still had more than enough bullets for the rifles and Vin knew himself, how much damage he could do with his own Winchester.

"Alright," Vin nodded, "let's see where they intend to make landfall and give them a surprise when they get to shore."

"Yeah," Buck grinned, preferring to fight an enemy he could understand, not the creatures they had been faced with a while ago. He hoped Chris was looking after JD because the idea of the kid being torn apart in the hell they narrowly escaped was too terrible to imagine. However, he had confidence in his oldest friend to keep the boy safe. "Nothing I like more than surprises."

"Unless it's an eight-year-old kid, right?" Josiah couldn't help remark, reminding Buck if he planned on getting anywhere with the fair Miss Recillos, he had a pretty formidable obstacle to overcome first.

Buck glared at him. "Very funny."

To say the involvement of Chris Larabee's team in the search for the Aegis had complicated matters considerably was a gross understatement.

Like that troublesome archaeology professor who seemed to appear in the most inopportune places, Larabee's team was proving to be just as equally annoying. The retrieval of the Aegis should have been concluded by now. Yet at every turn, the Reich was thwarted by the American interlopers. Isabella Krauss was becoming properly sick of it.

As she rode in one of the three inflatable boats or Mitte schlauchboot as Commander Bucholz so proudly told her, carrying a complement of half a dozen men and their equipment, she was eager to finish this business once and for all. Heading towards the shore, she saw one of the boats approaching the tug the Americans had used to make the journey from Madeira. They certainly wouldn't need it for a return trip because she was determined to ensure none of the pigs left the Desertas Islands alive.

While she had to admit tracking them across the globe had taken the burden of deciphering the Aegis's final location off her shoulders, she still wanted them eliminated for good. It was easy enough to accomplish thanks to the Reich's ever-expanding network of spies at her disposal. All it had taken was one informant to sight their arrival in Madeira for Isabella to be made aware of it.

Within hours of receiving the report, the nearest U-boat in the area was dispatched to take up the duties of the vessel damaged in Marsa Matruh, ready to intercept Larabee and his conspirators when he emerged from wherever it was the Aegis was hidden. Isabella intended to be there when he appeared so she could steal his prize from right under his nose, and put a bullet between his eyes.

As the inflatable neared the shore, the beach awaiting them on the main island was a dark grey shale, far removed from the more pristine white of its smaller counterparts. Craggy hills frowned upon them and cast a shadow across the stretch of coastline that seemed to make the place even gloomier. She wondered where Larabee and his men were led in search of the Aegis.

The tug was abandoned in a small cove. Further investigation revealed there was nothing to indicate where its crew had gone. There was no opening, no sign of a grotto or any kind of subterranean passage that would provide a clear path once the Americans entered the narrow passage. It was odd. In the end, she assumed Larabee was attempting to hide the craft from them and left her men on the boat, with orders to afford the Americans the proper reception if they managed to return to it beneath the notice of the shore party.

White foam broke up against the pebble shore as the tide rushed in and as the craft continued to close the distance to land, seabirds took to the air at their approach, squawking their indignation at their presence. No one lived on this island except the seabirds, the feral animals brought here by mariners of the past such as rodents and goats, not to mention the seals who chose its many bays to breed.

Isabella supposed this barren scab of rock was the perfect hiding place for the Aegis.

The scientist in her did not buy into the nonsense the Aegis could turn armies to stone. Nothing she collected for the Fuhrer had proved capable of exhibiting any supernatural power, but what it did have, was symbolism. The Reich had ridden to power by capturing the imagination of its people and making them believe patriotic fervour and unquestioning belief was the path to some grand destiny of cosmic making. The Fuhrer wielding the Aegis would aid that belief until it became full-blown zealotry. Such power could be used to capture the world.

"Marler," she regarded her SS minder in all this. "When we reach the shore, spread out. This island is small, we should be able to locate the Americans easily."

Marler's expression remained impassive even though she knew behind his vacant eyes, he was seething. He looked as dark as his leather coat, the clothing of choice for the growing Gestapo arm of the Reich it seemed, and she knew he was personally affronted at how much trouble acquiring Larabee had proved to be.

"And when we find them?"

"It depends," she said thoughtfully as the inflatable started to shudder with the chop of the receding tide. "If they have the Aegis, take it and kill them. If not, kill everyone except Larabee, the boy and the woman. We don't need the others, and their number is too large to secure. The woman can be useful if Larabee refuses to talk."

A little smile curled Mahler's lips, and inwardly, Isabella shuddered at the pleasure behind that sinister smirk. It was not that she objected to his 'interrogation' techniques when dealing with women, but the pleasure he took in it. Torture was a tool. When it was used for gratification, it was dangerous, and she had a feeling if Mahler had not found an outlet for his sadism through the Gestapo, he would have likely done it as a serial murderer.

The crew began disembarking the instant the first boat approached the shore, with her men setting foot on the coast leaving footprints in the sand from their jackboots. Two of them had started to pull the craft further into the beach when the crack of gunfire came out of nowhere, startling them all. The initial gunshot killed one of the men carrying the boat, his life ending with a splatter of blood across his chest before he fell into the vessel. More shots fired then, snapping the rest of the Germans out of their shock and into action.

Someone had the presence of mind to shout a warning. "Scharfschütze!*"

Isabelle was pulled to the deck by the Marler as the soldiers in the boat with them, took up their weapons and returned fired in aid of their besieged comrades.

Isabella swore.

Those damn Americans!

Vin fired again.

This time, he pinned a target attempting to take aim at the edge of the cliff where he, Buck, Josiah and Riley were using for cover. One of the Krauts managed to land a shot near them, but all the bullet did, aside from impacting harmlessly against the ground, was to spit dirt and dust in their direction. It did nothing to hinder their continued assault on the enemy. Vin knew their advantage would last just long enough for the Germans to escape the range of their weapons, but in those precious few minutes, he and the others could do plenty of damage.

Within a minute of the first gunshot, he and Riley managed to put down most of the first inflatables compliment. Riley, who had come to their aid along with Julia Pemberton during the climax of the affair with the Erran, proved himself a formidable shot, enough to gain Vin's respect. The space around the craft was covered with bodies, the tide threatening to sweep one or two out to sea, while the occupants of the second raft were returning enough fire for Vin to know this advantage would not last for much longer.

Buck retreated from the edge, immediately scanning the terrain to see which direction the enemy would come when they finally discovered where the sniper fire was coming from. There was only one path from the beach to the ring of stones the four of them had found themselves after the maze. It was steep, and a little bit treacherous, but the Krauts were plenty mad, and Buck had no illusions they would want to avenge their fallen comrades. Fortunately, it was not the only way off the hill.

While the others continued to shoot, Buck saw a few of the sons of bitches making their way across the beach, evading the sniper fire using the large rocks planted throughout the beach. Once they reached the trail shrouded by trees and angled steeply enough for any sniper to have difficulty getting a clear shot, there was nothing to stop them from closing the distance.

"We better decide if we're staying," Buck hollered at Vin over the sound of gunfire. "Cause they're on their way!"

Vin could see this himself, and although it went against the grain, he had been aiming for Krauss. He could see her in the second boat, being kept low so he couldn't get a clear shot of her in his crosshairs. It was not in his habit to shoot a woman, but after seeing how Adashir Shah's sister had nearly gutted JD during the affair with the Erran, he was not going to let outdated chivalry hold back the need to put down a dangerous enemy.

Besides, after what the woman threatened to do to JD, Vin would lose no sleep putting a bullet in the bitch.

The soldiers on the craft with her were the source of most of the returning fire and Vin shifted his aim, targeting not the men but the inflatable itself. A single shot was all that was needed. He didn't have to hear the burst of air at the puncture because the reaction of those on board was enough. As it began to deflate, some of the Krauts tried to retain their balance while others simply went overboard, pre-empting their eventual submergence into the water.

"Nice shot," Josiah remarked in between gunfire. A few of the Krauts had managed to reach the cliff, skirting along the wall to reach the trail leading to them. "Maybe that will cool them off."

"I wouldn't count on it," Riley said grimly, gesturing to the craft that had been moored to the Magellan. "I think they're about to get reinforcements."

The occupants of the third inflatable, well beyond the range of their guns, were paddling back to the submarine. No doubt, when the Krauts got there, they would alert the rest of their comrades to the assault on the beach. Vin knew the Germans had enough guns and ammunition to outlast the four of them, not to mention men to wield those weapons. Buck was right, it was time to get moving while they still could.

"Alright, let's get going. We've got to find a place to hold up until they find us and it ain't gonna be here." Vin swept his gaze across the plateau and saw it lacking in any formations capable of providing cover, other than the ring of stones which was inadequate for the purpose. Particularly against an enemy on even ground with a great deal more firepower. "If Chris and the others have to come through here the same way we did, they'll be walking into a war zone. We've got to lead these bastards away from here and hope Chris can catch up with us when he gets out."

If he gets out, Vin thought silently.

By now, Vin was convinced Chris and the rest of their friends were trapped in the same void they had just escaped. Nor did Vin have any doubt Josiah and Buck would storm the gates of oblivion to help him get them back. However, none of that could be achieved until they dealt with Isabella Krauss and her Nazis.

Once and for all.

*sniper

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Medusa

If Chris Larabee thought his troubles were over when he and JD found the others, he was sorely mistaken.

In fact, he thought things were going their way when he and JD found their friends after their confrontation with the Gorgon. Expecting to fight another one of the creatures, the two men were grateful to learn Nathan had done the deed already. The healer had dismissed the feat rather casually, more interested in fixing Mary's wound, which Chris was none too happy to discover. Still, he was soon assured by her complaining, her wounds were none too serious.

Chris might be falling in love with the woman, but the day she shut up and let him get a word in otherwise, would be the real discovery of the century.

"Any idea how to leave this place, Mr Larabee?"

Ezra asked, thinking their journey back to the surface would require them crossing the path of the Sirens once more, and he had no desire to suffer another hallucination at their hands. Having his psyche excoriated once a day was more than enough. Yet sweeping his gaze around the temple, he could see no way of leaving the place other than the way they arrived.

"We can go back the way we came," Chris suggested. "Although once we reach the waterfall, we have to find a way up and then swim for it."

"That is a numerous set of variables to base an assumption on," Ezra's grimace showed his thoughts on the idea.

Now that the Gorgons were dead, Julia examined the statues scattered throughout the place, wanting a fresh look at them now she realised these were not carved images, but the remains of the poor people turned into stone, as they were in danger of a short time ago. She stood in front of what appeared to be a Roman soldier, complete with armour and cloak, not to mention the very distinct helmet with feathered plume.

"What is going to happen to these people?" Mary winced in pain as Nathan tightened a bandage around her thigh, exposed after he cut away the fabric of a pant leg to treat her wound. "The one we killed told me they weren't really dead, just trapped in stone."

"Oh my God," Julia gasped in horror, staring into the frozen face in front of her, shocked to think he might be conscious of everything happening, even the passage of time.

As if in answer to her question, the ground beneath them began to quake. The first tremor was slight, but even that mild shift was enough to adversely effect the chamber of stone and marble surrounding them. Dust shifted free from cracks between the slabs of rocks in the ceiling. The statues began to shudder. One or two of the torches, hanging on the walls, dropped on the floor having been shaken loose.

Chris was suddenly struck with the idea the reality in which the temple existed, had now pivoted following Stheno and Euryale's death. After encountering the Gorgon, Chris had told himself this place could not exist in the world, not for all this time in such complete secrecy. Somehow during their pursuit of the Aegis, they had crossed over into a pocket-universe where Sirens, Gorgons and the Aegis existed.

"Nathan, are you done?" Chris sank next to Mary, having an inkling of what was coming. If he was right, they were going to have to get moving quickly.

"Yeah, yeah," Nathan's long fingers worked deftly, securing the bandage to ensure the wound could begin healing properly now. "I'm done."

"What's happening Chris?" Mary wrapped her arms around his neck as he hoisted her up, bristling at the need to be carried but seeing enough urgency in his eyes to not give him any lip about it.

"I think we need to depart this place," Ezra uttered the understatement of the century.

The statue next to Julia exploded.

The woman uttered a short cry of fright as the Roman soldier she had been studying suddenly disintegrated in front of her. Its deconstruction was so complete it sent up a cloud of dust when the pile hit the floor. Amidst the growing intensity of the quakes around them, the soldier's abrupt demise started a chain reaction that swept quickly throughout the temple as more and more statues crumbled, becoming piles of sand with only a diminishing fog of grey to mark where they once stood.

"Hell," Nathan groaned as they looked up and saw cracks starting to appear across the ceiling. The spidery tendrils ran across the roof like thick veins, and pouring through them was light. With their arrival, the quakes became more violent, until dust drifted through the slabs being shaken as if the fragile plane on which this place stood was breaking apart.

"No, kidding," Chris replied and glanced down at Mary. "Hold on."

"Oh God," Mary dropped her head back in exasperation. "Why do we always end up running? Every time we enter one of these places, it always ends up with us running for our lives. Can't we ever leave these situations by taking a nice walk or stroll for a change? What happened to saunter, or sashaying, even a plain moseying . . . ?"

"Mary," Chris grumbled as she started to rant, "you're awful pretty, and I like you a lot, but for once SHUT UP!"

"FINE!" Mary bit back but obeyed as he started searching the place for the way out.

"Chris!" JD shouted, already on the case, pointing towards a door at the far end of the room, one Chris was sure wasn't there before. It was nothing more than a stone archway, sealed by two doors made of wood. The wood was fastened together by faded hessian, not nailed as one would expect. Chris supposed it fit the period of Perseus's legend and hoped it was a way out. Whether it was or not, really didn't matter, they couldn't stay here.

"Everyone move!" Chris shouted and started running first, tightening his grip around Mary even as he heard her whimper a little at the world beginning to deconstruct around their ears. The light outside was so blinding, it was impossible to see what lay beyond those fissures. It didn't matter, now that Stheno and Euryale were dead, there was no longer any reason for the temple housing the Aegis to exist.

"Shall we, my dear?" Ezra grabbed Julia's wrist as they ran towards the door, JD had reached first.

"Yes, I think so," Julia did not protest as he towed her along, running past more exploding statues. Columns had started rocking dangerously, and Julia knew when those stone pillars went, so would this place. "I think as first dates go, this one had truly reached its climax."

"Oh I wouldn't say that," Ezra managed to return, never one to appear flustered even when the world was being demolished around them. "I believe blowing up a submarine might have been a highlight as well."

"Will you two stop flirting and move your butts!"

Nathan's barked prompted them to run faster, seeing JD in the distance waving them forward. The young scholar who was carrying the Aegis, after Chris surrendered it so he could pick up Mary, was already at the door, beckoning them to hurry. Nathan halted in his steps, pausing to let Julia and Ezra pass him along the stone path, now covered with the remains of the ruined statues. One or two columns smashed against the floor, sending dangerous chunks of rock in all direction.

Mary uttered a frightened cry, and for an instant, Nathan thought the dangerous debris had caught up with her and Chris. Fortunately, his fears were allayed a second later when Chris rounded the pile of rock, albeit covered in stone dust, in good condition.

"Keep going," Chris snapped, prompting Nathan into moving himself. "We're right behind you!"

More and more columns fell throughout the room, their impact against the floor making everyone's teeth chatter at the thunderous noise. The air became thick with dust, and with the light flooding in, it was becoming difficult to see. Whatever force keeping this place intact throughout the centuries, apparently felt its task was done with the death of Medusa's sisters.

As Chris approached the doorway, JD now opened, he could see the words scrawled into the stone archway above them. It was now illuminated by the same unseen presence bringing an end to this temple.

*Ολα ο οποίος ψάχνω Σπίτι, εισαγω**

"What does that mean?"

Chris heard Ezra demand as he sighted JD over the gambler's shoulder, pulling open the door and bathing them all with more light but this time, the breeze blowing through the exit brought with it fresh scents. Salt. Chris could smell salt. Was it from the ocean?

"Doesn't matter! Just GO!"

Nathan shouted, sending JD rushing into the light and the last image Chris glimpsed of the boy was of JD's silhouette disappearing. Julia and Ezra followed, vanishing similarly with only Nathan pausing long enough to ensure Chris and Mary were still behind him as promised. The healer waited until they closed the distance, his eyes widening at the calamity taking place behind them, telling Chris he didn't need to look over his shoulder to see what was chasing them to the door.

"Oh God."

Chris heard Mary squeal because she could see what was happening behind them before she buried her face in his shoulder. She did not want to look anymore and kept her face there. Confident they would be following, Nathan stepped through the exit, vanishing as the others had done before Chris reached the doorway himself and allowed the white light to swallow them whole.

"We can't stay here!" Buck shouted as he fired again.

Leaving the high ground where it would be easiest for the enemy to find them, the remaining members of the seven and Riley had left the peak in search of a defensible spot to deal with Krauss and her Nazis. The beach the Nazis had used to come ashore, appeared to be the only one on the island as the rest of the coastline was made up of high cliff and jagged rocks that wasn't fit for humans to cross. Unfortunately, that left their hiding places somewhat limited.

The gully in which they were now fending off the Nazis invaders was almost six feet high, allowing them all the depth needed to be well protected by gunfire, but unfortunately for them, the Nazis had come armed with more than just guns. As another short-range shell hit the ground not far from where they were taking refuge, raining soil and mud on them, Buck covered his ears from the tremendous blast.

Vin, Josiah and Riley were more accustomed to the noise, familiar with trench warfare after the last war. As the debris-covered them, they shifted position towards the site of the blast, aware the enemy wouldn't try to shell the same place twice for a few minutes and resumed their gunfire. As it was, there were at least fifteen German soldiers on the other side of the clearing, all armed with Maschinenpistole 34 or more specifically MP34 submachine guns and unfortunately for them, as well as a GrW 34, Schwere Granatwerfer 34, portable mortar launcher.

"We stay put!" Riley snapped. "We try to move out of this gully, and they'll cut us down before we get halfway across the island. This is the only place we can hold out."

"Hold out for what?" Buck demanded, unaccustomed to this after seeing the war from the air. Flying over the battlefield was a world of difference from being right in the middle of it, and Buck realised just how much now.

"I have no idea," Riley revealed, glancing at Vin and Josiah because he too had no suggestions where they could go if they made a run for it. They would never make it to the Magellan, and even if they did, there was every possibility that U-boat would blow them out of the water. "Lads, any ideas?"

Vin had one, but Isabella Krauss was smart enough to stay out of sight, ensuring he would be robbed of his clear shot of her. Yet Vin knew taking her out would change the odds. These Nazi fools were thugs. It was clear that subtlety was simply not in their DNA. Krauss, on the other hand, was smart and cold. She knew they had no way off the island, and they were greatly outnumbered. Ordering the artillery strike on their location meant eventually they would get killed or cry surrender.

Another loud explosion pelted them with clumps of soil and dust, leaving behind a smoking crater. Dropping to the gully floor, they skirted along the edge, aware the pause in the shooting was allowing the enemy to close the distance.

"We can try for the water," Josiah suggested. "Head back into that cave we went into, at least far enough so they can't find us."

"No," Vin said automatically, not about to entertain that thought in any shape or fashion but Josiah was right, they needed to get out of here. The gully had been an excellent place to cut down the enemy numbers further, but the artillery fire was a game-changer. It would bombard them relentlessly, giving the Nazis the cover needed to reach them.

Suddenly the shooting stopped abruptly, and the silence that fell over the place reminded him of those temporary ceasefires in the front, where both sides for whatever reason, chose to take a moment to catch their breath. Somehow Vin had an idea this pause was going to be nowhere as amicable.

"Mr Larabee," the thickly accented voice of Isabella Krauss called out.

Vin and the others exchanged quick glances.

"She thinks Chris is with us?" Buck whispered.

"Why not?" Josiah returned. "So far, all she's seen of us is our bullets. No reason to think Chris and the others aren't here with us."

"What do you want?" Vin spoke up for Chris, knowing the woman was waiting for a response.

"Let's not play games, Mr Larabee," her impatience could be heard from the divide across them. "I want the Aegis. I know you have it. Give it to us, and you and your men can go free."

It was a lie, and they all knew it. Nothing about the woman revealed that kind of mercy, besides the Aegis wasn't here anyway for Vin to make the bargain.

"We ain't dumb enough to buy that line, lady!" Vin hollered back. "The minute we hand you the Aegis, you're gonna kill us dead."

"I'm afraid that's a risk you're going to have to take."

"She'll kill us lad," Riley warned in case Vin was contemplating the idea of surrender. Instincts told him Vin would never consciously yield to anything unless he had read the young man entirely wrong. "She's never left anyone who ran into her live. She's a beast."

Vin suspected as much anyway and replied in kind. "No, that's what you're gonna have to do if you want the Aegis. Come and get it!"

"You're a fool!" She snapped. "**SCHIEßEN!"

Vin's German was good enough for him to drop down immediately as the words were uttered. Gunfire exploded across the gap between the gully and the German advance. They were out in the open, but the cover provided by the mortar fire was giving them plenty of room to forge on ahead. Bullets kept the enemy down, and the constant bombardment as the gully was pounded with repeated explosions, ensured the four men remained pinned.

Another blast near Josiah threw him to the ground, and as he scrambled to his feet, hearing Vin and Buck call after him, their voices were muted by the ringing of his ears. Standing up awkwardly, Josiah tried to shake the disorientation from his head when suddenly, something white-hot penetrated the haze in his head with world-ending pain.

"JOSIAH!" Buck fairly screamed, seeing Josiah's shirt flare red. The bullet had struck the man in the chest, but the pilot couldn't be sure it wasn't in the heart. He only knew the damage was severe. Josiah stumbled backwards, hitting the wall of the gully before sliding to the ground, the spread of blood growing wider.

Buck forgot the gunfire and went to his side immediately. Next to Chris, Buck had known Josiah the longest. The man had been his mechanic in France and made sure Buck always flew off in a plane that would get him back safely. The idea of anything happening to this gentle giant who had kept his dumb self from doing anything too stupid was a reality Buck had no desire to face.

"How bad?" Vin hollered, realising they might well die today and their hours of life had just started counting down.

Buck, who was kneeling across from Josiah as he examined the downed man's wound, raised his eyes to Vin. "If we don't get him help, he's going to die!"

"I guess the crows did finally find me after all . . . ." Josiah muttered.

"Will you cut it out with that Edgar Allen Poe talk!" Buck snapped. "Vin! What do we do?"

Vin closed his eyes and took a breath after pulling the trigger of his rifle and putting down another German. There was a pause on the mortar fire as they stopped to reload, giving Vin a second to think. He refused to let them surrender to that woman, remembering what she tried to do to JD. When she found out Chris wasn't with them, she would kill them all anyway. He'd rather die on his feet than on his knees. Vin was only sorry he wouldn't be able to say goodbye to Alex.

"Riley! I want you and Buck to get Josiah out of here. I'll cover you."

"What the hell kind of plan is that?" Buck returned immediately, shooting him a look of disbelief. "We ain't leaving you behind!"

Chris would never forgive him, Buck thought.

"The only one we have!" Vin snapped, flinching as another bullet hit the soil near him, prompting to fire again. Beside him, Riley was continuing the barrage, but both men could see the Germans were gaining ground. In a matter of minutes, the bastards would be on top of them anyway. "Get going!"

The shooting paused once again, and this time when the silence descended, Vin knew what Krauss was going to say.

"Mr Larabee," she shouted from her vantage point at the edge of the clearing, "You are out of time. You have one last chance to put down your guns and give us the Aegis or surrender yourself and help us retrieve it. Either way, this foolishness is about to end."

Vin took a deep breath, preparing to answer when someone else spoke instead.

"You are right about that."

Appearing through the trees framing the clearing, was Chris Larabee.

At the same time as he approached, Vin saw Nathan, JD, Ezra and Julia sneaking into the gully from the far side of the clearing, using the battle between the two forces to enter the trench and rejoin their comrades. Facing front, he wondered what the hell was in Chris's mind fronting up to that insane bitch without a weapon and carrying what appeared to be a shield in a leather satchel.

"What's Chris doing?" Vin hissed, feeling his panic rise at the man's reckless behaviour. Carrying the shield that was most likely the Aegis, Krauss was liable to shoot him and take the Aegis out of his cold dead grip.

By now, the others led by JD had reached them, but there was no time for happy reunions, not with the odds they were facing. Buck tossed JD a happy grin, but it lasted long enough for him to hear Josiah's groan before his expression sobered. It looks like the kid was safe, but they were all about to die here.

"Gentlemen," Ezra Standish announced himself, like the conductor in a rather crowded bus. "Under the instructions of our esteemed leader, please drop your heads to the ground and keep your eyes closed."

The instant he had spoken and Isabella Krauss identified what it was he had concealed in the sheathe of leather, she ordered her men to stop firing. Chris glanced at the gully just enough to make eye contact with Vin, and a slight nod was all the younger man needed to understand what was required of him. he heads of his friends, peeking over the top of the gully, now vanished from sight, no doubt obeying the order he had Ezra make.

Chris didn't know if he was gambling with fool's gold, but he had come too far to stop.

"Mr Larabee," Isabella Krauss stepped forward with Marler at her side. "We meet at last."

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "Despite your dumb attempts to get your hands on me." Glancing at Marler, he couldn't help but add. "I've seen better kidnap attempts by Larry, Moe and Curly."

Marler's face twisted in an angry scowl and swore something in German that would have annoyed Chris if he didn't know Marler's time on this Earth was dwindling fast.

Krauss hid her smirk, enjoying Marler's irritation somewhat, but she was fixed only on the leather satchel whose shape left her no doubt what was inside. She was suspicious of why Larabee had suddenly emerged but then supposed, with all avenues of escape dwindling, the man had no choice but to make a deal. He came to a pause between the gully and her soldiers, brazen courage oozing off him. A perfect Aryan specimen, she thought to herself.

"Mr Larabee, I am not interested in you or your collection of rabble," she glanced at the gully behind him. "I only want the Aegis."

By now, all guns were pointed in his direction. Chris knew he could die if he were mistaken about what he was about to do. Then again, like Ezra Standish, Chris was never afraid of taking a gamble.

"And if I give it to you, will you let us go?"

"I see," Krauss realised now it was never Larabee she spoke to, but a member of his team, most likely Tanner, who was reputed to be Larabee's trusted lieutenant. "Very clever. I take it that was one of your comrades I was addressing earlier?"

"It was," Chris nodded. "Now, once again. Will you let us go?"

Lying through her teeth, she answered. "Of course I will. We only want the Aegis. We have no interest in killing Americans. In fact, our Fuhrer thinks very highly of your country, he would not wish to be the cause of any unpleasantness between our two nations."

"Right," Chris replied, reaching the same conclusion as Vin. She'd kill them alright, and she'd take a great deal of pleasure doing it. He could see it in her eyes. "Okay, I guess I don't have much choice. You want the Aegis, you got it."

Chris lifted up the satchel in which the Aegis was kept, carefully ensuring the enemy knew he was making no effort to pull a double-cross. Not that he could. If Chris went for a gun, he'd be dead before he pulled the trigger. Instead, he removed the Aegis from its satchel. Once again Chris caught his reflection in the polished bronze, now appearing even brighter in the afternoon sun. Peeling away the leather, he slipped his arm into the enarmes . . .

Perhaps it was the ease in which Larabeewas handing over the shield after being so insistent on keeping one step ahead of her that made Isabella Krauss realise something was wrong. As the shield was exposed to the sunlight, she saw its gleaming magnificence, and the image cast against its face seemed almost alive. Even though it was nothing more than the face of a woman sculpted in bronze, for a second Krauss thought she saw the snakes in the Medusa's hair come alive, writhing around her face like they were reacting to the heat of the day.

Then the Medusa's eyes blinked open and in that instant, Krauss realised she had been tricked.

But it was too late.

Isabella Krauss opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out because her tongue had turned into stone.

And soon after, the rest of her.

*All who seek home, enter

**Fire

Epilogue

"Vin!"

Alexandra Styles waved happily when the doors of the plane finally swung open, and she saw Vin Tanner emerging from the Darlin' Millie.

She received the telegram from England a day ago, telling her the Millie was expected to set down on American soil with scant details on how their trip to find the Aegis had ended. Not that it mattered, Alex was grateful enough to have Vin back in one piece, after getting a taste of how dangerous his adventures abroad could be. Unlike Mary Travis, Alex did not crave joining Vin on these expeditions, aware her presence would only give him one more thing to worry about in tense situations.

Besides, it just made their reunions so much sweeter.

During his trip away, Alex busied herself with the preparations she needed to make for her eventual move to Albuquerque. As intended, her interview with the Sisters of Mercy had gone exceedingly well, and the arrangement for her internship was set. Upon completion of her medical degree in New York, she would be relocating to town to take up the position at the hospital and be closer to Vin.

"Alex!"

Vin made no effort to hide his joy at seeing her as he exited the plane, now in its usual place in the private hangar at the West Mesa Airstrip in Albuquerque. Descending the steps leading from the door, he crossed the distance between them ahead of the remaining seven and practically swept her off her feet when they finally embraced. Pressing his lips to hers and feeling Alex's arms circling his neck was the best possible conclusion for what had been a strange journey with a horrific climax.

For a few seconds, nothing existed for them except each other. Not the amused glances of his friends as they disembarked the plane, the somewhat bracing wind rushing through the open hangar doors or even the knowledge their time together would be short. After so many months, it still astonished him her power over him and how only in her presence, a hidden corner of his heart seemed to come alive whenever he saw her.

"How are you, Darlin'?" Vin asked, pulling away from her when the footsteps and voices of the others emerging from the aircraft became audible penetrating the fog of their warm greeting. "Did you do everything you needed doing?"

"Yes. I got the internship, so when I get back from New York, I'll be starting at the Sisters of Mercy hospital."

"That's great," Vin grinned, thrilled at the idea of having her in the same town as him. While he was no teenager mooning after her when they were apart, he could not deny having her close by was wonderful. "When do you have to head back?

"In three days," she frowned, clearly disappointed by the reality of their present, despite the hope for the future. "But at least we'll have tonight and tomorrow together, right?"

"Right," Vin was similarly disappointed at that, but also knew they would put the time to good use. Besides, it was handy having a gal who didn't mind him taking off for extended periods because she had her own life to live. From what Alex had mentioned about it, she would have barely time to think during her internship, let alone be concerned about how much time she had to spend with him.

"How was your trip? Did you find the Aegis?"

Mention of the Aegis sobered his elated mood, and a cold shudder ran down his spine at the mention of the ancient artifact. "Yeah," he nodded, "we found it."

+++++++

"Everyone, come out! It's safe!"

Vin was the first one out of the gully after Chris Larabee cried out and gave them the signal things were all clear. Lifting his head over the top, Vin sought out Chris first and saw the leader of the seven quickly sealing the Aegis inside the leather satchel once more. What he saw after that, like the rest of his friends emerging from their hiding place, wiped the unflappable expression off his face immediately.

Where there had been at least ten Nazi soldiers, scattered across the clearing, armed with a varied arsenal of weapons from the Fatherland, were figures captured for all time in stone. Caught by surprise, they stood in the clearing, like an out-of-place menagerie of rock, their poses conveying a variety of expressions ranging from surprise and confusion to eventual shock and horror. For the seven and their companions, it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt the power of the Aegis.

"God," Buck whispered at the realisation this garden of stone was only a short time ago filled with flesh and blood men.

"God had nothing to do with this lad," Riley whispered as he stood up after pulling himself over the top of the gully to witness the scene before them.

Julia, clutching Ezra's hand, walked gingerly towards the figures, pausing only when she glimpsed Marler. The SS officer wore an expression of grotesque fear. For a moment, she was reminded of the gargoyles that adorned so many of the old manors in England. The look of terror on his face, perhaps at the last moment realising what was happening to him, made her take a step closer to Ezra.

JD, on the other hand, felt no such anxiety when he approached the statue of Isabella Krauss.

If one did not know this was once a human being, the statue of the Nazi scientist might have been considered a work of art no different than any found in the important museums across Europe. Yet JD knew better. Wearing an inscrutable mask, none of his companions was able to read, a surge of satisfaction coursed through him as he stared into the face of the woman who threatened to take his eyes.

Did she realise at the last minute the prize she so sought after wasn't just some artifact, but the remnants of a creature whose power she was about to experience personally? He would have liked to have known her thoughts in those final moments and realised if Mary was right, if the victims of the Gorgons were aware of what was happening to them, then he had one card left to play.

"JD?" Buck looked at him in concern, feeling uneasy at the expression across the younger man's face because he was unable to read JD at that moment, which was unusual. "Are you okay?

JD was carrying a shotgun, liberated from Nathan who was busy tending to Josiah in the gully and did not utter a word when he raised the weapon and blasted the statue's head off.

The thunderous boom took everyone by surprise. Anyone who wasn't aware of where JD was, jumped. As fragments of rock and dust created a white cloud around him, when it cleared, they saw JD standing in front of the headless statue, set apart from all the others now. While most present were shocked by the vicious display from the usually unassuming young man, Vin who had been sitting next to JD when Krauss was seconds away from taking his sight, was unsurprised.

"Yeah, Buck," JD lowered the gun, "I feel fine now."

+++++++

"Mary!"

Alex saw Chris helping Mary out of the plane, looking off-colour, with Nathan following closely holding a pair of crutches, she looked at Vin in question. As far as Alex knew, Mary had gone back to New York, probably in a huff because Chris denied her request to join the expedition. Now in hindsight, she supposed she ought to have known better. There was no way Mary would ever take no for an answer, but by barging her way onto the trip, appeared to have become injured in the process.

"She stowed away," Vin shrugged.

"Oh God give me strength," Alex rolled her eyes, wondering why she was surprised by the stubborn recklessness of her best friend and hurried to join them when Mary, Chris and Nathan reached the hangar floor. "What happened to you? Aside from your boneheaded play of stowing onboard?"

"No comment," Chris deadpanned.

"Hey!" Mary scowled at Alex. "Spare me the lecture. I've suffered enough already."

"What happened?" Alex directed her question at Nathan, who would be best to give her the answer she wanted, not so much about the cause but the result.

"She got stung by a poisoned arrow," Nathan explained.

"Naturally," Alex shook her head, somewhat pleased with how well she took that outlandish snippet of intelligence.

"Honestly Alex," Mary grumbled, even though she made no effort to remove the arm Chris had securely around her waist. "I'm fine, you don't have to treat me like I'm some sort of helpless female."

"Yeah, you're ready for a marathon alright."

Chris wasn't about to let her go, not after how close he came to losing her back on that island. They'd spent three days at Madeira, with the seven aside from Josiah who had injuries almost as bad, scouring the length of the archipelago trying to find a way to save her life when the local physicians were baffled by her condition.

For the three days that almost felt like years, Chris watched the fever burn through her, nearly reduced to praying to God didn't see fit to take away another woman he loved.

+++++++

"Chris!"

Nathan's urgent cry made Chris completely forget what he saw when the Aegis did its worst on Isabella Krauss and her soldiers. Dropping the Aegis, now completely sheathed in its case, he hurried to the gully where Nathan and the others had gone to give the rest of the seven his warning to stay down and keep their eyes closed. When he reached the gully, his first thought was Josiah who was lying against the wall of the trench, his shirt stained with blood but it took a split second to see it wasn't Josiah that caused Nathan's panic. It was Mary.

She was lying across the ground, shaking like a leaf, her luminescent skin almost grey now. Oblivious to them, she continued to shiver, her body bouncing against the mud like animal twitching its last.

"I don't know," Nathan answered, forced to leave Josiah's side to deal with this new crisis. "One minute she was fine and then she started seizing like this. Christ, she's burning up."

How could she have deteriorated so fast? Chris could count how many minutes ago the woman was nagging in his ear, telling him repeatedly just because she needed his help with her injured leg, she wasn't a helpless female, before going on to explain all the things women could do now and she was thoroughly modern . . .

"Chris," JD's voice spoke up, interrupting that memory. The kid, like the rest of his comrades, had come to investigate after hearing Nathan's hollering. "If Mary was hit by one of the arrows used by the Gorgons, she might be poisoned by their blood."

"What?" Buck burst out. "Gorgons? As in real ones?"

Why was he surprised? Buck thought a second later. They had just escaped the Minotaur, why would the presence of a Gorgon be any more unbelievable?

"Yeah," JD answered the pilot. "There were two of them. Stheno and Euryale, you should have seen them . . . "

"JD!" Vin said sharply, able to see Chris was about to go off like a stick of dynamite.

"Sorry," JD apologised and turned to Chris, who was cradling Mary in his arms, appearing as helpless as they all felt at seeing the spirited woman in this state.

"Nathan, help her!" Chris demanded, unable to stand seeing her like this. She was no longer conscious of them, her eyes rolling so far back, all he could see were the whites.

"Chris, I don't even know what we're dealing with!" Nathan wanted desperately to help, but he had no idea how. Perhaps if he was a real doctor, he might have some idea what caused such symptoms, but he did not.

"There's gotta be something," Chris stared at him, unable to believe this pain in the ass could go out like this. She deserved better.

"Mithridatium!" JD burst out.

"What?" Nathan stared at him incredulously, perfectly aware of what JD was talking about. "Boy, are you crazy?"

Nathan knew what it was, of course. Anyone calling themselves a healer was aware of it. Mithridatium, a poison antidote created by Mithridate IV, almost two thousand years ago, had been concocted because of the king's deathly fear of poisoning. Legend had it, the antidote was capable of combating all forms of poison and had been used by physicians as late as the 19th century.

"What is it?" Chris demanded, willing to try anything. Mary's seizures were starting to wane, but she remained incoherent and pale. It was more than he could stand.

"It's insane," Nathan bit back. "We have no idea if it would work."

"Nathan, if she's poisoned by something ancient, then maybe what we need is an antidote just as old!" JD pleaded his case.

"Nathan," Ezra added his voice to the debate. "You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. At this moment, you have no idea of what is happening to her, and if young JD's suggestion can save her, why not?"

They were right, Nathan realised. They had nothing to lose.

"Alright," Nathan looked at Chris. "But if we're going to do this fool thing, we have to get back to the mainland right now. I have no idea how much time we have, and you don't make this stuff by going to the grocery store."

+++++++

Alex's eyes were wide as saucers at Nathan's revelation.

"You're joking. Mithriadatum? It's practically an old wives tale!"

"I know," Nathan agreed, "but it worked."

JD's suggestion required them returning to the Madeira as quickly as possible. Fortunately, when they returned to the Magellan, they found the craft emptied. The U-boat remained, but the Germans on board made no attempt to stop them. Riley suspected there was barely enough crew onboard to run the craft, let alone attempt to pursue them. The ship could hold no more than twenty-five crew and the numbers Vin, Josiah, Buck and Riley left on the beach had amounted to half a dozen, to say nothing of the souls lost to the Aegis.

Returning to Madeira, Josiah was quickly attended to at the hospital. While the older man's injuries were grievous, Nathan who knew all about keeping soldiers alive on the battlefield long enough to get to a hospital, ensured he was stabilised enough to survive the trip to Madeira. Mary's condition left the esteemed doctors at Madeira hospital baffled, with no idea how to treat her. She was suffering some kind of virulent infection burning her inside out, but no drugs they possessed seemed capable of fighting it.

In the end, it was left to the seven to source out the ingredients needed, from every apothecary, herbalist and botanists across the island. When the parts were finally located, all fifty-six of them which included exotic fares such as acacia juice, gentian root, cassia and frankincense, it was JD, the closest thing they had to a chemist, who mixed up the concoction in a honey base, with Nathan's help.

"Absolutely," Mary insisted as they made their way to Chris's car outside in the parking lot. "I'm fine now. Besides, I've had it with sitting still for so long."

"No, kidding," Chris rolled his eyes. "I hadn't noticed. You haven't shut up since you got on the plane."

"Oh God," Buck Wilmington groaned after he, Josiah, JD and Ezra made their belated exit from the Millie. Buck and JD helped Josiah down the steps, while Ezra made sure the man didn't take a tumble forward as he descended the short flight to the floor of the hangar. "Are you two still at it? Mating alligators don't go as hard as it as you two!"

"That bad?" Alex glanced at Buck.

"Enough to test the patience of any number of saints," Ezra remarked, just as sick of hearing the two bicker as the rest of his comrades.

"Hilarious Buck," Mary made a face. "You are off my Christmas card list."

Buck merely grinned that inane grin that always made Chris want to wipe off with his fist.

"Come on Josiah," JD said, leading the man out of the building with Buck continuing to flank him. "We'll drive you back to your flop."

"And I'll be staying over for a few days," Nathan added. "You can't be left alone in your condition."

The big man was taking careful steps ahead, hating to be so weak but unable to deny his condition did demand assistance for a few days at least. "You better not snore."

Before Nathan could answer, JD piped up as they continued out. "And maybe we can get that pretty school teacher to come to visit you. I'm telling you, she likes you, Josiah!"

"I swear," Josiah growled as they disappeared from view. "I'll shoot you."

Laughing as they watched the trio leave, Alex turned back to Vin and the others. "So, what happened with Miss Pemberton? Was she really a spy like you thought?"

All eyes shifted to Ezra at the mention of Julia Pemberton, the spy who so obviously captured his heart, and knew part of the reason for Ezra's melancholy on the return trip home, a rarity in itself, was because he was missing her terribly.

"She was nothing like what I thought," Ezra replied thoughtfully. "Nothing at all."

+++++++

"I guess this is it."

Three days and nights in Madeira had come and gone with them spending it in hospital rooms or scouring all manner of establishments, to locate the ingredients Nathan needed to save Mary's life. There had been no room to breathe, no time to think of what came next when everyone was fixed on that one purpose. As the group's chief procurer, Ezra had pooled all his resources to get what Nathan needed, because some of the fifty-six items require for the mithridatium was rather hard to come by. He couldn't even begin to imagine how Mithridates had managed to acquire them without the aid of the Air Postal service.

When it was all said and done though, Mary was on the mend and Julia revealed it was time for her and Riley to get back to England.

"I guess so Miss Pemberton," Ezra said, holding her hands in his, and wishing not to let go as he stared into those pools of emerald, wanting to be lost in them forever. They were standing at the local airport as she prepared to board an aircraft back to England, with Riley waiting a discreet distance away to allow them to say their goodbyes in privacy. "I must confess I find it most difficult to say farewell. I have become rather accustomed to your presence in my life."

Julia broke into a radiant smile. "You know," she leaned over and kissed him chastely on the lips. "For an American, you have the amazing ability to sound like a Jane Austen novel."

"Well, I am a man of good fortune," Ezra smiled, but it lacked its typical sardonic tone because he felt gloomy knowing she was going. The woman had been a staple of his thoughts for several months and while he had resigned himself to believing the reality would not be equal to the fantasy, meeting her in the flesh had proved otherwise.

"Surely not in need of a wife," Julia teased.

Ezra dropped his gaze to his expensive wingtips, "I would not say that."

She lifted his chin and smiled as their eyes touched. "I shall not be a stranger Ezra." She pressed his palm against the silk blouse she was wearing. "You are in my heart, Mr Standish, so I will never be far away."

"I have no idea how to contact you," Ezra stared at her. "And considering what you do for a living, I would like to know how you are faring, saving the world in your patriotic pursuits. Perhaps even put pen to paper to compose some suitable prose."

"You can send your letters to my family home. My father will see to it I get them." Julia answered touched by the affection she saw in his eyes and knew whatever this thing between them was, it was real, and it might even stand the test of their time apart.

"And I can expect any return correspondence?" Ezra asked, hopefully.

"What do you think?" She smiled and leaned in for a kiss.

As Ezra leaned forward to return her affection, he couldn't help but think his life had just gotten a great deal more interesting."

+++++++

"And the Aegis?"

The artifact over which this entire affair had begun was conspicuously absent from their conversation as the group left the hangar, ready to head back to town for a few days of well-deserved rest.

"Don't look at me," Mary shrugged, having asked the question repeatedly when she woke up days later in Madeira, when the worst of her fever was over and received a vague answer from Chris and upon further inquiry, learned none of the seven was eager to talk about it either. She had no idea what had taken place on the island, only that somehow they had managed to elude the Nazis to make it to the mainland in one piece. "They won't tell me anything."

"There's nothing to tell. We delivered it where it needed to be." Vin shrugged, and Alex could tell immediately it was far from the truth.

In fact, as she observed Nathan, Ezra and Chris, she saw a shadow over their faces, telling her that it was best to avoid probing further. After the incident with the Erran and the Tablet of Destiny, Alex concluded some mysteries should remain secret. Even though she would soon be a medical doctor, Alex would never be able to say with certainty, the world they saw every day, was the only one in existence.

"To the British Government?" Mary inquired because she was still recovering from her fevered state when Julia Pemberton had departed Madeira. Had she and Mr Riley taken the Aegis with them?

"No," Chris said firmly, the memory of what he had seen burned so deeply into his consciousness, he had made up his mind the second Isabella Krauss uttered her last breath, what he was going to do with the Aegis. "It's somewhere no one is ever going to get their hands on it."

Somewhere at the bottom of the North Atlantic . . .

From the height it was dropped, the Aegis struck the choppy water of the North Atlantic so hard, it created a sizeable column of froth and bubbles before vanishing into the sea.

Secured with diving weights, the Aegis remained in its leather satchel, never seeing the light of day as it plunged through the sky, abandoned by the Folker F20 in mid-flight. Once it reached the ocean, it sank fast, moving through the depths past the indifferent shoals of fish and larger predators who determined very quickly, it was nothing perfect to eat.

It travelled beyond the light, disappearing into the darkness where not even the sunlight penetrated, past the galleons of old, the forests of seaweed and the vast mountains no man could climb. Eventually, it passed from all thought into the deep contours of the world. The end of its journey was witnessed by a lone member of the Grimpoteuthis family, someday to be renamed after a fictional airborne pachyderm, when it landed on the seabed.

The creature displayed mild curiosity at the new arrival, pausing long enough to probe the leather with its stunted tentacles, before determining it was an excellent place to store her eggs when it was time to breed.

But that was for later. When she was ready, the Aegis would be waiting.

THE END

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