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The Magnificent Seven and the Tablet of Destiny
by Scribe

Alternate Universe: Relic Hunters


PROLOGUE: THE HEART OF ENKI

THE HEART OF ENKI
By Mary Travis

William Styles stared at the headline and tried to dispel the sliver of fear without much success. The articles found on the third or fourth page of the newspaper was hardly front-page news in a world where German nationalism was growing out of control and German Jews were fleeing the country in droves. The country was still in the midst of an economic disaster it was still trying to claw its way out of and even with the President's promise to put people back to work, America had much better things to occupy itself with than a foreign curiosity that was of interest only to history buffs or treasure hunters.

Tossing the paper aside, he tried not to think about the ramifications of that headline and knew he would not sleep tonight. As it was, the last six months had become an exercise in insomnia. The twilight hours saw him tossing and turning, unable to fall into a good, restful sleep because he feared the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head would finally drop. An old man shouldn't be afraid to die and yet he was. He was terrified.

Back in his youth, he had been fearless. Of their quartet, William was the one who encouraged the others to embark on their often ill-thought adventures. Donald Avery of Donnie as he was known to his friends, would tsk-tsk at him and try to offer a more reasoned course of action but in the end, William, who was handsome and charismatic won their companions over. Henry 'Hank' Conley would shrug and shift anxiously, adjusting the spectacles on the bridge of his nose before finally agreeing to it. This would lead into Orin Travis slapping him on the back and praising him for his sense of adventure.

Now only he and Orin remained and if they came for him, the burden of being the last would fall to Orin. He did not want to die but with the headline in the newspaper, their coming was inevitable.

Hank died six months ago, although some would say he had been gone for longer. The man's spirit had been broken years ago when his daughter and grandson were killed in a fire. Hank had been treading water ever since then. While there was every reason to assume Hank's fall down the stairs could have been simply an accident, William was not that certain.

Orin, who was always the practical one among them, told him he was being silly but then Orin always kept his head better than all of them. It was Orin who pulled him back when he was behaving recklessly. Even if Hank's death wasn't the cause of old age or foul play, William knew his death would almost certainly be an act of murder. In fact, he was rather surprised, they hadn't come for him already. Perhaps, they would try for Orin first. In any case, it didn't matter, they would still be coming.

With the Heart found, they could do nothing else.

With the discovery of the Heart, everything changed. The four friends who once went to Arabia on a treasure hunting expedition had gone blundering into the ancient world, without any idea what mysteries they were in danger of unleashing on the world. Like entitled Americans of their generation, they sailed across the sea, seeking adventure while intoxicated with tales of ancient cities and buried treasure. Not one of them spared a thought to their act of desecration as they planned to plunder the relics of civilisations ancient when Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

Embarking on an expedition with Sir John Evans who was going to Mesopotamia to make mineral surveys, to four young men, it sounded like the journey of a lifetime. Since none were married and all were in possession of a good fortune, it seemed like just the thing to occupy their attention until it was time to come home and take up the responsibilities of life.

What they found, was the ancient city of Ur, used for almost 4000 years as a necropolis.

There was treasure to go around as they looted the ancient corpses, laden with jewellery and gold, completely oblivious to the sacrilege they were committing because they were young and foolish. Then, in a chamber, so secret even when the city was young, they found a temple. In it was the mummified corpse of a priest of no religion they recognised, though their guide claimed it was the false gods who ruled the world before Muhammad. Dating to the Sasanian Empire, the crypt in which the priest was entombed, came with four slots for storage at each corner. It was Donnie who broke open one first and discovered what was inside.

Ironically, it was also Donnie who also died first.

They each claimed the booty of a slot, which ended up being an ancient cylinder containing a cryptex. Each cryptex was sealed, only to be opened when a final missing piece was found - the Heart. Once opened, it was claimed the cryptices contained knowledge to destroy the world. All four men scoffed at this and their guide shrugged away the indifference of Americans. Sailing home, without a care in the world, they returned to their lives in the four corners of America, meeting yearly during summer and winter to catch up on old times and relive past glories.

Two years after they returned, Donnie died.

Someone broke into his home and slit his throat, taking the cryptex. Donnie had been a father for less than six months, leaving alone his wife Eleanor with a young daughter named Julia. Only then, did the danger became real to them, if not the superstition around it, and they took steps to protect the cryptex in their possession. William didn't believe in prophecy but the fanatics who killed Donnie did and so each man hid the cryptices and was ever vigilant after.

They never spoke of the artifacts again, not even in private when they saw each other. When Hank passed six months ago, William assumed it was an accident until he realised the place where Hank stored his cryptex was broken into and the object stolen. Whoever murdered Donnie was still searching for the rest of the cryptices.

Now he understood why. The Heart was found.

William who became an expert in the cryptices the ancients called Pillars knew what this meant. The fanatics would be on the move again and while it might be superstition compelling them to fulfil their god Erran's bidding, William could not be so sure. Writing to his daughter Alexandra, presently at university in Pennsylvania, he told her his sorry tale and hoped if anything happened to him, she would know what to do.

More importantly, she had to ensure his piece of the puzzle would never fall into the hands of the fanatics who would use the cryptices to uncreate the world.

CHAPTER ONE: KPINGA OF CREATION

SOMEWHERE IN THE CONGO - 1935

"How on Earth, do I allow you to convince me to embark on these foolhardy escapades?"

Ezra Standish, who preferred to call himself Chief Procurer, (though his associates persisted in referring to him with the less dignified appellation of Scrounger), demanded as he stood waist-deep in a liquid reeking of aromatic spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, garlic while fingers of chilli and sprigs of mint drifted past him. As he awaited the answer from inside the earthenware pot that was large enough for him and his companion to occupy, more liquid was being poured into the receptacle, as well as what appeared to be whole onions, split eggplants and strands of long, green beans.

"Relax Ezra, this is just temporary," Nathan Jackson remarked, his calm a stark contrast to Ezra's somewhat agitated state. Leaning against the curved wall of the pot, he picked up one of the beans floating by and crunched down on it. As Ezra watched appalled, Nathan dipped the remaining half of the stalk into the liquid and tasted it. "Not bad. Needs more salt."

Ezra was aghast. "The salt will undoubtedly come when they boil the skin off our bones! You do realise we are the meat in this...this...vile stew!" He swatted an offending onion away, causing it to bump against the ceramic just as more liquid was poured into the pot. "When I agreed to play decoy, you assured me these people would welcome us as servants of Muluku! Their creator god! It was the only reason why I was willing to accompany you on this part of the plan!"

"Yeah because telling you the Mangbetu Tribe were cannibals was a sure-fire way to get you to come with me," Nathan grinned, swallowing down the last of the bean. "I ain't stupid."

Ezra glared at him. "You Sir have broken my trust!"

No sooner than he spoke those words, a fresh column of soup was poured through the opening of the pot, landing right on Ezra's head. Nathan bit the inside of his cheek, knowing that he really shouldn't laugh but he couldn't help it. Ezra, who always managed to look like he stepped out of a Hollywood magazine like Clark Gable, in his riding breeches, tailored shirt and waistcoat, not to mention boots, looked like something the cat dragged in and got rid of because it just looked too sorry.

"I blame you," he smouldered before taking a step back, away from any more descending columns of soup, he was meant to enhance with his flesh.

Wisely, Nathan managed to sidestep more vegetables being tossed into the pot, as they created splashes upon impact. Overhead, they could see the beauty of the African sky, cloudless and painted with different shades of cerulean. It was not quite noon and despite their current situation, had the makings of a nice day.

"Settle down Ezra," Nathan replied with a little smile, not at all concerned because this sorry incident was only a small part of a bigger plan. "If you get upset, it will just make the meat tougher and that might piss them off."

Ezra flung an onion at him. "Is that your attempt at humour? If so you are failing! How is it, whenever Mr Larabee requires a distraction of some sort, you invariably enlist me to aid you? And for some reason I cannot seem to comprehend, I always let you talk me into this insanity. When we were in Peru, I was the one who had to dress up like that virgin to charm the Chieftain."

"Yeah," Nathan tried to hide his smirk and failed completely. When the Chieftain had discovered Ezra was not, in fact, a lovely Amajuacas maiden but a man, the rest of the seven had believed their lovable gambler, scrounger and con man was done for. Except the Chief's taste actually went that way. And Nathan thought he had seen Ezra scared before. "Well you know, if you have given it up to the man, you would have been up to your ears in honey and mangoes."

"You have no shame," Ezra glared at him. "How can you be so calm when these people are preparing to eat us!"

Nathan let out a sigh, deciding to give the man a break. "Ezra, we'll be out of here as soon as Chris and JD gets to the Temple of Muluku and get the Kpinga. Not to mention, Vin and Josiah ain't gonna let anything happen to us. Besides," Nathan couldn't help but add, "they're just preparing the base. They haven't even put us over a fire yet. A pot this size? It's going to take ages to simmer."

"I admire your ability to make such distinctions," Ezra grumbled.

The Kpinga of Creation supposedly the blade that the god Muluku used to cut the tails of the monkey to create the first men, was awaiting a buyer in Rhodesia who planned on taking it to the British Museum. Other parties had been after the blade for years, largely because the hilt of the thing was meant to be encrusted with a veritable fortune in diamonds. In their hands, the stones would be picked clean and sold individually, destroying the cultural value of the blade. While the seven weren't being altruistic in their hunt for the object, they would rather see the thing preserved than destroyed.

And if they got paid handsomely for it, why not?

Suddenly the floor of the pot beneath them lifted and both men stumbled inside the large cooking receptacle while being sloshed around with the ingredients of the soup. Nathan managed to grip the edge and peek over it to see what was happening outside only to see the pot had been hoisted up with two carrying poles and being ferried to what looked like a pretty intense fire a short distance away.

Oh, Ezra was not going to like this...

+ + + + + + +

The chamber was fifty feet from the entrance down the winding staircase to the large doors, framed by stone panthers on the other side of the room. The ceiling was constructed of rock, with ornate circular grooves equally spaced across its entire length and breath. There was nothing in the room except cobwebs as large as curtains draped in corners and dangling from above. The floor was created from slabs of black marble, each with a faded shape that looked like a star on each tile.

While Nathan and Ezra occupied the Mangbetu with the first taste of human flesh they had enjoyed in a while, Chris Larabee and JD Dunne had slipped unnoticed into Muluku's temple to seek out the kpinga. The temple was old when the Nazarene was born and while the upper portion of the pyramid-like structure saw traffic by the Mangbetu, it appeared this section had been given a wide berth. The amount of dust on the floor and the stale air told Chris the natives stayed out of here.

Fortunately, there was a little light emanating through stone windows, which were little more than slots in the wall, but wide enough to ensure they were not completely bathed in darkness. It was just as well because Chris's sense of trouble told him this room looked too benign for his liking. After years of doing this, a room like this was like flypaper. It was made to be a trap. The trick was trying to decipher how to avoid it or end up dying horribly, usually in some brutal death trap devised by superstitious people determined to protect their god.

"What now JD?" Chris glanced at the young man behind him.

JD Dunne was on loan to him from the University of New Mexico. The curator of its museum, Orin Travis had decided if Chris and his team were going to hunt down antiquities on the institution's behalf, they ought to have the expertise of someone who actually knew languages and could decipher ancient codices. It was a shame the kid was going to have to go back to school soon because both Chris and Buck Wilmington had taken a real liking to him. Among the jaded treasure hunters that made up his team, JD was a breath of fresh air and Chris wanted to keep him around if only for Buck's sake.

"Okay," JD said trying not to appear nervous as he studied the ancient scroll in front of him, aiming the flashlight against the yellowed papyrus, studying the faded language on it. "According to this, to reach the Blade of Muluku, we must cross the great hall of heaven by following the spine of the cat."

"The cat?" Chris shot him a look. "What does that mean?"

"I'm not sure," JD stared at him. "I didn't even think they had cats around here. I mean lions maybe, but not cats?"

Chris lapsed into thought for a moment. "Okay, let's retrace until we can figure it out. I'm getting a sense of trouble about this room and I rather not find out the hard way what it's hiding."

"Hiding?" JD gulped, trying not to show his fear. Instinctively, his foot shifted backwards and scraped the tile behind him, without the young man realising it.

Suddenly, the sound of grinding rock screeched through the air, forcing Chris to spin sharply around on the slab he was standing on to see something shifting in the darkness above.

"JD!" He grabbed the young man by his coat and fairly lifted the young man off the ground a little so JD didn't touch anything else. A column of stone slid out of the circular grooves he'd seen on the ceiling, slammed into the place where JD would have stood like a battering ram. The impact against the stone was so loud, Chris swore he heard the slab crack like an egg. If JD had still been standing there when it came down, he would have been pulverized.

"You okay kid?" Chris asked as JD stared at the spot, almost ashen with shock.

"Yeah," he managed to nod a moment later. "I guess that's what the hall of heaven means." He replied but his voice was shaking.

"I'm fine," the young man spoke. "I guess that means we can't go backwards."

Unfortunately, the impact of stone against stone meant their covert entry into this place may have been lost, if the excited voices he could hear distantly was any indication. While Chris could not understand the language, the chatter becoming increasingly louder told the leader of the Magnificent Seven, they were about to have company.

JD who could also hear the same noise stared at him. "Uh, Chris..."

"Yeah," the Man in Black nodded. "We're about to have company."

Considering the Mangbetu's word for company also translated into ‘meat for stew', Chris decided it was probably best they were not present when the natives arrived. Fortunately, they had a narrow window of time because Chris was fairly certain the Mangbetus were prevented from entering this chamber by the same booby trap that almost claimed JD's life a moment ago.

"Okay," Chris faced front, ignoring the approach of the Mangbetu for now because they had a more immediate problem to deal with. "Read that last part for me again," He instructed, studying the room carefully, now that he was aware those grooves were, in fact, the base of stone plinths that would crush them if they took a wrong step.

JD nodded quickly and looked at the scroll again. "We must cross the great hall of heaven by following the spine of the cat. I didn't think they had cats around here. Lions and panthers maybe but not cats..."

"I don't think they meant it literally," Chris remarked, aware JD was still becoming accustomed to literal and symbolic translations after only a few months in the field with the team. However, the mention of panthers did get him thinking. He looked at the marble tiles they were standing on, all black, each with a star engraved in the rock. "JD, the spine of the cat, I think they mean the constellation Panther."

"What?" JD's eyes exclaimed as if a light bulb had gone off in his head. "I got it, Chris! A lot of Arabian influences filtered down to Africa, the Panther would be a Babylonian constellation they see in the winter months down this neck of the woods."

"Very good," Chris grinned. "Except we call the Panther, Cygnus. All right, I think I got this figured out."

Chris was grateful for his knowledge of astronomy, at least the constellations, was up to scratch. It was a skill he found useful when one was lost somewhere without a compass or a map. The knowledge of the stars had kept him from wandering aimlessly about in the middle of deserts and in one case a jungle in New Guinea infested with tribes that collected heads as trophies. Apparently, his blond hair was meant to be something of a prize.

Taking one step to the tile left of him, Chris waited to see if he was correct in his assumption that the constellation Cygnus was the way to get across this floor in one piece. When no heavy plinth dropped down on either of them to offer a crushing death, Chris assumed he was on the right path. He took another step forward and then another left, before turning right. Repeating the sequence for another three times, they finally reached the great door on the other side of the room.

The entrance led to a smaller chamber, this one no more than ten feet across, with a pedestal in the centre of it. Lying across it was the Kpinga of Creation. The blade was gleaming, even though it had been languishing here for Christ knew how long, to say nothing about the large, rune sized diamonds encrusting the hilt. Too many treasure hunters had found themselves food for the Mangbetu because of their lust for those jewels.

"Wow," JD exclaimed staring at the weapon. "It's really here."

"They wouldn't have gone through all the trouble of protecting it for centuries if it wasn't," Chris replied as they approached the pedestal. While the scroll that led them here said nothing about traps once they crossed the final hurdle, Chris wasn't taking chances. Reaching into his black duster, he pulled out a foldable pointer and extended it to its full length.

"Get ready to move when I tell you," Chris offered a warning as he used the pointer to push the blade off its stand.

No sooner than Chris had pushed the blade off the edge, causing it to clatter noisily against the floor, there was an audible snap of a mechanism and Chris saw the ornate grooves in the walls suddenly become pockmarked with small, dark holes. He had no more than a second to register this when he dropped to the ground at lightning speed, dragging JD with him. Thin wooden spikes flew out of the holes and across the room, embedding themselves in the opposite wall, intended to impale any thieves.

The spikes were sharp and lethal, no doubt laced with a toxin, Chris suspected. As both he and the young student lay crouched on the floor, Chris flashed him a grin.

"Better than a classroom, right?"

+ + + + + + +

Shrouded behind thick leafy shrubs beneath the shade of tall, equatorial trees with broad leaves, and ignoring the discomfort of too much humidity, Vin Tanner stared through the sight of his M1 Garand rifle, watching the Mangbetu hoisting the large cooking pot on two carrying poles towards a rather impressive fire, in the middle of the village. Surrounding the campsite where the cooking was to be done were at least thirty Mangbetu natives, chanting and pounding against hide drums, performing their version of ringing the dinner bell.

Vin was stretched across the moist ground, his rifle perched on its stands, watching the proceedings and caught a glimpse of Nathan peeking over the edge of the pot, undoubtedly surveying the situation he and Ezra were in. The action apparently annoyed their hosts who immediately launched a litany of abuses that sent the team's medic back into the pot again.

"Should we wait a little longer?" Vin asked. "Just to make Ezra sweat a little more." He couldn't help but say with a smirk. Knowing the man to the degree they did, Ezra was probably stewing already, without the need for a fire

"Probably not," Josiah Sanchez remarked, the older man was staring through a pair of binoculars in a different direction, watching a group of warriors making fast tracks towards a location he knew all too well. He could see a dozen Mangbetu warriors, carrying sharp spears and cruel looking Kpingas, hurrying towards the entrance of Muluku's Temple, meaning business.

From their vantage point, Josiah and Vin had remained undiscovered, prepared to perform their part of the plan, that is being the means to allow their comrades to escape when the time came. By the looks of Ezra and Nathan's situation, not to mention the hordes about to descend on Chris and JD, that time was now.

"Judging by what's happening at the temple, I'm guessing it's time to vacate the area." Josiah lowered his binoculars.

"You take all the fun out of things Josiah," Vin smirked, not looking at the man as he took aim with his rifle, squeezing off a shot. The explosion of sound was quickly followed by the even more prolific impact of the bullet against the huge earthenware pot. The bullet shredded on impact as he intended, its duty to crack the ceramic open like an egg. It did so spectacularly, spilling out its contents, being Ezra and Nathan, onto the earth below.

The destruction scattered the warriors around the pot as Vin took pulled the trigger again. This time, the bullet struck a nearby post, the sound causing more disturbance than the actual bullet. Vin saw no reason to kill anyone unless they tried to get in the way when Nathan and Ezra made a run for it.

Meanwhile, Josiah was making his own preparations to create further discord in the village as he loaded up the compact mortar shells into the barrel of the wonderfully portable Ordnance ML two-inch Mortar Launcher. Pulling the trigger on the weapon, the shell exploded from the snub-nosed barrel and obliterated one of the huts nearest the campsite. Wood and pieces of thatch roof flew in all directions, creating further pandemonium as the entire village descended into screams of fear and panic. Children were clinging to their mothers as angry men barked at each other, trying to determine the source of all this chaos.

Taking advantage of this confusion was Nathan and Ezra, who was running away from the campsite at top speed. When Vin saw their departure was noticed by a warrior about to throw a spear that would have landed in Nathan's back, he pulled the trigger and downed the man with one shot. The warrior collapsed with the spear in his hands and Nathan looked over his shoulder briefly to register the shot before looking gratefully in Vin's direction.

+ + + + + + +

The instant Buck Wilmington heard the mortar shells, the pilot of the plane they called Darlin' Millie, named after his sainted mother, immediately tossed aside the magazine he had been reading and rushed to the cockpit. If he knew his friends at all, when they came running out of the jungle on this strip of cleared land that served as a runaway, they wouldn't be alone. Slipping into the pilot's seat, he moved across the controls like a man with intimate knowledge of where everything was after years of practice.

Just like he did with women.

Buck glanced through the cockpit as the sound of mortar fire was followed by gunfire in the distance and tried to glimpse the others emerging from the tree line. He spared the action only a moment because as soon as the engines came to life with a loud roar and the plane's fuselage began humming with that familiar resonance he knew as well as his own breath, he had other matters to attend. Once the engines had reached crescendo, the sound of mortar and gunfire was eclipsed by the familiar whump whump whump of the propellers on either side of the craft.

Buck wasted no time getting the wheels moving as he directed Millie from where she had been awaiting the others. Directing the nose of the craft towards the length of the makeshift runway, the intensity of the gunfire told him they would be making a hasty escape. As the engines rumbled in patience, Buck continued to stare out of the cockpit window, hoping things had gone as smoothly as they hoped.

Oh, who was he kidding? These things never went according to plan.

The first to emerge from the trees was Ezra and Nathan. Both men were running for dear life and considering the shouts of anger, not to mention gunshots, Buck guessed there was a good reason for that. They were followed by Josiah who had his launcher hanging across his back, same as Vin, who had switched to the Winchester he insisted on mutilating with a saw, every time he got near one. Firing the mare's leg behind him as he ducked an arrow shot at him.

Everyone except Vin raced into the open door of the plane, practically jumping into the cabin.

"Where's Chris?" Buck shouted from the cockpit. In truth, Buck knew his old friend could take care of himself, it was the kid that the pilot was more concerned about.

"On his way!" Josiah replied as Vin stood by the door to the plane, waiting for the arrival of their leader and their rookie recruit.

No sooner than Josiah had said those words, Chris Larabee and JD Dunne bolted out of the tree line, running hard against the red dirt. Following too close behind them appeared to be the entire Mangbetu nation, crying bloody murder as they wielded spears and blades. Vin wasted no time opening fire, not aiming at anyone but giving them pause enough for Chris and JD to reach the plane. Vin continued firing, aided by Nathan, who had emerged with a machine gun and was firing above the heads of the natives.

"Come on!" Chris beckoned them once he and JD reached the aircraft.

Wasting no time, they rushed into the plane, with Vin pulling the door close behind him, just in time to hear the impact of spear points against the fuselage, not to mention the roar of Mangbetu closing in on them.

"BUCK! WE ARE LEAVING!" Chris demanded.

"Like a bat out of hell!" Buck shouted with a grin from the cockpit as the plane began to rumble forward picking up momentum as the landscape rolled by the cabin windows.

"Did you get it?" Josiah asked as the aircraft rumbled to safety.

"Yeah," Chris grinned, lifting the Kpinga for the others to see. The glimmer of jewels encrusting the hilt drew a response from small gasps to light whistles from those present. "All forty thousand dollars of it."

"Of course, if we simply decided to keep it..." Ezra who could not help himself had to remark.

"We made a deal Ezra," Chris warned.

"Of course, of course," Ezra shrugged perfectly aware of how intractable Chris could be about these things. Besides the money was not worth the reputation they would destroy if they were to double cross their client. "I was merely ruminating."

"Well ruminate after you get a bath," Vin who was standing next to the southerner remarked. "You smell like soup."

CHAPTER TWO:

PALOMAS

ALBUQUERQUE

NEW MEXICO - THREE DAYS LATER

The bar was called Paloma's, named after a fiery Mexican beauty who could stop her husband's heart with a smile and send cold chills of terror through him when he, unfortunately, inspired her fury. Although she passed a decade before the establishment of the bar, he missed her spitfire temper and chose to name it in homage to the woman who gave him the scar over his forehead after hurling a mug at him.

The bar was very much a throwback to the old days when New Mexico was called the Territory and small towns, now swallowed up by time and the desert, made up much of its landscape. With polished wooden floors, a solid walnut bar counter holding court over the room, and a mixture of seating that included comfortable armchairs and stools, it had a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere. There was enough illumination for clarity but soft enough to provide a smoky haze over the place. In the corner, a Wurlitzer belted out ‘Lulu's back in Town' while waitresses sailed across the sea of men carrying drinks.

This was a refuge for men who came not only for the drinking but also for the company.

Three years ago, following the Great Crash of ‘29, Paloma's owner Roberto was almost in danger of losing the bar and was rescued by a fresh infusion of cash from one of his regulars. For a 49 per cent stake and the agreement to remain a silent partner, Roberto was able to keep the doors open, much to the relief of its patrons. The future of the Paloma was assured with unspoken hopes no other calamity would befall the business to ever endanger its existence again.

"Did you know Roberto was sick Ezra?" JD Dunne, now back in civilisation, looked very much like the college kid he was, dressed in light pants and a shirt, with a sweater vest and two-toned spat shoes, asked Ezra Standish. Ezra, with the rest of the seven, were seated around the table, toasting the man whom they'd learned on their return from Africa, had died of a heart attack during their absence.

"Not at all," Ezra said sombrely, gazing into the amber cognac in his glass, deep in thought. The Seven's chief procurer as always looked too well dressed for this establishment. Appearing as if he stepped out of the pages of a magazine, Ezra always wore custom tailored suits, with silk shirts and ornate ties hanging from his neck in half Windsor knots. His waistcoats always stood out against the colour of his suit. Roberto often claimed he told patrons Ezra was some Hollywood movie star who wandered into the place and amused himself when they tried to figure out which one.

Ezra reflected on Roberto, a man who had come to mean so much to them since they began their association four years ago, with his dignified voice and his patrician features, always welcoming patrons with a smile on his face. "I always thought him immortal to tell you the truth."

"No one's immortal Ezra," Josiah frowned, just as saddened by the man's death from beneath his tweed cap. As always, Josiah wore his favourite Corduroy jacket with a shirt buttoned to the top, with dark pants, never caring for a tie to complete the ensemble. Closer in age to Roberto than most of his friends, the two often shared long talks at the bar about life and the changing world around them. They were two old war horses, trading stories about their past and the women in it. "Not even us."

"Well hell," Buck sat up straighter in his seat, stretching the turtleneck he was wearing as he leaned against the leather of the aviator's jacket draped on the back of his chair. "We know that old boy wouldn't want us behaving like a bunch of sorry heifers. He'd want us to drink up and remember what a fine man he was."

The rogue lifted his mug of beer and prompted the group, all save Chris and Vin who were meeting their client to deliver the Kpinga, to raise their glasses and offer Roberto a parting farewell.

"To Roberto!" Nathan declared. "A decent guy who made everyone feel welcome."

The former medic thought of how Roberto ignored the demands of some patrons who objected to a coloured man drinking in the same place as them. Even though he was dressed in a light suit with bow tie, looking dapper, they stared at him like he was nothing more than just another uppity coloured man. Those who argued the point were thrown out and when Nathan thanked him, Roberto had merely shrugged, indicating it was best he carry out the deed himself because Chris and the others would not have been as forgiving.

"I wonder what's going to happen to this place now that he's gone," JD said to the others.

For once Ezra remained silent because he was Roberto's secret partner. Three years ago, when the man was on the verge of bankruptcy, Ezra, who had accumulated a stipend from various business ventures decided to offer the bar owner the funds needed to escape his debtors. While Ezra owned 49 per cent of the business, with Roberto gone, he wondered if perhaps he ought to invest further and buy the place outright, if for no other reason than to keep the establishment as it was.

"So, do we have any idea what our illustrious leader has planned for our next jaunt?" Ezra inquired, deciding a change of subject was in order. "I hope it is somewhere with fewer opportunities for my person to become the main course at a local feast." He shot Nathan a look of accusation.

Nathan picked up his mug and took a sip of his beer. "Oh, come on," he grinned at the southerner, "it wasn't that bad."

"I beg to differ," Ezra sniffed, still thinking he could smell that awful soup instead of his Blenheim Bouquet cologne when he saw Chris and Vin entering the bar.

Chris Larabee always cut a distinct figure with his favourite black duster worn over his dark suits, with a black fedora perched on his head. In contrast, Vin Tanner looked very much like the rugged Texan he was, wearing his checked shirts and dark jeans, hidden beneath a tan skin coat, with cowboy boots and his favourite hat.

As they approached the table where the rest of the seven were presently seated, Ezra noted the slight frown on Vin's face while Chris, as usual, remained impassive. Ezra hoped nothing went wrong with the delivery of the Kpinga. He hated to think he'd ruined a good set of clothes for nothing.

"Chris, Vin," Buck greeted as they reached the table, "we were just toasting Roberto."

"As we oughta," Chris remarked as he pulled up a chair and gestured to the passing waiter to bring him and Vin their usual. "He was a good man."

Indeed, it was Chris who first chose this as their meeting place after he'd mined the five men from across the country when he decided to embark on his new venture. At the time, all of them except for JD were struggling to get by in the wake of the crash because 1931 had been a hard year for everyone. Chris who left his military career in 1930 following the death of his wife Sarah and son Adam, was on his way to becoming a full-blown alcoholic even though Buck had kept him from eating his gun.

A chance meeting with former commanding officer Orin Travis, now Curator of the New Mexico Museum of Antiquities, set him on a new path.

Tracking down his old comrades from K-Troop, the men he served within the 3rd Cavalry Regiment during the war, he found Vin Tanner in Texas, working as a ranch hand, after the Texas Rangers he had been riding with for five years reduced their numbers. Even worse was Nathan Jackson, a respected medic in the trenches of Europe, forced into mopping floors at a hospital in Topeka, Kansas to avoid the bread lines.

Buck who was one of the best Reconnaissance pilots of the Western Front, was flying crop dusters in California. To remain close to his institutionalised sister, Josiah made ends meet as a mechanic at a local garage in Colorado near the state-run facility. Ezra, Chris found in jail, which didn't really surprise the former cavalry captain. The man's penchant for scams during their years in the war, not to mention his skill as a conman made incarceration inevitable.

"So, I take it everything progressed as expected Mr Larabee?" Ezra asked, interrupting Chris's foray into the past.

"Yeah," Chris replied, meeting the gazes of the men who were looking at him expectantly. "Smooth as silk." He reached into his duster and withdrew the plain brown envelopes in his inside coat pocket and distributed them appropriately. "Five thousand a piece."

After almost three years of carrying out jobs of similar risk, everyone at the table except for JD was financially stable enough to see themselves through the decade if they chose to live conservatively and walk away from the life. The money was always divided equally with a portion allocated to pay for their equipment and supplies, which included the fuel for the Darlin' Millie, the Fokker F20 plane used to ferry them across the world.

"Then why does Vin look like he swallowed a bad clam?" Nathan asked as he slipped his envelope into his jacket without looking at its contents.

Vin scowled at Nathan. "I ain't looking like anything." He grumbled, unhappily.

"He's just sore because he's going to have to get prettied up tomorrow," Chris remarked, throwing the sharpshooter a look. "In fact, we all are."

"We going to a party?" Buck asked, the idea of party meant women and that always had Buck's unconditional support.

"Something like that," Chris replied picking up his glass of whiskey when it was served to him. "The Doc invited us to an opening at the museum for their new exhibit. Something called the Heart of Enki. Anyway, it's a formal thing and its tomorrow night. He asked us all," he shifted his gaze at Vin, "to come."

"Chris you know I can't stand getting into those monkey suits," Vin complained. "A whole evening of standing around and jawing with strangers."

"Hard to jaw when the last one of these things you were at, we had to drag you from where you were hiding behind that Egyptian statue." Nathan pointed out.

"I weren't hiding," Vin protested. Actually, he was but they didn't need to know that.

"Vin you got to learn to appreciate these kinds of parties," Buck remarked. "You get top shelf women and they're all prettied up, not to mention...."

"Liquored up," both Ezra and Josiah said in unison. "Nice Buck, nice." Josiah frowned.

Ezra found it strange that Doctor Travis would invite them to such a function. While the Curator had given their team its start, the man preferred to keep his treasure hunters away from the faculty. This invitation reeked of an ulterior motive in the gambler's opinion. "Mr Larabee, do you think that the Doctor might have another agenda for this invitation? It is out of the ordinary, you must admit."

"I'm almost certain of it Ezra," Chris replied, once again showing he was well ahead of them. "When I spoke to him on the phone this morning, he seemed like he had something on his mind."

"Well I guess there's only one way to find out," Josiah remarked. "We're going to a party."

+ + + + + + +

Doctor Orin Travis searched the room for the girl and wondered if she would accept the invitation and attend the opening tonight. Somehow, he suspected not. She was still grieving over William's death and Orin couldn't blame her. The relationship between father and daughter had been a thing to envy ever since William had lost his wife Yasmine during childbirth. Raising Alexandra on his own, William was the kind of father Orin had tried to emulate when raising his own daughter Mary.

If she did not attend tonight, he would have to seek her out or better yet send someone to act on his behalf in this matter. With William now gone, he was the last of them and he had better start making plans as to how he was going to deal with the situation.

+ + + + + + +

The first place Chris Larabee headed towards after arriving at the Arabian wing of the museum was to head in the direction of the artefact being showcased for the evening. For a change, the museum had acquired the artefact through a legitimate archaeological expedition and Chris was curious to see for himself, what was considered a significant Mesopotamian find. Dressed in the tuxedo he only wore these occasions, he had to admit, he did not have the aversion to tails that Vin seemed to have.

Indeed, as soon as they stepped through the doors of the museum, Vin had been itching to escape and find some unobtrusive corner of the building to hide. Chris had no idea why this surprised him of course. Vin had been forced to learn how to hide from his youth. First, from the, orphanage he escaped from, and later from the authorities at the end of the war when his real age was discovered, and he was still subject to return to that terrible place.

Vin had joined the army and was shipped out to the Western Front at the age of twelve. By the time he arrived in Europe, the war was a year away from seeing its end and there was still plenty of fighting. Chris had been furious at how some recruiter could look the scrawny child and somehow believe him old enough to enlist. Then again, after Chris saw the scars on his body, wondered if the same sentiment that made him ensure Vin remain in the regiment had moved a recruiter in the same way.

Nevertheless, Vin became a member of K Troop, first looking after the horses but eventually graduated into riding with the rest of the cavalry. He was good on a horse but what he did with a Winchester rifle was damn near beautiful. The kid was a natural sharpshooter and when the war's end approached, he and Buck resolved to keep Vin with them. Chris especially wanted Vin at his side, they shared a connection he didn't understand, a kinship that was not just fraternal.

Except for the instant they shipped stateside, the authorities swept in and took the boy without Chris realising it until it was all over. For more than a year, Chris did his best to locate the thirteen-year-old boy, aware Vin did not return to the orphanage. Finally, he had no choice but to give up the hunt and returned to his life, praying wherever Vin Tanner was, he was alright.

It was only years later, did Chris receive a letter from Vin who had joined the Texas Rangers, telling Chris he was alright and still alive. Vin had escaped the authorities shortly after they had retaken custody of him and made his way to New Mexico. Somehow, he had become lost in the Indian Reservation occupied by Navajo tribes and instead of ejecting the boy, the Indians had given him sanctuary. Vin spent five years in their company, safe from Federal authorities, and learned everything he could from the Navajo, including their tracking ability.

Emerging from the Reservation, Vin's skills as a marksman, his ability to track and his expertise on a horse made the Texas Rangers a natural fit. Although Chris wished he had been able to help Vin years before, the young man's natural resilience made his concern unwarranted. By that point, however, Chris was married with a child on the way and decided if Vin needed help, the young man would simply ask.

He should have known better.

Moving across the marble floor of the wing, he glimpsed the rest of the seven. Ezra was hobnobbing with a group of people, some of which he recognised as faculty from his visits here. While Nathan was engaged in conversation with Doctor Travis. Meanwhile, Josiah was at the bar getting a drink, probably because flutes of champagne were not up to the man's taste, while Buck was putting his most charming smile forward for a lovely brunette in a sapphire coloured gown with a low back. JD as always was filling up on the free food. The kid had a metabolism like a dozen runaway horses.

Reaching the artefact, he studied it for a moment beneath the harsh lighting and the glass case protecting it on its pedestal. The object was made of brass and gleamed under high polish. The marking was almost certainly Sumerian, the Sasanian period. It was shaped like a diamond with five sides, four of which were hollow and if Chris didn't know better, though it was somehow incomplete.

"It must be a change for you to see something here you and your team didn't have to acquire." A decidedly feminine voice said behind him.

Chris straightened up and turned around, about to respond when he found himself staring at what had to be the most dazzling female he had ever seen. She stared at him with captivating blue eyes, long golden hair, held in place by a brocade pin that glittered against her already lustrous locks. She was dressed in a gown of light pink satin which clung to every inch of her perfect figure. His throat went dry for a moment, as he collected himself.

"Collecting antiquities isn't a monopoly Miss..." Chris returned smoothly, his eyes drinking her in.

"You can call me Mary," she gave him a coy smile. "And you're Chris Larabee."

"Nice to meet you, Mary," Chris replied, gesturing to a waiter walking by with a tray full of drinks to make a detour their way. "So, you're interested in the Heart?" He shifted his blue eyes in the direction of the gleaming object beneath the glass case.

"In a manner of speaking," she said smoothly, and Chris thought he could listen to that voice all day, and night if he could remember how this whole charm thing worked. It had been a good while since he'd had to dust it off. "I'm covering it for the Albuquerque Journal, I'm a reporter."

Aw hell, Chris groaned inwardly. A news reporter. He knew the type. They were generally pains in the asses and Chris took a moment to debate whether she was worth the trouble. "Sounds like interesting work." He offered neutrally, still undecided and having to admit her perfume was making astonishing arguments in her favour.

"Well not as interesting as what you and your team encounter frequently I am told," she eyed him with amusement, aware he was somewhat taken back by her profession. Most men were. "In fact, I heard through my sources you recently acquired the Kpinga of Creation for an unknown buyer."

Chris frowned, not at all liking the fact she was privy to that information. How the hell had she found out? "No comment." He said plainly, his blue eyes issuing her a silent warning not to proceed any further.

Mary could care less. "I don't suppose you'd let me know who your unknown buyer was...?

"No comment," Chris decided, he wasn't about to be interrogated and started to draw away when he heard Doctor Orin Travis' voice.

"Chris, glad you could make it. You've met Mary?" His former commanding officer declared with a smile.

"You know each other?" Chris's eyes flared as he stared at her in accusation.

"Of course," Orin Travis looked affectionately at the golden-haired siren. "She's my daughter."

Daughter? Chris winced inwardly. It was official. God hated him.

+ + + + + + +

Pulling the hood over her head, Aisha stared into the sky and saw a thousand stars glittering in beautiful splendour against the dark indigo canvas. This land was so much like her home, she felt a hint of homesickness as she felt its dry heat against her skin. When this task was done, and she could leave this accursed country behind, perhaps she would return home and spend some time there. Of course, she knew it was not possible, not when there was so much to be done. Levelling the hood of her cloak over her head so that her face would be concealed in shadow, she looked over her shoulder.

The men in the alley were waiting for the word to proceed. Across the street, the museum lights were a beacon, drawing them forward. Cars rolled to a stop in front of the main entrance, depositing the rich in their expensive clothes and jewellery onto the red carpet leading up the steps. They emerged languidly, drawn to the festivities already begun. Standing over the men like the Sphinx watching over the Valley of the Kings, Kreston's fierce glare ensured they showed no signs of impatience.

They were Children of Erran and they knew discipline.

"Come," Aisha said looking at Krestos. "It's time. No one believes a museum would be the target of an attack so there is no constabulary present."

"With all those weak Americans, I doubt we will encounter much resistance." Krestos commented the cruel looking dagger at his waist, waiting to be blooded.

"As per my brother's orders," she said. "We will leave no one alive."

CHAPTER THREE:

SUGAR BABIES

Refusing to let anyone find him and drag him into the party, Vin Tanner took himself to the roof of the museum, convinced neither Buck nor Nathan would be determined enough to find him up there. It was bad enough he started to get heart palpitations when he and Chris were walking up the red-carpeted steps leading into the museum, surrounded by the fancy folk in their tuxedos and gowns, looking resplendent. He could imagine nothing worse than trying to make conversation with them. Though he barely had an education and was by no means stupid, Vin recognised his limitations.

As it was, he was near close to madness when Chris released him to his own devices, probably exasperated by the complaining Chris had been forced to endure on the trip there. Vin wanted to free himself of the neckband threatening to strangle him. The tuxedo he was wearing was one he was forced to buy for the last one of these things Chris made him attend, and he briefly entertained the notion of setting fire to the ensemble to avoid them in future.

Besides, Chris had Buck and Ezra to keep him company during these events, they didn't need him.

Reaching the top of the grey-walled staircase leading to the roof, Vin opened the door and stepped outside into the darkness. Above him, the glitter of stars in the night sky, as well as the balmy breeze moving across his skin, immediately relaxed him. He had no sooner crossed the threshold, when he saw a lone figure seated on the brick edging, taking in the view of the city surrounding the museum. With his excellent night vision and the presence of enough light from the full moon and the floors beneath the roof, his breath simply caught at what he saw.

With wavy black hair swaying slightly in the breeze across her bare shoulders of golden skin. Her lips were so full and luscious, they were almost ripe. Vin yearned to taste them until he was utterly sated. She had the loveliest face he had ever seen and the white halter neck gown she wore, clung to her body, accentuating every sensuous curve he wanted to chart. She was almost ethereal in her beauty, wearing such profound sorrow in her face, Vin thought it was just plain wrong for her to feel that way without someone holding her in their arms.

She jumped slightly at the sight of him, startled by the realisation she was no longer alone and stared in his direction.

"I'm sorry," he stammered an apology. "I didn't mean to scare you. I just came up for some air. I can leave if you want." Still, Vin made no attempt to retreat, because he really hoped she might let him stay.

Disarmed by his explanation, she relaxed a little and replied. "It's alright. I needed some fresh air myself. You can stay if you want."

Secretly cheering in triumph at this, Vin replied with a smile. "Thanks."

She gave him one in return and despite the sadness, he could see in her face, his pulse still quickened at her smile. Vin approached her cautiously, wondering what she was doing up here all alone. A woman like this was too pretty to be hiding away but then again, there was real sorrow on her face and it reflected at him in her warm, brown eyes.

"Tell the truth, I was trying to hide out up here," Vin volunteered as he sat on the edging next to her and was pleased when she did not move away. "I hate parties with people I don't know. Only here because my boss is a mean ol' cuss that likes to make me suffer."

"Really?" She smiled wider at that. "I'm not a fan of them either. I'm only here because I have to meet someone in the museum and I didn't care much for the crowds. There's nothing worse than trying to make conversation with blue bloods."

"Yeah, they're a little too fancy for me," he admitted and hoped whomever she was meeting here, wasn't a date. "You meeting your fella or something?"

Inwardly, he groaned. Subtle Tanner, real subtle.

Fortunately, she didn't seem to notice. "I'm meeting an old friend of my father's." When she spoke that last word, her bottom lip quivered, and Vin knew immediately, the reason for her sadness. The man was gone and by the intensity of pain he saw in her eyes, he guessed not too long ago.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly.

She raised her eyes to him, surprised at his ability to guess by that one word, the source of her anguish. Studying him for the first time, she was drawn immediately to the cobalt coloured eyes drinking her in. He was handsome, almost bordering on beautiful but there was enough ruggedness in him to leave no doubt of his masculinity. He appeared very dapper in his tuxedo even if he seemed terribly unassuming and she suspected a little shy.

"Thank you," she replied, almost as quietly, blinking away the moisture in her eyes. "I'm still trying to get used to it."

For once, Vin thought the stupid handkerchief poking out of the top pocket of this monkey suit had some use and he fished it out and offered it to her. She accepted it without a word, lifting it to her lovely face before dabbing away at the tears that formed in her eyes.

When she composed herself, she handed it back to him. "Thank you. Is your boss going to be angry you've sneaked away like this?"

"Nah," Vin shrugged. "Once he got a look at the free booze, he forgot all about me. Prohibition was real tough on him, he still hasn't gotten over it."

She managed a laugh at that and Vin thought she was radiant when she did so and wanted to listen to that sound all day. "I'm Vin," he introduced himself. "Vin Tanner."

"Alexandra Styles," she offered him her hand, "but you can call me Alex."

Vin took her hand and immediately felt electricity in her touch. Her eyes shifted to his for a moment and Vin knew instantly she felt it too. A lightning bolt passed through his skin, riding the currents in his veins to pierce his heart in an instant. For a second, they just stared at each other and the walls between them became soft and translucent as if some cosmic mechanism knew the barrier was not needed.

She withdrew her hand and Vin could see she was affected by the slight shift of colour in her skin, unnoticeable to most but he had spent enough time in the company of Indians to recognise the signs of a blush. The thought made him smile, glad he wasn't the only one who felt his world had just suddenly turned upside down.

"I suppose if we're not going to go down there," Alex said turning away from him and revealing a previously unnoticed clutch purse lying against the brick. "We should at least eat something." Snapping it open, she reached inside and produced a small box of Sugar Babies. I call this hideout food."

Vin laughed, liking the absurdity of it as he watched her pull the tabs on the box open, before tilting it in his direction. "Finally, some real food."

"Oh yeah, I should have brought a Cola but there was nowhere to stash it in this dress."

Thank Christ for that, he thought because she looked perfect in that gown. "I wish I have known coming up here. I would have hidden a couple of beers away for us."

"Now I could use one of those," she admitted as she popped a sugar baby into her mouth.

"Really?" Vin stared at her a moment before clearing his throat, never being able to do this well and wishing he'd paid more attention to Buck Wilmington when the man was on the make. "We could leave here and go get a drink?"

His nervousness while making the invitation was so endearing, Alex could not help but smile. In fact, she was rather, surprised by how much his presence receded the despair she felt. "Well I need to go see Professor Travis but after..."

"You know Professor Travis...." Vin started to say when suddenly, he caught sight of a group of people crossing the street, heading towards the front door of the museum. Even from five floors up, Vin knew they weren't the rich folk or faculty types attending the party this evening. They were all dressed in the same red robes, with a decidedly Oriental cut to them. The closest comparison he could make was a resemblance to some of the traditional clothes he'd seen worn by the Turks during the war.

"Who are they?" Alex asked, observing the odd cadre of red-robed figures heading towards the museum, uncertain what she was seeing but judging by the suddenly serious expression on his face, they were anyone she would wish to meet. Suddenly, the shy and unassuming demeanour he projected earlier, vanished and he was someone different. He was someone who surveyed the scene like a hunter, supremely confident.

"I don't know," Vin said quickly. "But they're armed." They were carrying an assortment of blades, not just knives but scimitars and were heading straight for the museum. Worse than that, there was at least a dozen of them and Vin had a sneaking suspicion, they would make short work of the security guards in the building.

"What do we do?" She asked worriedly, guessing by the tone of his voice, he might be someone who knew what he was doing.

"Come on," he took her hand without thinking twice and scanned the top of the roof, sighting the fire escape almost immediately at the edge of it. "We're getting down to the street," he said as he started leading her there. "If we go through the building we might get caught in whatever's about to happen. You call the law and I'm going in there."

"What?" She halted in her high heels. "You could get hurt."

"It's okay," he gave her a little smile trying to assuage the fear he saw in her lovely face. "I won't be alone."

+ + + + + + +

"I'm so glad you two finally met," Professor Orin Travis, who once commanded a regiment in the Great War, but now presided over the New Mexico Museum of Antiquities, said with a smile as he saw Chris Larabee eyeing his daughter Mary with suspicion. Considering what Mary had said privately about the treasure hunters he employed to collect artefacts from around the world, he imagined the conversation preceding his arrival would not have been a pleasant one.

"I've been looking forward to it," Mary said to Chris with a smile, finding the man quite intriguing, even if his reputation in archaeological circles bordered between grave robber and heroic.

"You have?" Chris eyed her suspiciously, uncertain if that was a compliment or not.

"Yes, dad has been talking so much about you, I was frankly quite curious," she offered her father a little smile, while the Professor eyed her with knowing smirk. He knew when she was baiting her hook.

"Nothing to know Mary," Chris said smoothly, curious as to what Orin said about him and his team. They had been friends since the war and Chris would always feel kindly to the man who gave his life purpose when it could have so easily gone bad, following Sarah and Adam's death. Travis had given not just him, but the rest of his friends from K Troop a new lease on life.

"I beg to differ. I find your adventures very exciting," She looked at him and Chris swore she was batting her lashes at him in preparation for some terrible thing he could not see until it was too late. "Actually, I was wondering if I could accompany you on your next expedition."

Chris who had chosen that moment to take a sip of champagne, choked.

While Mary stiffened in annoyance at the reaction, the Professor only stifled a smirk and wondered if he ought to take a step back to escape the tidal wave of feminist outrage about to come down on Mr Larabee.

"No," was all Chris could manage when he composed himself. "Not a chance in hell."

"Any why not?" Mary demanded, her cheeks reddening in indignation. "I've travelled to war zones Mr Larabee, I am certain I can hold my own during one of your little expeditions."

"Little?" Chris stared at her. "Where exactly do you think we go? This isn't a trip to Bloomingdales you know..."

"Mr Larabee that is sex...."

"Mary, Chris," Orin decided to intervene because there were too many sharp objects in this wing to allow this conversation to progress any further. "I did ask Chris here for a business matter, so perhaps we should discuss this subject at another time."

"Dad you are deflecting." Mary declared.

"No, he's saving your ass," Chris deadpanned and then winced because it was not appropriate to speak to a woman that way in front of her father.

Whatever Orin might have thought was interrupted by the sudden eruption of screams of women from the other side of the room. Chris immediately followed the sound of the commotion and saw the arrival of a dozen or so strangers in crimson robes, carrying cruel looking eastern blades. The screams had come because the first thing they had done upon entering the room, was to kill the security guard on watch. Kill might have been too light a word. Behead was probably more accurate Chris thought as he saw the headless corpse lying against the marble floor and God only knew where the head had gone.

Chris immediately searched the place for his men. Buck, Ezra, JD, Josiah and Nathan came into view, scattered across the room. None of them were armed, save maybe Ezra, but it appeared their intruders were only carrying blades and that was something a bunch of ex-cavalrymen could deal with. And they had better do it fast because judging by the way these robed intruders were behaving, slashing and hacking away with absolutely no impunity, Chris guessed quickly they intended on killing everyone here.

"Mary, Professor," Chris turned to them. "Is there another exit out of this place?"

"Yes," Orin nodded quickly.

"Get everyone you can through that exit," Chris ordered. "I'm guessing if they haven't sealed off the doors yet, they will."

With that Chris left them just in time to see Buck entering the fray, using a chair to fend off an attacker coming at him with a viciously curved blade. The big man who towered over his opponent, had no difficulty driving the robed assailant backwards with the chair he was carrying, hindering the sword by the steel frame. Seeing their companion was encountering resistance, another robed figure closed in on Buck, intending to get around him. Fortunately, JD was there at the pilot's side, tossing a stone bust from its pedestal that landed on the attacker's side sending him sprawling.

Chris wondered as the thing shattered on the floor if JD had any idea he just destroyed a three-thousand-year-old statue.

A sharp scream caught his attention, making Chris turn away from Buck and JD only to see a man staggering backwards after one of the intruders had run him through with a scimitar. As he crashed into the floor, the intruder advanced on the woman beside him, whose face was contorted in anguish implying a personal connection, a wife perhaps. Fury bubbling inside of him, Chris picked up a bottle on the table he passed by and came up behind the son of a bitch, smashing the bottle hard against the intruder's skull. He went down without any sound except glass shattering. Chris picked up the weapon in the murderer's hand and turned back to the fray.

Elsewhere, Ezra Standish was armed. He didn't go anywhere without his derringer and while the weapon contained only two bullets, it would serve. He looked across the room and saw Nathan who himself, was handy with blades, flip one of the robed assailants over his shoulder, the sudden impact against its legs, collapsing the table he landed on. Ezra's eyes widened seeing one of the brigands closing in on the medic from behind and without thinking twice, the gambler unleashed the derringer and promptly blew a hole in the man's head. Blood splattered across the column and the sound of the gunshot, the equalizer in any sword fight, brought the entire room to a halt.

All eyes turned to him, including those belonging to a behemoth that stood almost a head taller than Buck, armed with a scimitar, making a beeline for him. For some reason, Ezra had the feeling that the bullet was going to have all the effect of tossing a baked bean at a charging rhinoceros.

He took aim again, hoping that a well-placed bullet would put down the man but as he fired, the enemy moved with lightning-fast reflexes, despite his size. The bullet smashed into a column, sending chips of mortar in all directions before the man, whose dress reminded Ezra of an Arabian genie, loomed over the gambler with nothing less than menace in his obsidian sculpted face

"I do not suppose we can discuss this matter," Ezra asked, trying not to gulp at the size of him.

"It would be a short conversation," Krestos replied, his voice gravelly.

"I feared that might be your response," Ezra remarked and threw a punch which the man caught easily in his meaty fist and began to squeeze, crushing fingers whose dexterity the gambler would miss. While the derringer did not hold any bullets, the weapon was still solid enough to be useful. Smashing the thing against the behemoth's jaw, the steel was enough to make him feel it, and Ezra wrestled his hands-free, just in time to see Josiah barrelling into the enemy.

The one-time seminary student who found it hard to turn the other cheek, slammed into Ezra's attacker, using his considerable bulk to drive both of them into the buffet table, upending everything on it with a loud crash. Ezra moved to intervene, certain Josiah was going to need help. He searched for a weapon and found a tall, light stand and prepared to use it when suddenly, another robed assailant came rushing out at him. Bracing himself to fend off the business end of a scimitar, suddenly a drink card rolled unexpectedly in front of him and toppled the man over.

Turning towards the direction of where the untimely assistance had come, Ezra saw a petite redhead, with copper coloured locks and the most astonishing emerald coloured eyes, giving him a wink before he heard movement behind him and turned his head, anticipating of an attack. As it turned out, it was Mr Larabee going blade to blade with one of their intruders. Unfortunately, when he turned back to the woman, she was gone.

+ + + + + + +

Reaching the street, Vin and Alex could hear the commotion emanating from inside the museum, in particular, the screams. Unfortunately, there was no comforting sound of sirens whining in the night which meant, no one had yet to raise the alarm or were able to do so. Wasting no time, the sharpshooter made his way to Chris's parked car. Even as they made their way to the parking lot, Vin was searching for a phone booth and could not see one in sight.

"What are we doing here?" Alex asked as she followed Vin to the rear of the car, struggling to keep up on her heels.

Vin did not answer until he opened the trunk and what was in it was self-evident. Helping himself to the shotgun and ammo, one of the small selection of weapons Chris kept in his car, he straightened up to see Alex staring at him in suspicion.

"What exactly do you do for a living?"

"We're treasure hunters," Vin said hastily, going to the front of the car and pulling the door open.

"That's a real job?" She stared at him as Vin popped open the glove box and found Chris's revolver and spare shells.

"Real enough," Vin replied and straightened up to face her. "Here." He took off his coat and covered her shoulders. "Go see if you can find a telephone and get the cops here. I'm going back in there."

Her earlier suspicion now gave way to concern. "But..."

"I'll be fine," he assured her. "We still gotta get that drink."

Vin started to draw away when he suddenly felt her tug at his arm. He had no sooner turned back to her when he found himself on the receiving end of a soft, tender kiss of farewell. For a few seconds, the world was forgotten and all he could feel was the silk of her lips and her scent threatening to cloud whatever sense he had. Fortunately, before it could make him completely useless to Chris and the others, she pulled away.

"Be safe" she softly"

Grinning as he pulled away, Vin felt like he could take on the world after that kiss. "I gotta, we still have to finish those sugar babies."

CHAPTER FOUR:

UNEXPECTED RESISTANCE

It had been almost seventeen years since Chris Larabee had last held a cavalry sabre in his hand but it was good to know he hadn't lost his touch, even if his weapon at present was an Arabian scimitar. Fighting one of the robed assailants who was intending on slaughtering yet another innocent guest of the museum, it took him only a few seconds for old habits to kick in and he was giving as good as he got.

Defending himself, he blocked the attacking blade and used his physical strength to shove his opponent backwards, across the floor. Around them, pandemonium continued and Chris hoped the others were holding their own. They were outnumbered by these robed devils who were not here to take hostages if the bodies piling up on the floor were any indication.

Ducking as the enemy swung his blade high, Chris dodged the swipe easily and took advantage of his opponent's wild swing to plant a foot against the man's knee. He went down hard, landing on the marble tile with enough force to groan in pain. Chris didn't waste time with the formalities and immediately swung the scimitar, a most unforgiving weapon when wielded correctly. The slice across the man's throat ended their duel once and for all as the severed jugular vein spurted blood in thick, fast flowing rivulets. Shock filled his face as he clutched his throat, his eyes meeting Chris's briefly at the dying to come.

Not bothering to see if the man was capable of offering any further threat, Chris looked around and saw his comrades were still on their feet. Josiah and Ezra were collectively battling a giant who stood taller than Buck, while Nathan, JD and his oldest friend were defending the museum guests unable to reach the alternate exit to make their escape. In fact, as he looked over his shoulder at the guests who were heading in that direction, Chris caught sight of something else amidst the insanity around him.

A woman was walking towards the display and judging by her attire, she wasn't one of the guests. With the hood of her cloak hanging behind her, she was Arabian, with olive skin and dark hair. She walked across the floor unconcerned by the chaos taking place around her, heading straight for the exhibit that was the reason for this entire gathering. Chris saw her approaching the glass showcase, her expression determined and immediately deduced the reason for this carnage was the Heart.

Without thinking twice, Chris crossed the space between them, determined to stop her from doing what he was certain she was about to. He reached her as she struck the glass with what appeared to be a small rock hammer and shattered it. Fragments rained down around the bronzed artefact as the sharp, crashing sound became lost in the screams, the clanging of blades against makeshift weapons and breaking furniture.

Chris came up behind her and grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around before she could reach a hand laden with bangles and ornate rings on the fingers, to steal her prize. She was exotic and beautiful but her brown eyes stared at him with clear menace. Despite the interruption to her act of thievery, she showed no signs of fear at his presence.

"Who the hell are you?" Chris demanded, his hand fastening onto her shoulder.

Suddenly, moving with far more reflexes than he gave her credit, she upturned her palm in front of him and blew something powdery into his face. Chris pulled back to avoid the pink cloud but he wasn't fast enough and whatever he breathed in, was enough to disorientate him immediately as the room around him began to spin. He tried to regain his balance but even the floor seemed to become fluid, the tile swirling around his ankles while the serrated edging suddenly looked like sharp teeth.

He raised his head and tried to focus, aware she was coming at him with a jambiya, a curved eastern blade, but his ability to defend himself was lost when everything about him spinning, with her approach being the only constant. Raising his blade to try and defend himself, he saw her lips part in laughter, absolutely confident he was no threat to her. Her laughter sounded like the warning drums of doom. She was going to kill him and Chris had a sneaking suspicion he wasn't going to be able to stop her from doing it.

"Hey, that's not very nice!" A new voice spoke suddenly, smooth and silky, dragging across his skin like satin.

The woman turned around and Chris saw her head snap back as she caught a punch squarely in the face. She stumbled backwards, the jambiya flying out of her hands, sliding across the floor after it touched the ground. Standing in front of him, was Mary Travis, her fist balled. Her eyes touched his and Chris swore he saw a look of concern before her attention return to the matter at hand.

The other woman shook her head, trying to clear the effect of the punch and rushed at Mary, even as Chris dropped to his knees. He opened his mouth to warn Mary but the blond who was apparently no longer in heels, hiked up the skirt of her dress, showing dynamite legs by the way, and threw a powerful sidekick that send the other woman sprawling. Dropping her skirt, Mary raised her fists and Chris realised, she may actually know how to fight. Even in his disorientation, one thought crossed his mind.

There was going to be no living with her after this.

The woman came at Mary again but this time, Mary did not have to fend her off alone. JD who had been across the room had seen Chris in trouble and reacted immediately, running into the fray without a thought. The young man grabbed a drinks cart and shoved it at the woman, mostly because he had no stomach to use his fists on her. She let out an indignant cry as she leapt out of the way, before it crashed into a column scattering glasses and bottles across the floor.

"Watch out!" Mary called out to the young man. "She's got some kind of powder!"

JD nodded and immediately reached for his pocket pulling out a handkerchief and tying it around his face, looking like a bank robber. The woman realising, she was at a disadvantage hollered for help, drawing the attention of her robed comrades in their direction. Meanwhile, Mary had turned back to Chris, grabbing a pitcher of water from one of the still standing tables and hurried to the leader of the Seven. Without warning, she threw the entire contents at his face. If only she remembered there was ice in it.

"Fuck!" He cursed, pelted in the face with ice cubes as well as being soaked to the skin.

"Sorry, but you need to snap out of it!" She shook him by the shoulder. "They're here for the Heart!"

Chris blinked and wiped the water from his face, the irritation at being splashed was washed away by the clarity it left behind. The cold water had given him the shock to the system he needed and he got to his feet, shaking away the last of the disorientation to see JD jumping back to avoid being disembowelled by one of the robed attackers, armed with a scimitar. Meanwhile, the woman was making her way towards the showcase again, determined to get the artefact.

"Get the heart!" He ordered Mary. "I'll deal with this."

"Right," she nodded and hurried away from him, running in her stockinged feet towards the ruined showcase.

"Stand aside," the woman ordered when Chris confronted her, mindful of JD's situation. "The Heart belongs to us."

She raised her hand but before she could repeat her action of drugging him again, Chris grabbed her wrist and yanked her forward. Before she could do anything to stop him, he slammed his forehead against her and knocked her out cold. She slumped to the floor soundlessly.

"Not today," Chris said to her and went to help JD.

+ + + + + + +

Elsewhere Josiah barely avoided being cut in half by the scimitar wielded by the tall, monolith of a man coming at him. Despite the man's bulk, he moved fast and Josiah had to admit, having some difficulty in staying away from him. The last swipe had cut through the fabric of his shirt until the former seminary student felt the blade scrape against his skin. Ezra was making a valiant effort offering the man a distraction, jabbing the business end of a light stand at him, using the jagged edges of the bulb still attached to it, as a kind of spear.

The man grabbed the thin neck of the stand and lifted Ezra of his feet, before swinging him across the floor. The gambler slammed against a column and Josiah winced hearing the pop in the man's shoulder. Ezra uttered a cry of pain, compelling Josiah to grab a chair and fling it at the big man. The enemy turned just as the piece of furniture came at him and slashed at the chair, halting its advance with a clang of metal. He swatted kicked the chair aside and rushed Josiah, wrapping thick arms around Josiah's waist and lifting the one time would be preacher off his feet, until Josiah's boots dangled off the ground.

"I will snap you in half for interfering with the will of Erran!" He growled.

"Now that's unfair," Josiah grunted, feeling the pain as his kidneys were crushed against his spine. "I would never interfere in anyone's spiritual beliefs!" As he uttered those words, he brought his head down against the man's nose and felt bone snap.

Krestos felt the pain radiating across his face and released the infidel as he reeled in pain. This entire situation had gone badly. They had entered this place expecting no resistance from the soft-bellied, rich infidels who were indulging in their decadence while lording over the plunder of other civilisations. However, they were not only encountering resistance but formidable combatants who had killed many of their numbers. Worse than that, he could not see Aisha and knew if any mischief fell upon the Shah's sister, his rage would be murderous.

Suddenly the booming sound of a shotgun burst over the already deafening rumble of chaos inside the room. Josiah who had dropped to his knees as his opponent retreated from the shattered nose, saw Vin Tanner running the room, a shotgun leading the way. The sound that captured all their attention was one of the robed figures getting in the way of a shotgun blast. The force of it threw the man a few paces across the room, crashing into a table amidst the scream of the woman who had taken refuge beneath it.

Putting down the assailant had given Nathan enough breathing room to reach Vin who immediately handed the medic a revolver, no doubt from the arsenal they all knew was stashed in the trunk of Chris Larabee's black Hudson Essex Terraplane. No sooner than Nathan had the weapon, the assailants began to scatter and the tall black man, Josiah had been tussling with, who made him feel quite puny, recovered enough to realise the odds were rapidly shifting out of the intruders' favour.

He seemed to scan the area and rested his gaze on a woman, who was starting to get on her feet where she had been lying on the floor a second earlier. Nearby Chris and JD were fighting a group of robed figures even as gunfire opened. The enemy growled in fury, ignoring his bleeding nose and grabbing the sword that had fallen away from his hands, prepared to cut to pieces anyone who approached. Ezra who was still leaning against the column that gave him his dislocated shoulder made some effort to pick up the light stand but was hampered by his injury.

"Chris!" Josiah called out in warning across the way.

Vin who was reloading when he heard Josiah's cry, shifted his gaze sharply towards Chris Larabee who at the moment was battling it out with one of the intruders, going blade for blade, while JD was fending off another attacker with the broken leg of a table. While the younger man was fighting off the ferocious attack admirably, it didn't take any genius for Vin to see he was a little out of his depth, unaccustomed to fighting this way. JD who was mostly into book learning until the Professor signed him up with them, did not have the experience to fight off a more experienced opponent indefinitely. The kid was great with a gun but hand to hand was something he was still learning from Buck and the others.

Behind him, the crack of gunfire was scattering the enemy and Vin looked over his shoulder to see some of them in retreat, but not all. Jumping over a downed chair, Vin landed next to another body and felt his stomach hollow at the victim, a young woman hacked to death on the ground. It made him doubly glad he sent Alex to get the law. Once again, the memory of her kiss flashed in his mind and Vin brushed it aside abruptly before it got him killed.

One of the robe intruders got in his way as Vin reloaded, bringing down a scimitar against his skull. Vin used the barrel of the shotgun to block the strike while at the same time, kicking out his foot landing on the man's sternum, shoving him backwards. No sooner than he went reeling, Vin lowered his gun, snapped the barrel back in place and pulled the trigger. The man died when he landed on the floor. The powerful blast of the shotgun jolted the remaining assailants into realising they were now at a disadvantage.

"TARAJUE!*"

The leader, the tall man that stood as solidly as ebony, shouted on top of his lungs and while Vin didn't exactly know what was being said, guessed a general retreat might have been called. The enemy hurried to a woman who was getting to her feet. Instead of leaving, however, appeared more interested in what had been in the broken showcase. Fortunately, it appeared whatever the thing contained was gone because he saw the anger in their faces at its absence.

+ + + + + + +

"Are you alright?" Krestos asked with concern, seeing the blood on the Ameera's face and flinching because of it. The Shah was not going to be pleased to know his younger sister was hurt.

"I am fine," she said abruptly and saw the bodies strewn across the floor. There were too many of their own lay dead and the Heart was gone. There was no time to search for it now. Not when the cursed infidels who had involved themselves in their business had intervened to such disastrous results. "We must leave. We'll find another way to retrieve the Heart." Aisha was certain it had been taken by the golden-haired witch who attacked her like a savage brute.

Another gunshot drew their attention and Aisha knew getting through these men, now that they were armed would only cause more of the Erran their lives. Reaching into her cloak, she produced a glass orb and shot Krestos a look. "Be ready to move!"

Aware of how useful her concoctions could be, he nodded in understanding and gave her leave to proceed, confident he would act when she gave them the opening. She flung the orb against the floor, where it shattered spectacularly, momentarily eclipsing the gunfire. As it broke, the grains of purple within when exposed to the air, turned into a cloud of thick, blanketing smoke. The cloud spread out across the floor and throughout the room, obscuring everything in sight. More screams followed and brought an abrupt halt to the gunfire.

"TARAJUE!*" Krestos shouted again.

It was time to leave.

+ + + + + + +

Alexandra Styles had managed to get to a phone booth where she made the frantic call to the police and reported that the New Mexico Museum of Antiquities was under attack by a group of unknown assailants. Once she completed the task Vin Tanner set for her, she walked back to the Hudson parked across the street from the building, still wearing the coat he had so gallantly offered her before he ran off to confront those men.

As she pulled the tuxedo jacket closer to her, she took in the slight fragrance of his aftershave against the fabric and for some reason, it brought a little smile to her lips, which did not at all fit the melancholy by which she began the evening. When she first came to the museum to meet Orin, she had done so because he was one of her father's oldest friends and Alex had a friendship with Mary, Orin's daughter. In her youth, Alex and her father had spent summers with the Professor and his family. His wife Evelyn, was always kind to Alex, knowing it was hard to grow up motherless.

If it were not for that precious relationship, Alex would have stayed home, wallowing in her grief during her brief sojourn from medical school which she was on the cusp of completing. She had been so looking forward to begining her internship with her father at his practice, but now that dream was gone. Just like he was.

The pain of his loss was near unbearable until the chance meeting with the young man on the roof tonight, with his cobalt coloured eyes and shy smile and went from unassuming to confident at the drop of a hat. When he rushed off to face God only knew what, Alex had kissed him on impulse, mostly because it felt like the proper thing to do when a man was about to go off and face danger, to give him a kiss of luck but it didn't feel like luck.

It felt almost like love.

Did such things actually happen? Was it possible to fall for someone after less than an hour in his company, while sharing sugar babies under the moonlight? Things like that only happened in the movies between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, not ordinary people like her. Alex pondered these things as she reached the car, prepared to wait as he ordered and figure out her topsy-turvy feelings then.

However as she neared the vehicle, she saw a great deal of activity taking place on the previously quiet street. People were running out of the building, heading for their cars, from the rear of the building, the fright in their face obvious. She spied some of them were bleeding and immediately her doctor's instincts, okay not quite doctor's instinct but close enough, kicked in and she started to cross the street when a black car she hadn't noticed following her silently, sped up.

The vehicle came to a stop beside her and Alex paused a moment, wondering what was happening when the door swung open. Before she could withdraw, a red-robed figure emerged and immediately caught her arm, allowing her to go no further. Another emerged after him and the second assailant circled her body before cupping her mouth with a large hand, cutting off her indignant cry.

Not about to go without a fight, she struggled and fought but had not enough strength to break free. Within seconds, she was forced inside the vehicle, disappearing from view before the door slammed shut and the dark Cadillac sped away into the night. All that was left was her clutch, splayed open when it hit the tar road.

The box of sugar babies, spilling unto the empty street where she had been.

*Retreat

CHAPTER FIVE:

THE PILLARS

In the aftermath of the fighting, the carnage left behind reminded Chris all too much of the battlefields of Europe, with bodies strewn across mortar mangled earth. Here, they lay across the marble block, intertwined within the tables and chairs laid out for the party as well as the exhibits on display, many of which were lying on the floor, broken and dented. Fortunately, most of the dead belonged to the red-robed attackers who instigated the violence in the first place.

Still, there were enough innocent victims to go around and Chris's jaw clenched when he saw the museum guests who had come here for a night out, decked out in their best clothes, unaware they were wearing their death shrouds for the evening. Remembering how callously they were cut down made Chris wished they had killed all those red-robed bastards instead of allowing them to escape. He spared them a moment of consideration before his mind turned its attention to the fates of his men.

Surveying the room quickly, Chris felt a surge of relief seeing his friends alive, even if it looked like Ezra was hurt. The gambler was sitting at the base of a column, his shoulder angled oddly enough for Chris to tell immediately it was dislocated or worse. Despite Ezra's hatred of exposing his emotions, except maybe when he was stewing in a cooking pot or about to lose his virtue to a tribal chief, the pain on his face was obvious.

"Nathan," Chris called out to the medic, who was systematically going from body to body, hoping there was someone still left alive for him to administer medical attention.

Nathan lifted his head immediately at Chris's call and then saw where the leader of the seven was staring. Ezra's prone condition made Nathan forget all about his inspection, with the former medic side-stepping the bodies around him to reach the southerner. Nathan liked it even less when he saw the gambler's normally cool facade cracked by a grimace of pain.

Meanwhile, Buck strode towards Chris, deciding there was no one left alive and was furious at the unnecessary violence displayed here. "Who the hell was these guys?" Buck demanded when he reached Chris.

"I have no idea," Chris shrugged, just as puzzled by the identity of these assailants as his oldest friend. Dropping to a knee next to one of the men lying on the floor, Chris rolled him over. He had been lying face down in a crimson pool of blood, his lifeless eyes staring at the ceiling. Judging by the size of the ragged hole in the centre of his forehead, the kill shot had come from a small bullet, most likely a derringer. No doubt, this man had met his fate at the end of Ezra's carefully concealed weapon.

Studying the man closely, he noted like all the robed attackers, he too was Arabian in descent with his tanned olive skin and brown eyes. The robes, although oriental in origin were nothing like the traditional garb worn by some of the Turks during the war. Furthermore, the weapons they were carrying appeared as if they originated from another century, with their mixture of curved blades and scimitars. As the rest of the seven converged around him, Chris noted something else, this time on the man's hand. Lifting the cooling flesh for a closer look, Chris leaned in and studied the symbol tattooed on the man's skin. It was a lion encircled in a black ring.

"What is it?" Buck asked, taking note of the concentration on Chris's face as he examined the dark symbol.

"Buck, check the other bodies. See if they have the same mark."

"Right," Buck nodded, catching on to his line of thinking, guessing Chris wanted confirmation these men were a part of a larger menace and the first step to combatting it was to find out who they were. Withdrawing from Chris, he scanned the immediate area and soon found another candidate from which they could gain their confirmation. Pushing aside the table the corpse had landed on, Buck dropped to his knees and conducted the same examination by checking the man's hand.

"Chris, he's got one too!" Buck hollered at Chris and suspected if they went through all the bodies, they would all be wearing the same mark. What the hell were they dealing with here?

"What have you found pard?" Vin asked Chris when he finally reached the side of the blond man, still carrying the shotgun he had liberated from Chris's car, the long barrel facing the floor.

"All these men," Chris made brief eye contact with the sharpshooter and paused a moment, sighting something that made him blink before he shook the thought out of his head and turned back to the dead man before him. He showed Vin the tattoo. "They're all wearing this."

Vin studied the tattoo and thought it was very different from the ones he'd seen worn by the Indians. While the Navajo weren't practitioners, Vin knew plenty of other tribes that indulged in the practice of marking their skin, to express their prowess in battle, hunting and marking their spirituality.

"Some kind of cult probably. We've come across a couple of those since we started working for the Professor," Vin pointed out. "Ain't that much of a surprise, considering what these boys were dressed up for. Any idea what they wanted?"

"They were after the Heart." Chris declared and looked up to see where JD was. The kid had an encyclopedic memory for iconography and Chris wanted him to look at the tattoo to see if he could recognise it. JD was standing over Josiah who was covering a woman with a tablecloth. Like Nathan had been doing earlier, Josiah was also checking for any survivors. Judging by the sombre expression on the big man's face, he found none.

"JD!" Chris caught the younger man's attention. "Over here, I need you to look at something."

Meanwhile, Vin was staring in the direction of the showcase in its central position in the room. Taking note of the broken glass of the display case scattered across the marble floor and the general absence of the object, Vin assumed the worst. "They took it?"

"No," Chris shook his head, recalling his instructions to Mary Travis. "We managed to get it out of here before they could get their hands on it."

"What's up, Chris?" JD asked when he reached them from across the room. The kid's pallor looked decidedly grey and both Vin and Chris immediately guessed, the sight of all those dead bodies was affecting the youngest member of their group. Until now, JD's experience with death was mostly limited to the mummified corpses they encounter when they went on their artefact hunting forays. Fresh bodies were another thing entirely and Chris could see it was taking its toll on the boy. He was almost tempted to advise JD to leave the room but knew JD wouldn't take it well. The kid was determined to prove he was equal to any situation his comrades could face.

"You okay?" Vin asked quietly.

"Yeah," JD nodded, flinching a bit at the body Chris was leaning over. "I'm fine."

In fact, JD was not okay and it wasn't the sight of the bodies which made him feel ill but rather the smell of all that blood. He was used to the dank musty smell of corpses that had long ago been desiccated until they looked like dry husks. Seeing bodies who were only a short time ago, living breathing entities and inhaling the powerful metallic stench of blood made him a little queasy. Of course, he would rather die than reveal this to either Chris or Vin, so he took a deep breath and steeled himself.

"What's up, Chris?" He asked with a firmer voice.

Chris smiled faintly, proud at the young scholar's efforts to man up. "Take a look at this symbol. You have seen this before?"

The possibility of unravelling a riddle immediately drove away any previous hesitation with JD dropping immediately to one knee so he could take a closer look. Forgetting he was handling a dead body now, he lifted the corpse's hand, going so far to hold it inches from his face to study it carefully. Chris and Vin exchanged glances, smiling in amusement at the rapid shift of the boy's demeanour, once handed a problem to solve.

"It's a simurgh," JD stated without looking over his shoulder after a moment.

"A what?" Buck asked as the pilot and Josiah joined them.

While Chris had never seen the symbol himself, he knew from reading what it was. "That's Persian ain't it? Some kind of mythological creature?"

"Yeah that's right" JD looked up at Chris, smiling with admiration at the surprising wealth of knowledge the man seemed to possess without ever needing to step inside a university lecture hall. "It is meant to be a creature who survived the making of the world at least three times over, and is supposed to purify the land and bestow fertility."

"So, what's that gotta do with these boys?" Josiah glanced at his comrades in puzzlement. "That sounds to me like a rather benevolent symbol, not one to use for what these fellas were up tonight. They weren't taking prisoners. They were going to kill everyone here." The barely concealed anger in Josiah's voice showed.

Chris didn't blame him for his vitriol. What had been done here tonight was an attempt at a massacre. He hated to think what would have happened if he and the seven had not been present tonight. "Can't say," Chris shrugged. "But they came for the Heart."

"Well Mr Larabee," Ezra announced himself as he and Nathan joined them once Nathan had seen to his shoulder. He was wearing a makeshift sling Nathan had fashioned out of a belt and a table napkin, his movements slow as he tried to avoid jostling his arm and cause more pain. As it was, he was trying very hard to maintain his amiable facade despite the grimace threatening to cross his face. "You certainly know the best soirees for us to attend."

"Well I do like a good party," Chris deadpanned and glanced at Nathan. "How are you?"

Before Ezra answered, Nathan spoke up. "Well I couldn't do nothing about his mouth but the rest of him is okay. Just a dislocated shoulder which I've popped back in. It's going to be a little sore for a few days but won't keep him from bitching about it to us."

"Once again, your bedside manner has no price," the southerner gave the medic a look.

A ripple of amusement following their relief, ran across the rest of the seven as Ezra and Nathan got into another bout of verbal sparring. Since the first day, they found themselves sharing a trench during the war, the duo had been constantly bickering. Yet despite the barbs they directed at each other, the two men shared a close friendship that had gone from strength to strength since Chris found them all four years ago. The leader of the Seven was convinced only Nathan was capable of making Ezra shut up where long bladed bowie knives (as Vin once tried) and guns failed.

"Just like the bills for my doctoring," Nathan returned sweetly.

Chris's eyes shifted slightly from the duo when he saw Orin and Mary returning to the scene. He noted she was now wearing her heels, reminding Chris with some chagrin, how she saved his life a short time ago. Bristling in annoyance at the debt he now owed her, Chris was certain that was smug satisfaction she was wearing on her lovely face when she cast those blue-grey eyes in his direction. He was convinced she was going to exact some terrible price for the help she'd given him.

"Who is that with the Professor?" Vin asked, having missed the introductions to Mary since he had taken the first opportunity he could, to escape the party.

"That's Mary Travis," Buck said sighing forlornly at the gorgeous blond, still disappointed to learn she was Orin Travis's daughter. As much as he'd like to put the moves on such a fine woman, he had a sneaking suspicion his ‘love them and leave them' approach to women would not impress the Professor and decided wisely to let this particular fish go.

"You should see her fight," JD exclaimed with a smile. "She saved Chris!"

Chris gave JD a dark look, wishing the young man hadn't brought that up. As it was he disliked the idea of any woman having to save his skin.

"She didn't save me." He grumbled. "I would have handled that situation."

This, of course, was absolute bullshit and he knew it. Still, he had to admit she had been pretty impressive fighting off that crazed woman who would have introduced him to the sharp point of a dagger if Mary had not intervened. To say nothing about those gorgeous legs she'd used to do it.

"You got saved by a girl?" Vin asked and stifled a smirk when Chris shot him an infamous Larabee glare.

"You want to explain the lipstick on your face?" Chris returned, giving Vin a little tit for tat.

"Lipstick" Vin stared at him bewildered even as his hand reached for his face instinctively and realised Alex had left some of her lipstick on the corner of his mouth.

"Lipstick?" Buck, being Buck, immediately turned his neck so he could take a better look at Vin's face, having not seen it earlier. "Vin, when did you get a chance to make out with some pretty gal?"

"I didn't make out..." Vin snapped exasperated, not to mention a little mortified at everyone being privy to the fact he had kissed a woman in the last hour. Worse yet, he had been fighting these varmints all the time with lipstick on his face? Thankfully, he did not need to finish his sentence because he was interrupted by Orin Travis's horrified exclamation.

"My God," the Professor exclaimed, surveying the full measure of the destruction in lives and exhibits throughout the room. "I didn't think they would be so bold."

"They?" Chris's spine stiffened with the realisation Orin knew their attackers.

Mary shot him a dark look at the accusatory tone in his voice before touching her father's shoulder trying to assuage his horror as well as the guilt he must be feeling. "You knew the minute the Heart was unearthed, they'd be coming," Mary said softly.

"You know who these boys are?" Josiah asked the Professor, using a less confrontational tone as was his way. The priesthood had lost a good man when Josiah had turned away from them. He had a way about him that engendered trust and projected sympathy.

"Yes," the older scholar nodded, still staring at the bodies of people he considered friends and colleagues, unable to imagine they had come to this. "They're called the Children of Erran and they're after the Heart."

That much was obvious, Chris thought silently and turned to Mary. "You still have it?"

"Yes." She nodded, remembering his instructions to her during the worst of the fight. She looked down at the clutch she was carrying and snapped it open. A second later, she fished the artefact out and presented to all of them.

"Dad I don't think it's a good idea to put this on display again," she told Orin.

"She's right," Chris agreed and saw her arch a brow in surprise at his support. "They were willing to kill all these people in to get to it, in the open. I don't want to know what they're going to do next. We need to keep this hidden until we know why they want it."

Orin sighed. "I know why," he met Chris's eyes. "And considering what happened tonight, it's best you know too."

+ + + + + + +

Before the police descended on the museum, the whole group retired to Orin Travis's office on the far side of the building. While they did not have a lot of time before they were subject to the ministrations of the constabulary who would require a full accounting of what transpired tonight from its eyewitnesses, it was necessary for Orin to reveal the truth known to only a select few until today. There were decisions to be made and Orin needed to make explanations quickly so they could proceed next. Chris Larabee and his team were the most capable men Orin knew and if anyone could help him navigate this situation, it was the Seven.

"This is why I asked you, boys, here tonight," Orin explained as he sat behind his desk. Mary served him a glass of whiskey from a sifter he kept on a nearby shelf before she sat perched at the corner of the desk, unknowingly giving Chris the opportunity to admire her glorious legs. "I knew the Heart was in danger but I never imagined the Erran would come after it so openly. In the past, they've been subtler but I suppose they're done being patient. It's a good thing you boys were here tonight or else it would have gone even worse."

It didn't take any clairvoyance to know Orin was scared and that bothered the hell out of Chris. Orin had led them during the battle of Meuse-Argonne, leading the charge across the Argonne Forest into German artillery manned by seasoned troops. The loss of lives during that engagement had been staggering and yet this history professor had got them through it without flinching. Fear was simply not something Chris associated with the man.

"Orin," Chris asked using a gentler tone than those present were accustomed to hearing from him. "Tell us what's going on."

Orin took a deep breath and began speaking, telling the tale of four young men, privileged and bored who took to Arabia for adventure. William, Orin, Hank and Donnie. How they'd met a famous archaeologist who spoke of excavating lost cities and suitably enamoured by fantasies of ancient treasures, joined the expedition. The expedition that would eventually excavate the city of Ur, hidden in the sands of Persia for almost 4000 years.

Chris tried not to react at the mention of Hank Conley's name. Hank had also served in Europe and it was a chance meeting when they got home that allowed Chris to meet Sarah, Hank's only daughter and by all accounts, the apple of his eye. To Hank, Chris Larabee simply was not good enough for his daughter but for Sarah's sake, they managed to forge something of a relationship. After her death, Hank had laid the blame of the fire on Chris's shoulders for not being there when his wife and son needed him most as if Chris didn't already harbour enough guilt on the matter.

Orin continued his narration, explaining how they'd taken their share of artefacts but kept secret the chamber they discovered one night when they went exploring alone in a remote part of the site, away from the main dig. The small temple it led into was presided over by one mummified priest in his tomb and once they unsealed it, discovered the four cryptices they would come to learn later was the Four Pillars.

Each taking one of the Pillars for their own, they considered it nothing more than some ancient relic of a long-forgotten religion. Even when they did reveal the presence of the temple to the rest of the archaeological expedition, they kept secret their booty, believing the Pillars were just rewards for their discovery. When the expedition team conducted their own survey, it was revealed that the site was a Temple of Erran one of the minor Mesopotamian deities.

"Eventually we had to come home and take up our responsibilities. I came back to New Mexico and took up a teaching position at the university. William went to medical school, Donnie inherited the family business in Philadelphia and Hank went to Arizona. We kept in touch through letters and spent summers together. Two years after we got home, a few months after the birth of his daughter, someone broke into Donnie's home and slit his throat."

"Jesus," Vin whispered.

Orin didn't react to the sharpshooter's exclamation but judging by the grim faces across the room, he saw the rest of the seven shared the young man's horror. "Whoever did it, tried to make it look like a robbery but only one thing was stolen."

No one had to guess what that was.

"His Pillar," Chris stated without needing Orin to say it.

"Yes." Orin grimly. "It was stolen and for the first time, we paid attention to what we'd taken from that temple. We talk to Sir John Evans, our expedition leader who told us about the history of the Four Pillars and how it was meant to be used to unlock the Heart. The Heart contains directions to locating the Tablets of Destiny. According to the legends, whoever reads from this tablet, can remake the world in their own image. None of us believed this nonsense of course but that didn't change the fact Donnie was dead because someone did.

After Donnie's death, we knew we had to be vigilant. Each of us hid the Pillar we possessed someplace safe and went about our lives as if we suspected nothing about the nature of them except now, we never spoke about the Pillars openly. The plan seemed to work and for years nothing happened. Then Hank died."

Buck shot Chris a look, aware of how even the remotest possibility of Hank Conley meeting his end under suspicious circumstances might affect his oldest friend despite his relationship with his father. "He fell? Didn't he?"

"We assumed he did."

Chris looked away from the others, thinking about the last time he saw Hank Conley. By then, their relationship had deteriorated to the point where they were no longer on speaking terms. Without Sarah, Hank turned mean and even though Chris should have tried to keep in touch for her sake, he couldn't bear to be around the man whose venom kept Chris's wounds raw and open. To get on with the business of living, he needed to be able to live with their deaths and being around Hank would assure that never happened.

"When we agreed to hide the Pillars," Orin resumed speaking. "We decided the last one of us left alive should know where all the artefacts could be found. We gave the location to our lawyers, to be delivered when all the others were dead. When Hank died of a fall with no signs of foul play, we mourned him but thought nothing more about it. Later, when I found out where he hid his Pillar and went to look for it, it was gone."

"You're telling me they got Hank to talk?" Chris couldn't believe that. Whatever his feelings for the man, Hank was as stubborn as a mule. He wouldn't talk without torture and since there were no signs of it according to Orin, Chris was adamant Hank took his secrets to the grave.

"I'm not sure," Orin explained. "Towards the end, he wasn't making much sense. You weren't there Chris; his mind was becoming quite unstable. He might have told them without even realising. In any case, it was gone. We expected them to come after us but nothing happened."

"There was no reason to," Mary spoke up. "Without the Heart, the Pillars were useless but once it was found, we knew the Erran would be coming."

"William is dead?" Josiah asked, suspecting it had to be the case if the Professor was taking them into his confidence.

It was Mary who answered and the seven saw the grief in Orin's eyes at the passing of his friend, a sentiment they all could share considering the closeness of their bond to each other.

"He was killed two weeks ago, supposedly during a burglary."

"So, the attack this evening may not simply have been to take the Heart but extract the location of the remaining Pillars from you." Ezra deduced. "I assume you have the remaining two."

"No," Orin shook his head. "William changed his instructions to his lawyer. Instead of them coming to me, its location was going to his daughter. You see William spent years after Donnie's death studying the mythology of the tablet and what it would mean if it was found and used. William really believed it could unmake the world. He was determined no matter what, his cryptex would go to someone who could hide it away and keep it from being used as a set. I guess he thought keeping it away from me would be safer."

"Makes sense," Nathan remarked. "They've already got two of the pieces. If you have the last two, they just need to get to you to gain the whole set."

Vin was silent because he was thinking hard about what they had just told and the pieces were reaching a conclusion he did not like. As soon as the Professor had mentioned a daughter, Vin's mind was whirling. He thought of that beautiful girl on the roof, who with a single kiss, had made him feel like he could fly. The girl, who had business with the Professor, who was still grieving for someone whose loss was fresh in her lovely sad eyes.

"She's here," Vin stated, jumping to his feet, heading for the door. "William's daughter is here!"

And he had her left out there alone.

CHAPTER SIX:

RESCUE

Bolting out of Orin Travis's office, Vin ran down the empty hallway towards the parking lot where he left Alex in Chris's Hudson.

Behind him, Vin heard footsteps running after him and didn't need to look over his shoulder to see it was Chris Larabee. As it was when the young lieutenant played surrogate father to him during the war on the Western Front, the leader of the seven was not about to shirk his responsibility now Vin was an adult. Their connection, forged in blood and combat, had solidified into a friendship that was more than just family or brotherhood. It was almost symbiotic.

Vin knew destiny was playing them on a cosmic turntable where his place in the scheme of things would always be at Chris's side.

Just like the connection, he felt to Alex. From the moment he laid eyes on her, he felt it. Seeing her shifted the cools sands of his reserve, where most of his feelings remained hidden. Emerging from it was a heart beaten into submission long ago, suddenly finding a reason to reach for the light. When she kissed him, that tiny neglected corner of himself, containing dreams not even his friends knew about, came alive. When Vin left her, he felt as if for the first time, everything in his universe was finally whole.

"Vin!" Chris called after the young man, once he told the others to remain behind with the Professor, now they understood the danger the man was in. Besides, the police would soon descend on them and they were going to have to give statements about their part in tonight's incident. The sharpshooter was running down the hallway, headed towards the first set of stairs to take him to ground level. Vin didn't look back and Chris knew he was in the grip of a single-minded pursuit that would tolerate no interference until he reached his destination.

Chris had no idea what transpired between Vin and William Styles's daughter tonight, but one thing was clear, she had definitely gotten under Vin's skin.

In some ways, Chris was almost glad to see it. It was not lost on him the younger man's hesitation around the opposite sex. Oh, he could talk to them alright, he wasn't a complete social misfit but Chris did notice his reluctance to approach them on a romantic level. Even though Vin had turned many a lady's eye during their adventures, he never seemed to take advantage of it the way Buck did. If anything, Vin always seemed shy around them as if he didn't think himself worthy of their notice. Which was ridiculous since Vin Tanner was one of the most capable people he knew.

Then again, considering the course Vin's life had taken, perhaps it was not such a mystery after all.

During the war, Vin's introduction to the subject of the opposite sex involved witnessing his older comrades partaking in the company of the ladies occupying the numerous bordellos, along the Front. From what Vin had told him, after escaping the authorities when they returned home, Vin's refuge with the Navajo existed on something of a knife's edge. Kojay, the old Indian tracker who took him in and raised Vin alongside his own son, Chanu, fought to keep him on the reservation when the rest of the Navajo were ambivalent about allowing a white child in their company. On that basis, Chris doubted they would have tolerated Vin consorting with their daughters on any level.

By the time Vin joined the Texas Rangers he had become so accustomed to being alone, he simply did not have the inclination to sow his wild oats as any young man his age was apt to do. Then again, Vin was such an idealist despite his unflappable manner implying cynicism, Chris believed there was every chance he was a romantic too. It would not surprise Chris in the slightest if Vin was simply biding his time waiting for the right girl to come along.

And perhaps tonight, she had.

When they reached the manicured lawns surrounding the museum, the blare of sirens could be heard over the murmur of survivors outside the building. The front of the museum resembled the floor of a triage unit, with injured people being attended to by loved ones as they waited for the ambulances to arrive and take them to proper medical help. They were seated on the steps and lying across the grass, their fine, formal wear stained with blood as their faces showed the shock and confusion of tonight's horror.

Chris ignored the scene for the moment. There would be plenty of time to take it all in when the authorities arrived when he and Vin surrendered themselves to the police for questioning. As it was, the red strobe of police cars stabbed his eyes through the night and Chris knew they had only a few minutes before the law arrived. Turning back to Vin, he found the younger man at his Hudson and was kneeling on the ground next to it.

Lying against the tar was a lady's purse and an open box of sugar babies, the candy spread across the road like marbles.

Vin was staring at them hard and for once Chris couldn't read the inscrutable expression on his face. Picking up the purse, Vin looked almost afraid to touch it and when he looked up at Chris's arrival, his blue eyes were dark.

"She's gone," he said bitterly. "They took her."

"We'll get her back Vin," Chris placed a hand on his shoulder. "Count on it."

The sharpshooter did not speak. Instead, he reached for his pocket and pulled out the handkerchief she had used to dry her eyes. Pressing it to his lips, he took in the slight scent of her perfume still clinging to the fabric. That maddening scent had been all around him when he kissed her.

"Yeah," Vin said quietly. "We still got a date."

+ + + + + + +

Lying against the floor of the car, Alexandra Styles could hear the roar of the engines as it sped away from the museum and tried not to let the fear overtake her. The two men in the back seat of the vehicle had slipped a gag in her mouth shortly after they wrestled her into it. Not long after, her hands were bound behind her back. So far, they made no demands of her, only barking at each other in their odd oriental accents, wearing clothes more appropriate for a Valentino film. Because she lay beneath the seats, she couldn't get a far enough glimpse through the window to see where they were going and this only heightened her fear even more.

No one knew they had taken her. No one except maybe the young man whose jacket she was still wearing. She thought of him with his soulful blue eyes and felt a pang of disappointment at not being there in the car when he returned. She lowered her face to her shoulder and brushed her skin against the fabric of his jacket. She could almost smell a faint trace of his cologne and for some reason, it comforted her. Perhaps, he might wonder where she had gone. Would he try to find her, if he did? Would he care enough to try?

A secret part of her hoped he would.

The time seemed to stretch as she lay on the floor of the car until she knew they were a good distance away from the museum, which only increased her anxiety because that meant she could be anywhere now. What on Earth did they want with her anyway? She was no one, just a fourth-year medical student, one most people considered coloured because her mother had been Indian. Sure, she had money because daddy left her with a sizeable inheritance, probably intended to see her through college and beyond. Did they want money? If it meant staying alive so she could meet Vin for that drink, she'd happily pay it.

A shift in gear told Alex the car was going to slow and no sooner than she heard the soft click of the gear stick locking into place, the rumble of the engines dropped an octave as the vehicle came to a stop. Through what little she could see through the window, the night sky and hear the chirping of insect life beyond the car offered no revelations about their destination. There was no other sound and where she was appeared to be devoid of any other voices. The possibility she was being taken somewhere remote to be killed, or worse, drove her to near panic.

When the car doors opened and the men inside the car climbed out. Alex debated whether she ought to fight to remain in the vehicle. It felt much more merciful than what might happen to her once she was outside, at the place they intended her to be. She had no chance to consider the matter further because the door opened near her and Alex was dragged roughly out of the vehicle by both men who set upright her on her feet.

Alex prepared to give them a fight when suddenly, the realisation of where she was made her freeze in her tracks.

She was home.

+ + + + + + +

Inside the Hudson, Chris, Vin and Buck were speeding towards the home of William Styles, who had moved into the area some years ago after his daughter had gone to medical school. While they had fully intended to wait around to be questioned by the authorities, the abduction of the girl had Vin chomping at the bit and Chris knew if they didn't act immediately, the younger man was going to do something stupid. Besides, it made sense wasting no time going after her. If Chris's understanding of the situation was correct, they had abducted her for only one reason and that was to retrieve the Pillar she had in her possession.

The Professor invited Alex to the party tonight because he wanted to tell the girl about the possible danger she was in, now William's Pillar had been passed down to her. However, the possible threat had become a terrifying reality and Orin feared now she was in their hands, they would not hesitate to employ the most brutal methods to get what they wanted. Voicing that fear had been enough to send Vin into a state of panic and the rest of the seven were rather surprised by how a chance meeting with Alex Styles had affected Vin so deeply.

Meanwhile, Chris had concluded that neither Orin or his rather irritating daughter were safe either. If the Erran were willing to act so openly tonight, there was no telling what lengths they would go, to get the Heart and the Pillar still in Orin's hands. Thus, Chris left Josiah, Nathan, Ezra and JD to keep watch on Orin and Mary, while they headed south to Santa Fe where William had set up a medical practice in recent years.

"Chris, what are we going to do once we get the girl and the Pillar?" Buck Wilmington who could never stand silence asked as he sat in the back seat of the car, tired of watching the night rush by his window or the foreboding mood of tension gripping them all. The ride so far had been steeped in grim silence with Vin saying nothing as he rode shotgun next to Chris, who was doing the driving.

Buck didn't know who this girl was but she had certainly done a number on the second youngest member of the seven if the intensity of Vin's worry was any indication. Buck only hoped they got to her before any serious harm fell upon the lady. The way Vin was looking right now, Buck didn't think he could stand it.

In some ways, Vin Tanner was very much like how Chris used to be before the fire took Sarah and Adam. It was probably why Chris had taken to the kid during the war. They were so much alike. Buck didn't want to see the effect on Vin if this girl was taken away from him before they had time to mean something to each other. No one wanted to see history repeating itself on Vin, the way it had with Chris.

"I'm not sure," Chris answered Buck, grateful the pilot had chosen to break the silence. Even though they were only fifteen minutes away from their destination, he could see the slight ticking of Vin's jaw, indicating the young man was bristling with impatience. Sitting on his hands was driving Vin crazy and Chris knew it wouldn't take much to set his powder keg emotions alight. "These sons of bitches are patient and brutal. They've been waiting literally for decades for the Heart to appear, they're not going to stop until they get all the pieces together and find the Tablet."

"So, what do we do?" Buck asked. "Find it ourselves?"

Chris had considered the idea. More than considered actually. Getting their hands on it would certainly shift the Errans' focus off the Professor and the two women, but that would mean drawing the cult's obsession and Chris wasn't certain that was a solution. "We could do that. I mean the whole purpose of this thing is to get the Tablet. If we got our hands on it first, stashed it someplace they could not..."

"You smash it so it can't be used," Vin stated suddenly.

Chris threw a glance at Vin while Buck merely stared at him in shock. They had been hunting antiquities for so long they had developed a certain respect for the artefacts and its history, beyond the monetary value. Hearing Vin talk about obliterating one was jarring.

"Vin..." Chris started to speak, aware of the heated emotions driving the younger man when Vin cut him off.

"I ain't saying this because of Alex," Vin explained himself, his eyes still fixed on the road ahead. "I'm saying it, because this is the only way to keep the Erran from coming after her and the Professor. It ain't just an artefact to them Chris, it's their way of unmaking the world. They believe it and we've seen how crazy people get when it comes to their religion."

Chris couldn't argue that point. They had crossed the world these last four years and what people were willing to do for belief was a terrifying thing to behold. Hell, there were people in this country who believed handling snakes brought them closer to God. Yeah, Chris knew what Vin was trying to say. As long as the Tablet existed, the Erran would never stop hunting for it.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Chris remarked tossing Buck a glance. "Right now, let's just get to the girl."

According to Orin, William Styles had moved to Santa Fe four years ago after his daughter Alex had left their native New York for medical school. Perhaps wishing to be closer to his oldest friend in his later years, the eminent doctor had taken up a position at the local hospital and bought himself a modest estate in the small community of Seton Village. As Chris noted the remote surroundings, the former soldier had to wonder if Styles had chosen the location to hide away from the Erran.

Approaching the estate, they saw a multi-storied house of Spanish-Mexican architecture, surrounded by walls of stone fencing. However, through the gap of the entry, they saw the gates were splayed open and despite the late hour, there was light pouring out of the windows. Running the engine low as they neared the driveway, they saw two cars parked one after the other near the path leading to the front door. Since Styles lived alone and Alex if she lived here, was out, there was no reason for there to be callers at this time of the night.

Bringing the car to a halt as near as they could to the gate, without being seen by the estate's intruders, Chris, Vin and Buck climbed out of the car and armed themselves sufficiently, anticipating trouble. With no other homes in the area and very little traffic, the sound of the night could be heard clearly. Beyond the chirping of unseen insects in the desert shrubbery, the occasional nocturnal critter emerging for the nightly foraging, there was little sound. At least until they got closer.

The minute they made their way up the long cobblestone driveway, the sounds of breakage shattered the night. Voices were chattering excitedly moving throughout the house, their footsteps overlapping the sound of furniture falling over, or screeching across the floor and more objects breaking. Chris wished JD was here because the words being spoken by the intruders were not of a language he understood. The kid would have figured it out in a minute.

"They're looking for the Pillar," Buck remarked quietly as he held the Remington in his grip, scanning the line of yucca trees and the garden flanking the right side of the driveway, with its shrubbery of Mugho Pine, Butterfly Bush and other native flora.

"Yeah," Chris nodded in agreement, wanting to reach a window so he could see how many of these bastards they were dealing with. Clearly, they hadn't found the artefact yet, judging by the annoyance he could hear in their voices. Frustration was capable of crossing any language barrier.

Suddenly a voice cried out through the night in words they understood immediately.

"Let go of me!"

Chris had only to glance at Vin to know immediately, it was Alex.

+ + + + + + +

His name was Adashir Shah and from the day he was born, he was raised to rule.

The Empire he would carve for himself had long ago faded into the desert sands of time but as his father and mother had raised him to believe, death was not an ending and empires could rise again. Claiming lineage to the Sassanid kings of the past, he had taken up the mantle left to him by his father and the generations before him, to unleash the god Erran and let him remake a better world, one free of white colonialism and decadence.

Standing in front of the woman before him, he took note that she was exquisitely beautiful and brushed his fingertips on her cheek as two of his men held her tight, one with an arm locked around her throat, while the other holding a blade to her ribs. When Shah touched her, she squirmed hard, trying to escape his fingers. He found her resistance made him want her more, especially when he saw the tuxedo coat around her shoulders. Knowing she belonged to someone else, made her forbidden fruit that was so much tastier.

"No one is coming to save you," he said as he stared into her frightened eyes. "Give me what I want and I may make the next few years pleasant. Give me any trouble and you'll die here tonight."

"I don't know what you want!" Alex burst out in fear, not at all liking her two choices and at present, what he considered pleasant, Alex suspected may be a living hell.

"The Pillar!" He snapped, grabbing her hair and pulling her face to him. "Where is the Pillar? Your father has been most efficient in hiding it. Where is it?"

"The Pillar?" She stared at him in shock. That ghost story her father always told her? While she knew he had an interest in Arabian folklore and collected artifacts, the Pillar was not one of them. "He doesn't have it."

A sharp blow against the cheek made Alex's head swim, and she felt the skin of face flare in pain. "Of course he has it! He and his friends raped my land to get it! Now tell me where it is, or I'll have these men do the same!"

"I swear," Alex started to sob as she saw the leer on the faces of the men keeping her subdued. "I don't know where it is! He never told me!"

He raised his hand to strike her again when suddenly a gunshot rang out and the Erran standing next to Alex with his blade, jerked back violently when the back of his skull exploded outward. Blood and brain mattered splattered across the bust of Louis Pasteur sitting on the edge of her father's desk. Uttering a terrified cry of horror as Shah spun around, Alex looked over his shoulder and felt the voice die in her throat as she saw Vin Tanner taking aim at the doorway, preparing to fire again. Across the house, more gunfire erupted.

Emboldened by the sight of him, Alex sank her teeth into the arm locked around her neck and bit down hard enough to ensure she tasted blood. Her captive swore loudly and shoved her forward and it was with some satisfaction Alex saw an imprint of her teeth that would make any dentist proud.

"Alex get down!"

Dropping to her knees, she saw Shah starting to turn around, attempting to grab her when another bullet fired, this one so close Alex thought she felt it over her head, struck the Erran behind her. She saw the spread of blood across his chest before he collapsed on the floor face first. His death compelled the man the others called the Shah to take cover and before he could use her for a hostage, Alex scrambled away on her hands and knees. She took refuge behind the oak desk with every intention of staying put until the shooting was done.

Shah could see the new arrival at the doorway preparing to take aim and judging by the gunfire he could hear across the house, guessed the rest of his men were similarly engaged. He himself was not armed. What need of it was there when he had his men around him. Yet as he saw the both of them lying dead across the floor, realised a hasty retreat was necessary. Glaring at the girl who had crawled out of reach, Shah turned his attention to the window closest to him.

Without hesitation, he ran for the window with gunfire chasing his every step and threw himself against the glass. A sound of breaking wood and shattered fragments followed him out of the room, into the cool night air beyond. He landed hard on the grass outside, his body feeling the cuts of glass against his skin as he rolled across the ground, trailing glass and broken pieces of wood. Shah got to his feet, not waiting to see if the shooter would come after him, choosing instead to dust himself off before heading towards the cars in the driveway.

Shah regretted leaving his men to their fates but the cause was more important and his survival was its survival.

CHAPTER SEVEN: INTRUDERS

It wasn't hard to determine the purpose of the intruders in the home of the late Doctor Styles.

When Chris, Buck and Vin approached the house through the shroud of darkness outside, they could hear the conversation between the enemy, spoken in a tongue none of the three men understood. Following those voices were the familiar sounds of ransacking as drawers squeaked open, books were shuffled across shelves like cards before being discarded onto the floor. Keepsakes and ornaments were smashed against the hardwood floor, in concert with the tearing of upholstery. There was no mystery what they were seeking just as it was no surprise, to Chris and the others, they were not going to find it.

From Orin's description of William Styles, the man understood better than all his companions what they stumbled into, all those years ago in Persia. In understanding the lore, William also realised just how determined the Erran would be to reclaim what they perceived to be theirs by right. After the deaths of Donald Avery and Hank Conley, it made sense he would break with what was agreed upon between the remaining friends and make his own decisions on how his cryptex or Pillar ought to be hidden. It would never be in his house.

Unfortunately for her, William Styles's daughter would pay the price.

When they approached the front door of the house, they found the double doors to be splayed wide open as if the home was gaping in shock at the intrusion. They could see the shadow of bodies moving across the windows. Some of the men were upstairs, while the rest were below. Fortunately, Chris, Buck and Vin were perfectly aware of how to infiltrate a place in silence. Traversing forbidden places in stealth the last four years had made their ability to approach covertly quite expert.

Reaching the doorway, Chris gestured at Buck to head up the stairs, while he and Vin took care of the men in the lower floor of the house. Judging by the racket they were making, their concentration seemed to be focussed on the ground level at this time. Buck nodded, clutching the Remington and allowing Chris and Vin to cover him as he dashed across the front vestibule and started up the stairs. They watched him ascend the staircase ensuring no one followed him before they stepped in.

Vin was barely able to contain himself, wanting to rush in and save the girl who was being interrogated for what she did or did not know. Each time, they heard the hard slap of flesh, Chris saw Vin's jaw tense in rage, aware such a sound could only come from the girl being brutalised. However, while some men allowed such imperatives to cloud their judgement, Chris Larabee knew better. When Vin cared about someone, such actions did nothing but turn his rage into a white-hot razor capable of making surgical attacks.

"You go for the girl," Chris whispered quietly, "I'll clear the rest of the house."

Vin nodded, almost grateful to be let off the leash. His blue eyes held its darkened shade as he stepped through the door and headed towards the sound of the interrogation. Once he was gone, Chris followed suit, crossing the short space across the front hall to the doorway leading into the living room. Standing briefly at the doorway, he peered into the room and saw two men. One was cutting a sofa to ribbons with a blade, even though it was highly unlikely the pillar would be hidden there but he supposed, the Erran were leaving nothing to chance. As cotton and fabric drifted about his feet, the cultist threw aside the cushion he had just shredded and moved to a sideboard.

The other man was going through the books on the shelf, shaking the pages to see if anything valuable escaped them. When he was met with failure, he dropped the leather-bound books on the rug, moving to the next book. Chris remained where he was for a few seconds, watching them go through the room, violating it with their carelessness, before the one destroying the upholstery took an alternate exit to the next room, out of sight.

Chris waited for all but ten seconds before the Erran at the shelf turned back to the books, continuing his search. Once his back was turned, Chris was on the move. The former soldier crossed the space between himself and his quarry quickly, his silent approach aided by the expensive rug on the floor. Instead of a gun, Chris instead produced a switchblade pocket knife and extended the blade with a silent snikt.

Closing in the distance, the Erran never knew until it was too late, he was a zebra on the savannah, being stalked by a lion, finally ready to pounce. Chris's hand cupped the man's mouth while the blade sliced open the flesh beneath it. He uttered a silent scream into Chris's palm, or rather a gurgle since his vocal chords were severed in that first cut. The man struggled for a few seconds in Chris's grip as the blood ran down his chest before he was released to slump quietly to the ground.

Once he was dead, his blood spreading out like a crimson cloak beneath him, Chris wiped the blade against the man's robes before straightening up to go deal with his companion. Replacing the blade in his coat pocket after he folded it again, Chris took silent steps to the next room where the other Erran was presently pulling open the draws in the dining table sideboard, having already created a mess in napkins and placemats on the floor.

Suddenly gunfire broke out above and it all went to hell.

The man straightened and turned sharply in his direction, but Chris was ready for him. No sooner than he saw Chris, the leader of the seven was pulling the trigger on his gun. The Colt Peacemaker fired once, and the bullet caught the Erran in the chest, dropping him immediately. He tumbled against the sideboard, his dying hand gripping the runner resting against it and pulling the remaining objects with him to the floor in a loud clatter.

In the other room, Chris heard Vin shouting at the girl and ordering her to get down. Knowing how proficient Vin could be with a gun, Chris retreated into the hallway and started up the stairs, just in time to see a dark shape tumbling down the steps towards him. Flattening his back against the wall, the body came down the staircase like a rolling dervish before hitting the floor with a wet sickly squelch that made his jaw clench.

The robed figure landed with his back against the floor, arms and legs splayed out like a grisly five-pointed star. If the fall hadn't killed this particular Erran, then the spread of dark red against the front of his chest, certainly did. Chris continued up the staircase, hearing another gunshot coming from the study where Vin was. He was almost tempted to go after the sharpshooter when the scuffling noises through the ceiling kept him ascending the stairs.

Reaching the top of the steps, Chris arrived just in time to see Buck throwing one of the Erran against the wall, smashing the picture frame hanging there. Glass broke loudly as the man attempted to bring a blade down on Buck, but the pilot was having none of it. Without much trouble, Buck maintained his grip and flung the man against the opposite wall, this time against a credenza. No sooner than he landed, Buck dropped down and retrieved the gun that must have fallen from his hand when the Erran attacked.

With reflexes that made him one of the best pilots in the war, Buck took aim just as the man recovered. He took one step towards Buck before the big man pulled the trigger. The explosion of sound in the narrow hallway masked the sickly burst of rupturing flesh and bone that painted a mural of gore across the pale blue wallpaper. The Erran's head was still tilted backwards from the force of the bullet, his eyes staring lifelessly into the ceiling before he fell against the wall. His body created a slick trail across the paint as he sank to the floor.

"What took you?" Buck offered him a grin when suddenly another Erran jumped out of the darkness, running at them with manic eyes, his blade held high ready to strike, screeching like a wraith in the night.

Without missing a beat, both Buck and Chris raised their guns and fired at the same time. Both bullets met their targets and the force of it swept the Erran off his feet even as they heard glass breaking below them. The man felt against the floor with a heavy thud, his blade planted into the wood as it landed. He did not move again, and Chris approached him cautiously, hands still gripping his pearl handled peacemaker, ready to fire if the son of a bitch tried to surprise him. Both bullets had struck him in the chest and either one could have been the fatal shot.

Checking the man's pulse, the warmth was already starting to bleed out of his body as Chris held his fingers against the man's throat. He raised his eyes to Buck and shook his head. "He's done."

"Good," Buck winced, and it was only then did Chris notice the stain of blood on his shirt.

"You hurt?" Chris asked, his brow furrowing with concern.

"It ain't bad," Buck assured him, frowning at the growing stain just beneath his clavicle. "He managed to nick me when we were tussling."

It was a little more than a nick Chris suspected but Buck wasn't stupid enough to downplay a serious injury, so Chris took him on his word. Besides, they would head back to join Nathan and the others.

"Where's Vin?" Buck asked and then shrugged. "Never mind, I can guess."

+ + + + + + +

Once Vin saw the son of a bitch who had struck Alex go through the window, Vin had almost been tempted to go after the man. However, his first thought was not the escaping man but the girl he had been terrorizing until Vin's arrival. Fighting the urge to rush into the room, Vin had presence enough to call after Chris, especially when the gunfire had ceased, wanting to make sure the house was secure before he went to coax Alex out of her hiding place.

"Chris?" He stepped back into the hallway, taking note of the dead body at the foot of the staircase with little more than a shrug. After what the leader of the bunch was threatening Alex with, not to mention hitting her, Vin had no compassion for any of these bastards.

"We're good Vin," Chris returned as he and Buck started to descend the staircase.

No sooner Vin had glimpsed both men and made sure they were in one piece, Vin headed back into the study, seeking out Alex. He had seen her drop to her knees during the firefight and searched the room for her, upon stepping inside.

"Alex?" He called out to her. "It's Vin. You're safe."

"Vin?" She answered almost immediately.

Vin saw something shift behind the expensive oak desk and headed towards it just as he saw Alex crawling out of her hiding place. She raised her head to meet his eyes and Vin's jaw tensed when he saw the dark bruise forming under her eye. However, his anger was fleeting because he was so relieved to see she was alright. They had met only a short time ago, but Vin couldn't forget how she made him feel. How she still made him feel.

Offering her his hand, Alex took it as she stood up and Vin noted she was still wearing his jacket. She looked frightened but like him, the emotion was being swept away at her relief to see him. Not just relief but also wonder at his being here. Her eyes seemed to sparkle as she saw Vin and though that terrible bruise marred her lovely features, it had no power against the smile she was giving him so radiantly. Once again Vin felt his heart melt in his chest and wondered at this power she had over him.

"You came after me," Alex replied, unable to believe he was actually here.

When she was terrified during the drive from the museum where she imagined some terrible fate, Alex had hoped the way a desperate person clung to fanciful ideas of deliverance, he might come for her. Like a knight in shining armour. Logically, she had known better. How could she expect him to risk his life in search of her, when they'd spent barely an hour together? Because they had shared a kiss. Not just any kiss but THE kiss, the one you remembered forever, even though Alex wasn't some starry-eyed school girl who believed in the nonsense of love at first sight.

"We had a date," Vin stared into her warm brown eyes and knew this thing that gripped him so completely, had her too. "Couldn't let you..."

Before he could finish speaking, she was pressing her lips to his, her hand against his cheek as she kissed him, not just for gratitude but because in that one instant, love at first sight was possible and it had come for her.

Vin felt his head swim and his heart pound as he became lost in her touch. Her scent swirled around him while her taste was familiar yet exciting. Vin drew her body against his and felt a shudder of pleasure run through him at how right it felt her being there. It wasn't as if there weren't women before this, there were. It just never felt as perfect as this. When she kissed him earlier, it felt like suddenly everything had finally shifted into place in his universe. He had his best friends at his side and a woman he just knew was meant for him.

Whatever happened after today, Vin knew they would always belong to each other.

+ + + + + + +

"Goddamnit woman," Buck grumbled as he sat in the study, his neck craned to one side as he felt the sting of iodine biting into his skin.

Shortly after introductions were made, once Chris and Buck's arrival had managed to pry the couple's lips apart, Alex who had recovered quickly from her abduction took note of Buck's injury and insisted on looking at it. She was a fourth-year medical student and more than capable of treating the injury, especially after they had come to her rescue. With Buck's blood-stained dress shirt pulled halfway down his back, Alex was using the supplies in her father's doctor's bag to attend him.

"Don't be such a big baby," she scolded, giving Vin a little smile. "I have to clean the wound, or it will get infected. Besides, I think you need stitches."

"Stitches?" Buck grumbled. "Just put a Band-Aid on it."

Alex gave the man a look that showed him under no circumstances was that happening. "That wound is too deep for a Band-Aid. Just be grateful it didn't reach any muscle. Don't worry, I've done this before. It's not like I would sew up anything that's supposed to remain open."

"You really want to date this woman, Vin?" Buck asked, giving her a look of mock hatred.

"Yeah," Vin winked at Alex. "She keeps sugar babies in her purse. It's just what I look for in a woman."

Alex flashed him a radiant smile before going back to work on Buck's shoulder.

Chris stepped returned to the room, after searching one of the cars left behind by the Erran when Alex's interrogator had fled the scene. Frowning because he hadn't found anything to give them any clues leading back to the cult, Chris was at least grateful Buck was being tended to, even if he was complaining like a child. Then again, as Nathan could attest, none of the seven were very cooperative whenever they had to surrender themselves to the ministrations of a healer.

"He going to live?" Chris asked the young woman as she stood over Buck, preparing a syringe whose business end Buck was going to become very familiar with, soon.

"Yes, but not that you'd know listening to him complain," she said with a smile and Chris had to admit, the girl was a looker. He could understand why Vin was so enamoured and the way she looked at the sharpshooter, implied Alex Styles felt the same about him. "It's a deep cut but nothing vital was damaged. It needs sewing up."

"Nice," Buck glared at her, but despite this Chris could see the faint smile on the pilot's lips that implied he liked the girl and more than that, he approved. Buck knew women better than anyone and he could usually save his friends from making a big mistake if their eye caught one that would give them trouble.

"Did you find anything Chris?" Vin asked, turning away from Alex and Buck for the moment, his easy-going manner returned now he was no longer worried about the lovely Miss Styles.

"Nah," Chris shook his head. "One of the cars were gone but we expected that. The other was empty. Probably stolen for all we know."

"They won't stop coming after her until they get the Pillar," Vin said quietly, glancing over his shoulder and giving Alex a look of concern.

"Yeah," Chris nodded in agreement at that grim reality. So long as the Pillar was in her possession, the young woman was in danger.

"Hey!" Buck swore when Alex injected him with a local, to dull the area around his wound in preparation for sewing his stitches.

"Oh my God!" Alex rolled her eyes, swatting him on the back of the head. "Grow up, you child!"

"I don't like you," Buck grumbled.

"I'll try to live with the disappointment," Alex deadpanned but like Buck, she was smiling at the pilot too. It was clear despite their bickering, the two were warming to each other. Alex tossed Vin an affectionate smile which the sharpshooter returned with a playful wink.

"If you two are done behaving like a bunch of kids," Chris interrupted good-naturedly, deciding he liked Alex's manner too. Like Nathan, she wasn't going to put up with their antics when there was healing to be done. He suspected she and Nathan were going to get along famously.

"I resent that," Buck replied. "She's the one who's sticking me with things."

"Miss Styles," Chris ignored Buck and continued. "Those men tonight want the Pillar. They think you have it and they'll be back."

Alex shuddered, trying to hide her fear as she tried to thread a needle and failed. "I don't know where it is. To me this whole thing was a ghost story. Something my father played with as a hobby."

"Alex darlin," Vin said gently. "Those people tonight came after Orin Travis to kill him and take his cryptex. Your pa had one too. So did Donald Avery and Hank Conley. They each had one. I can't imagine your pa not giving you an idea of where it might be. He had to know these Erran might come after you when he passed."

Alex exhaled loudly. She hated thinking her father might have kept things from her, but it was painfully obvious now he had. The ghost story she thought he told her was in fact, something terrifyingly real and a burden her father carried with him into death. Worse yet, now that Vin and his friends had told her what Orin intended for her to know tonight, there was every possibility they murdered her father too. Knowing that infuriated Alex and made her determined to deny them their prize.

"All he left me other than my inheritance was a letter telling me that he loved me, and he was proud of me. That even though I was going on alone, we would have memories of our lives together, the adventures we shared."

"Adventures?" Chris stared at her, feeling something about that statement, tickling the back of his mind.

"Oh yes," Alex replied, feeling a wave of sadness knowing they would never go on those trips again and hid how much it hurt, though she could tell by the way Vin was looking at her, he saw her pain. Comforted by that, Alex continued to explain.

"When I was a little girl, we used to go trekking all over the country together. Every time I was on vacation from school, we'd go to a different place before we'd wind up back in Albuquerque to spend the rest of the summer with Orin and his family. That's how he discovered Seton Village. We were travelling, on our way to visit Orin, when we stopped here to look at an ancient Pueblo mound temple he wanted to see. He liked the area so much, he decided to move here after I left for college."

Chris exchanged a glance at Vin and Buck.

"You don't think?" Buck asked wondering if it could be that simple?

"What?" Alex asked, staring at the three men who had obviously figured something out and was somewhat annoyed there weren't letting her in on it

"Miss Styles," Chris Larabee said with a smile. "Just where is this mound dwelling?"

CHAPTER EIGHT:

DAUGHTERS

There was nothing that could not be fixed by a good glass of cognac.

This much Ezra Standish was willing to concede as he sat comfortably in one of the leather wing chairs at the home of Orin Travis, at the same time his comrades were rescuing William Styles's daughter. Convinced the Professor and his daughter were in danger, a sentiment Ezra readily shared, Chris Larabee had ordered the rest of the seven to remain at Orin's side for the rest of the evening. Despite the Errans' failure tonight at the museum, he did not underestimate the veracity of the cultists to retrieve the missing pieces needed to acquire the Tablet of Destiny.

Fanatics were relentless and the Seven who had spent the last four years crisscrossing the globe, often encountering races and groups willing to die to possess an artefact, could personally attest to this fact.

While Josiah, JD and Nathan were ensuring the modestly sized property was secured, Ezra was presently in the study with Orin and his daughter, Mary. Having served with the Professor when Orin Travis was the commander of their regiment during the war, Ezra had always admired the man who as a soldier, never allowed his men to ride into battle without him. As a commander, he had been fair and decisive, treating every one of them with almost paternal affection and while his manner was scholarly, he was wise with more than just academic knowledge.

When Chris Larabee had been at his lowest, it was Orin who came to his rescue, giving Chris a purpose to which the former army captain was undoubtedly suited. Thanks to Orin, Chris had sought them all out and saved them from the drudgery their life had become since the end of the war. In setting them on a new path, he improved all their fortunes and there was not one member of the seven who would not gratefully lay down his life for Orin Travis for that blessing.

"Is Mr Larabee always so paranoid?" Mary Travis asked as she lay stretched across the leather sofa, while her father sat across Ezra in his favourite of the two wing chairs in front of the lit fireplace. While it was not terribly cold, the single log on the fire had warmed the room enough to make it comfortable for the rest of the evening.

"Unfortunately, yes," Ezra had to admit. Even though his arm was in a sling fashioned by Nathan, Ezra's Remington model 51 pistol was within reach should danger come calling. "However, in these matters, his instincts for danger are quite sharp and if he believes the Erran might make a further attempt to retrieve the Heart, it is not a claim I would take lightly."

"He's right Mary," Orin said to her gently, aware that it rankled at her fiercely independent nature to be told what to do. "Chris is seldom wrong about these things and judging by what took place tonight, it's clear the Erran are escalating their attempts to retrieve the Heart."

Mary frowned, thinking about the man with his icy coloured eyes and his unbelievably chauvinistic manner and wondered how on Earth, he'd managed to stay married without his wife doing him serious harm. "I suppose, it was always going to get this way the instant the Heart was uncovered."

"Will was right about that," Orin said with a sigh, taking a sip from his own glass of cognac, before staring into the amber contents, his expression softening with sadness. "He always understood it better than the rest of us."

"I'm so sorry dad," Mary offered softly, aware her father's heart was still raw from the loss of his oldest friend.

"They killed him," Orin stared at Ezra. "Will always expected they would, because he knew what it was, he understood the curse around it better than the rest of us."

"The curse?" Ezra sat up and paid attention. "I was unaware of a curse surrounding the Tablet of Destiny."

"It isn't a curse as such," Orin quickly clarified. "It's more of the mythology surrounding the tablet. Although the way Will spoke of it, he actually believed it supernatural elements and unfortunately, some events did play out rather coincidentally to fit his paranoia."

"Oh?" The gambler remarked with interest.

"Well, for instance, none of us have sons. According to the mythology, whoever possesses the Tablet of Destiny would sire an incarnation of Tiamat, the Mesopotamian goddess who first created the Tablet as a gift to her son. Part of the ritual to give the Tablet its power of uncreation is to provide a vessel in which Tiamat could inhabit when she returned to the mortal plane. Only Tiamat can unlock its power. And since Tiamat is female..."

"The sacrificial lamb, in this case, would be the same," Ezra concluded.

"Well that's just lovely," Mary snorted. "If we're not used as chattel, we're used as sacrifices."

"It's just a story," Orin smiled and then faced Ezra. "However, Will believed because we each had a Pillar, we were cursed to have only daughters who would act as the receptacle for Tiamat's spirit since we each had the potential to unlock the power of the Tablet. So, when not one of us produced a son, Will started to buy into the story. Not that I'm complaining of course," he said giving Mary an affectionate smile which she returned. "But the fact is, Hank had Sarah, Donnie had Julia and Will and I had, Alex and Mary."

"I can see why he might be concerned," Ezra remarked, seeing the greater danger he wondered if Orin was aware of. "Orin, it may not simply be the pieces they're acquiring. Eventually, they may come to realise," he paused and looked at Mary. "They may need your daughters."

Orin's expression darkened revealing to Ezra he was unsurprised by this possibility. He cast a glance of worry at Mary and with that one gesture, revealed to Ezra how much it preyed on his mind.

"I know.," he admitted. "Will suspected it might be the case. When the Heart was finally found, he was almost panicked. He was terrified they wouldn't just come for the Pillars, but they would try to take the girls. Maybe one or all of them. He wasn't sure. It's why he went out of his way to make sure his Pillar was well hidden. If the Erran can't find the Tablet, then there would be no reason for them to need the girls."

"Dad," Mary sat up. "Do you think that's why they took Alex?"

"I'm not sure," Orin confessed. "I think it's possible. The Erran didn't make a move towards you at the museum."

"That simply might have been because of a lack of opportunity. If I am not mistaken, you acquitted yourself quite well when you did encounter these fanatics."

Mary shrugged. She'd learned how to fight when she had first become a journalist, having realised she needed to defend herself in the instance the pursuit of a story landed her in trouble. Spending time with Crystal Bennett, one half of the famous Bennett Sisters who in their day displayed their skills in boxing, wrestling and fencing on Vaudeville, Mary learned how to defend herself under the lady's tutelage.

"And Alex was alone out there," Orin pointed out, somewhat proud of his daughter at cultivating that particular ability.

Ezra nodded in agreement at Orin's assertion. "The unfortunate passing of Sarah Larabee places her out of their reach but, what of the last member of your set?"

"Donnie's daughter Julia?" Orin remarked. "I'm not sure where she is. After Donnie passed, Eleanor took Julia home to England. We lost touch after she married again. "

"It might be prudent to try and find the young lady," Ezra remarked. "She could be in danger."

"I can use my resources at the paper to track her down," Mary suggested. "I've got a few contacts in London who might be able to track Julia down."

"She might be going under her step father's name," Orin suggested. "I believe it's Pemberton."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah Sanchez scanned the street beyond the manicured lawn of Orin Travis's Huning Castle home and saw no one on the street, yet he felt uneasy. The area was largely undeveloped, and the professor's home was separated by his neighbour by a row of spruce pines that cast long shadows on the single lane road running past the place. Although he saw no movement amongst the trees, the signs of life were plenty. Horned owls and insect chirping sang their nocturnal songs to the full moon beaming down at them.

While Chris Larabee's paranoia was justified after the incident at the museum, Josiah wondered if he was right on this occasion about the Erran resurfacing so soon after their aborted effort to reacquire the Heart. Clutching the Barretta in his hand, Josiah scanned the area once more and started to withdraw into the house, when a sharp pain stabbed at his neck like a horsefly had decided to take a good bite out of him.

"Damn," he cursed, reaching for the back of his neck where the pain was concentrated. When his fingers grasped the small, sharp object, he knew immediately what it was. Long and thin, Josiah stared at it in his palm, noticing the small spot of blood at the pointed tip where it penetrated his skin. It was a blow dart. They'd spent enough time in the jungles of South America for him to recognise immediately what it was.

"Nathan...!" He tried to shout, knowing what was coming next but the concoction introduced into his body, worked fast and the words escaped his lips in little more than a whisper. When he slid to his knees, Josiah didn't even notice. The floor beneath him seemed to disappear and suddenly, the tumble he took seemed very long and he was plunging through the darkness like he'd stepped into an abyss.

Except it was an abyss he knew all too well.

When he raised his head, he knew immediately he was at the creek. Their creek, his mind thought subconsciously. He could smell the light pungent odour of algae clinging to a cluster of rocks at the edge of the water. As his stomach clenched, he saw himself surrounded by green grass and wild irises, remembering with sadness that it was her favourite. The creek looked like any other in the wilds of Colorado where he grew up, framed with cattails and coloured by smartweed, their pinkish flowers protruding through the water, managing to penetrate the discards of bur-reed floating across the surface.

Josiah always marvelled at how beautiful it was and often thought it was here, he felt closest to God, as if this place was the crucible of all his good works. When he sat here on the grass, Josiah thought this was how Adam must have felt during his first night on Earth, marvelling at the beauty of God's imagination. Gazing at the stars above, he took in the world knowing the almighty was continuing his artistry on the canvas of the still-forming universe.

And yet it was here, he broke with God forever.

His God was nowhere that capricious. No, the break was entirely of his doing. As he remained on his hands and knees, staring at the creek, Josiah wished he could be anywhere but here. Above him, the moon looked on with cold indifference, perfectly aware of his crime and offering him no sympathy. In the waking world, far removed from this daydream or nightmare he found himself trapped, Josiah had never gone back to the creek after this night.

This place was the source of his eternal penance, where he failed his God by forgetting the Almighty hadn't just created man, but also woman. That giving one's heart to a woman was also part of his plan and there was no sin in it. All his life, Josiah knew what he wanted to be, a man of God. He had felt it from the moment he heard the Lord's prayer as a child and knew nothing but the wish to stand in God's house and serve him. Josiah had wanted it so much. His father, also a preacher, never seemed to have the light Josiah felt, and it was this that caused the rift between them.

When Josiah went to seminary school to begin his journey to the priesthood, it had been the happiest day of his life. Until he met Emma.

Against all good sense, he had fallen for her hard and in secret, they conducted their love affair. She was the daughter of the local baker, with sun-streaked hair of dark gold and blue eyes that danced with gold dust. He was smitten for the first time and it was the lack of experience that kept Josiah from keeping it from going as far as it had. By the time he realised the danger, it was too late, and he was forced with a choice.

To serve God or to be with his darling Emma.

On the banks of this very creek, he'd told her he was not willing to give up God for her even though they were not far away from the spot where they'd surrendered their virginity to each other. She had wept but made no demands of him, uttered no words of anger or bitterness at having come second to God. She was raised by good Christian folk and understood his fealty to the Almighty. Josiah had kissed her on the cheek and told her he'd carry her in his heart forever, but this had to end. She agreed.

Getting to his feet, Josiah felt himself drawn to the edge of the creek, even though he had no wish to go. He stared up at the stars and saw the moon had turned its back on him, it's now crescent shape squinting in distaste. The clouds flew across the sky, like they too, couldn't wait to get away from him.

Josiah stopped at the embankment and knew what he would find. He knew it and yet he couldn't turn away. This scene was burned into his memory after twenty-six years of nightmares that could only be quelled by liquor. It was why he so readily took care of Hannah, not only because she was his sister, but because he would not fail another woman again.

She lay on the water, face down, her gold hair spread around her in swirls, her white night dressed billowing about her. Like he had so many times before, in his nightmares, he rushed into the water, not caring that it was too late. In his dreams, he lived with the hope perhaps once he might reach her in time. Even as the cold water swirled around his ankles, sending chills through his body as he waded quickly towards the figure in white, Josiah was sobbing in despair.

He was still weeping when he reached her, cursing himself for not realising when he made his speech to her that God would always come first, she was facing ruin because of their baby. She had kept silent, refusing to compound her sin by trapping him in marriage and bearing his resentment for taking him away from his calling. He had gone to the creek that night to say goodbye, unaware she had already done it.

Holding her dead body in his arms Josiah wept in anguish, feeling the cold flesh and knowing then and there, he would never be able to go to his God...

+ + + + + + +

After the pain had dwindled, Nathan stumbled forward trying to remember where he was. The last time the healer looked, he was standing in a rather stately home in the middle of nowhere outside of Albuquerque. He was walking along the porch, making sure the area was clear of any trespassers, not that anyone could really sneak up on the place, except the side Josiah was patrolling, with its small forest of spruce pines. The terrain he was studying was covered in knee-high grass and punctuated by trees, a good distance from each other and the grounds of the place.

Nathan was confident, they'd spot anyone before they got too close. He should have known he was tempting fate.

He knew what was happening the instant the fog descended on him. He'd been dosed with something and it was strong. He could feel the warmth of its poison filling his veins, infecting his body and his mind with each beat of his heart. He did a little better than Josiah, who was presently lying on the grass on the other side of the house, weeping openly about someone called Emma, only he could see.

"JD!" Nathan called out before the fog surrounded him completely.

Panicked, he flailed his hands desperately, trying to dispel it even though somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew it was an illusion. A sudden explosion of artillery fire blew the fog away like the Lord had let out his breath in a sudden exhale. When it cleared, he was standing in the middle of a battlefield. He knew which one immediately.

He was standing there, surrounded by mud and death, hearing artillery fire exploding in his ears as the smell hit him. Not just of blood or the scent of burnt gunpowder, but the more insidious smells, the piss and shit expelled when a body stopped working. There was a lot of that on this day. He stood there with his medical kit, confronted by so many dead, he didn't know what to do. They lay on the plain with their horses, with bodies broken and bleeding, like an uncovered graveyard.

+ + + + + + +

"Come with me mister!" The boy grabbed his hand. Nathan stared in shock at this child wearing the uniform of a cavalry soldier. He was so scrawny, with dark hair and staring at Nathan, pleading in his cobalt coloured eyes.

"Where are we going?" Nathan had asked because there was just so many injured, he had to get to work, had to save them all. The boy didn't answer, choosing instead to guide him by the hand and drag him across the muddy field. Nathan followed, his boots squelching in mud and blood as he followed the kid, ignoring the sounds of weeping and screaming. There were so many, so many he had to help and yet he was following the boy.

"Ezra!" The boy skidded to his knees, next to a soldier about his age, a blond man with sea green eyes, wearing a chest wound oozing so much blood, it was turning the mud into a red paste.

"Calm yourself, Master Tanner," the man who was clutching a deck of cards like some men held a rosary, was staring into the sky. "I am still here."

"I brought a medic!" The boy said turning to Nathan, "he's gonna help you."

Nathan was not about to make any promises. He couldn't. Not with that gaping hole in the man's chest. This was no place for battlefield surgery even if he knew how to fix a wound like that, which he did not.

The man blinked and looked at him. Nathan knew what was running through his mind. He'd heard the man's accent and knew the wounded soldier was from the south. Nathan expected him to refuse the help because while the kid saw a medic, this man probably saw a nigger, and nothing more. Nathan braced himself for the insult and prepared to ignore it no matter how offensive the son of a bitch was going to be. Words, Nathan could tolerate, but not his guilt if he allowed someone to die because of it.

"I seriously doubt you will be able to do much for me, but I appreciate the attempt nonetheless," his would-be patient said instead.

Nathan stared at him in surprise, not expecting that answer. "Well, now you've hurt my feelings. At least let me try before you go thinking I'm going to let you die."

"Be my guest," the southerner said weakly. "Although we could make it more interesting if we could put some money on it."

Nathan remembered giving the man a look, wondering what kind of lunatic tried to gamble while he was bleeding out on the battlefield.

In the end, it didn't matter because he had saved Ezra Standish that day, with young Vin Tanner watching closely. What he didn't realise until much later, this southerner with a penchant for scams and talking like he'd swallowed a dictionary, would become his best friend.

But this was not the scene that confronted Nathan as he stood on the battlefield now. There was no sign of any scrawny child covered in blood, wearing a uniform too big for him. All there was, were broken wounded bodies calling for him, begging him for help. They surrounded him, their desperate eyes pleading for help but there was just too many. He saw their sunken eyes as they dragged themselves across the ground, past the dead bodies of fallen comrades and limbs blown apart by mortar fire. He heard their horses braying pitifully, haunting the air because he could do nothing for them.

He felt them clawing at his ankles, their fingers digging into his skin and their desperate eyes trapping him with guilt and futility.

"Please Mister!"

Nathan turned to the familiar voice and then nearly screamed because he could only stare at Vin Tanner, looking at him with half a face. It looked like someone had shot Vin in the head and blown apart half his skull. He looked at Nathan with his skull cracked and exposed. Vin reached for Nathan with his small hand, missing fingers, while bloated flies buzzed around the open sore of his head.

"You gotta help my friend."

And as Nathan looked over his shoulder, he saw the rest of the seven were there too, looking like rotting corpses on the battlefield, smiling at him.

CHAPTER NINE:

CHIVALRY

When JD Dunne came running along the corner of the wrap around porch surrounding the Travis home, he expected Nathan to be facing off mad cultists in red robes. Instead, he found the former medic lying against the wooden floorboards, his eyes staring blankly into some unknown place beyond JD's ability to see. JD's heart clenched at the sight of the healer, before he raised his eyes to the darkness, searching for the enemy he knew was there but had yet to see.

As the newest member of the team, JD often felt out of his depth, even though he had proven his value numerous times to Chris Larabee over the past year. When he had come into the company of the six men who were in their way accomplished as they were eclectic, JD had never expected their acceptance. In the beginning, he thought he was tolerated but in truth, as Vin admitted one night when they were both drinking hard at Paloma's, their group felt most complete when there was a youngest for them to care about. During the war, Vin had played the role but now it was JD's turn.

"Nathan," JD dropped to his knees next to the tall black man who was facing away from him. He was tossing his head from side to side, his face filled with anguish and JD wondered what terrible thing he was seeing during his delirium. A spot of blood against Nathan's collar made JD examine the skin near the fabric and he soon discovered the small pinprick against Nathan's throat. It had struck him just beneath the ear and whatever it was that penetrated his skin, it was small enough to reduce the man to his current incapacitated condition.

A slight whoosh of sound suddenly broke against the grain of the crickets chirping and nocturnal quiet. JD turned around in its direction only to feel something bite into his arm. It was strong enough to penetrate the fabric of his tuxedo jacket, until he could feel it entering his skin, no doubt in the same way it had done to Nathan and possibly Josiah.

"Aw crap..." he started to curse and felt the warmth spreading over his body, aware that in seconds he would be caught in the grips of the same trap that had ensnared his friends.

+ + + + + + +

"You're finished," a derisive voice spoke, and JD looked up to see Peter Nichols staring at him wearing a smirk on his face after it was all said and done.

JD sat outside Professor Orin Travis's office, his knuckles still bandaged from the nurse's treatment, seeing doom in Mariette Nichols face as she walked past with her son, Peter. The dress on her back was worth his college tuition and she regarded him like something left behind on the sole of her shoe. Her son, sporting the considerable black eye and split lip JD had given him earlier, grinned in satisfaction.

As he passed by JD, Peter made a slashing motion across his throat, gloating with triumph because money and position had given him the last laugh and JD saw his future, disintegrating with that smarmy smile. Leaning heavily back into the bench, JD blinked slowly, aware of just how bad this was going to go, even before he was summoned into the Professor's office. Turning away from mother and son, he decided to stare at them would change nothing and served to remind him what a moment of temper was going to cost him.

"Mr Dunne," Gloria Potter, the Professor's very efficient secretary interrupted his defeated thoughts. "Professor Travis will see you now."

JD remembered how he'd been shown into the office, his heart was pounding so loudly, they were almost a drum beat. He entered the dignified room with its shelves of leather-bound books, its wood panel walls and the sturdy walnut desk behind which Orin Travis held court. The smell of old books always comforted him but not today, not when he saw Travis looking at him with a sombre expression that did not bode well for the rest of the meeting.

"How bad is it Sir?" JD asked before the Professor could speak. Normally speaking out of turn was out of character for JD who revered Travis, not merely as the head of the college and the curator of the university museum, but as a man he respected.

"They've revoked your scholarship, son."

From the moment he calmed down after beating up Peter Nichols for calling him the bastard child of some pick me up girl, JD expected the worst. Months of bullying from Peter, a member of Albuquerque's more prominent families, had resulted in an explosion of fury JD had been unable to control. His ma had worked all her life to make sure he had money enough to get him through college with the help of his scholarship. She'd died not long after he'd graduated, and JD still felt the sting of her loss.

Although his father died during the war, Peter had taken great relish in promoting the rumour JD was a bastard. While such insults were something he'd been accustomed to all his life, hearing his mother being called a tramp was too much for him to bear so soon after her death. He'd gone after Peter, unleashing months of pent-up fury, needing to be restrained by his classmates before he caused the snotty bastard too much harm.

Now it appeared Nichols had the last laugh after all.

JD felt the air escape out of his lungs like someone had deflated him like a balloon. He slumped forward, bracing himself on the edge of the Professor's desk, knowing his life was over. He would become just another face on the breadlines, consigned to the scrap heap of unrealised potential. All that study and effort had been for nothing. He wanted to cry but he would not let the Professor see how devastating this news was. At the very least, he'd walk out of here with his head held high.

"I'm sorry Mr Dunne," the Professor apologised. "I did everything I could to keep this from happening, but Mariette Nichols has a lot of pull. Aside from being a member of the school board, many of the others are her friends. She wanted you expelled but the compromise was the loss of your scholarship."

Compromise? JD almost snorted. Mariette Nichols knew perfectly well he was on his own, relying on the pittance his mother had saved all her life to send him to college. Even then it was his scholarship that got him here. What she left hadn't been enough to cover his living expenses for the years of study. To make ends meet, JD worked nights as a busboy. Without a scholarship, he couldn't afford to remain in school. It wasn't an expulsion, but it finished him just the same.

"Well that's it then," JD managed to say, his mood descending into resignation since anger would avail him nothing. "I'm done."

Peter was right about that, he thought ruefully.

"Not necessarily," the Professor countered. "If you can make the tuition, you can stay."

"I don't have that kind of money," JD stated shaking his head, wondering if the man knew the suggestion was a carrot dangling out of his reach. "I've been working nights just to stay on campus."

Travis didn't speak for a long time, eyeing him with deep contemplation. With sadness, JD thought how much he would miss being in the man's classes, how lively their debates had been about history and ancient cultures. He had an ear for languages and had picked up several since he began his study and now it was all over. The dreams of his future, turning to ash in the wake of his fiery temper. Then again, it was probably what Peter wanted.

And then just as JD was about to slip into complete despair, Travis spoke again and said the words that changed his life.

"Are you willing to take a sabbatical for a year?"

JD stared at him with impatience. "It don't matter if I take a year off, I still won't be able to make enough money..."

"I know," Travis stopped him, gesturing JD to let him speak. "But some friends of my need a good translator and someone with an understanding of ancient cultures. The work is unorthodox and dangerous, but if I know Chris Larabee, he'll pay you fairly and what you could make in a year, would pay your college tuition, without you needing to bus tables."

JD had thought it was too good to be true and the truth was, it wasn't too good to be true.

It was better.

+ + + + + + +

Instead of what truly happened, JD now found himself standing at the end of a line. An endless breadline filled with grim faces and desperation. He looked at his clothes and saw himself clad in workman's clothes, no different than the others standing in this conveyor belt of misery. As he stood there, freezing in the cold, hands digging into his pockets trying to gain some warmth, he looked down the road and saw a car speeding past. It was shiny and gleaming, catching all the sun there was on this dismally grey day.

As it sped past him, he saw Peter Nichols through the window, making the same slashing gesture across his throat, grinning.

+ + + + + + +

When enough time passed and none of his associates returned to the room, Ezra Standish began to get concerned. Despite his injury, he left the safety and warmth of the Professor's study with instructions to the man and his daughter to remain where they were. Armed with his Remington, Ezra discarded the sling even though his shoulder still ached. However, if there was trouble brewing, he had no wish to be hindered by the restriction on his arm.

Moving stealthily through the house, he arrived at the front door in no time. Josiah had been keeping a vigil on this section of the house, facing the lone street. On the other side was spruce trees, providing too much cover for an enemy to use to their advantage. It took him but a split second to spot Josiah who was lying on the floor, muttering incoherently to himself. No doubt experiencing whatever troubling hallucinations he must have been dosed with, to reduce him to such a state.

Perhaps it was the years spent studying the nuances of behaviour, no matter how subtle, to hone his skills as a grifter, that allowed him to see the sudden movement in the corner of his eye. The figure darted out of the shadows quickly, brandishing the tools with which she intended to incapacitate him. He barely had a second to step out of its line of fire before the poisoned dart was flying through the air. It hit the hard obstruction of wood, small needle incapable of penetrating the surface before it tumbled to the floor.

Without thinking twice, he opened fire. Shooting into the shadows, where the robed figure had vanished, the gunshots only serve to shake loose from the foliage, the men awaiting amongst the tall grass and spruce trees, ready to attack. There were at least five of them. While his instincts told him to grab Josiah and pull the big man through the doorway, Ezra also knew with his arm the way it was, he could not manage it without getting them both killed.

Instead, he wasted no time taking aim and firing at the first Erran he saw. The explosion of gunfire scattered the others but this time, they were not armed with blades. At their dispersal, Ezra hurried towards Josiah, hoping the delay might allow him to get the big man to his feet. He no sooner wrapped his hand around Josiah's arm when a bullet whizzed past his ear.

"Oh bother!" Ezra cursed and was almost forced to flatten himself on the floorboards when it struck the wall behind him, sending splinters in all directions.

"Mr Sanchez!" Ezra hissed, "this is no time to be lying down on the job!"

Unfortunately, Josiah was beyond hearing him.

The older man was caught completely in his delirium, calling out a name the seven knew well. It was one they only heard when the man was in a drunken stupor and though he never explained who she was to him, it was clear, she was someone he loved dearly, whose loss was so deep, recovery seemed impossible. Ezra saw the shooter appear again through the trees and returned fire, this time, his aim was better, and he saw the man spasm in pain before collapsing into the grass.

"MR SANCHEZ! MOVE!" Ezra repeated himself more forcefully, using all the strength he could muster to haul Josiah to his feet, his good arm screaming in protest at the exertion since he needed his injured one to fire. The forceful demand provoked Josiah into moving, though Ezra doubted he was aware of anything beyond his hallucination. The two of them stumbled through the front door, just as bullets exploded behind them.

He saw one graze Josiah's leg without the big man having the slightest awareness of it. Josiah was still lost in his stupor, moaning for the woman he'd lost, even as he trailed blood across the front landing. A surge of uncharacteristic panic filled the gambler at that moment as he pulled Josiah to safety, wondering what condition JD and Nathan were in presently. He had heard no gunshots from the other side of the house and could not imagine the Erran attacking from only one direction, not after what they'd done at the museum.

Almost on cue, he heard glass breaking and knew the Erran were about to invade the house unimpeded. Shutting the front door with a loud slam, even as more bullets dug into the wood from the outside, Ezra got to his feet and hurried towards the breakage. He was running up the corridor when he heard more alarming sounds, this time of scuffling, like those belonging to bodies in a struggle.

Ezra burst into the room and saw Mary Travis writhing against the grip of the behemoth he and Josiah had confronted at the museum. He had his massive arm locked around her throat, prepared to snap her slender neck if he did not get what he wanted. The man's eyes widened and then narrowed with calculation as his gaze brushed Ezra's and he tightened his grip, turning Mary's face red from suffocation.

"Give me the Heart NOW!" He bellowed, speaking not to Ezra but to Orin Travis.

Ezra saw the hesitation in Orin's face at handing over the heart but overriding that was the fear for his daughter's life and knew there and then, he would fold. How could he not? Ezra wasn't about to let him face the choice and aimed his gun at the man's head.

"You won't be alive long enough to pull the trigger," Ezra warned smoothly. His Remington was raised to put a bullet in the man's forehead f he did not let Mary go this instant.

"The same might be said for you," the voice that brushed his ear like a lover's kiss was decidedly female, with a hint of an exotic accent. "Put down the gun or you'll die where you stand."

To illustrate the point, something pressed up against his spine that felt like the barrel of a gun.

Ezra exhaled with a frown, giving Mary a look of apology at being helpless to stop what was about to happen. Even if he chose to ignore his assailant and make the shot, it was likely he would be dead before he pulled the trigger. The inconvenience of it annoyed him to no end. With an almost imperceptible expression on his face, Ezra allowed the barrel of his gun to lower, his finger holding it by the trigger guard.

"Now," she spoke behind Ezra. "You will give us the Heart and your pillar."

"I can give you the Heart," Orin declared defeated, his expression grim because he knew he could not bear the thought of any harm coming to Mary, even if it was likely these Erran would kill them all as soon as they got their hands on the artefact. "But the Pillar isn't here."

"Where is it?" She demanded. Her ire at his answer was reflected by the sharp jab in Ezra's back.

"It's in a vault at the Albuquerque bank," Orin answered without hesitation.

"Get the Heart!" The man barked. "Do it now!"

"Professor..." Ezra started to object when he felt the cold steel shoved painfully against his spine to warn him back into silence.

"It would be most unfortunate if I have to put a big hole in your infidel back!" The woman hissed.

"Come now," Ezra said smoothly, "I find your intolerance most offensive. After all, I did not bring up the fact that I was being held at gunpoint by a woman. It certainly isn't fair for you to remark about my religious affiliations."

"Be silent!" She ordered, and Ezra noticed the Professor retrieving the Heart from where he had stored it, inside a wall safe in his office, shortly after returning to the residence.

Ezra knew the instant they got their hands on the Heart, there was only one thing to be done and with more windows being broken and the door kicked in, he knew they would soon be surrounded by the Erran. The Erran had planned to kill everyone at the museum, Ezra had no reason to believe that the cultist intended to change their pattern of behaviour.

"Dad don't do it!" Mary managed to rasp as Orin approached her and her captor with the heart.

In retaliation for her outburst, the man snapped his arm against her windpipe, turning her words into a hoarse groan of pain.

"Here take it!" Orin snapped, the action having the desired effect on him and he handed over the artefact to the Erran. Mary's face was almost purple, with tears streaming down her cheeks from her bloodshot eyes.

Her condition infuriated him, and Ezra declared coldly. "Far be it for me to behave anything but chivalrously towards a woman, but I can endure this no more."

Without warning, he snapped his head back hard, striking the woman's head with the back of his skull. No sooner than the action was done, he spun around like a dancer doing the jitterbug and shoved away the hand holding the gun. She pulled the trigger just as one of the Erran entered the room and blew out the back of his head. Brain matter splattered against the wall as the man collapsed to the ground.

The distraction gave Mary time to act as the hand around her throat loosened when the behemoth saw Ezra snatching the gun away from the woman behind him. Mary brought her foot down against his leg and dug her nails into his arm, preparing to take flesh with her.

"WHORE!" He snapped and swatted her with a backhanded blow. Mary tumbled against a small table against the wall, landing badly. Ezra winced when he heard the furniture breaking beneath her.

"Mary!" Orin shouted. However, before he could go to her, he was intercepted by the towering man whose only interest at this point was the artefact he was holding. Snatching it out of Orin's grip while the Professor was still staring at his daughter in worry, his face split into a grin of triumph.

The woman whose gun Ezra had liberated instead pulled out a long, thin object he recognised immediately as a blowgun, no doubt what she used to incapacitate the others when she saw her compatriot had the heart.

"Krestos! GO!" She ordered. "NOW!"

The man called Krestos barked orders at more of the Erran who entering the room, intending to deal with Ezra before he made a running jump through the window. With his considerable bulk, he smashed through the window like a wrecking ball, leaving fragments of wood and glass across the floor and rug, in his wake. The curtains billowed inwardly as the chill of the night air was swept into the room.

Ezra now, armed with two guns, aimed her own weapon at her face, while the other was brandished in the Erran closing in. Orin had rushed over to Mary, who was lying in the ruins of the table she had landed on. As they closed in, Ezra said smoothly. "Call them off," he warned her, "or the first bullet goes through your head."

She looked at him with a smile. "I think not." Her eyes narrowed with calculation, proceeding to lift the blowgun to her lips. "I think there is too much-misplaced chivalry in you to shoot a woman and even if you did, my brothers will cut you all down to pieces the instant you pull the trigger."

"Then I guess we have an interesting predicament ahead of us, my dear lady."

"I'd sooner you not," Chris Larabee's voice suddenly spoke as the leader of the Seven reached a hand around her face and yanked away the blowgun. She spun around to face the new arrival just as gunshots broke out from the window and from the hallway entrance. Ezra dropped to his feet to avoid being shot, scrambling towards Orin and Mary to ensure they did not get caught by the crossfire.

As Vin and Buck cut down the Erran in the room and outside of it, the woman glared at Chris Larabee and said with a hiss. "This is the second time tonight we have faced each other. The third time will be the last. Stay out of our affairs if you wish to live."

Without warning, she dropped an ampule against the floor, the small glass orb shattered spectacularly. Instinctively, Chris stepped back, having been on the receiving end of this woman's potions once already. However, what it contained was nowhere as noxious as what had disorientated him previously. Nevertheless, it hissed as soon as it was exposed to air, turning into a thick, enveloping cloud of lavender smoke that spread across the room in a thick, obscuring fog.

"We have the heart! Withdraw!" She yelled in a language that sounded very much like Arabic.

And like wraiths, the Erran receded into the fog and vanished.

CHAPTER TEN: PLANS

"How are they?" Chris asked Alexandra Styles when she re-appeared in the parlour where Orin Travis was holding court with his daughter, Chris, Vin, Buck and Ezra in the aftermath of the latest Erran attack.

This time, Chris was convinced the Erran wouldn't be returning, at least for the next few hours which meant they had to come up with a plan of how to proceed next. The Erran had acquired the Heart and despite scoring that little victory, the fanatics could not hope to carry out their plan of unmaking the world without the remaining Pillars, still in the possession of the Professor and Alex Styles.

After rescuing Alex from the Erran at her home and realising they might have a possible lead on where her father might have hidden his cryptex, it was decided by Chris, much to Vin's relief, Alex could not be left alone lest the Erran tried to abduct her again. When it was daylight, they would return to the vicinity of Seton Village and track down this mound dwelling William Styles was so interested in. Chris's gut instinct told him the Pillar was there.

"They're all sleeping it off," Alex explained after attending to the three men who were heavily drugged when she arrived at the Travis's home with Vin and his friends. Grateful she had taken her father's doctor's bag with her when she left the house, Alex found herself with three patients once the Erran were driven from the home. "They've been dosed with what might be Henbane. Normally its ingested but in this instance, it was injected through the bloodstream."

"They were using a blowgun," Ezra spoke up, having returned his arm to its sling now that it was no longer required to shoot. "I narrowly missed being struck by the wretched darts myself."

"What's it doing to them?" Vin asked, recalling the state they'd found Josiah, Nathan and JD, all muttering incoherently in their delirium. Whatever they were seeing, didn't sound pleasant.

"It's a powerful hallucinogen," she explained. "I think it comes from Arabia if my toxicology studies are correct. Fortunately, my dad kept a bottle of Antilirium in his bag, so I've administered a dose to all three of your friends. That should help them recover from its effects. Give them a few hours to let it pass through their system and they should be okay."

"Thank you, Miss Styles," Chris said with appreciation. Aside from Vin's obvious pleasure at being in her company, Chris was grateful they had Alex with them. Especially with the perilous condition, they found Josiah, Nathan and JD. While he could not be certain what nightmares they were experiencing in their delirium, he also knew those were the least of a hallucinogen's side effects. Chris had seen people die from such poisoning.

Alex had recognised the danger immediately and set to work, making Chris grateful they had a healer in their midst, especially if Nathan was himself incapacitated, even a fourth-year medical student.

"Please call me Alex," Alex gave the leader of the seven a little smile, which Chris found to be radiant. At that moment, Chris could see why it had affected Vin like a bullet to the brain.

Alex had now turned to Mary who was sitting on one of the wing chairs, holding a cold compress to her cheek. "Mare, how's that compress feeling?"

"Oh better," Mary said gratefully, lowering the cloth from her cheek, revealing the ugly bruise on her face.

The sight of it made Chris Larabee's spine stiffen in rage once more. As much as she was a pain in the ass, that lovely skin had no business being marred by such an ugly bruise and the ex-soldier was not at all impressed by anyone who would do that to a woman. When he had battled the Erran female earlier, he had loathed to strike her until his life was in jeopardy but the rough handling of Mary and Alex to intimidate both women had properly inspired his dislike.

"Mr Standish, is your arm alright?" Alex noted Ezra's sling with concern. It appeared she was not the only one who suffered at the hands of the Erran tonight, not after seeing all the injuries sustained by the group of people who had entered her life since meeting Vin Tanner.

Ezra exchanged a glance with Vin, who was trying not to stare at Alex but appeared unable to help himself, making the cynical gambler smile a little. If this was the young lady who had ensnared their unflappable Mr Tanner's affections, he could well understand the attraction. She was exceedingly beautiful and more refined than expected for a minimalist like Vin. However, he did note the affection was mutual, which pleased Ezra to no end.

Like Chris and Buck, Ezra still remembered the scrawny young boy who had scoured the ruined landscape of Northern France to find him a medic when he was bleeding into the mud. Whether or not Vin knew it, the five men he served with would always feel a little protective of him, no matter how old or capable he was.

"Yes, I shall survive Miss Styles," Ezra answered Vin's paramour. "Mr Jackson attended to it earlier in the evening but I was forced to discard the sling to deal with our ‘guests'."

"Alright," she nodded. "I can give you a hydrocodone tablet for the pain if you like."

"You are an angel, my dear," Ezra remarked, "but I prefer to medicate with cognac."

"He does his best work that way," Vin added helpfully, impressed with her doctoring. When they had spoken on the roof, he merely thought her beautiful and funny. Now he was seeing she was also kind and highly educated. Although her credentials should have intimidated him, since Vin's schooling was nowhere that extensive, Alex looked at him as if he were special and that overcame his fears regarding their compatibility.

"Very droll Mr Tanner," Ezra said good-naturedly and raised his glass to Vin, before taking a sip in confirmation of the sharpshooter's point.

"Alexandra, I'm glad you're safe," Orin Travis said gratefully before leaning back into his chair, relaxing after the day's trials. "I had hoped to warn you of those men tonight, but it appears I was too late."

"It's alright Orin, you couldn't have known they were going to come after me," Alex said taking the empty spot next to Vin on the leather sofa. The sharpshooter shifted to give her room, his hand covering hers when she was settled next to him.

"Unfortunately, this doesn't change the fact, we need a plan," Chris spoke up. The leader of the seven was leaning against the mantle above the fireplace, trying to decide what to do next. It was obvious, everyone in this room was in danger, especially now they were all known to the Erran. "They've got the heart and to make it work, they'll need the remaining cryptices."

"Which means, they'll be back," Buck grumbled.

"It gets worse than that," Ezra volunteered. "I believe Doctor Styles's anxiety regarding the mythology of the Tablet has a direct bearing on the daughters of the men who uncovered the artefacts in the first place. It is most likely the reason he took such great pains to conceal his own artefact and why he was so interested in the mythology surrounding it."

"What do you mean?" Chris asked, not liking the sound of this one damn bit.

"Part of the ritual to access the Heart's power involves sacrificing them," Ezra explained.

"Hell," Buck cursed out loud. "You mean they're going to need Mary and Alex?"

"It appears so," Orin replied. "No wonder Will was so worried about keeping the artefacts out of the Erran's reach. Without the complete list of artefacts, they can't initiate the ritual."

"Would they need all of the ladies?" Buck asked, not liking the idea that any woman in their company would be in danger that way. Like Chris, each time Buck saw the bruises on the faces of Mary and Alex, he had to grit his teeth to stave off his rage. Growing up in a bordello where his mother Rose was a working girl, Buck had grown to loathe any man taking their fists to a woman after seeing how some customers behaved.

"I'm not sure," Orin answered truthfully, casting a look at both Mary and Alex respectively, his concern for their safety apparent on his face. "Your father was the expert on the Tablet." He said to Alex.

"All right," Chris nodded, absorbing all the new intelligence presented to him and quickly formulated a plan of attack. "In the morning, assuming the kid is in any shape to think straight, me, Vin and JD are going to head back to Doctor Styles's place in Seton Village. I want JD to go over his research on the Tablet and the details about the ritual. My hunch is, they don't need all your daughters to make it work. If so, they'd be already in trouble."

"How so?" Alex had to ask, being the only one in the room not aware of Chris's past.

"Hank Connelly's daughter Sarah was my wife," Chris said quietly, "she's been..." he paused a moment when the word caught in his throat. "Gone for five years," he continued after a second. Even after all these years, Chris couldn't bring himself to say the word ‘dead'. He just couldn't.

Alex was dismayed by the sorrow she saw in the man's eyes and immediately felt guilty for inadvertently surfacing such an obviously still open wound. Sensing he would prefer she not well on it, she opted to push past the moment. "I'm sorry Chris," she said obligatorily. "But yes, that does make sense."

Chris realised what she was doing and gave her a little smile of appreciation, noting Mary's eyes fixed on him at that moment as well, an enigmatic look on her face as she studied him. Shaking off her scrutiny because he couldn't get a bead on it, Chris returned to their discussion. "While JD's doing the research, Vin and me will go try and track down the Pillar. Alex you'll have to come with us. You know where this place is."

Alex nodded. "Alright," she replied and felt Vin's hand squeezing hers and felt a surge of warmth at how good it felt.

"What about the Professor?" Ezra inquired. "Neither he nor Miss Travis can remain here. The Erran were chased off because of your untimely arrival but they are proving to be increasingly persistent. I do not doubt they will be back and soon."

"Ezra's right Chris," Vin added, looking at Orin. "They'll try to grab you and Miss Travis, not just for their ritual but for leverage. Chances are they'll need to use her to try and force you into giving them the Pillar."

"Wonderful," Mary grumbled. "If we don't give it to them, they're going to keep coming after us and if we do, they'll snatch either me or Alex."

"Maybe Vin is right," Buck sighed. "Maybe we need to destroy one of the pieces to make it impossible for them to carry out the ritual at all.

"Destroy?" Orin's expression showed his abhorrence to that idea. Like all scholars, the idea of destroying an ancient relic was horrifying to him but his distaste soon withered into understanding when he realised what the stakes were and how conclusive this action would be to ending the threat of the Erran.

"I don't think that would help," Chris replied. "I get the feeling if we did that, they'd kill us all out of spite. First things first, we get you and your daughter out of here. We need to hide you out someplace they won't think to look."

"They've been watching us for a long time, Chris," Orin sighed unable to ignore that reality. "For years as a matter of fact. I don't know where we could hide they might not know about."

The man's face was glum. His fears, Chris suspected, were not for himself, but for his daughter.

"I got a place," Chris replied after a moment, his expression unreadable and his decision not to elaborate was telling. "Pack a bag, tell the university you won't be coming in for at least a week. Miss Travis, I suggest you do the same. In the meantime, Buck when Nathan and Josiah are on their feet, we need to retrieve the Professor's cryptex. Where is it, Orin?"

"Well, I decided to keep it in the best place you keep anything valuable, in a vault at the bank." Orin volunteered.

"That sounds safe enough," Buck agreed. "No way they would try to break into a bank to get the damn thing."

"I am not so certain," Ezra shrugged not about to discount the possibility. "The actions of the Erran so far have proven they had little regard for our institutions or how much collateral damage they are willing to do to gain what they want. They attacked a museum full of the city's most illustrious citizens, with the intention of slaughtering them all to get their hands on the Heart. To say nothing of the fact, they managed to regroup after their initial failure to launch another attack on the same night. While it might seem beyond their reach to make the attempt, I would not put it past them."

"Ezra's right," Chris agreed with a frown. "We can't assume they won't make a run for it but the moment, they don't know where it is. That's the best thing we got going for us but Ezra's also right about how fast they put together another attack."

"What do you know about these Erran?" Vin asked. "I mean aside from the fact they're a bunch of murdering bastards who want to remake the world or something."

"William is the real expert..." Orin started to say when Mary interrupted.

"The Erran existed from the first century," she explained, giving her father a look to let him know she could take it from here. Since Orin took her into his confidence about the Erran and the Pillars, Mary had conducted her own research into the cult and uncovered a wealth of information regarding the history of the Erran. "According to what I was able to uncover, they were worshippers of the ancient Mesopotamian deity Erra, who is the God of Chaos and Destruction, but were either wiped out or driven underground in the 6th century by the rise of the Muslim caliphate."

"It would make sense," Chris replied, hiding how impressed he was with her at having this information. Of course, she was probably still an opinionated pain in the ass, but still pretty to look at. "The caliphates weren't too tolerant of false gods once Islam entered the mainstream. They would have definitely placed any cult-like that under persecution."

"Charming," Ezra frowned. "Because extreme behaviour has such a proven track record of stamping out the followers of such religions. I am certain the Romans thought they had seen the last of those pesky Christians when they fed the poor souls to the lions."

"Exactly," she flashed Ezra a smile.

Chris bristled inwardly, feeling a surge of irritation when the gambler returned it with his trademarked dimpled smile. For some reason, the idea of Ezra around Orin Travis's daughter rubbed him the wrong way, even if Chris had no interest in the woman at all, not in the slightest, even if she did have the most magnificent legs he'd ever seen and equally captivating eyes. Absolutely no interest at all.

"Go on," he said brusquely, shooting Ezra a look of annoyance for interrupting her when he wanted to hear what else she had to say. Yeah, that was the reason, an inner voice chided in sarcasm.

From where he was, Buck Wilmington stifled the shit-eating grin of knowing that would have surely landed him a knuckle sandwich if he chose to make comment about his observations of Chris's behaviour.

"Well it's probably why they disappeared for nearly twelve hundred years," Mary resumed speaking, noting the flash in the man's icy blue eyes, she couldn't understand. "In the late 1800s, they showed up in England as the Children of Erran, led by a man called Narseh Shah. Narseh was an Arabian professor who claimed to be the descendant of Adashir Shah, the first ruler of the Sassanid Empire. He managed to successfully convert a lot of rich aristocrats from London society, the kind that used to follow Aleister Crowley around."

"The psychic? Alex exclaimed, wondering if this story could get any more bizarre. Leaning into the sofa, she found herself resting in the crook of Vin's shoulder, feeling bewildered because she had no idea the tales her father had been telling her had so much to do with his death.

"Yes," Mary nodded, the same. "In any case, it was Narseh who first introduced the idea of remaking the world using the old legend of Enki and the Tablets. These followers were devoted enough to fund him and so the movement grew. Now, I have very little about the specifics of the cult beyond that, but I do know that Narseh died, leaving the Erran in the hands of his two children. His son Adashir, after the Sassanid king and a daughter Aisha. They were born in the 1900s."

"Chris," Vin spoke up. "He could have been the son of a bitch who escaped through the window when I got to Alex."

Upon mentioning it, Vin felt Alex shudder slightly at the memory of the encounter. She pressed her body closer to his, prompting him to wrap an arm around her shoulder in comfort.

"And the gal with the fancy chemicals you and Ezra tangled with could be the daughter," Buck pointed out.

"She did appear to be giving the orders," Ezra agreed with Buc's assertion.

"Well you can't stay here," Chris declared, even more convinced they needed to leave the place tonight. "You need to get packing," he turned to Orin. "I don't think we should wait around here until they make another attempt to get their hands on you. The Pillars you have in your possession is all that stands in their way of carrying out their ritual."

"And I guarantee you," Ezra said grimly, "the next time they appear, they will be coming back in numbers to abduct either Miss Travis or Miss Styles, possibly even both. If they wish the Professor to produce his cryptex, they will require the leverage."

Orin stiffened at the thought, casting an anxious glance at Mary who seemed no happier at the prospect. She'd seen what the Erran had been willing to do at the museum and her throat still throbbed from where that behemoth had almost choked the life out of her. She had no wish to be in their power for an even more sinister purpose.

"Let's get moving," Chris noticed the fear in her eyes. "We'll get all three of you somewhere safe and then decide how to deal with the Erran."

This time his tone was nowhere as harsh as it had been, especially when he saw the vulnerability beneath the self-assured mask Mary wore to reinforce her ability to take care of herself.

"Where do you plan to keep us, Mr Larabee?" Mary asked, indicating more than just herself and her father, but Alex too. It seemed both she and Alex were going to be the price for their father's youthful follies.

"At the ranch," Chris replied, not meeting the gazes of any one of his friends.

"The ranch?" Buck exclaimed, staring at Chris in nothing less than shock. He hadn't heard Chris mention the place in years, not since Adam and Sarah had died.

"Yeah," Chris shrugged uncomfortably and noted both Vin and Ezra staring at him in puzzlement. "I own a ranch. I just haven't spent a lot of time up there, that's all."

Buck shot both men a silent order not to pursue the matter and take Chris's explanation at face value. Vin and Ezra caught the look and took the advice, perfectly aware if Buck was giving the warning, it was for good reason. It most likely had to do with the one subject Chris Larabee would not discuss with anyone, despite their camaraderie. The death of his wife and son. After four years together, the rest of the seven knew that topic was absolutely off limits.

Later on, when time and discretion permitted it, Buck would explain to them about the Larabee ranch located between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

Shortly before the tragedy, Chris had bought the place, intending to move the family there from the military housing provided by Kirtland Army Base where he had been stationed. Sarah had hated not having a home of her own and Buck knew Chris and Sarah had discussed expanding their family, so they would need the space. His father left him an inheritance after the man's passing and he'd bought it as a surprise for Sarah.

It was a surprise she would never see because two days after Chris signed the papers, Sarah and Adam died in a house fire. Chris had never gone back to the place, even though he owned it. Buck supposed it was a good sign, Chris had even mentioned it, let alone offer it as a safe house for the Professor and the two ladies. Besides, Orin Travis had given them purpose when they were at the lowest points in their lives and strengthened their frayed bonds of brotherhood into something transcendent.

They owed him.

CHAPTER ELEVEN:

MOUND

It was still dark when they arrived at the ranch some two hours later.

When Chris suggested it as a hiding place for Orin Travis, his daughter Mary and Alexandra Styles, he had no idea how difficult it would be coming back to the twenty-acre ranch he bought almost five years ago. Although he told himself on numerous occasions, he should sell the place, something always held him back. Perhaps it was knowing if he got rid of it, he'd be ridding himself of the last vestiges of his life as a husband and father. It was ridiculous of course, it was just a place and neither Sarah nor Adam had ever set foot on it.

Chris bought the twenty-acre property, with the five-bedroom Pueblo adobe home, days before the house fire that would take their lives. The death of his father a few years earlier left Chris with enough money to buy the place since he and Sarah had talked about having another child and she hated army housing. It was a surprise he never had a chance to unveil because she died before he could show it to her and since then, Chris had been unable to come anywhere near it.

Yet for all his protestations, he still maintained the property, ensuring the grounds were tended to and the house was kept ready for his return as if prescience told him, staying away indefinitely was a finite state of affairs. One day, he would marshal up the courage to come back here and take up residence, when he was finally tired of the apartment he occupied in town.

"Nettie still coming in twice a week?" Buck asked as he and Chris helped the still unconscious Josiah to one of the empty bedrooms to let their resident mechanic and former seminary student, sleep off the effects of the drug he, Nathan and JD were poisoned with.

"Yeah, she and Casey," Chris nodded, using one hand to open the door to the room, while the other kept hold of Josiah's arm around his shoulder. Nettie Wells was an army nurse they met following the Oise-Aisne Offensive when they nearly lost Ezra and first met Nathan. She was the only one who treated the medic with any kind of respect, even though he performed the battlefield treatment that allowed Ezra to survive long enough to get to a hospital.

When Buck was forced to head out to California for work, having remained at Chris's side for as long as he could after the fire, it was Nettie who retired in the area, kept him from relapsing into despair again. Nettie helped him recover from his six-month drinking binge and kept a vigil on him when Buck could not. In gratitude, Chris gave Nettie an acre of land on the property, so she could raise her recently orphaned grand niece Casey. Of course, Nettie, being Nettie, insisted on paying her way by volunteering to maintain the house when she learned he was looking to hire someone for the job.

True enough, when the door swung open, Chris and Buck were able to put Josiah down on a bed that was made up with fresh linen in a room that smelled recently aired. There was even cut wildflowers in a vase by the window. The little touches of femininity made Chris smile until a pang of sorrow hit him once again, wondering what Sarah would have done to this house if she had been alive to live in it. Forcing away the pain because it would do him no good, Chris focussed his thoughts on helping Josiah onto the mattress. No doubt, Vin and Orin were doing the same to Nathan in one of the other five bedrooms.

"She's kept it up real nice," Buck complimented as he pulled off Josiah's shoes and lay them on the floor next to the bed. "How are you doing?"

Chris met Buck's gaze. "Fine I guess," he looked around the empty room and let out a sigh. "Never thought I'd be coming back like this."

"Sometimes the circumstances don't give you much of a choice," Buck stated as they straightened up, preparing to leave the room, perfectly aware how difficult this was for Chris. As it was, the pilot was rather amazed Chris had volunteered the use of the place at all. Buck had been with Chris when he first looked the property over with the intention of buying it for Sarah.

"Buck," Chris said quietly, with such profound sadness in his voice it made the pilot pay attention immediately. "I can't remember what it was like to hear Adam call me Pa anymore. I can't remember how Sarah's hair felt against my fingers. I used to know every line and curve on her face and now I need to look at a picture just to remember what she looked like."

Buck's heart tightened in his chest hearing that admission, seeing the anguished look in Chris's eyes revealing how much this bothered him. "Maybe it's time, Chris."

Chris grew cold at the thought. "I can't. If I do that, it's like they never existed."

"You know better than that Chris," he countered gently. "Life goes on, as hard and painful as it is, it just does. You've been the rock that's held us together these four years. You made us a family when we had none. Just like it was in France, you've done that for us now, but you've got to move on. It's time to let them go."

"No," he shook his head unable to stomach the thought. "I can't. I wouldn't know how."

Buck didn't press because Chris could be stubborn about such things. Even as children in Arizona, fighting bullies in the playground together, Chris had a stubborn streak running through him that bordered on obstinate. He would fight the tide of change washing over him until the absolute last moment.

A sudden snort from Josiah broke the silence between them, prompting Chris to step away from the bed, the moment of vulnerability vanishing into the night. Leaving Josiah to sleep off the effects of the drug, they stepped into the hallway, with Chris closing the door quietly behind him. They had no sooner stepped onto the terracotta tiled hallway, when they heard the clacking of heels against the stone, preceding the appearance of Mary at the end of the corridor.

She was still wearing the pink gown from the evening at the museum with her hair hanging loose and Chris had to admit, even slightly dishevelled, she was a stunning beauty.

Until she spoke.

"Mr Larabee, please tell me you have a telephone somewhere in this place."

Chris stiffened, able to guess right away how this conversation was going to go. He was in no mood for complaints, especially when he had invited her and her father to take refuge in this house of all places. While it had been necessary at the time, the emotional toll it was taking on him was significant. Coming back here was making short work of his temper.

"Sorry," he said indifferently as he and Buck approached her. "I ain't been here long enough to need a line being run out to the property."

"Well I cannot be out of contact with my newspaper indefinitely," she huffed, seemingly oblivious to his brusque manner. "I will need to tell them where I am."

"Chris I can run the lady to a phone booth..." Buck offered, not about to waste the opportunity to spend some quality time with a gorgeous blond, not to mention head off any arguments before one got started.

"No," Chris said firmly. "The reason I'm letting you and your dad stay here is that none of those crazy sons of bitches knows about this place and that's not going to change by you calling your newspaper and telling them where you are."

"My editor...." she started to protest but he cut her off abruptly.

"Can be tortured and made to talk like anyone else. You're staying put." He tried to make her cower with the infamous Larabee glare.

It did not work.

Buck saw the woman's blue-grey eyes light up with the same white-hot fury in Chris's icy blue ones, taking great exception to being spoken to in such a manner. Eyes narrowing, her hands flew to her hips and she looked prepared for battle. "Mr Larabee, I am not one of your men, do not speak to me like I am a child."

"Then stop behaving like one," Chris retaliated, more than ready to cross swords with her if she intended on challenging him in his own house. "It isn't safe for you to go telling anyone where you are so why don't you run along," he gestured with his fingers in possibly the most condescending manner known to all womankind, "and find a comfortable spot for that pretty little butt of yours because you're not going anywhere, any time soon."

Buck almost slapped his face with his palm at that statement, but instead closed his eyes in a wince, bracing himself for the storm about to descend. He almost stepped back to get out of range until he noticed something about the exchange that made him reconsider his next move.

"First of all," Mary glared at Chris in barely concealed outrage, fighting to remind herself not to throw his hospitality back in his face. "My butt though extremely pretty is none of your concern. Secondly..."

"Okay, okay," Buck intervened before this became any more heated or blood was spilled. "It's been a long night and we're all a might bit testy. Why don't we talk about this in the morning, after we get a good night's rest?"

In the last few minutes, watching the confrontation between the two, preparing to face each other, across the battle lines of their stubborn will, Buck realised the tension being generated by the duo was not entirely out of animosity. It dawned on Buck now that perhaps the reason why Chris was so damned intent on protecting the woman, had more to do with his own feelings about her rather than any obligation to the Professor.

"Fine," Mary pulled away first, deciding she was not about to get into a shouting match with this sexist pig, especially when he was offering her, Alex and her father refuge from the Erran. However, if he thought for one instant, she was going to submit like some helpless female, requiring his protection or for that matter permission, before she acted, Mr Larabee was in for a big disappointment. "This discussion is not over."

With that, she spun on her heels and went back the way she came. Chris said nothing for a few seconds, staring after her, muttering under his breath before Buck broke the silence.

"Next time try flowers."

Chris almost punched him.

+ + + + + + +

If Chris thought he had Mary Travis handled, he was wrong.

In fact, he was learning all that it took to ruin a perfectly good plan was to throw a dame into it.

Men, you could rely on. You could give them orders and they would obey it, because men were rational, disciplined creatures while dames, they weren't. Dames were like monkey wrenches in the works. They acted on impulse, questioned your orders, gave you lip at every turn and still managed to be completely distracting with their great legs and long, gold hair.

The dumb ones weren't too bad, you could reason with them, a little sweet talk and dinner at a fancy joint, that's all she wrote. The smart ones? They were always pains in the asses. Those were the ones who didn't come from Adam's rib, but rather the burr the man sat on butt naked in the Garden of Eden. Occasionally you'd get lucky and find a woman who was smart and reasonable like Sarah used to be and possibly Vin's Doctor Alex.

Mary Travis was in the pain in the ass category.

As far as he was concerned, everything had been decided the night before. Chris, Vin and JD would head back to Seton Village with Alexandra Styles, so she could show them the Aztec mound that so interested her father. Chris suspected Styles hid his cryptex within its confines and only a physical inspection of the site would allow them to determine exactly where. He had enough experience around Mesoamerican sites to have a rough idea of what he was looking at, even without the benefit of JD's perusal of the doctor's notes.

Of course, when it was time to head back to Seton Village, Mary insisted on joining them and no amount of arguing (and there had been quite a bit) would dissuade her. The Professor merely shrugged his shoulders in indifference. Chris thought Orin had the look of a punch-drunk fighter who had gone too many rounds with this opponent and simply didn't care anymore.

In any case, when they left his ranch, Mary was with them.

+ + + + + + +

With the Rocky Mountains running a jagged line over the horizon, they found the site easily once Alex pointed them in the right direction.

Located several miles away from the small community, the ancient Aztec mound stood in the shadow of the large hills running along the spine of the Cibola Forest. On first sighting, there was nothing to distinguish it from the others slopes and hills covering the sparsely vegetated plain. The mound was overgrown with grass and wildflowers, specifically lemon scent, fringe sage and saltbush. Judging by the lack of trails through the grass once you left the dirt road, Chris guessed no one had come calling for quite a while.

As Chris approached it with Vin, leading Mary and Alex, who had the good sense to be wearing pants and boots, he had to confess it was probably one of the largest mounds he'd seen outside of South America. The lay of the terrain also told him that while it might be of significant size above ground, the underground catacombs beneath it might be even larger. Chris had to admit the doctor had selected a good hiding place for his cryptex. Only Alex knew about their visit here and if he took care to hide the artefact in the structure, the Erran might never find it.

"When was the last time you were here?" Vin asked Alex as they started up the grass hill leading to the edge of the mound. They had left JD at the Styles's home with all the research William Styles had conducted on the Tablet of Destiny, mostly because the young man was still a little shaky from the ordeal the night before. The lack of complaint from JD on this point seemed to prove it.

"Not for a long time," Alex admitted, scanning the terrain and feeling a pang of sadness remembering the first time she and daddy had discovered this place. "I've only been here once or twice since we found it, during a trip to visit Orin and Mary. Dad was the one with the real fascination for the place."

"Well, I can understand why," Chris spoke from the head of the group. "Judging by the way its constructed, it's not a dwelling. It's way too big for that. If I had to take a guess, I'm gonna say we're only seeing a small part of the structure. I'll bet money when we get inside, we're going to find it's a lot bigger than we thought. It could be a community hall, a temple or possibly even a burial site."

Both Mary and Alex shuddered at the thought.

"Have you any archaeological expertise Mr Larabee?" Mary asked, begrudgingly forced to admit that while the man was an insufferable chauvinistic pig, she was fascinated by his expertise. As far as she knew, Chris Larabee had no academic background but having followed the activities of him and his group, he seemed quite knowledgeable about the ancient world and its artefacts.

"No," Chris remarked, not offended by the question at all. It wasn't the first time someone had made the inquiry. Besides her voice lacked the derision or sarcasm of their earlier conversations and he suspected the question came from a genuine place of interest. "But I've always had an interest in it. Picked up a few things during the war and I've learned enough the last four years to get by."

"Yeah right," Vin snorted at Chris's downplay of his skills. Every member of the team was aware Chris did a hell of a lot of research for their jobs. Anyone who'd visited Chris's digs in the city, would see it didn't look too different from Orin Travis's office and library, with all its books, drawings and old maps. Until JD had come along, it was Chris who did the reading about the artefacts they were hunting and the cultures they were most likely to encounter doing it.

"I'm impressed," Mary remarked, guessing the same from Vin's comment.

Chris's response was a grunt since he wasn't certain how to take compliments from the woman. Not based on their relationship so far.

Deciding she had no wish to listen to these two bicker again, especially after the car ride from the ranch, Alex chose to run interference. "Well if it helps, from what I remember there was one main chamber, with adjoining smaller ones. We found a few artefacts, you know old arrowheads, pots, a few pieces of jewellery, that sort of thing. I think the place has been looted over the centuries,"

"So, it's a maze," Mary frowned. "We could be searching for a needle in a haystack."

"You could have stayed in the car," Chris quipped, throwing her a smirk when they came to a set of rough stone steps that circled the mound and led to the top.

Mary's eyes narrowed as he started up the steps. "You are not going to change my mind, Mr Larabee. Continuing to sulk about it, isn't going to help."

"I'm not sulki..." Chris started to snap and took a deep breath, deciding he was not going to get into another argument. "Fine, whatever."

It didn't take long for them to get to the top of the mound and upon reaching it, found someone had installed a door over the existing entrance, sealing it with a formidable looking padlock and chain.

"Someone was determined to keep trespassers out," Chris remarked, staring at it.

"Someone,'" Vin came up alongside him. "You mean Alex's pa."

"Yeah," he nodded, glancing at the young woman. "I doubt a lock would have stopped the Erran, but your father might have put this here to keep trespassers from stumbling into what he might have hidden in here." Turning to Vin, he asked, "can you shoot it off?"

Vin's expression said no. "I wouldn't try. It might ricochet. A better bet is the chain."

"Alright," Chris nodded and took a step back. "Ladies, stand back, I don't want either of you getting hit if Vin's aim is off."

"Screw you, Larabee," Vin said sweetly, offended by the notion. "Sorry Alex, Mary."

"It's alright," Mary said before Alex could. "I share the sentiment."

+ + + + + + +'

After Vin's mare's leg obliterated one of the links on the thick chain keeping the entrance of the mound sealed, they descended a short flight of steps to the main chamber inside it. While some daylight penetrated its inner recesses, the rest of the windowless dome was almost pitch black, prompting the quartet into switching on their flashlights, to navigate the darkness.

It was as Alex described. The main chamber was a circular shaped room with doorways running along the walls to other parts of the mound. Scattered across the floor, was the detritus of a people long gone into the mists, with only the tools of their living scattered across the floor, to give any indication of their civilisation. No doubt the ancient dwellers of this mound had been absorbed into the Pueblos tribes who dominated this part of the country at one time or wiped out altogether.

In the centre of the room was a flat slab of stone which Chris had no doubt was the altar. He only hoped the Aztecs who occupied this place did not use it for sacrifices which were more than possible. With the beams from their torches bouncing off the walls, Chris suddenly spotted something that certainly did not belong to ancient Aztec culture. It was a half bag of cement resting against the wall and a wheelbarrow full of very modern tools.

Just as he made that discovery, he heard Vin call to him. "Hey pard, I think you need to look at this."

Chris turned around immediately and saw Vin's torch, now joined by Mary and Alex's, aimed at what was a doorway, except this one had been bricked up using very modern construction materials.

"Your pa's been busy," Vin said to Alex when Chris reached them.

"I had no idea," Alex said shaking her head, once again bothered by the fact William Styles had hidden so much from her. "I wish he had told me..."

"He was just trying to protect you," Mary said squeezing her shoulder gently.

Chris reached the wall and ran his finger along the newly sealed doorway. No doubt the cement and tools he just discovered had been used for this purpose. The job was quite rough, obviously undertaken by someone with little or no experience with menial labour, as Ezra would have put it. Bits of cement were smeared across the brick, flaking off easily when Chris brushed his palm against it. One of the stones appeared loose. Pushing against it, he could feel the grind of stone and knew it would not take much to break it down.

"Vin, there's a wheelbarrow back there, see if there's anything we can use to break through," Chris asked still studying the sturdiness of the wall. "I've got dynamite in the car, but I don't want to use it unless we have to. "

"You have dynamite in your car?" Mary exclaimed horrified. "The same car we came in?"

"I like to be prepared," he remarked, not really listening to her, more interested in the wall and what may be behind it. He had a pretty good suspicion if William Styles's paranoia was any indication.

"You think the cryptex is in there?" Alex asked, wondering what else her father had done to keep the secret and the riddle of the Tablet hidden from the Erran.

"I can't see any reason why he'd go to all the trouble otherwise," Chris looked over his shoulder at her, just in time to see Vin returning.

"Try this," Vin announced himself, carrying a sledgehammer. Despite their good fortune at finding such a useful tool for what they planned, Chris had to wonder why on Earth Styles would need such a tool. It certainly wasn't necessary for bricklaying.

He had a feeling they would find out soon enough.

With their torches aimed at the wall and Vin ensuring the women were a safe distance away, Chris swung the hammer over his shoulder and struck the wall hard. Vin had offered to do the work and Chris might just take him up on it if he needed relief, if the wall proved harder than it looked to demolish. Fortunately, Styles's lack of skill as a bricklayer meant it only took a few good swings before the bricks broke free of the cement holding them in place and falling backwards into the dark.

Chris kept up the pace for a few more minutes, sweating in the humid heat inside the mound, with no one trying to speak over the sound of breaking rock. Finally, enough of the brick wall had been dislodged and the whole thing crumbled in a large heap, sending cement dust into the air and bricks spilling through the opening, inside and out.

However, instead of another room, Chris found a set of steps descending into the darkness beneath the mound.

"Looking at Vin," he said with a sigh. "I guess we're going down this rabbit hole."

CHAPTER TWELVE: CHAMBER OF THE GODS

The smell was familiar.

After four years of sneaking into ziggurats, catacombs, mausoleum and old sewers, Chris Larabee knew immediately the smell of death. Whatever the original purpose of this construction, death had been a large part of it. Even if those interred here had been buried hundreds of years before, the stench of a post-decomposing body was unmistakable. Taking the lead, he descended the rough stone steps, carved hundreds of years before he or William Styles's was born and took the path the good doctor was so determined to hide.

Musty air assaulted him as he stepped through the doorway of crushed brick, leaving the main chamber behind. Perfectly aware that any entreaty to the women to stay behind would result in ten minutes of ear bashing about chauvinism, Chris opted to avoid the topic entirely and tell Vin to take up the rear. Using his torch to light the way, since the steps were narrow and steep, not to mention the walls flanking them were barely five feet apart. The texture of the surface was brittle and only slight contact with his duster caused them to break away and drift to the ground as loose dust. Overhead, cobwebs dangled from the ceiling in long threads or hung like streamers across their path.

In the dark, he could hear the universal sounds to make any woman twitch in revulsion, the skittering of insects as their hard carapaces scraped across the rock during movement. Once again, Chris cursed Mary Travis's presence here. Because he could feel her acutely, whether it was her breath against his neck, the accidental brushes of her body against his back or the slight whiff of whatever perfume she was wearing. It was damned distracting.

"I wonder how much there is of this place underground," Mary remarked, trying to ignore her discomfort at being in this stygian place with conversation.

"Difficult to say," Chris answered, "we've been in a few structures, especially in the Middle East, where the ground level structure was just the entrance into a larger dwelling underground."

"Like that place in Turkey," Vin remarked. "Hell, we almost lost Ezra in there. He was convinced there had to be treasure in every room."

"Was there?" Alex asked, fascinated by what Vin did for a living. Despite sharing an almost spiritual connection with the handsome sharpshooter she met barely a day ago, she realised she knew little about his life.

"Nah," Chris replied. "We were there to map the place. Some English university wanted to go exploring but didn't want their kids to get, so they paid us to go look at it. It was in Nevsehir and it was an underground city of eight levels, capable to hold 5000 people when it was occupied. We didn't get paid much for it, enough to cover our costs and time but we didn't mind. It was a favour to the Professor."

"Well he thinks very highly of all of you," Mary commented, sensing the affection in Chris's voice for her father.

"It's mutual," Vin replied, aware Chris wouldn't say it. "Gave us a purpose when we needed it and pulled us together again. I guess after hearing about how he lost his friends, I can understand why."

"Yes," Mary said sadly. "He misses them deeply. He and William were very close. Especially after what happened with Donald Avery and then Hank."

Chris didn't say anything to that because his recollections of Hank Connelly was not one of affection. The man never thought him good enough for Sarah and merely tolerated him. After her death, toleration became animosity and they barely spoke after that.

"I thought he moved up this way to be closer to your father," Alex said softly. "I was pleased because when I went to college, I didn't want him to be alone, wrapped up in his books." Instead, it had never been about being near to Orin Travis, but closer to this place, where he could keep watch on his cryptex. "I just wished he hadn't kept all this from me. I knew he always had an interest in the mythology of the Middle East, but I had no idea there was more to it than that."

A part of Alex was furious at her father for not telling her about the Erran and the danger they posed, even though she understood his desire to protect her. They always shared everything and she wished he told her if only to share its burden with him.

"He was trying to keep you safe," Mary said kindly, understanding Alex's chagrin. "It took ages for me to convince my dad to tell me what was going on. Once he did, I was able to do some investigation on my own into the Erran."

"Well we're going to have to deal with the situation eventually," Chris remarked as he aimed the torch and saw only more steps below them. Unsurprised by this because the builders had probably wanted their dead to be as far away from the main chamber as possible, he continued down the stone steps. "So far we've been reacting. If we're going to end this, we got to start acting."

The illumination of the flashlight in the narrow passageway seemed to cut into his vision when reflecting against a particularly smooth surface. Chris blinked away the spots and narrowed his eyes at where the offending gleam originated. It didn't take him long to find it. What he saw was one of the steps had been reinforced with a slab of flat dark stone. Due to its polish, light from the flash had reflected back enough to catch his attention.

At first, Chris thought this was where Doctor Styles had chosen to hide his cryptex, however, it seemed like too obvious as place.

"Hold up," he ordered, halting immediately.

"What is it?" Mary asked automatically.

Chris didn't answer her right away, he studied the sections of wall flanking that slab of stone. While it was just as rough and uneven as the rest of the carved passageway, his keen eyes spotted micro fissures in the rock. If one did not know better, they could have been small holes pockmarking the wall to be result of insects burrowing or even air holes. However, Chris was starting to buy into William Styles's paranoia and if the man was hell bent on protecting his daughter, he might have prepared for every contingency, including the possibility of the Erran finding this place.

"It seems Doctor Styles was prepared for unwanted visitors." He aimed the torch at the slab of rock.

"Whatever you do, do not touch that step," he instructed the others. "I've got a feeling we won't like it much."

"Oh my God!" Alex exclaimed aghast. "Are you saying my father built a trap?" It was so far removed from the kind man she knew all her life, not to mention the healer who hated violence.

"Your pa was trying to protect you Alex," Vin squeezed her hand gently.

"I know," Alex shook her head with disbelief. "But a death trap?"

Chris didn't blame the lady's surprise but nevertheless stepped over the slab and took a few more steps down and waited for the others to join him. Mary followed suit, her face scrunched in concentration when she stepped over the slab which was obviously the trigger mechanism of whatever resided into those bore holes on the wall. Chris offered her hand instinctively and to his surprise she took it without going on some feminist rant about chivalry being an outdated concept and most women in this day and age could take care of themselves.

She was awful pretty, he thought, but loud.

Once they were past the offending slab, they continued further down the passageway which seemed to take them deeper underground. This time however, Chris kept his eyes peeled because he wasn't convinced the trap they avoided was the only one of its kind. In fact, Chris was starting to develop a healthy respect for William Styles which made him doubly intent on taking the Erran to account over the man's death.

After what seemed like an eternity, the steps that felt like they led into the very depths of the world, came to a stop and instead of the crudely constructed chambers of earlier, they were confronted by something a great deal more sophisticated. Gone were the rough, mudbrick walls and floors. What lay before them now, could have been constructed by Montezuma's best artisans. The floors were now paved with sandstone slabs carved with the familiar geometric patterns favoured by the ancient Aztec.

The walls were similarly ornate, almost every surface adorned with the circular carvings etched from jasper, depicting aspects of Aztec symbolism, from their sun calendar to images of cosmic fire and fertility. At the centre of each one was a red jewel, like a blood red eye looking at them. At the end of the long hallway, was a smaller door that led to the rest of the place, a honeycomb of tunnels buried beneath the New Mexican earth.

In the corners, Chris recognised the gargoyle like statues of various Aztec deities. Tlaloc the god of fertility whose worship demanded the sacrifice of children, Quetzalcoatl the Serpent God, Tlaltechutli the monstrous earth goddess and finally, Huitzilopochtli the god of sun, war and sacrifice. They stood at each corner of the rooms, their mouth agape as if they were in silent exclamation at the intrusion of the new arrivals.

"Chris," Vin was shining his torch at the dust covered floor. It was thick enough to offer confirmation this underground catacomb had not been in use for centuries yet not entirely devoid of trespassers. The sharpshooter studied the patterns in the dust and recognised the swirls and indentations, for what they were. Footprints.

The tracks, indiscernible as they were to all but the Navajo trained tracker, travelled through the length of the hallway before disappearing beyond the range of his flashlight, presumably through the doorway Vin could see at the other end.

"Someone's been through here. Not too long ago, the dust ain't completely covered it up yet. Give it a couple of years or even months, it would probably be gone too."

"Styles," Chris guessed, glancing at Alex briefly. "They head through there?" He waved his torch towards the doorway.

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "He came down here alright and then through there. Probably did it before he walled this place up."

"I suppose if he wanted to hide the cryptex, this place would serve," Alex said, looking around the hallway with its grotesque and rather disturbing carvings in the sand stone walls. Seeing them made her shudder and she took an instinctive step closer to Vin. The sharpshooter saw her discomfort and slid the fingers of his free hand through hers, something Alex was inordinately grateful for.

Meanwhile, Mary was conducting observations of her own. She found the chamber quite fascinating, especially when it was such a departure from the chambers above. While those had been crude and unsophisticated in their design. This hallway was anything but. She could imagine ancient cultures, far more civilised than the Native Americans the first settlers encountered, moving about this underground community.

She approached one of the circular carvings and knew from her studies of Mesoamerican art, this was a sun calendar of some kind. A sun stone, the name surfaced in her mind and still found the carvings, depicting their deity, jaguar warriors and serpents quite hideous. Once again, the blood red stone, no doubt constructed of red beryl, had been chiselled to form the mouth of some Aztec god. Reaching for it, Mary only intended to feel it's texture.

What happened next, would be hers to suffer for years to come.

No sooner than her fingers contacted the red stone, it seemed to retreat further into the wall at the contact. Mary had barely exerted any pressure but even that light touch was enough. Later she would marvel at how efficiently the mechanism worked, despite the age of it. The stone signalled its retreat with a clarion call of grinding stone. Suddenly slabs of petrified wood descended so quickly across each doorway, Mary didn't know if it was its abrupt appearance or the startling sound of rocks slamming against the sandstone floor that made them all jump, but they did.

"WHAT DID YOU DO?" Chris bellowed once he realised what she had done.

"Nothing!" Mary looked blankly at him, horror cascading over her face as she realised she might have inadvertently triggered some ancient death trap. "I just touched this rock!"

Vin, who had made a run at the door, hoping to get to the other side it before it trapped them completely, reached it a fraction of a second after the loud,, teeth chattering sound of rock slammed against the floor. As they stood there, stunned by their sudden change of circumstances, a low, groan moved through the air, as an ancient mechanism, prompted to life from years of slumber, voiced displeasure with every grind of stone.

"I'm sorry!" Mary stuttered, feeling supremely stupid for her mistake.

"You'll be sorrier in a minute," Chris growled, shooting her a glare of genuine anger because what was coming next would not be pleasant. He was sure of it.

He wasn't wrong. A new sound invaded their prison and this one was all too familiar. From the open mouths of the pantheon of deities, strong jets of water spurted out in cascades of froth, quickly spreading water across the floor.

"Aw hell," Vin groaned, realising they were going to drown in the middle of a desert. God sure had a funny sense of humour.

"Did my father put this here?" Alex asked horrified as the water reached her boots. She shrank from it, almost as if preventing the contact would also lengthen her rapidly dwindling life span.

"I don't think he knew," Chris declared, thinking this was too elaborate even for Styles. No, this trap had been set long before anyone of them had been born, as a warning to anyone who attempted to desecrate the place by looting it. "If he did," he glared at Mary, "he wasn't stupid enough to trigger it."

Mary glared back at him. "I said I'm sorry!" She barked, angrier at herself than at this insufferable ass. "You're the expert! Do something!"

Chris whirled around about to tell her what she could go do with herself when he realised she was right. Goddamnit! They were not going through those doors and these things always had an escape, he just had to figure out what it was.

"You got any ideas pard?" Vin asked, aware by the silence, Chris was trying to figure a way out of this situation.

"I'm not sure," Chris asked, trying to ignore the swirl of water around his ankles and focus.

The water was rising quickly, swirling around their ankles but there was nowhere to go. Other than the statues, there was nothing in the room, nothing for them to stand on while the flow became a deluge around them.

As Vin tried unsuccessfully to move one of the statues, hoping to break its connection to the water source or at least create a fissure in the wall they could exploit, Alex waded next to him to offer him her help. Together, they tried to shift the ancient monument to no avail. The water was already up to their knees and showed no signs of abating.

"Where the hell is this water coming from anyway? We're in the middle of the desert!" She grimaced, examining her palms, stinging from where the rock had bit into her skin. .

"Could be ground water or an artesian basin," Vin suggested. "Doesn't really matter, it's still going to drown us if we don't get out of here."

Alex made a face at his stark assessment of their situation. "How is it, since I've met you, I've been kidnapped, shot at and now about to drown in an ancient Aztec whatever this place is?" She waved the torch around her. Still, despite her rising panic at what was happening, Alex was also starting to develop an odd sort of faith in Vin Tanner and his friends, not to mention their adeptness at being able to extricate themselves from perilous situations.

Vin who was still trying to move the statue of Tlaloc without much success looked up at her with a grin. "Well, you can't say it ain't been dull." He winked at her as she aimed the torch in his direction so he could use both his hands.

Shaking her head with a mixture of exasperation and affection, Alex managed a smile. "I suppose that's one way to put it."

+ + + + + + +

The water was flowing faster.

Chris was convinced somehow it knew he was attempting to work the problem and increased the intensity of the flow into the chamber to prevent them from escaping. By now, they were waist deep in it, with no signs it was stopping anytime soon. He had a feeling that a lot of people met their ends in the same way over the centuries and supposed Styles was damned lucky to have not fallen into this trap. Then again, he didn't have a nosy dame with him either.

Speaking of said dame, she was standing next to him, trying not to show she was scared even though he could see through the glow of the flashlight she was holding, she was. He had to admire her attempts to keep her head despite the situation (which she caused), and not be reduced to panic like most women.

"Tell me what exactly did you do?" He demanded after he ordered her back to the carving that began this mess in the first place.

"Nothing!" She burst out and then felt supremely stupid because clearly, she did something. "Don't answer that!" Mary shot him a warning as she saw him about to respond. "I just touched the stone in the middle."

Chris turned to the sun stone or calendar as it was more commonly known. Aiming the torch at it, he saw the carved image of Tonatiuh, the Sun God, whose mouth was depicted by the stone Mary had inadvertently pushed. Clearly this was the mechanism to trigger the trap into springing.

"Okay, okay, so this is Tonatiuh," Chris thought quickly, "He's possibly their most supreme deity, god of the sun, fertility and sacrifice. This is the guy they killed all those virgins for. Makes sense that he'd be the one they used to trigger this trap."

Mary looked around her, starting to feel the chill of more than just water running up her spine. She had been fighting her fear but it was starting to get the better of her. "Okay, so where's the off switch then?" She challenged impatiently.

Chris gave her a look as Vin approached them with Alex following close behind.

"Any luck pard?" Vin asked, hoping Chris had some idea of how to get out of here because he could find no other way out.

"Just let me think!" Chris snapped, conscious of the water swirling around his ribs as he scanned the room and saw the other carvings on the wall. There were thirteen of them, he realised, which wasn't unusual. If JD were here, the kid would have rattled off a whole treatise about how the Aztec considered that a lucky number.

"Okay, thirteen carvings," he started thinking out loud. "Thirteen is a lucky number, each number had meaning. Some kind of magic, they believed."

"You think one of these carvings is the way out of here?" Vin asked, prompting Chris's thought processes further. After four years together, Vin had learned Chris was smarter than most people knew and could figure things out. You just had to give him room and a kick up the ass to get there.

"Yeah," Chris nodded and looked at Mary. "You pushed the carving for number two, that's water."

"So, what's escape?" She asked, still bristling in annoyance at her foolishness.

Chris shook his head. "Doesn't work like that! Spread out all of you! Go to each one and tell me what you see. I need to know what the centre carving is! For Christ's sake if there's a stone," he glared at Mary, "don't touch it!"

Mary made a face at him before she scattered like Vin and Alex, spreading across the room to study the carvings on the wall even as the water level was now past their breast bones. The flow was even stronger now, refusing to be denied the victims in its snare. As they scanned the carvings now half submerged in water, Chris heard them calling out their discovery.

"Two guys sitting across each other on what looks like a cross!" Vin shouted from the far end of the room.

The deluge was up to Vin's neck by now while Alex was clinging to one of the statues to keep herself afloat. Likewise, Mary was doing the same to the top edge of the carving nearest to her. The ceiling was looming closer and when the water pushed them up against that stone barrier, they would be out of time.

A cross? Chris stared at Vin for a second before his mind grasped what the sharpshooter was trying to describe to him. Two men seated across each other.... a cross, no, not a cross but the crisscrossing lines that indicated direction, north, south, east and west. Facing each other, as equals. Balance. It was about balance and harmony, about travelling the correct path.

"PUSH IT VIN!" Chris shouted over the roar of water and winced when the stuff sloshed into his mouth. "Push the stone!"

Vin's eyes widened and dove under the water, since the stone in the centre of the carving was submerged by now. The torch no longer worked once the moisture got to it and in virtual darkness, the sharpshooter had to feel his way across the grooves that made up the carving, until he found the smooth blue stone, most likely of azurite and pushed. It retreated into the rock and suddenly the thunderous sound of the cascade, muted by the water, ceased.

Vin emerged to see the water flow had been cut off and the statues no longer spewed death from their open mouths. He met Chris's gaze and both started laughing, grateful for this victory, even if they still had to figure out how to get out of the chamber they were presently sealed in.

And then without warning, the floor beneath them opened.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN:

AMBUSH

There were many things Chris wanted to do in his life before the end came. Getting seats behind the dugout at Yankee Stadium, taking a walk through the Forbidden City without getting his head handed to him by the Imperial Guard and maybe getting laid by Garbo and Crawford, preferably at the same time. There was a laundry list of things he wanted to do, some impossible, some lacking opportunity and others just too plain crazy to expose to the light of day.

Riding the rapids down the drain of an ancient death trap wasn't one of them.

There was only a split second to register the sudden hollow opening in the floor after Vin pushed the stone trigger that brought an end to the deluge minutes away from drowning all of them. Almost immediately, the whirlpool caused by the draining water created powerful currents tearing them away from the wall. Both men were barely able to keep from being dragged away as the water escaped through the newly created opening.

"VIN!" Alex uttered a short scream behind him before she lost her grip on the statue she was clinging to and disappeared into the darkness. The flashlights they brought into the place was dying one by one, plunging them into literal blackness, as they short-circuited in the water.

"Alex!" Vin shouted back but she was beyond hearing him, not with the flood creating a dull roar as it drained, losing his voice in the rush of swirling water. Casting Chris a look, he signalled his intentions and Chris knew then, the younger man was going to go after his girl. Everything Vin had done since meeting Alexandra Styles told the older man Vin was in love and Chris wasn't so jaded he didn't recognise something special when he saw it.

Struggling to maintain his own footing, he saw Vin dive under the water, presumably down the drain Alex was swept into. For his part, he searched the ever-darkening walls of the chamber for Mary when yet another torch finally succumbed to the deluge. He saw her silhouette against the wall, a shadow clinging to the handholds on one of the stone engravings, fighting to keep from being borne away.

"MR LARABEE!" Mary raised her head through the diminishing light to see him searching for her. Her fingers were aching as they pressed against the rock, trying to maintain her grip despite how slick the stone was becoming. She had seconds she imagined before her grip gave way all together. "Do something!"

Did she ever stop bossing him around?

Chris thought with irritation and made his way to her by edging along the wall. The water was draining fast and taking with it any chance of making a swift exit out of this sealed chamber. He had no idea if where it would deposit them could be any worse than being entombed in this room. However, at the moment, their options were limited. Reaching the waterlogged woman, he could see her face through the remaining light and knew, she was a little afraid, though trying not to hide it.

"Mary!" He grabbed her arm, not wanting to lose her when the lights finally went. "There's only one way out of this chamber!"

Her eyes widened. "Oh, I just knew you were going to say that!"

"Yeah Alice," he slipped his arm around her waist. "Let's see where this goes!"

She said nothing for a moment when he pulled her to him, but Chris swore she blushed and had to admit, despite the cold and danger of their situation, he enjoyed seeing those pale cheeks fill with colour. Once again, he was struck by his first impressions of her, when he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen since....

The memory of Sarah had a more sobering effect on him than the flood they were in. Shunting the thought aside, he ignored how it felt to have her arms around his neck. She met his icy blue eyes and Chris saw her anxiety, as well as her trust.

"I hope you know what you're doing Mr Larabee."

"Me too," he said maintaining his grip on her and realising he wasn't talking about just their present circumstances but something deeper he wasn't yet to address. "Take a deep breath."

Both took a big gulp of air as Chris pushed himself into the current, taking her with him.

+ + + + + + +

JD Dunne was impressed.

The books Doctor William Styles had in his library rivalled the ones the young man saw at the university and JD felt a little uncomfortable handling them with bare hands. When the Professor had claimed the doctor had made it his life's work to understand the nature of the Tablets and the Cult of Erran, JD doubted the Professor knew how thorough the man had been in his research. Styles had amassed an impressive collection of ancient scrolls, artefacts and texts the Erran would have pillaged if they weren't interrupted by Chris, Vin and Buck when they rescued Alexandra Styles.

As it was, evidence of the previous night's violence was apparent by the bullet wounds across the walls and the breakage throughout the house. In the study itself, he could see walls riddled with holes and the floor covered in debris comprising of chipped mortar, shattered glass and broken objects. Fortunately, the bodies were gone. After the police were notified and the scene cleared, the local sheriff, a friend of Doctor Styles, had granted them access to the house following Alex's ordeal out of respect to her father.

Since Chris left him here to study Doctor Styles's research on the Erran and the Tablets of Destiny, JD had been diligently working through the material and filling up the notebook he brought with him, with scribblings regarding the legends of the Tablet. The notebook was mostly for Chris's benefit because he knew the leader of the seven would be interested in what he'd disseminated from his research. In truth, JD had very little need of notebooks to remember anything. He had an eidetic memory which was part of the reason why he had done so well in college.

Considering what Ezra told him this morning before setting out, particularly the sacrificial element of the Erran's ritual to bring about a new creation, JD had focussed much of his attention on learning all he could about it. According to the mythology subscribed to by the followers of Enki, the ritual needed to be performed at the Cradle of Creation on Mount Dilmun where Tiamat had first gave birth to the world. If so, it made sense the ancient site was where she would be resurrected.

Once the Erran had locked the four Pillars into the Heart of Enki, they would open and reveal the incantations for the resurrection ritual, which had to be performed at the Cradle, presumably with their sacrifice. Obviously, with the death of Sarah Conley, the Erran did not need all four daughters to make the ritual work. They would only need one. It could be Mary Travis or Alexandra Styles since Donald Avery's daughter was in the wind.

JD continued to jot down notes when suddenly, he heard movement beyond the doorway. Chris Larabee who had to be the most paranoid human being in the world had required JD to be armed and it was to his surprise that after months in the company of the Seven, he reacted with equal alertness. Closing the notebook, he stepped over to the window and dropped it into the bushes outside. Expecting trouble and not wanting his research of the last few hours going to waste if that noise had sinister origins, JD stepped away from the sill and drew his gun.

"Hey, guys?" He called out. "Is that you?"

There was no answer.

The man who stepped through the door was easily taller than Buck. In his exotic red robes and dark skin, he seemed even more imposing if that was possible. JD immediately recognised him as the man who had tussled with Josiah at the museum. He was one of the Erran, his mind quickly warned him. Nor was the behemoth alone. With him, were four other men, no longer armed with blades but were now carrying an assortment of guns. JD had just enough time to get behind the desk before they opened fire.

He leapt over the flat surface of the desk, sending everything on it tumbling to the Persian rug beneath the desk. The ancient books and scrolls he had been perusing earlier were now an unruly heap across the floor. Crouched behind the oak desk, JD reached for the gun tucked in its holster under his arm. Returning fire, he was painfully aware he had only a finite number of shots before he was empty. It had never occurred to him the Erran would come back after last night's mischief.

JD glimpsed one of the Erran taking refuge behind an armchair, with just enough of his head visible over the top of the chair for JD to squeeze off a shot. Since joining the team, both Vin and Ezra had put him through his paces so he not only knew how to handle a gun, he was getting to be a pretty good shot too. The explosion of blood and brain matter against the wall behind the chair, proved it as the Erran tumbled backwards, the bullet hole in the middle of his forehead, still smoking.

Putting down one of their number had increased the ferocity of the others and they were firing blindly, sending so much lead against the desk, the oak was starting to disintegrate with each new bullet. JD returned fire as best he could but with his killing of the Erran behind the chair, the others had smartened up enough to stay out of his crosshairs. Instead, they were assailing him with a barrage that was allowing their leader to close in on the youngest member of the seven.

Gunfire was turning the books still on the desk to pulp and the scholar in him felt his stomach hollow with dismay. The thought of these precious texts being destroyed after moving through history, undamaged made him fume. Returning fire out of pure outrage instead of self-preservation, JD managed to bring down another Erran, this time shooting him in the shoulder. Unfortunately, even with this minor victory, JD knew he couldn't hold out for long. Without more ammo, he knew it wouldn't be long before he was overrun.

Somehow, he knew the Erran were aware of this too.

No longer able to see where the head Erran had gone, JD had a premonition if he didn't start moving soon, he was going to find out in less than ideal circumstances. He was pinned in and without help, they were going to capture or kill him. Neither of those possibilities sat very well with JD and the most prudent course was to get the hell out of the room. At least out in the open, he'd have a chance of escape. In here, they were going to overwhelm him with numbers and bullets. Glancing at the window, it was close enough for him to make a run for it.

Firing another round, he didn't look up to see where the bullet had gone but flinched when a vase shattered above the credenza resting against the wall. Fragments flew in all directions and one sharp piece penetrated his shirt to bite at his skin. Keeping his head down as he headed towards the window, he wished Buck or Josiah was here to cover his back. He was too new at this to know if he could make his escape without being cut down, knowing only that he had to try. He fired one more shot, having been conservative with his ammunition but to get out alive, he needed to risk it.

It was a risk that didn't pay off.

The bullet that struck him, entered his flesh just above the knee and while he was saved from that crippling injury, the pain that coursed through JD was enough to distract him from seeing the big man closing in on him. The pain was white hot and it occurred to JD this was the first time he had ever found himself shot. Absurdly, he thought of all the occasions where he and Chris had gone traipsing through ancient monuments and catacombs, avoiding all manner of perilous traps and hostile natives. It felt almost embarrassing to be finally downed by anything as a bullet.

Nevertheless, despite the pain, JD was not about to surrender to the Erran, not without a fight. He tried to stand, ignoring the agony of putting weight on the legs or the damp sensation of blood soiling his pants. The window was still in reach and JD was determined to make his getaway. Suddenly, he heard the audible crunch of boots against the fragments of debris across the floor and looked over his shoulder to see the Erran's formidable leader, inches from him.

Without hesitation and focus that would have done Chris Larabee proud, JD swung around sharply prepared to put a bullet in the man's head, no matter how big he was. Squeezing the trigger, he expected to hear the reassuring sound of a gunshot, only to be disappointed by the click of an empty chamber. The sound felt like the slamming door of a jail cell and drove home to JD his impending captivity.

Before JD could think of what came next, the man snatched the gun out of his hand and swatted him so hard, JD saw stars when he hit the ground. However, there was still fight left in him and JD ignored the disorientation to continue towards the window, still seeing escape despite the haze of pain and shock. However, he got no further than a few feet when he was pinned to the floor like a bug on a windshield. Uttering a groan of pain, JD felt a boot press hard against his spine.

"You're not going anywhere boy," Krestos sneered. "Not until we get what we want."

+ + + + + + +

When Adam's goldfish Goldie died, Chris remembered being immediately sent out by Sarah to the pet store to replace the animal before Adam made the discovery. Meanwhile Goldie the First, as Chris called the deceased floater, was hastily flushed down the toilet with Adam being none the wiser about the imposter in its place. Later, Chris wondered if that was fair to Adam, who had taken care of the little fish with all the devotion a five-year-old could bestow upon a beloved pet. Shouldn't the kid at least be allowed to mourn Goldie and did Goldie deserve to be flushed away with such disregard?

Thoughts like this ran through Chris Larabee's mind as he and Mary were swept through the darkness, away from the sealed chamber as if someone had flushed them away like they were offending matter. Chris wondered if this was some form of karmic retribution for his treatment of Goldie.

With Mary still clinging to him, he could hear her gasps and cries through the rush of water sweeping down what appeared to be a long, dark shaft on a steep incline that seemed to take them deeper into the earth. Chris prayed it did not deposit them into a worse situation because no one knew they were down here and if they were trapped, it was going to be an exceedingly unpleasant way to die. Fortunately, the water had not filled the shaft and there were enough pockets of air for them to snatch a breath when they managed to fight the current long enough to raise their heads above it.

Sliding down the dark shaft, the turbulent passage caused them to impact against the side of the hard rock, with only the cushion of water between them and the walls, preventing serious injury, even though he felt every scrape and shudder through his skin and bones. While Mary's arms remained firmly around him, the closeness of her body created its own problems as they were constantly slamming against each other. While this might be pleasant under any other circumstances, at this moment it was downright dangerous.

Their ride through the rapid went on for almost a full minute with Chris thinking it might never end when suddenly, the world exploded with the vibrancy of sky and they were free falling. The shaft around them disappeared and through the kaleidoscope of colour, Chris realised they were out in the open. He could feel the wind against his damp face and took deep breaths of fresh air. There was another moment of clarity when Chris saw the ground rushing up to meet them and the realisation it wasn't quite solid.

Mary's indignant cry as they were tossed into the slurry of mud and water that almost swallowed them whole on impact, made him wince in annoyance . Chris didn't care if they were tossed in shit, just if it wasn't some deep chasm where death was a certainty. Besides, he and Vin had spent almost three years surrounded in mud during the war, this was not the worst outcome to their situation he could imagine.

"You know, I'm starting to think giving you those sugar babies was a bad idea!" Alex complained as she sat up in the mud, her lower half still submerged. She was soaked to the skin, aching from her rough journey through that underground shaft and now splattered in mud.

Vin got to his knees, attempting to wipe mud out of his face as he looked at her with a smirk. "Come on Darlin, you know I'll make it up to you." He extended a muddy hand at her.

"You're lucky you're pretty," she said with a wry smile as she took his hand and stood up.

"Are you okay?" Vin asked, his tone becoming serious. Like Chris, Vin had worried their journey through the darkness might have deposited them into some place worse than this muddy hole at the bottom of the gully they'd escaped. Looking over its edge, he could see the entrance to the mound some distance away.

"Yeah," she nodded, wiping the mud off his cheek. "I'm fine? You?"

The question immediately prompted her healer's instinct and Vin thought with a little smile, in that way she was just like Nathan, when she turned her attention to Chris and Mary.

"You two okay? Anything broken?"

Chris looked up at Mary who had lost her grip of him when they were spat through the side of the gully. She was sitting in the mud, wiping the stuff off her face with a mixture of distaste and an emotion he could not decipher. He braced himself for more complaining when her blue grey eyes caught his scrutiny and she turned to him.

"Well Mr Larabee," she said with a laugh, "I'll say this for you. You certainly know how to show a lady a good time."

Chris stared at her.

"Come on, that was a hell of a ride. You couldn't go to a movie and have that much fun." She nudged his boot.

It was at this moment, Chris realised with a sinking feeling, he was almost certainly going to fall in love with her.

+ + + + + + +

As it turned out, once they trudged back to the mound, they could take the same route back through the underground temple once again. The room which had almost been the death of them had also unsealed, with the door Vin had spotted before their entrapment, awaiting their entry. Ensuring no one touched anything, Chris personally escorted Mary through the chamber, while Alex and Vin listened with fraying patience as the duo bickered incessantly about everything.

Once through the doorway, they were led to another smaller chamber, this one filled with earthenware pots of every size and description. It took them almost thirty minutes to search through each one but once they did, they were met with success. William Styles's Pillar slipped into Vin's hands, swaddled in burlap and a thin length of hessian cord. Until now they had only heard about the Pillar but none of them had seen the fabled cryptex, one of two still not in the hands of the Erran.

"We better get JD and get back to the others," Chris said as they drove back to the doctor's home after leaving Seton Village. "The sooner we get this to safety, the better."

"Well I'm not going anywhere until I have a bath," Alex stated from the back seat of the car, looking at her mud encrusted hands with distaste. "I think I've got half of New Mexico's desert in my hair."

"Yeah you do look kind of messed up," Vin teased, looking at her from the front passenger seat of Chris's car.

"Very amusing Mr Tanner," Mary grumbled, wishing she had been able to wash her face at least. She swore she could still taste mud.

Anything he was going to say in retaliation was suddenly halted because Chris's voice cut through the conversation with its hard edge. Vin immediately faced front and stiffened in his seat. Both men were tense as boards and both Mary and Alex exchanged looks, wondering what new calamity was being visited upon them. It didn't take them long to find out what had captured their attention so completely.

The column of smoke rising through the air, looked like someone had slashed at the sky and tore a hole through its fabric. Even though they were still on the highway and had yet to take the turn off onto the Styles's property, everyone in the car knew without having to utter a word, the smoke was coming from the residence Alex shared with her father.

Five minutes later, their worst fears were confirmed.

The house where William Styles kept his research was ablaze.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN:

PALAVER

In truth, Aisha Khan was nowhere the devout follower of Erran as her brother Dash believed her to be.

The Children of Erran was her family's obsession, passed on from generation to generation, along with the bloodline of each male child, from the very first high priest in their ancient past to the present day, where her brother now ruled. Although she would never dare voice it out loud, Aisha didn't even believe they were descended from the first Sassanid king, Adashir the First, as claimed by their family. Aisha was convinced it was a bloodline appropriated for the purpose of solidifying the family's rule of the Erran by divine right.

Whether or not the Uncreation the Erran were determined to carry out was real, mattered little to Aisha. She stood at Dash's side because he was her brother and she loved him more than anything in the world. It was he who protected her from the mores of their Persian upbringing when they were children. As a female growing up in the centre of the Islamic world, her options were limited, her freedom restricted. It was a situation not aided by the fact that neither she nor Dash were believers of the faith and for some, there was no greater sin.

Fortunately, as head of the household, Dash ensured she was educated and sent abroad as soon as it was possible, so she would acquire the knowledge and skills that made her such a formidable weapon in her brother's arsenal. To him, she was equal because a daughter of Sassanid kings could be nothing less. Although she did not seek to rule the Erran with him, Dash did partake of her counsel when it was needed.

While Dash chose the course for the Erran, it was Aisha, along with Krestos, who ensured his plans were carried out and their goals achieved. With the tall Namibian warrior at her side, they were a formidable team and the path towards Uncreation was assured under their direction. Until recently, the purpose of the Erran had been to observe and acquire when the opportunity presented itself, the Four Pillars, unearthed at Ur so many years ago.

Since her father's time, the Erran were aware of the four infidels who desecrated the ancient city and took the Pillars as their spoils. It was her father who gave the order to acquire the first Pillar from Donald Avery through murder, a decision Aisha now considered poorly thought out since it revealed their existence to the remaining bearers of the cryptices. Realising further action might lead to exposure to the authorities, her father pulled back, but it was too late.

The prey had caught their scent.

Dash took more caution, approaching the second bearer only because the man's mind had disintegrated in the aftermath of his daughter and grandchild's death. Hank Conley's mind was trapped in a prison of bitterness, anger and regret, needing only a nudge to reveal what he knew. A number of well-placed questions during their interrogation and Conley had given Dash everything needed to retrieve his Pillar.

Then Dash had sent Conley to his daughter. Her brother could be merciful.

Retrieving the Pillar from William Styles proved to be more complicated, however. Styles understood the nature of the Pillars, it's connection to Enki and Tiamat. He understood the Pillars held the location to the Tablets of Destiny and once revealed, could be used to recreate the world. While he may have considered the belief in the Uncreation as superstitious nonsense, he had not underestimated the danger the Erran represented and that made coercing him difficult.

Still, there was no need to press the issue, not when the Heart was still lost to them. The Erran had focused their attention on its retrieval and Dash was patient. Time made men careless and her brother assumed such would be the case for the good doctor. If they waited long enough, Styles might even shed the mortal cloak as old men tended to do, leaving his Pillar to his daughter. A young woman alone was easy prey.

While he was not the expert that William Styles had been, Orin Travis, the final bearer, was aware of the Erran and better yet, was someone who dealt in artefacts and might have the expertise to locate the Heart. Thus, they kept their distance from Travis while continuing to watch him closely to see if the man's connections in the antiquities world could lead them to their prize. Then, Dash had stated, they would have Travis's Pillar and the Heart of Enki.

It was a gamble that paid off because the Heart did surface and the Erran's time had come.

Styles was the first to be reached but despite their best efforts, the doctor to his credit went to his death without revealing the location of the Pillar in his possession. After reviewing his library, Aisha understood why. Styles had made himself an expert in the ritual of the Uncreation and knew what fate awaited his daughter should it be performed. The man had more than just some ancient artefact to protect, he was willing to die to save his child, and he did.

Turning their eyes to Orin Travis, the Erran descended on the professor with every intention of acquiring his Pillar as well as the Heart. Dash was convinced with all her father's friends gone and no understanding of the Pillar or the Erran, Alexandra Styles would be easy to coerce into giving them what they wanted. Then they would use her as their offering to Tiamat, as the ritual demanded. After all, who was to stop them?

As it turned out, it wasn't a ‘who' but rather a ‘them'.

The seven men who meddled in their recovery of the Heart at the Museum were no ordinary bystanders. By the way they fought, they were men accustomed to danger and the number of dead left in their wake infuriated Aisha. In their hubris, the Erran had gone to the museum, not expecting to face such formidable resistance from a room full of privileged elitists, sipping champagne while they lorded over the plunder of another land. The seven had not only prevented the Erran from reclaiming the Heart, but they also interfered with Dash's attempts to interrogate Styles's daughter about her father's Pillar.

If not for the decision to converge upon Travis at his home, the Heart would have remained out of reach. While they had retreated after acquiring the vital piece of the Uncreation, Aisha knew nothing could be achieved without the remaining two Pillars.

Suspecting Travis would flee, one of the Erran were ordered to remain behind and observe in secret, Travis's movements. It was a precaution that yielded success and they were able to follow him back to his new hiding place. It seemed Travis and his daughter, the blond witch who assaulted her and whom Aisha would personally repay the insult at a later time, had taken refuge on a ranch some distance from town.

Instead of a frontal assault, Dash ordered them to hold back and continue their surveillance. When the leader of the seven men whom she'd faced the night before departed with two of his number and the daughters of Travis and Styles, Dash gave the order to proceed. This time, there would be no need to coerce either Travis or Alexandra to hand over the Pillars, they would do it willingly or pay the price.

+ + + + + + +

"I feel like I got run over by a milk truck," Josiah Sanchez complained as he sat at the table in the kitchen of Chris Larabee's ranch, feeling as if someone was playing kettle drums in his head. His body ached as if he had run a marathon and despite the fact he had slept through the night, Josiah still felt exhausted.

"Here, have some of this," Buck handed him a cup of coffee in sympathy. "It's fresh and hot, and it will wake you up."

Judging from the looks of Josiah, Nathan and even JD who headed off with Chris this morning, the poison the Erran dosed them with was still taking its toll. His friends looked as if they were suffering a hangover through no fault of their own. The dark circles under Nathan's eyes and the way Josiah was shifting uncomfortably in his chair, trying to get his muscles to settle was a clear indication of the drug's after effects.

"Thank you, brother," Josiah said gratefully, taking in the aroma of the coffee with relish, to say nothing about the way his stomach rumbled with interest at the scent of bacon and eggs.

"Anytime," Buck smiled and turned back to the stove and the pans spitting with heated fat.

With a little smile, Josiah decided some things about Buck Wilmington would never change, no matter how much time had passed. Just like when they were in the trenches in France, the man's prescription for chasing all ills away, aside from the most obvious, (women and lots of women), was food. Buck loved to cook. Between Buck's ability to turn rations into a good meal and Ezra's penchant for acquiring contraband food supplies, their team had eaten well and staved off the malnutrition threatening many of the soldiers on the line.

It was mid-morning and they were all gathered around the pine table in the Larabee kitchen, waiting in anticipation for the late breakfast Buck was preparing for them. The air was thick with the enticing scent of sizzling bacon and aromatic coffee as Buck held court over the stove after having driven out early this morning to get some supplies. He anticipated they'd all need a good breakfast after the difficulties the night before.

"So, who fixed us up again?" Nathan asked, taking a sip of the piping hot coffee in his mug and had to admit strong, black coffee was the only thing they needed more than vengeance on the Erran who had done this to them.

"Will's daughter Alex," Orin answered. "She's a fourth-year medical student. She was able to help all three of you last night. Apparently, you were poisoned with Henbane but not at levels high enough to be dangerous. Fortunately, she had Will's doctors bag with her, so she was able to give you all antilirium."

Nathan made a face, perfectly aware of what Henbane was capable of doing to them and supposed he was grateful they were only dosed with enough of the stuff to give them hallucinations. Miss Styles was correct, a higher dosage could have been fatal. Furthermore, the treatment of antilirium was one he would have administered himself which made Nathan doubly grateful Miss Styles was here and apparently knew what she was doing.

"She fixed my shoulder too," Buck added as he picked up the top plate from a short stack within reach of the stove and began peeling strips of bacon from the pan for serving.

"What is she like?" Josiah inquired, lifting his chin just enough to see if there was toast to go with the meal. He pleased to see there was. Buck liked cooking breakfast with all the trimmings, he thought appreciatively.

"Extraordinarily beautiful," Ezra commented, looking up from the paper Buck had gotten him at the local store. The gambler had admired the lady the night before and would have taken an interest himself if it were not painfully obvious she only had eyes for Vin Tanner and the sharpshooter was equally enamoured. Considering how Vin raced out of the Professor's office when learning the girl might be in danger, Ezra had an idea of how deeply he felt for her.

"Vin's awful sweet on her," Buck revealed as he approached the table and slid a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs at Josiah's direction, complete with buttered toast. "And I think the feeling's mutual."

"I thought he just met her," Nathan declared, having never met any woman who could affect him so strongly after a brief first meeting.

"Sometimes it just works out that way," Josiah commented after swallowing the bite of toast in his mouth. "When the right girl comes along, you best pay attention." A bittersweet smile stole across his face at the thought.

Last night's ordeal had made him remember Emma and a fresh stab of pain, not felt since that terrible night so many years ago, made itself felt most acutely. In any case, Josiah was glad Vin had found someone he cared for. Thanks to his dysfunctional upbringing, the younger man always seemed a little shy around women. He was by no means socially inept, just lacking confidence when it came to dealing with them.

"Thanks, Buck," Nathan said gratefully when Buck handed him his plate of food. He took a deep breath of the heavenly scent and his appetite jumped a few notches from insistent to urgent. Besides, after last night, Nathan felt hollowed out. "Well it's about time the boy found a girl he liked, he's spent too much time alone."

"For that matter, so has Alex," Orin agreed, having seen how the couple regarded each other since their return to the ranch the night before. "Will was her only family. She's alone in the world now, except for Mary and me of course."

"Where is Miss Travis?" Josiah asked, realising he hadn't seen the lovely blond woman all morning.

"She went with Chris," Buck remarked, a smarmy smile peeking through his thick moustache, as he served Ezra who nodded in thanks.

"Oh, that would have gone down well," Josiah chuckled having heard the two bickering at the museum the night before and during their discussions about the Erran in the Professor's office.

"That's one way to put it," Orin couldn't help grin, perfectly aware of how headstrong his daughter could be. Faced with an equally stubborn personality like Chris Larabee, the Professor was somewhat grateful he was in this peaceful surroundings than in a car with the duo. "Mary doesn't like to take no for an answer."

"Yeah and that's Chris's first answer to everything." Nathan laughed, catching the smirk the Professor was wearing and perfectly aware of what was in the man's mind.

"I dare say Mr Larabee may have met his match," Ezra commented before taking a bite of his scrambled eggs and having to admit Buck hadn't lost his touch when it came to his culinary expertise. "Mr Wilmington, you exceed yourself again. This is excellent."

"The special ingredient is love," Buck winked at the gambler as he returned to the table, with a plate of food for himself and the Professor.

"Now you done gone and made it weird," Nathan complained.

Josiah took a taste of the eggs and then threw in. "I think the special ingredient might include whiskey..."

Anything Buck was going to say next was loudly interrupted by a gunshot coinciding with the ear-shattering noise of a window breaking.

The sound drove all five men to the floor in an instant, with Buck taking refuge behind the stove while Ezra grabbed Orin with his good arm and dragged the scholar beneath the table. The shot was followed by another, this one breaking a pitcher of juice on the table, splashing the surface with a liquid that dribbled off the edge and onto the floor. Josiah and Nathan remained crouched, trying to remember where they'd left their guns. Only Ezra and Buck were armed.

Another shot impacted against the wall, putting a ragged hole in the pretty floral wallpaper that Chris must have thought Sarah would have liked. Buck saw the damage and winced because Chris was going to be madder than hell when he found out his special place for Sarah had been violated. The next to go was the vase and Buck started moving towards the window, determined to see how many of them there were. He didn't even bother wondering who they were, it was a foregone conclusion the Erran had found them even here.

Just as suddenly as it began, the gunfire ceased.

Buck took advantage of the situation, looking across the floor at Ezra who was crawling towards him. They both took up flanking positions on either side of the broken window, with Josiah and Nathan taking charge of the Professor, intending to get him out of the room and reach their guns so they could better protect him.

Buck exchanged a quick glance with Ezra, indicating his unspoken intentions to see who was out there as he peered past the edge of the window sill. In the front drive of the house, he felt his heart clench at the formidable force gathered outside against them. There were at least a dozen Erran and leading them was the beautiful woman who stole the Heart the night before.

"Professor Travis!" She called out. "Show yourself."

Ezra and Buck looked instinctively at Orin who froze in his steps when his name was mentioned. He was still on his hands and knees, crawling towards the door to avoid being hit if the shooting resumed.

"Like hell he will!" Buck shouted back, not about to trust these fanatics under any circumstances.

"If you and your friends ever wish to see young Mr Dunne alive, the Professor better make himself available to us."

Buck's reaction was instant, as it always was when it came to JD.

"You're lying!" Buck snapped, refusing to believe JD could have let himself get caught but almost immediately considered the possibility it could be true. JD had learned a great deal from the six of them since circumstances forced him to become one of their number but he had started out a scholar, who had never even held a gun before. Sure, he was good in a fight and he was becoming a decent shot but Buck remembered the ferocity of the Erran. If they got the drop on JD, the kid may not have been able to stop them from taking him.

"Shall we send him to you in pieces for confirmation?" The woman asked coldly.

Ezra met Buck's eyes across space beneath the window and knew without a doubt, the woman wasn't lying. As impossible as it might be for Buck to accept, they had to start taking her seriously if they wished to see young Mr Dunne alive again. Buck's face was etched in worry, still trapped between disbelief and fear for the young man. None of the former members of K-Troop was blind to how much Buck had taken to JD since he entered their lives. In fact, it wasn't just Buck who cared greatly for JD, but all of them.

When JD had joined the team only a year ago, each one of them had felt something. It was undefinable and if put to task, none of them would be able to verbalise it even if the feeling was one they all shared. It was a sense of completion as if the missing component of their fellowship had finally returned to the fold. It was Josiah who said it over a couple of drinks after their first adventure with JD had concluded, that finally, they were seven.

It had felt so right. Seven. They were seven as if that was what they were always meant to be.

"Mr Wilmington, I think we must consider the possibility they might be telling the truth," Ezra whispered.

"It's impossible!" Buck snapped, refusing to believe it. "He was with Chris and Vin!"

"Gentlemen," Orin spoke up. "It doesn't matter how it may have happened if there is a chance of it being true I must speak to them."

"Professor, that ain't a good idea," Nathan warned as he saw the Professor moving towards the window where Ezra and Buck were guarding.

"Good idea or not, they're still out there and after what we saw at the museum, I absolutely believe they will hurt JD if I do not cooperate."

Considering it was his idea for JD to join Chris Larabee and his team in the first place, Orin felt it his responsibility to ensure the young man's safety. The Erran and the danger they posed were the result of his youthful foolishness, one he was certain Will would understand if the man were alive to stand with him. But Will was gone, just like Donnie and Hank.

Orin thought of how they'd been in their youth, how fearless and reckless they'd been. They'd sailed across the world to find adventure and returned with a curse. Ultimately, it would destroy each and every one of them, himself included. Sure, he was alive, but there was no victory in being the last man standing on a battlefield when all your friends were dead.

"They're not storming the place," Josiah commented. "They want something so we best answer them if we're going to get JD back."

"Agreed," Ezra replied getting to his feet and inching towards the window.

"Ezra what are you doing?" Buck hissed, prepared to drag the gambler back to cover if necessary.

Ezra ignored the big man and stepped in front of the window, poised to move if he saw anyone preparing to violate their temporary ceasefire. The woman was out there, in her exotic clothes, her cultists flanking her, brandishing their cruel scimitars as well as guns. The behemoth who had been a staple of their attacks was nowhere in sight and that made Ezra anxious because if the man was not here, was he with JD?

"I believe discussions can be conducted from here." He answered her

By now, Buck was on his feet, taking up position next to Orin Travis who was stepping up to the window to join Ezra. Buck's expression showed his unhappiness at the situation but at least Nathan and Josiah were now armed. The two men were fanning out to the other windows in the kitchen to cover them in case the Erran decided to pull a double cross.

"Alright," Orin spoke finally, facing the Erran female. "I'm here. What do you want?"

The woman's smile of triumph made Ezra bristle in annoyance and despite his chivalrous manner where the ladies were concerned, he badly wanted to wipe that smirk off her face.

"You know what we want," she replied. "We want the Pillars. Both of them. Deliver them to us or we'll send the boy to you in pieces."

"You're bluffing!" Buck snapped.

"Are we?" She didn't reply and nodded at one of her minions, who promptly handed her something that made Buck's heart freeze in his chest.

It was JD's satchel. The kid carried it everywhere with him when they were out on jobs. Normally, filled with notebooks, pencils and any bit of relevant information they needed, it was seldom out of JD's reach because it was a gift from the boy's dead mother. Every one of them had heard over the past year how the lady bought it for him to carry his books at college. JD never went anywhere without it.

"Recognise this?"

"We do," Orin replied, able to tell just by the look on Ezra and Buck's faces, the satchel did indeed belong to JD Dunne.

"Good," she said confidently. "Rest assured, we do have Mr Dunne but whether or not he survives the day, is entirely up to you. We want the Pillars. You will bring both of them to us tonight or you'll never see your friend alive again."

Yet even as she spoke those words, Ezra knew without question, JD's fate would be sealed even if they did.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN:

ARTEFACT

"Maybe we ought to wait for Chris," Josiah commented as he brought his Buick Roadmaster to a halt in front of the First National Bank of Santa Fe, where Orin Travis kept a private lockbox in its vault.

"We can't wait, you heard them. If they don't get what they want, they'll kill him." Buck declared hotly, hating the idea himself they were doing this without Chris's input but the Erran hadn't given them much choice in the matter. Listening to that woman make her demands, Buck was convinced of one thing just as surely as Ezra had been, she wasn't bluffing. If they did not produce the Pillars, JD would be killed. As it stood, the Erran had proven time and time again, just how ruthless they were in the pursuit of their goals.

Buck knew he was running high on emotion but frankly, he didn't much care for the thoughts of the others on this point. In the last year since JD Dunne joined their number, the kid had become important, not just to the dynamics of the group but each man saw something in JD that touched them all. It was reminiscent of the feeling they felt in the trenches of France when the scrawny twelve-year-old Vin Tanner had been, was presented to them as their latest recruit.

They'd all taken to Vin, Chris especially. Their leader had kept Vin at his side throughout most of the war and that connection remained just as binding, even now. Buck had seen it and never understood the intensity of the friendship until JD Dunne entered their lives. Watching this young man struggling through life on his own, needing so much to have someone give a damn about him had touched Buck on a very personal level. Having grown up with similar isolation, Buck quickly developed an almost paternal affection for JD.

Ezra glanced sideways at Josiah a look, implying he ought to let it go. Everyone in the vehicle knew how Buck felt about JD and only Chris could rein in the big man when his emotions were running this hot. Unfortunately, their fearless leader was not here and after leaving word with Nettie at the ranch about their intentions, they had come here to retrieve Orin's piece of Erran folklore.

While they had no intention of giving the Erran the artefact, for this exchange to work, they needed to produce the Pillar to have something to bargain with.

"Buck is right," Orin Travis who was wedged between Buck and Nathan during the journey, was now shifting in his seat to leave the vehicle. "I will not let any harm come to young Mr Dunne, not on my account. The foolishness of my youth has caused enough harm, I won't add JD to the death toll."

"This ain't your fault Sir," Nathan who was already on the sidewalk, held the door open for the older man. "People get in their heads to act all crazy, you're not to blame for their beliefs."

"Perhaps," Orin was not about to let himself be exonerated so easily. "Will, Hank, Donnie and I trampled across a foreign land and desecrated one of their temples. Would we be as forgiving if someone had done that to one of our churches?"

"Perhaps not," Josiah could not argue there but he wasn't going to let the Professor feel any worse than he already did. "But it's a long way from plundering churches to what these folks intend on doing with the Pillars."

"Come on," Buck said impatiently, not wishing to get into this debate. Christ knew Chris was going to have plenty to say on the subject when he got back. And none of it good.

+ + + + + + +

"Your brother was right," Krestos said eyeing the men as they climbed out of the vehicle. "They behaved exactly as he assumed they would."

Aisha smiled from the backseat of the Cadillac Cabriolet following a discreet distance behind the Roadmaster. Now parked in an alley across the street from the bank. As the five men emerged from the vehicle, their destination clear, Aisha marvelled at how astute her brother had been in his deductions. The threat to the boy's life had driven them straight to the location of the Pillar in Orin Travis's possession. While they were certain the Pillar hidden by William Styles was almost certainly in the hand of these men's leader, the location of Travis's artefact had been a mystery.

Now instead of wasting their time with exchanges and pointless bargains, the Erran knew where the remaining Pillars were and go retrieve them, as well as doing away with these meddlesome infidels once and for all.

"Tell our people to move in on the building," Aisha replied. "We'll take it from them as soon as it's in their possession."

+ + + + + + +

While Buck and Josiah kept a vigil on the Professor while he was being escorted through the bank clerk into the vault, Ezra and Nathan remained in the main floor of the premises. As it was a weekday and approaching lunch, the bank was busy and visited by an assortment of individuals, from regular joes carrying out normal day to day transactions, secretaries making deposits into commercial accounts and senior citizens needing the intricacies of their passbook explained by weary tellers. Despite this, however, the chatter in the bank was kept to a minimum, as if the worship of money required the same reverence as a church.

Nathan's presence in the bank appeared to be the cause of intense scrutiny, not only from the tellers behind the counter but also the security guard at the door. It rankled Ezra to no end that Nathan who had an impressive fiscal worth would receive nothing but prejudice in the establishment where if he were a white man, would be welcomed as a worthy customer. Even though Ezra was a southerner, he despised the Jim Crow laws affecting his best friend on a regular basis.

"The sooner we get this thing, the better I'll feel," Nathan grumbled as he noted the sharp stare of the grizzly looking security guard aimed at his direction. Thank Christ the man didn't know he was packing.

Ezra glanced in the direction of Nathan's gaze and gave the guard an equally venomous glare in solidarity with his best friend. He disliked the bigoted thinking that still existed even though a war had been fought to settle the whole matter less than a century before.

"I do not blame you," Ezra replied sympathetically, not even trying to offer a useless epithet like he understood when there was no way he ever could. The two men were trying to remain unobtrusive as they took up position near one of the marble column in the main floor, staying out of the way of patrons and the traffic coming through the door. "Hopefully the Professor will conclude his business quickly and we can be away from here. There are far too few egress points for my liking."

Nathan stared at Ezra, aware by the tone in the man's voice, he was worried. "You think the Erran may try to ambush us, here?"

Ezra didn't look at him, his sea-green eyes were fixed instead on the main entrance, which the guard was flanking but paying little attention to, more focussed on Nathan.

"They have proven before they have no compunctions about where they choose to attack, no matter what the collateral damage."

Nathan swept his gaze across the floor and noted just how many people there were in the bank today. Men, women, children and senior citizens were out in force and if the Erran chose to appear, they would have plenty of targets. Concern for their safety suddenly overrode the discomfort he felt at being in the place as Ezra's worry infected him too.

"Fortunately, if they do appear, we are armed," Ezra remarked, reassured by the feel of the derringer beneath his sleeve and the Remington in his shoulder holster beneath his coat.

"Let's hope it don't come to that," Nathan frowned, completely convinced if there was a gunfight in the bank, he was going to be the first one the guard shot.

+ + + + + + +

Buck never had enough money until recent years to ever have the need to visit the vault inside a bank. To him, the secret place behind the counters, where only tellers and stolid-looking men with steel-rimmed glasses and bow ties inhabited, was a place of forbidden mystery. Just like the changing room of a ladies store or one of their powder rooms. When Mr Heidegger, the German bank manager of the First National Bank led them through the wall of steel bars, to the vault where the lock boxes were kept, Buck eyed the place with interest.

Leaving Ezra and Nathan at the door because after the Erran's discovery of their hiding place earlier that morning, none of them were leaving anything to chance as they went to retrieve the Pillar kept in this bank by Orin Travis. Heidegger had greeted Orin as if they had a personal relationship and Buck had to wonder when the Professor had met a Kraut. Had Heidegger come here after the war. A part of Buck still had difficulty hearing that accent, especially with the way things were going on in Germany right now.

Once Orin was shown to the area where the lock boxes were kept and allowed to retrieve the elongated metal box, sealed with a key possessed only by himself and the bank, the bank manager took them to an adjoining room where they could view their valuables in privacy. Only after Orin had thanked the man and he left them to their own devices, did the Professor finally turn to the box.

"I had hoped to never lay eyes on this thing again," Orin frowned. "I wanted to be dead in the ground first."

"I'm sorry you had to see it now Professor," Josiah said kindly. "With any luck, once we get JD back we can put it somewhere you'll never have to think of it again."

Personally, Buck thought that viewpoint was being rather optimistic. He was already reminded of what Vin had said in the car on their way to Doctor Styles's home, that the Erran were fanatics and would never stop coming after Orin and his daughter if there was a chance to conduct their crazy ritual. Following JD's abduction, the abhorrent notion of destroying the Pillars and the Heart suddenly did not seem so terrible..

"I hope it is that easy," Orin said as he inserted the key into the slot beneath the lid of the lockbox and twisted. It turned easily and Orin let out a breath as he lifted the lid. Still concealed within a red velvet pouch, both Josiah and Buck waited patiently as Orin removed them from it, the artefact that was the cause of some much grief to him and the friends of his youth.

Fashioned out of polished bronzed, it still gleamed beneath the hard, white light overhead. The ornate carvings along the side, what Chris or JD would have identified immediately as cuneiform, spoke a language neither man understood. Josiah studied the object, thinking that a craftsman had created this object two thousand years before Christ was born. It wasn't just ancient, it was priceless. History marked every scratch in the meta and in every wear of ceramic along its shaft. It was humbling to be in the presence of the thing, to know it had survived millennia and touching it was feeling some part of its immortality.

"It's beautiful," Josiah stated and saw Orin nod in agreement.

"We never saw it as any more than a way to make a fortune," Orin said shaking his head, feeling ashamed by the short-sightedness he and the others had displayed back in the day. "We went to the Middle East, expecting to make a fortune and when we found the Pillars, we thought it would make us rich. Of course, all it did was ruin us." He picked up the cryptex and stared at it hard. "I've lost all of them because the Pillars and I would give anything to change that."

Buck saw the sorrow in his eyes and understood all too well the man's feelings on the matter. He thought of Chris, Vin, Josiah, Nathan, Ezra and JD, all of them who had become a family, starting from their service in France, right up to this moment. They had become such a part of each other's lives, the idea of losing even just one of their number felt unimaginable. Just as it must be to Orin Travis, who had lost his friends in William Styles, Hank Connelly and Donald Avery, because of the Erran.

"We'll get justice for them, Professor," Buck patted him on the shoulder in sympathy. "Somehow, we'll make the Erran pay for this."

Yet even as he said the words, Buck knew for Orin, it would never be enough.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra hated being right.

When he heard the familiar voice of Buck above the quiet conversations across the main floor of the bank, Ezra instinctively turned his attention to their approaching comrades, just like Nathan beside him. With the guard still eyeing them, convinced the two well-dressed men with no business with the bank lingering about, were in fact casing the joint for a robbery. Gratitude filled him, because with Buck, Josiah and the Professor's return, they could finally get out of this place.

"About time," Nathan grizzled, giving the guard an equally derisive look before he turned towards their party, stepping through the short wooden gate separating the main floor of the bank from the rest of the premises. "We don't get out of here soon, that guard is likely to call the Feds and accuse us of getting ready to rob the bank like Dillinger or something..."

"Dillinger?" Ezra rolled his eyes. "I am certainly dressed better than him."

Nathan shook his head, "well as long as we're keeping our priorities in check..."

No sooner than he said those words, the main doors flew open, allowing the sounds of the street to break the hallowed atmosphere of the bank. Nathan glanced over his shoulder just as an afterthought and did a double take when he saw the Erran, led by the behemoth and the women, striding through the doors. Their faces were partially concealed with a red sash tied over their nose and mouth, immediately prompting Ezra's memories of mustard gas.

It was an apt association because no sooner than the words had crossed his mind, the woman who had reached beneath the cloak over her shoulder was throwing those glass orbs into the air. They spread out like ball bearings, shattering against the marble floor and filling the room with a noxious green gas, that had everyone gasping in seconds.

"Jesus Christ!" Nathan exclaimed and grabbed Ezra's arm, "come on!"

"I concur," Ezra replied hastily and didn't waste time arguing with him as the Erran spread out quickly, determined to keep them from leaving. The two men hurried across the floor as pandemonium broke out, their time in France giving them the ability to react better to the threat of gas with more speed.

One only had to see the effects of mustard gas in a field hospital to know whatever the woman was poisoning the air with, was something neither of them wanted to breathe.

Around them people were starting to wheeze and cough, a few were trying to make their way to the exits but were hindered by the cultists. The security guard who had been eyeing him had dropped to his knees, his face turning purple as he started to foam at the mouth from the effect of the gas. The healer in Nathan wanted to help but right now the imperative to get to the Professor overrode that compulsion. As they hurried towards their friends, Nathan looked over his shoulder long enough to see the Erran searching for them.

It took less than a second for eye contact to be made.

"THERE!" The woman shouted, pointing a finger at Nathan and Ezra, before her larger companion, the giant surrounded by a cadre of Erran started running towards them, drawing weapons.

"Get back! Get back!" Nathan warned Josiah and the others, casting a glance at the bank guard who was no longer moving, his mouth stained with spittle. Other patrons had also succumbed to the gas and Nathan knew if they did not leave now, they weren't getting out at all. "We've gotta get out of here before that gas gets to us too!"

"I agree but I am certain they would have placed their people at the rear exit of this establishment!" Ezra remarked, revealing his derringer from beneath his sleeve and firing two bullets at the approaching Erran. Both bullets met their mark as the two cultists providing him with the best targets, fell down dead. One fell face first, the blood oozing out of his punctured forehead in dark, thick rivulets.

Seeing one of their own dead by Ezra's hand, the Erran opened fire, increasing the panic already running through the place into pure pandemonium People were screaming, some from the noxious fumes poisoning them and others who were struck by stray bullets. Everyone was simply terrified by being caught by the crossfire.

"Watch out!" Nathan warned as he returned fire as he and Ezra kept their head down and motioned wildly at Buck, Josiah and the Professor to retreat the way they came.

"There's no exit back there!" Buck declared as Nathan ushered them towards the vault again. Even if they did reach it, Buck knew as well as Nathan the probabilities were high there would be reception committee waiting to ambush them. Then again, staying where they were, was not an option either.

"My God," Orin exclaimed watching the effect of the gas on the innocent bystanders, to say nothing of the bodies lying on the floor of the bank, having been caught in the shootout between them and the Erran.

"Come on Professor," Josiah said gently, accepting the man's horror at the callous disregard the Erran showed for others standing in their way. "We need to move."

"Move where?" Ezra demanded having switched to the Remington, now that he'd exhausted the derringer. They were cut off from reaching the other exit and even if they did manage to reach it, it was almost certainly covered by the Erran unless they were complete fools, which Ezra did not think they were. The gambler had no doubt they would be cut down the minute they stepped through the doorway since the Erran only wanted the artefact and did not need any of them alive.

Nathan didn't answer until they reached an intersection in the corridor. One led to the vault and the other led to a dead end, with only a large grate on the floor to mark its purpose. As the building was old, the healer quickly surmised that it was a disused drain for a time when the structure was used as something other than a bank. It was wide enough for a man to fit through, even if it was a bit of a squeeze.

"Wait," Nathan hurried down the corridor and drop to his knee the instant he reached the drain. He slid his fingers through the holes, feeling the corrosion and dust from years of disuse press into his skin as he heaved. Meanwhile, Buck and Ezra had taken flanking positions along the corridor, certain the Erran would soon be appearing in pursuit. The gunfire had paused a moment since the Erran lost sight of them but it would not last long.

"What are you doing?" Josiah called out.

"I want to see if this goes anywhere!" Nathan declared as the grate came loose finally, shaking off years of grit and dust as it did so, the weight of it forcing Nathan to fall backwards.

"Whatever you plan on doing, do it fast!" Buck hollered and Nathan looked up just in time to see him squeezing off a round. The bullet sounded even louder in the narrow hallway and was soon returned in kind as Ezra told the Professor to get back.

Nathan scrambled quickly to the grate and peered through it. It was old and musty, covered in cobwebs but wide enough for them to traverse. With any luck, this connected to the main drains beneath the street, giving them a way out of the building.

"This way!" He shouted at them, waving them over.

"Come on Professor," Josiah guided Orin towards the open drain, not looking forward to climbing into the small space but deciding it was better than trading gunfire at a bank. No doubt, the police would soon be drawn by all this commotion, if they weren't on their way already. Another run-in with the law would require explanation and without even hearing the man say it, Josiah knew this would not sit well with Chris Larabee.

"Yes, yes," Orin nodded. "Before anyone else gets hurt!"

Before Orin could descend, Josiah stopped him. "I'll go first."

They had no idea where the drain would empty into and Josiah was not about to let the older man endanger himself by going first. Climbing into the drain, his broad shoulders scraped the grimy walls Fortunately, his coat spared his skin any injury. It reeked of stale water and blunted acrid aromas but nothing he could not handle for a short time. Reaching into his coat, Josiah pulled out a lighter and flicked it alight. The illumination of the flame revealed the passage was quite lengthy, given credence to Nathan's hope it might lead beyond the walls of the bank.

"Alright, let's go." Josiah started crawling and the Professor followed closely.

"Buck! Ezra!" Come on!" Nathan shouted at the two.

No sooner than he said that, another orb of glass was flung into the narrow hallways, shattering loudly against the stone floor. Once again, that terrible smoke began to fill the room., prompting the two men into movement. Ezra covered his mouth with a handkerchief as he followed Buck, trying to outrun the noxious smoke snaking up the hallway like an insidious fog. For a moment, he thought of some moody horror movie with Boris Karloff.

Once Orin was gone, Buck jumped into the drain, scowling unhappily because he was barely able to keep his head from hitting the roof of the passage, given how tight a fit it was going to be for him.

"I swear, I'm going to enjoy putting down these bastards for good!" Buck cursed.

"No kidding," Nathan declared, agreeing with him wholeheartedly. "Get in there!"

Uttering another curse which Nathan didn't quite hear, Buck disappeared as the healer raised his eyes to Ezra. "Come on Ezra! Don't dawdle!"

"I do not dawdle!" Ezra shouted and closed the distance to the drain. Peering down the hole he glared at Nathan, his nose wrinkling in disgust. "What do you have against me and my clothes? Every time we embark upon any plan of yours, it inevitably ends with my throwing out another good suit."

"I'm your best friend ain't I?" Nathan asked as Ezra climbed into the drain.

"Unfortunately, yes," Ezra tossed him a begrudging look. "Although I fail to see the correlation."

Nathan followed him down and replied grinning, "well I know how much you like buying new clothes. I do this so you can go shopping."

CHAPTER SIXTEEN:

UNDERESTIMATED

If there was one thing JD hated more than anything, it was being underestimated.

All his life, from the time he was old enough to understand what contempt meant, JD knew people looked at him and saw less. Whether it was because he was the son of the housekeeper at the fancy school his mother worked at or the fact he was small for his age and he had no father to speak of, he always felt the outcast. When he was younger, he would get into fights all the time because of this and the bloody nose he often gave the bullies who came at him, proved quite conclusively, he was nowhere an easy a mark as they believed.

It was why he felt similarly incensed as he sat in the train car on the far side of town, slightly battered and bruised, listening to his captor, Adashir Shah, the leader of the Erran, boast of his plan to use him as a pawn to gain the remaining two Pillars.

After ambushing him at the home of Alex's father and burning the place to the ground, an action which infuriated him as much as it would devastate the lady when she discovered the fire, JD had been sufficiently subdued and spirited away. Looking through the glass as he left the burning house behind him, JD's rage had been fuelled by the thought of all those precious books having survived the centuries only to be destroyed at the hand of these fanatics, to say nothing of how they had razed to the ground, the home Alex had shared with her father.

They drove for almost a good hour, with the Erran making no effort to hide where they were going, telling JD most unequivocally they had no intention of letting him go, even after they got what they wanted. With his fate painfully clear, JD knew he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by escaping. Furthermore, it rankled him that Chris and the others would have to surrender the Pillars to get him back. While it felt good to know they cared for him so much, JD had no wish to be the reason the Erran succeeded in their insane plans to uncreate the world, even if the whole thing was superstitious nonsense.

"You know it's a shame you destroyed all of those books at Doctor Styles's place when you sent your goon squad to come to get me," JD commented from the wing chair he had been forced into inside the luxurious train car, Shah had converted into study and parlour. Standing over him, was an Erran guard, ensuring he behaved while the leader of the Erran sat behind an expensive oak desk, studying a parchment rolled across the felt covering.

"I have no interest in what an infidel may have gathered over the years," Shah did not look up as he continued his examination of the parchment, scrutinizing the faded letters through the lens of the magnifying glass in his hand.

"Okay," JD shrugged. "But I'm sure he gathered a lot of stuff about the Pillars and the Heart that you might not have seen."

Curiosity piqued, Shah lifted his head and stared across the room, with its expensive rugs and ornate Bric a brac adorning shelves and display cases. "Like what?"

"Well for starters, once you get the Four Pillars and open the Heart, it's not a simple matter of retrieving the Tablets from its Cradle, wherever that might be. In the text I saw, one your gorilla torched, there was an Akkadian translation of Ninurta and the Turtle where most of the legends regarding Enki come from. It talks about the trials that must be crossed by the worthy before the Tablet can be claimed."

"There is no Akkadian translation of that text," Shah declared, but JD had learned enough from Ezra to know the man's tone was slightly less superior than it had been.

"Sure, there is," he said confidently. "Apparently, Doctor Styles found another portion of an Anzu poem unearthed in an old temper near the northern Euphrates. It was a part of something called the Books of Bel."

"Bel?" Shah sat up even straighter. "There is..."

"Bel is what some Babylonians called Marduk, who took the Tablets away from Tiamat's chosen during the battle with her chosen," JD explained almost smugly.

"And you're saying that Styles has a copy of this translation?" Shah stared at him.

"Had," JD emphasized. "It was in the house and it's up in smoke now. So good luck when you find the Cradle."

Shah glared at the boy, convinced he was being played but with the Heart now in his possession, not to mention two of the Pillars, the gulf between uncertainty and absolute had widened considerably. Perhaps it had been a mistake to destroy the doctor's collection. No, he shook his head. This boy was playing him.

"You're lying," Shah declared.

"If you say so," JD said indifferently. "You can see it for yourself, the trials are inscribed on the side of the Pillars."

Shah blinked and glanced at a picture frame on the wall. Convinced the young man was no threat to him, especially since Shah planned on killing him the instant the other Pillars were acquired, he went to the painting, a portrait of Adashir Shah the First, hanging on the wall. Behind it was safe. JD turned away, pretending to pay no attention but kept it within his view. He watched as Shah turned the dial. With his eidetic memory, JD memorised every turn and pause, confident the man would not think him capable of remembering the combination.

He was wrong.

A few minutes later, Shah produced one of the Pillars and once again, JD remembered everything Ezra Standish taught him this last year about maintaining a poker face, feigning nothing but disinterest when the man took the artefact back to his desk. Once again, JD didn't look at him as Shah scrutinized the Pillar, mostly because JD feared Shah might guess his intentions if he paid too much attention.

No sooner than the thought crossed his head, Shah placed the lens and the Pillar down on the table again. He stared at JD hard. "This translation is ambiguous. The trials mentioned, could be interpreted in two different ways, it could mean physical trials or it could mean keeping the faith with Tiamat. Foolish infidel," Shah snorted. "You assume too much."

"No skin of my back, I just said what I read but you want to be sure in case there ain't no flesh-eating beetles waiting for you when you get there. This isn't the first treasure hunt I've been on, it's the details that end up leaving you at the bottom of a pit, full of spikes."

"I'm sure," Shah sneered and stood from the desk, replacing the Pillar back in the safe. "For your sake," he added viciously. "Your friends better give me the other Pillars or else I will be happy to see you end up that way."

The young man said nothing, feigning a little fear for effect. In truth, JD had too much faith in the six men who had taken him under their wing since he joined their number. There was no way in hell they would let him come to harm. He felt it in his bones.

Shah was on his way back to his desk when the revving of engines filled the air, making the man cross the floor to the nearest window to peer out. JD was uncertain what he saw, but it did not please him in the slightest. A dark scowl crossed his face as he straightened up, allowing the curtain over the glass to fall back in place once more. Regarding the guard keeping an eye on JD, Shah offered a single stern warning.

"Watch him."

Counting down silently, JD let exactly twenty seconds pass before he swung back hard in his wing chair, causing the heavy piece of furniture to fall against his guard who stumbled backwards. Ready for the fall, JD flipped over the armrest before it landed entirely on the Erran. Moving swiftly, JD knew what he would be reaching for the instant the moment allowed it. Practically sweeping the heavy marble statue off the side table, he smashed it into the jaw of the Erran who went for his gun but never had the chance to pull the trigger. A jaw bone shattered as he careened to the floor, with the young linguist bringing down the statue once more, this time against his skull.

The man slumped to the rug unconscious without a sound and JD tossed the statue against the upended wing chair, certain he was not getting up soon. Leaving the Erran behind him, JD crossed the floor quickly, about to make his own introduction to Adashir Shah the First.

+ + + + + + +

"Am I surrounded by incompetents?" Shah bellowed as he faced his sister and Krestos who were returning with half the men he had to send them out with.

Once again, they had returned to him empty handed and Shah was seriously beginning to consider perhaps the men that surrounded Orin Travis was more than either Aisha or Krestos could handle. Being bested seemed to be becoming a regular occurrence. While Aisha and Krestos did not seem any worse for the experience, the same could not be said for the group of Erran that had gone with them. At least a handful had not returned.

"They found an alternate exit out of the bank and we could not stay too long to conduct a search," Aisha explained. "Perhaps we should have waited until they left the premises but the bank appeared self-contained and we had men stationed at the rear exit."

"This is getting tiresome!" Shah snapped. "We have waited a thousand years for this day and you two are being bested by infidels!"

"Forgive me for speaking out of turn," Krestos spoke up as Aisha felt silent, her head drooped in shame at failing her brother once more. "Master, these men are not simple infidels. They're soldiers and men who have been blooded by far more blood than our own have seen. They are skilled."

"That boy in there claims they are treasure hunters," Shah gestured to the railway car a short distance away. The line of track in this area was private and normally used for freight cars delivering cargo that would be bound for the Rio Grande, a short distance away. "Perhaps you ought to interrogate him," he looked at Aisha. "I think it is time we got to know our adversaries a bit better."

"He will tell me everything he knows before I am done with him," she said confidently.

Turning his back on her, Shah stomped back to the railway car, his mood so dark he almost left a trail of smoke behind him. As always Aisha followed a few steps behind, for her brother had the bloodline of a king and she was still a woman. Throwing a sidelong glance at Krestos, the tall servant kept pace with her, but his eyes showed his sympathy at her brother's rages towards her. Krestos had been Shah's loyal protector since he assumed the mantle of the Erran from their father and though it was never spoken, she knew he kept her safe too.

Around them, the other Erran were helping their injured comrades out of the vehicles they had returned in, with the intention of taking them to the other carriage where they had been hiding since coming to this accursed land. They offered no judgement on the failure of the quest today, keeping their heads low as they passed their master's sister and the captain of his guard. Aisha only looked ahead, her eyes fixed on Shah's back as he made his way up the steps into the rail car he called his private sanctum. He was ready to extract his pound of flesh from the young man whose older comrades had complicated the retrieval of the heart and the remaining Pillars

"HE'S GONE!"

Shah's enraged bellow rose over the raspy wind blowing across the dry afternoon of the New Mexican day. Both she and Krestos jumped at the sharp, almost animalistic cry of fury and hastened their pace into the train car. What they arrived there to find was worse than just an escape and Shah's expression was damn near murderous.

Her brother was standing next to the safe where the Pillars belonging to Hank Conley and Donald Avery were kept, along with the Heart of Enki, stolen less than a day before. It was wide open like a mouth agape with shock, its contents gone. On the floor nearby, lay the unconscious, if not possibly dead body of the guard left behind to watch over the prisoner. His red robes had been stripped off his body.

"That little bastard took the Pillars and Heart!" Shah screamed. "FIND HIM NOW!"

Krestos did not even need him to finish the sentence, having guessed what had happened the instant he saw the half-naked guard. Hurrying to the door, he paused and scanned the area just in time to see a red robe figure climb into one of the cars they had just vacated.

"STOP HIM!" Krestos shouted to anyone who was near enough as the cars engines roared to life. He leapt ofF the platform, not bothering to take the steps down to the ground, his gun brandished as his stunned Erran brothers tried to discern what was happening.

Inside the Caddy, JD didn't look up when he heard Krestos sound the alarm.

The youngest member of the Seven was too busy getting the car started. Putting it into gear, he released the clutch and jammed his foot against the accelerator, sending it lurching forward. Spinning the wheel around in a sharp turn, the tyres screeched loudly against the gravel road, spitting bits of grit and dirt into the air in a small earthen wave.

So loud was the roar of engines, it drowned out the voices shouting after him furiously until the first burst of gunfire eclipsed everything. JD kept his head down as the back window exploded with the bullet continuing on, exiting the windscreen dead centre. Only a tiny webbed crack remained behind as JD floored the accelerator and left a cloud of dust behind him as he sped away. The gunfire continued and he didn't have to look over his shoulder to know the other vehicles the Erran had at their disposal would soon be in pursuit.

Especially after what he had taken.

As he sped away from the Yards, JD was confident he could lose them in the streets of Albuquerque, because after Josiah's driving lessons, JD had become very well acquainted with its streets. Tossing back a final look at the Erran, JD had only this to say.

"Ambiguous translation my ass."

+ + + + + + +

To say that Chris Larabee was incensed was putting it mildly.

Nothing affected the former captain of K troop and now leader of the Seven as much as fire. After Sarah and Adam's death, his reaction to fire was visceral. It sent a chill of fear down his spine and provoked a rage almost as red hot as the flames that had set his life ablaze that terrible night while he and Buck were in Mexico. While fire no means paralysed him, it did provoke an extreme reaction when he saw it. It was even worse when he knew it was no random act of fate but a calculated move of malicious intent.

His first thought after the shock of seeing the billowing cloud of smoke rising from the pyre of William Styles's home was JD. The horror of having to search through the rubble of ash and wood in search of the boy's burnt body was more than he could stand. Fortunately, he had been spared that nightmare with his family, since the bodies were well and truly removed from the scene when he arrived at his gutted home. The idea he might have to face that nightmare almost made him gag but then Chris remembered, the body to be recovered was JD's.

Cursing himself for leaving JD alone here, Chris had forgotten that as much as JD had learned from them in the past year, he lived an ordinary life before this, a student-driven by circumstances to work for them to finish his studies. He had fight and spirit but the violence and exposure to people like the Erran were still new to him. Chris had no doubt he would have put up one hell of a fight before he was taken down but Chris doubted if he could fend off the Erran if they came in the same numbers they had during previous encounters.

"JD!" Chris shouted into the air, hoping against hope the kid might have somehow managed to defy his expectations and escape.

There was no answer.

"JD!" He tried again but only silence followed and Chris knew there was no JD to hear him.

"Chris!" Vin hollered after him. The sharpshooter was scanning the dirt around the house, in particular, those leading from the front door.

"What is it?" Chris asked quickly, "What have you found.?"

"I think JD made it out," Vin gestured to one particular footprint among the overlapping tracks in the dirt beyond the patch of green surrounding the house. The prints were leading towards the driveway and the one Vin focused on, appeared to be flanked by others. "I know his shoe thread and this is about his size. They took him alive Chris," Vin assured his best friend quickly, perfectly aware of what effect a fire had on Chris Larabee's psyche.

Thank Christ for that, Chris thought silently.

As the relief flooded him for that bit of consolation, he saw Alex staring into the fire and a surge of cold hatred for the Erran surfaced again when he saw her anguish at the sight of the destruction. She stood there, like one of Euripides's tragic women, watching the fire turn everything that was her father, into ash. There were no tears but Chris saw the grief as if the fire was making her lose him all over again.

"Alex," Mary said gently, standing next to her. "I'm so sorry."

Even as she spoke, Vin was crossing the space between them, capturing Alex in an embrace when he reached her.

"Alex, we'll make them pay for this," Vin said holding her when she finally came into his arms. Holding her close to him, Vin saw no tears but her pain was like a knife in his heart and he could only look up at Chris helplessly, wishing the older man could teach him like he had taught Vin so many other things in life, how to deal with this.

"It doesn't matter," she whispered tonelessly. "They've taken everything of him from me, there's nothing left."

Mary turned away, unable to stand the knots in her stomach. She felt Alex's grief because her own fears for Orin surfaced sharply at that moment. He was the last one left of the original four who went to the Middle East for their adventure only to return with this doom over their lives. Her blue-grey eyes scanned what remained of the house, the thickest concentration of flames seemed to focus on the study. Unsurprising of course, Mary thought bitterly. There was no reason to burn the place down, none except spite and focussing on that room, no doubt where he kept a lifetime's research on the Erran, seemed fitting in their twisted worldview.

At least they knew JD was alive.

While they had yet to process the ramifications of what this could mean, Chris knew one thing for certain. He didn't just intend to stop the Erran and their continued attacks on the people he cared about, he wanted to wreak bloody vengeance on every last one of the fanatical sons of bitches. Not just for taking JD, no doubt for blackmail, but for the men they had killed. Hank Conley, Donald Avery and most of all William Styles who understood better than anyone what they all risked.

He was about to turn away from the fire when his keen eyes caught sight of something in the bushes outside the window where Styles's study was continuing to burn. The olive bush closest to it was beginning to smoulder as live embers from the blazing house found fresh fuel to burn. Walking towards its almost on reflex, Chris tightened his gaze to focus on what exactly was beckoning him from its hiding place amongst the soon to be incinerated leaves.

It didn't take him long to find out what it was. Suspended above the ground, in between a fork of branches was JD's notebook.

"What is it?" Mary asked coming up alongside him.

Chris reached for the thing and quickly brushed off the ash covered dust jacket. "It's one of JD's notebooks." He flipped it open and saw the scribblings inside the pages. While Chris couldn't translate all of it yet, he recognised the information relating to the Erran. JD must have jotted down his findings of Styles's research after his perusal and tossed it out here when the Erran had come for him.

"The kid's got a memory of a steel trap," Chris stated, raising his eyes to hers. "He left this for me."

"What's in it?"

"I'm not sure," Chris answered honestly "but if it was important enough for him to toss it out here, I plan to find out."

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN:

FLIGHT

If Chris Larabee had been in a venomous mood after leaving the burning wreckage of William Styles's home, what he learned upon returning to his ranch made him positively homicidal with rage.

It was bad enough the Erran had abducted JD and would almost certainly use him as a hostage in order to acquire the remaining Pillars but to learn the sons of bitches had violated the sanctity of the home he'd bought for Sarah and Adam, heightened his fury to volcanic levels. The ranch was inviolate and the idea it had been sullied by the Erran stoked his desire to see every one of their kind put down for good.

They'd returned to the ranch house in the mid-afternoon, only to find the place reeking of a stink that would have raised the dead buried in the Great Pyramids. Not to mention having to endure an unholy level of complaining from Ezra Standish regarding the destruction of yet another suit. It appeared Buck, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra had escorted Orin Travis to the bank where his Pillar was kept and in the course of retrieving it, were forced to take a turn through the sewers of Albuquerque, to escape the Erran who had followed them there.

Fortunately, Nettie who played housekeeper to the premises had come to the rescue by ensuring their ruined clothes were taken away and laundered, resulting in Chris's living room resembling the locker room of a men's gymnasium. Leaving Chris and Vin to deal with his comrades, Mary and Alex had opted to freshen up after their ordeal in the mound, themselves needing baths after their unceremonious landing in a mud puddle.

"I honestly don't know what's worse!" Chris growled, schooling his team, even though Professor Travis was in the room like they were errant school children. Vin simply offered them looks of sympathy, allowing Chris to go on a tear until it was time for him to step in. The sharpshooter always seemed to know the best time to stop in and remind Chris he was among friends when he was in this kind of mood.

Like now.

"Take it easy pard," Vin said gently, understanding what had motivated the others, even though like Chris, he wouldn't have gone after the Pillar either.

"Take it easy?" Chris growled and shot Vin an annoyed glare, suspecting the younger man was attempting to handle him. "Are you kidding me?" Chris snapped and face the others again. "Why the hell didn't you just stay put until we got back?"

"Hell Chris!" Buck jumped to his feet, clutching the towel that was hanging precariously around his hip, feeling his own ire raised. It wasn't Chris who had gone trekking through the sewer like rats. "They got JD! What were we supposed to do?"

"You were supposed to use your head!" Chris retorted sharply. "Not go running after the Pillar which was exactly what they wanted you to do. They knew the minute they made the demand for JD, we were going to have to retrieve the Pillar to get him back. It's what they were waiting on. They don't plan on keeping any bargain they made with us Buck. The minute they get within sight of the other Pillars, they're going to kill us all, if they haven't already killed JD."

Buck's eyes widened at the thought and so did the dread in his face at the possibility. At that instant, Chris saw just how fearful Buck was for the young man's welfare and immediately felt bad for pushing so hard.

"Mr Larabee," Ezra winced at the harsh rebuke as deeply as their pilot. Secretly, he had also wondered whether the decision to retrieve the Pillar had been made too hastily. They had simply reacted when they learned about JD's situation without considering all the angles. It was a testament to Ezra's affection for the young men that he, who should have seen the duplicity, missed it. "Despite the outcome, we did elude them and we still have the Pillar."

"Yeah, just because we didn't exactly take the scenic route didn't mean it ended up worse than it could have been." Nathan pointed out. It had been his idea to take the sewer and though it had been a filthy trip through those tunnels and wide drains, at least they had escaped with their skins intact and the Pillar still in their possession. Besides, the sight of Ezra slipping into knee-deep sewage had made him smile.

"It was my call Chris," Orin spoke up, his voice taking on the same authority he used when he commanded them all in France. "I decided we should go and get the Pillar."

Any further rebuke Chris was about to make, died in his throat following the Professor's statement. Orin Travis was the only person Chris Larabee would not raise a voice to. Even though it was years past, Chris still saw Orin as the commanding officer who led him and K-Troop through the battlefield of France. His conditioning to obey the man was not merely out of respect and loyalty but affection because the scholar had saved him in more ways than one, during the worst time of his life.

"Well it's done now," Josiah added. "The question is, will they honour their agreement now that we managed to sidestep their double cross."

"I don't know," Chris sighed, deciding both Orin and Josiah were right. There was no point arguing over what had taken place but instead focus on what came next. "We still have two Pillars, which means we have something to bargain with."

"Or not."

Chris had heard a door creak open and assumed it was the girls moving through the bedrooms or Nettie coming back. Except the voice who had spoken wasn't any of the women.

It was JD.

The kid looked hot and tired. He had lost his jacket and his white shirt was stained with dust and sweat stains. A satchel of eastern origin was slung over his shoulder and he was breathing hard as he stood by the doorway, one arm propped up against the frame. He was trying to catch his breath following the announcement of his return, temporarily oblivious to the burst of surprise and elation at his sudden appearance.

"JD!" Buck's voice boomed first as he got to his feet and strode across the floor, arms open as if he was about to envelop the young man in a big bear hug of relief.

"Buck, don't you dare hug me until you put a shirt on!" JD cautioned with a smile of amusement when he saw the pilot on approach. Now that he had time to survey the room, JD's brow wrinkled in confusion as the number of his friends in various states of undress before turning to Vin who was nearest to him at the door. "Why isn't anyone wearing any clothes? What the hell have you all been doing while I was escaping those kooks?"

"Long story," Vin chuckled. "How did you get here?"

"Yeah, how did you escape? And don't think just because we're happy to see you I won't kick your ass." Buck retaliated, still wearing a happy grin as he paused short of hugging the boy because, well it did feel kind of strange when he wasn't wearing anything but a towel. "We thought those bastards still had you."

"I escaped," JD explained, walking into the room after noticing a pitcher of water on the coffee table and headed straight for it. He'd go for something a little stronger a bit later. Like the whisky in the decanter, he could see at the other end of the table.

"You escaped?" Ezra stared at him incredulously. "How in Perdition's Fire did you manage that?" The gambler was genuinely surprised. While JD was intelligent enough, the young man was still new to the life and that level of resourcefulness was something none of them had seen him display so far.

"What do you mean how did I manage that?" The boy stared back at him with an expression that was part hurt and part offence. Bristling inwardly, he supposed it was exactly this kind of thinking that allowed him to get past the great Khan.

Next to Ezra, Nathan rolled his eyes and swatted the back of the man's head at his tactlessness, something Ezra should have been practised enough to avoid. "Nice Ezra."

Ezra cursed himself inwardly at the remark and quickly tried to explain himself. "I simply meant..."

"I can take care of myself," JD sulked, somewhat hurt by Ezra's lack of faith when it was the skills he learned from the gambler that served him most during his escape.

"JD, continue," Chris spoke up, his patience reaching its limits because he wanted to hear how JD had escaped. Such miracles didn't happen without a considerable price tag and Chris suspected, they would be paying for it soon enough.

Remembering himself as well as the danger he had placed them with his escape, he resumed speaking. "After they took me from Doctor Styles's house and set the place alight," JD's expression darkened in correspondence with Vin, who was still angry at how Alex's family home had been burned to the ground in vengeance. "They took me to the Yards near the river. The Erran have a private train or something stationed there."

The older men in the room exchanged silent glances with each other, the same thought running through all their minds though no one was speaking it. The Erran never had any intention of releasing JD if they had been so free with letting the young man see where they were holed up.

"Go on kid," Buck prompted, his jaw ticking as genuine anger filled him. Buck never let the emotion get a grip on him the way it did Chris, but knowing what the Erran had planned for JD, allowed Buck to make an exception.

"Anyway," JD resumed quickly because whether or not they knew it, they were on the clock. "The guy in charge, they call him the Shah. He thought I was some stupid kid. It made him think I couldn't take care of myself so when he had to leave when some of the Erran ran into trouble, they only left one guard with me. I managed to get the drop on the guy. Once I laid him out cold, I took those red robes he had on and got lost in the crowd long enough to reach a car."

"Not bad," Vin complimented, glad to see JD was proving himself. As the youngest member of the group, until JD came along, Vin remembered what it was like to be in a similar position.

"They follow you?" Josiah asked, unwilling to imagine JD's escape would be that easy, not after the lengths the Erran had gone so far to achieve their ends.

"They did but first chance I got, I ditched the car and the robes. I saw a bus and jumped on before anyone saw me. As soon as I got to the depot, I called one of my pals from school to come get me and give me a ride out here. I got them to drop me off the main road, near the trees, so I could sneak in here on foot without anyone seeing me."

"Good job young man," Orin complimented, mirroring the approval of everyone else in the room.

As nice as it was for JD to hear the compliments, he knew they were running out of time. The Erran were coming and he had to tell them why now. Standing up, he looked at Chris. "Chris, we have to leave here right now. If they're aren't here yet, they soon will be."

The intensity of that delivery made Chris's spine stiffen and the urgency spread around the room like wildfire.

"Why?" Chris was almost afraid to ask.

"Because I didn't just take some goon's robes, I took something else." He unslung the satchel around his shoulder and emptied the contents onto the coffee table with a loud clunk, stunning everyone into silence.

"Good God," Orin Travis was the first to break the silence, staring at the objects, two of which he hadn't seen in almost fifty years.

"Jesus Christ," Buck's voice chimed in soon after. "Is that..."

"The other two Pillars and the Heart," Chris grinned, never prouder of the kid than at this moment even though he fully understood the danger they were now in. JD was right, they had to leave and right now.

"How the hell did you manage to get your hands on that?" Nathan asked, unable to believe the Erran and more importantly, Shah could be careless enough to let JD get his hands on the artefacts.

"I told you," JD smiled, revelling in the admiration he was receiving from everyone in the room. "He thought I was a stupid kid, I proved I wasn't."

+ + + + + + +

Less than thirty minutes later, with everyone armed and dressed in still damp clothes, they left the ranch after ensuring the Erran were nowhere in sight and headed out to the only safe place left to them. On board the Darlin' Millie, 25'000 feet in the air.

Buck contacted the West Mesa Airstrip where the Millie awaited them in a private hangar during the period between jobs, to lodge a flight plan and get clearance to leave while Chris ensured Nettie and her niece were safely out of harm's way. Though annoyed at having to leave, Nettie understood the situation and headed off in her Ford pick up to collect Casey from school. She intended on visiting with Agnes Doherty, an old friend who was still in the service and stationed at the army base in White Sands. At least Chris was assured of her safety there.

He doubted even the Erran could get past the US Army.

In light of JD's dazzling display of deceit resulting in their acquisition of all the pieces needed to open the cryptices and revealing the location of the Tablet, Erran would be on their way and they would be doing it in force. Thanks to a nineteen-year-old dropout who wasn't even old enough to drink, the purpose to which the Erran had devoted themselves for centuries was literally stolen from under them. If the Erran caught up with them before they could get to safety, Chris had no doubt the fanatics would kill every last one of them.

"We got clearance," Buck stepped out of the house, grateful the afternoon sun was drying the damp clothes they'd been forced to wear due to their hasty departure. "Damned if I know how. Fastest clearance I ever got. I didn't even have to sweet talk Gloria into working her magic for me. Anyway, we can leave as soon as we get there."

In front of the house, both their cars were parked and waiting. Josiah was behind the wheel of his Roadmaster, with JD in the back seat with Orin Travis and his daughter. Nathan and Ezra were in the back seat of his Oldsmobile, no doubt bitching about something like a bunch of hens. Chris shook his head as he heard their argument, wondering at what point did he miss the wedding.

"Well don't look a gift horse in the mouth," Chris remarked. Buck was wearing his shoulder holster, his Remington pressed against his rib. "You drive straight there and get Millie ready for take-off. Vin and I will be right behind you."

"Where are we headed?" Buck asked needing to lodge an actual flight plan. He'd gave Gloria some half-assed destination, just in case anyone came calling after they'd left.

Chris thought quickly. "I don't care as long as we're wheels up as soon as possible. We need somewhere we can put down for a few hours without the Erran interrupting us."

"I gotcha," his old friend nodded and looked over his shoulder at Vin, who was engaged in talk with his new girl. "He's really gone, ain't he?"

Chris tossed a look over his shoulder and noted the duo, unable to keep a smile from tugging at his lips, despite the urgency of their present situation. "All it takes is the right girl."

"I prefer it to be any girl," Buck grinned. "Hey Vin, we've gotta get moving!"

"You're a lost cause," Chris laughed shaking his head.

Vin gave Buck a look and turned to Alex who was now wearing jeans and a loose shirt, her hair pulled into a ponytail. Even though he had met her less than two days ago, it astonished the young sharpshooter how hard he had fallen for her. Yet when he looked into her eyes, he was convinced she felt just as deeply for him. While they weren't going to be parted for long, Vin still felt this tug knowing she was going to leave him, even for a little.

"I'll be right behind you. Me and Chris are just gonna make sure none of them Erran bastards try to follow us to the airstrip."

"You will be careful right?" Alex asked quietly, trying not to sound like some needy woman but the truth was, he'd caught her completely by surprise and since meeting him on that rooftop above the museum, Alex could no longer imagine her world without Vin in it. After losing her father, she had resigned herself to being alone. She never expected her life to change just because she shared a box of sugar babies with a stranger.

"Always," he grinned and leaned in for a kiss.

"For crying out loud!" Chris tugged him by the collar, impatient to get moving. "We're just driving to the airport, not retaking the Marne. Buck needs to get going to get the Millie ready."

Vin shot him a look. "You get surlier every year pard," Vin grumbled and turned back to face Alex who giggled softly. He kissed her lightly on the lips. "I'll see you soon."

Chris shook his head as Alex started towards the Roadmaster, with Buck holding the door for her. As Chris headed towards the driver's side door, he looked at Vin over the top of the vehicle.

"You know, you could play a little hard to get."

"Kiss my ass, Larabee," Vin glared before getting into the car.

+ + + + + + +

They spotted the Erran coming towards the ranch the instant they drove into Coronado Highway.

As anticipated, they were at least three cars approaching them from the other side of the road, no doubt on their way to the ranch where they intended to retrieve their stolen property. The Roadmaster was in the lead because Chris wanted JD who was carrying the artefacts and the girls safely on board the Millie first and foremost. With all the Pillars out of hiding and ready to be opened with the Heart, the last element of the Errans' ritual of unmaking, were the sacrifices for Tiamat's resurrection.

He had no idea if it was Alex or Mary who was intended for this purpose, but he was not about to find out.

The trio of cars screeched to a halt the instant they passed each other on the road, with Chris seeing the face of the tall man JD told him was called Krestos. Wasting no time, Chris swung the wheel around, providing a temporary barricade between the Erran and the Roadmaster. As the tyres screeched, filling the air with the scent of burnt rubber, Vin was already winding the window down on his side of the Oldsmobile, raising the fully loaded Tommy gun that had been tucked between his legs while he rode shotgun

Sliding the barrel past the window, Vin wasted no time unleashing a deadly barrage of ammunition across the windscreen of the lead car. Glass shattered and the vehicle swerved sharply after he put a bullet through the head of its driver. He followed the wide arc of the vehicle as it veered through wards the shoulder of the road, continuing to fire until its doors were similarly covered with bullet holes. While he wasn't certain he had put down all the men in the vehicle, he had definitely shot out their tyres enough to ensure it would not be in pursuit.

However, the Erran in the remaining two cars were not idle either. Krestos opened fire on Vin, driving the sharpshooter back into the vehicle, while at the same time, creating an opening to allow the third car to go after the Roadmaster. Still, even as Vin was driven back into the Oldsmobile for cover, Ezra had emerged to start shooting. The gambler concentrated his fire on the car attempting to catch up with Josiah, aiming for the tyres. Chris almost heard the bullets rushing past his ears through the window. Ezra, who was almost a good a shot as Vin, with a lot more chatter, hit one of the tyres, which exploded with a loud depression of gas.

The car, a Buick, dipped sharply to one side, the tyre deflating so quickly, the chrome rims ripped it apart against the tar and forced the vehicle to the other side of the road, facing oncoming traffic when it happened by. In either case, it was going nowhere and the Roadmaster continued ahead, un-accosted, maintaining its lead on the rest of them.

As the back windscreen shattered, Chris kept his head low while shouting at Nathan. "Let them have it!"

"Alright, Lieutenant!" Nathan grinned, producing the stick of dynamite he had stashed into an old duffel bag on the floor of the car. Lighting a stick, he peered through the shattered rear window, at the car, a Caddy, so close he could almost see his reflection in the grill. Staring across the distance, his eyes made connection with the driver before he revealed what he was about to toss out.

"Just like playing chicken." Nathan grinned as the fuse began to burn and his intention made plain to his Erran opponent.

"Will you just throw the infernal thing?" Ezra shouted as he saw the strand continued to shorten with each second.

"You sure you don't want to hold it?" Nathan smirked wickedly at the gambler.

"MR LARABEE! MAKE HIM THROW IT!"

"I swear to Christ if you two don't knock it off, I'm stopping the goddamn car!" Chris shouted at them with exasperation as Vin Tanner rolled his eyes and continued his assault with the Tommy gun.

Grinning, Nathan tossed the stick of dynamite which promptly bounced off the trunk of the Oldsmobile to land directly in front of the pursuing vehicle. The Erran driver, not about to risk driving over the thing when it exploded, hit the brakes so hard, the car swung in a neat arc and then tipped onto its side and began to roll.

The healer saw at least one man tossed out of the vehicle and judging by the size of him, it was Krestos. Meanwhile, the caddy flipped over twice before tumbling down the embankment at the side of the road, while the dynamite it tried to avoid to such detrimental effect, exploded, and created a small crater in the middle of the road.

As Chris peered through his rear mirror, he could see Krestos getting to his feet, glaring at them as the gap between the Erran and the Tablets widened further. By the fury that must have been in his eyes, Chris did not think the Erran would be far behind for long.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: FOUR CORNERS

It was a ghost town.

It had breathed its last in the first decade of the new century when its residents moved to greener pastures and its stories weaved into legend or forgotten. While it lived, it battled dust storms, outlaws and ranch wars. It was home to settlers of every colour and somehow managed to avoid the racial unpleasantries that affected so many communities in the Territory, as it was known in those days. Most of all, it was home to outcasts, pulled together by circumstances to be better.

The town was called Four Corners.

Buck had set down here once before and felt struck by a sense of deja vu although, for the life of him, he did not know why. In any case, it always stayed with him, that this town with its boarded-up buildings, dust-covered boardwalks and tumbleweeds rolling down the main streets like its final citizens, had once been something important.

When Chris had demanded they get in the air as soon as he got clearance to take off, he decided Four Corners would be the temporary refuge they needed. Buck was still rather surprised they managed to do it, considering how busy the airstrip was that morning. The flight took less than an hour and he put down in the main street of the town, flanked by rickety and dilapidated buildings on either side. Still, they were assured of cover from anyone who might spot them from the air, or on the ground. The freeway was some distance away from the place but Buck saw no reason to take chances.

"Where the hell is this Buck?" Chris had to ask as he peered through the window into the dust blown scene outside.

"Town called Four Corners," the pilot explained as he emerged from the cockpit. "Got engine trouble a few years ago and had to put down here. I was flying this old O2U and I had a loose fuel line. I knew I wouldn't make it to an airstrip to fix it so I searched for someplace to land and came across this place."

"Charming," Ezra remarked peering out through the window. "Mr Wilmington, I hope you treat your paramours much better than this when you take them out."

"Ezra," Buck tossed him a smirk as he walked by, "my women don't care where I take them, as long as I just take them."

"Oh God," Alex uttered in disgust. "Who are these women who date you?"

"He finds them at the local Five and Dime," Vin quipped, from the seat next to her.

"Well we all can't hang out on rooftops like you, kid," Buck smirked, giving Alex a playful wink. The duo had developed an interesting friendship since Alex had been forced to treat him after they rescued her from the Erran.

"It's a good spot," Nathan complimented standing up. "No one around for miles and we can figure out what we do next without those crazy bastards chasing us down like dogs."

"Exactly," Chris agreed. "Thanks to JD, we've finally got a chance to get ahead of them." He gave JD a smile as the young man exited the cockpit. For the last three months, Buck had been teaching JD how to pilot the Darlin' Millie. Thanks to JD's amazing memory, he learned remarkably fast and while not capable of flying on his own yet, retained enough to occupy the co-pilot's seat.

"What are you planning Chris?" Josiah asked as the big man stepped out into the aisle between the row of seats.

"We have all the pieces," Chris answered, having decided on a course of action the instant he learned JD had brought them the remaining Pillars and the Heart. "I say we find the Tablet ourselves and destroy it."

"Destroy it?" Mary stared at him. "You can't be serious."

"I agree," Orin said surprising them all by his agreement with Chris's extreme solution. From the beginning of this entire affair, the scholar had been the one most resistant to any harm coming to the artefacts. However, with the bodies piling up and the lengths the Erran were willing to go, to reach their goals, to say nothing of the danger to Mary and Alex, he had reason to reconsider his point of view. "Destroy it."

"Dad..."

"Mary," Orin stood up as the gust of wind penetrated the inside of the fuselage after Buck had unlocked the main door of the craft. The cool air from the upper altitudes was immediately replaced by the warmth of the New Mexico sun. "I have spent fifty years hiding from the Erran, watching my best friends die, one after the other. The Erran have shown they're willing to kill anyone to get what they want, from innocent bystanders to the people I care about."

The Professor glanced at the faces around him before facing her again.

"This ritual of theirs will almost certainly need you or Alex to complete. I'm not risking any more lives on some high-minded principle about historical preservation. Without the Tablet, they can't perform their ritual. It's that simple."

"Mary," Alex added her voice to it because one of the Pillars was hers by birthright. "I want it destroyed too."

To Alex, the Tablet had always been a ghost story, a curiosity to occupy her father's time when he wasn't being a father to her or a doctor to his patients. Now she understood why it had preoccupied his mind so much and what had driven him to keep secrets from her when their relationship had always been an open book. While she understood his desire for secrecy, she hated being shut out from the truth, especially since her existence depended on knowing the danger lurking in wait for her.

"They took my father from me, Mary," her eyes became as hard as flint. "Even if I don't believe the Tablet is capable of doing what they believe it can do, I want it destroyed so they never get a chance to try. I want them to live whatever is left of their miserable existence knowing the one thing they've been waiting to do for centuries, is beyond their reach. I want them to live with their failure."

Vin squeezed her hand and she looked down at him, feeling a little ashamed at the hatred that suddenly surfaced in her heart at what the Erran had taken from her, but not enough to feel regret.

"Alright then," Chris said exchanging glances with Vin and his men, deciding no further discussion needed to be made on the matter. "We'll get to the Tablet first and then we destroy it.'

+ + + + + + +

The saloon like the rest of the town had been abandoned long ago.

It was covered in a thick layer of dust, with cobwebs hanging suspended from the wagon wheel chandelier and the corners of the room. The wallpaper, yellowed and stained clung to the walls in noticeable furls, revealing wood and plaster beneath. What pictures still remained hanging on the wall, were crooked, their frames split or broken or their glass face shattered and cracked. There were still a few intact tables and chairs left, in equally poor conditioned and the bar of chipped and faded wood, offered a half-hearted welcome to travellers that would never come.

"Interesting place," Ezra said scanning the room with its broken shelves, empty bottles and filth covered glasses. He imagined this establishment sixty years ago, full of cowboys, gamblers, saloon girls and outlaws, with the piano with its missing keys, sitting in the corner, playing clunky music to undemanding patrons.

"Yeah," Buck nodded looking around the place with similar interest, once again swept with an odd feeling of nostalgia. "Must have been a hell of a joint once upon a time."

"Must have been," Josiah agreed, finding a seat next to one of the dirt covered windows, so he could keep an eye on the street.

"I'm going upstairs. I want to keep an eye on the area, just in case." Vin indicated the rickety steps leading to the upper floor of the building. He was carrying his Tommy gun with spare cartridges and his rifle. Even if Buck's choice of hiding place was inspired, Vin wasn't about to let his guard down. Too many times, the Erran had caught them off guard and considering what they were about to do, he wasn't taking any chances in the unlikely event they were discovered.

"I'll join you, Mr Tanner," Ezra offered, interested in seeing the rest of the place while at the same time offering the sharpshooter some backup. There were some situations Ezra was happy to take a gamble, but the possibility the Erran may appear unexpectedly was not one of them. "After our dealings with these fanatics, I am inclined not to underestimate their resourcefulness."

"Nathan, why don't you and me take a walk around town, just in case," Buck suggested, glancing through the swing doors into the street outside.

Mary approached the dusty felt covered table surrounded by Chris, Alex, Orin and JD. Lying against the table, were the Four Pillars and the Heart of Enki, together for the first time in four thousand years. She thought of the Erran, who had been waiting just as long to be able to complete the task they were about to undertake and imagined the fury of the cultist at being usurped by the people in this building.

"So how does it work?" Mary asked Chris, unable to deny the depths of the man fascinated her. While he was undoubtedly a chauvinistic ass, he revealed surprising depths in being able to navigate the ancient world without formal qualifications, using nothing but instinct and research. At the moment, he was leaning across the table, slicing up candles with a pocket knife, after marking the stems with a ruler.

"Well according to the notes JD took before Doctor Styles's library went up," Chris said meeting Alex's eyes to see the lady's lips turn into a slight pout at the mention of the destruction, before continuing what he was doing again. "The Pillars have to be inserted into their slots in the Heart."

"And the candles?" Orin asked, similarly fascinated. While he knew about the legends surrounding the artefacts, the specifics about how the Pillars and the Heart went together eluded him.

"Well according to the texts, I managed to transcribe," JD explained. "When the Pillar is open the Heart will come alive with the Four Fires of Creation and reveal where the Tablet's final resting place is."

"And that translates into candles?" Alex asked sceptically. Of everyone here, she had the greatest difficulty believing in all this superstition. While she accepted in the mania that caused the Erran to behave the way they did, her understanding of the world was steeped in the sciences. She knew her father worried about the threat the Erran posed to her and Mary, but she could not bring herself to believe William Styles actually thought the Erran could succeed in unmaking the world.

"I think so," Chris explained handing the candles out, now that he had finished preparing them. "We usually find that with a lot of these interpretations, it's the most obvious explanation that fits, once you get past all the fancy riddles."

"I'm afraid Chris is correct," Orin agreed. "People tend to forget when they're interpreting ancient texts, especially those ritual based, the original writers are trying to pass on information, not mask it."

"Okay," Chris straightened up. "We're ready."

Mary took a step back and watched as Chris, JD, her father and Alex, take up different corners of the table before lighting a candle with the silver lighter Chris handed them. One by one, they allowed the wick to burn a little, melting enough wax to let a drop spill onto the table so they could secure the candle in the space in front of them. From where he was playing sentry, Josiah watched with interest, even though his eyes darted every now and then to the window to ensure no one was coming.

"You first Sir," Chris gestured to Orin.

Orin studied the Heart lying against the table with four slots for each Pillar, awaiting insertion. The old man swallowed, scanning the three faces around him and Chris knew, without having to hear Orin say it, he was morning the absence of the friends who should have been here to fulfil his ritual with him. Thinking of the six men who were such a big part of his life, Chris couldn't imagine what it must be like to be the last one of them still standing.

Orin slid the ornate tip of the Pillar towards the slot and to no one's surprise, it fit perfectly with a soft click, almost as if it had been oiled recently for the purpose. Perhaps the Erran had made some effort to prepare it when the Heart was in their possession. It did not matter, the Pillar hit into the Heart, finally achieving the purpose for which it was created when civilisation was new and the world was young.

Straightening up when it was done, he turned to Alex and nodded. As William's daughter, the Pillar was his legacy to her, for all its perils and history. The soon to be doctor did not speak but like Orin, Chris saw her brown eyes fill with sadness and wished Vin was here to offer her comfort. Although it was only a few days since he met her, Chris liked the girl and like how happy she made his best friend. Nevertheless, despite her sadness at her father's absence at this moment, Alex performed the task, sliding the Pillar William Styles had taken such great pains to hide, into the slot waiting for it in the Heart.

Once that audible click was heard, Chris knew it was his turn.

He thought of Hank Conley and supposed if there was some consolation to be had in all this, Sarah was out of the Erran's reach forever. Faith was not something he subscribed to but Chris had to believe she and Adam were someplace better. If she were here, he knew she would want him to stand for Hank Conley, no matter how acrimonious their relationship had become. In some ways, he weathered the loss of his wife and child a great deal better than Hank, who had apparently deconstructed in his absence. Learning how Hank had died made Chris wish he had reached out to the man and perhaps help him through his grief. But it was too late now. The man was gone, like his daughter and grandson and all Chris could do was play his part in this ritual.

Upon sliding the third Pillar into the slot, Chris raised his eyes to JD who would play proxy for Donald Avery, the first to be killed by the Erran and the only one whose family was unaccounted for. He wondered if Avery's wife had recognised the danger her daughter was in and chose to disappear into the ether to avoid the doom that Mary and Alex now faced. Chris supposed they would never know. If all went well, the Erran would never have a reason to seek Donald Avery's daughter out. JD leaned forward and slid the Pillar into place.

As the last click was heard, the Heart suddenly spun around once, as if the insertion of the four Pillars had set into motion a mechanism inside the object. As it spun, it gleamed against the flicker of candlelight. Then with a soft whirr of ancient gear being forced into movement, the Heart opened wide, like the petals of a flower, in four equal segments. As it did so, simultaneous clicks were heard from each one of the Pillars and the cryptex splayed open, spreading out a length of parchment no more than a foot long, each with markings of charcoal and oil.

Taking place so quickly, no one in the room had time to do anything but stare in awe as the Heart finally carried out the task for which it was created. As the golden petals opened, it revealed a piece of amber cut like a jewel. No sooner than the honey-coloured stone appeared before them, it was hoisted upwards on a small length of metal, extending like a collapsible spyglass. The gem was lifted no higher than the length of the candles surrounding the Heart but it was enough.

The amber caught the glow of all four candles and produced a small beam of light that rested on one of the parchments as if it were a finger pointing all eyes to the destination it wished to reveal.

"Oh my God," Orin exclaimed, realising what the markings on the newly exposed parchments were.

"What is it dad?" Mary asked, gripped by what she was seeing.

"It's a map," Orin declared, leaning over the parchment in front of him.

"They're all pieces of one map," Chris added, making a further observation. "JD, take note of where the light is pointing to. That's where the Tablet is."

"Right Chris," JD nodded, his photographic memory already committing the image to his mind, however, he still marked it on the parchment with a pencil. X marks the spot, he thought absurdly.

"Can we tell where it is?" Alex asked, feeling completely out of her depth. Her expertise was in the biological sciences, not the histories.

Chris was already scanning the different pieces of the map, trying to see if he recognised anything familiar. From a historical point of view, he suspected it was somewhere in Asia Minor, but they would need to piece it together to know definitively where it was. "I'm guessing it would be somewhere in the Middle East, depending on how far the ancient Erran managed to travel."

"Agreed," Orin nodded. "I doubt they would take the Heart outside the boundaries of the Sasanid Empire, but that's still a considerable area. Their empire stretched from Ephesus to India."

"Large area to pinpoint," Josiah rumbled from where he was.

Chris did not respond; his steely gaze was fixed on the pieces. Once JD had marked the spot on the parchment extending from Alex's Pillar, the leader of the seven quickly collected them and took them away from the table.

"What are you doing?" Mary asked, following his progress to where Josiah was seated.

"I need the light," Chris answered, not looking at the others. "Josiah, see if you can't clean that window. The charcoal they used for ink back in the day is pretty faint. I need to see this clearly."

"You recognise where it is Mr Larabee?" Mary asked.

As Josiah wiped down the window with his handkerchief, removing years of dirt in a matter of seconds, more light poured against the table where Chris had spread out the parchments. Dust danced like embers in the light as the illumination gave him the clarity he needed. As they surrounded him, careful not to crowd in and cast shadows, Chris studied the markings on each piece of parchment. He always had an eye for ancient maps and before JD came along, relied upon this skill to find the artefacts Orin sent them to hunt.

"I think so," Chris said not looking up, manipulating each parchment as he started to see the larger picture, sliding it gently across the old wooden table, to avoid damaging any of them. "This here," he gestured to what might have been a lake. "I think that's Lake Hammar, which is about 400 miles from the Persian Gulf."

JD came over to Chris and leaned over the man's shoulder. "You're right. It is." The young scholar exchanged a look with the Professor, both impressed by Chris's ability to see what they couldn't.

"If that's Lake Hammar, then the Cradle, when the Table is being kept," he indicate the pencil mark he had made, "is Eridu."

"Eridu?" Alex asked, "Where is that?"

"Southern Mesopotamia," Orin explained. "That actually makes sense, Eridu is considered to be the oldest city in the world and its only seven miles from Ur, where we found the Pillars fifty years ago. It also supposed to be the city founded by Enki, the Sumerian supreme deity."

"So, we're going to Persia?" Mary was smiling, already delighted by the idea of going to an ancient city.

"It isn't simply a matter of going to the city," JD told her, remembering how he had managed to trick the Shah into showing him the location of the Pillars and the Heart in the Erran leader's possession.

"What do you mean?" Alex asked, wondering what other turns this whole escapade was going to take next.

"Before your dad's library got burned up, I had a look at some of his research. He had texts that aren't even in our university, Professor Travis."

Orin nodded in understanding. "It became Will's obsession. I think once he learned about the ritual to raise Tiamat, to unlock the power of the tablet, he was obsessed. He used the fortune we brought back from Ur to track down everything he could about the Tablet."

"One of those was an Akkadian translation of the Ninurta and the Turtle, it's a poem chronicling the legend of Enki. Anyway, in this poem, it lists these trials that have to be overcome before anyone can get their hands on the Tablet in the Cradle."

"Trials?" Mary didn't like the sound of this. "You mean...."

"Probably traps," Chris finished off.

Alex groaned. "Oh, I just know I'm going to get dirty again."

CHAPTER NINETEEN:

ERIDU

"When kingship from heaven was lowered, the kingship was in Eridu."

It was a humbling thing for Chris Larabee to know these words were spoken about a city built seven thousand years ago. Eridu was the first city of the world, the jewel of the first human empire. Here, it was claimed the god Enki had done battle with Tiamat, cleaving her body in half to create the great river Tigris and the clouds in the skies above. Even if the desert had claimed Eridu for its own, the power of what she once was, remained in every grain of sand covering the place where she stood.

The Tigris no longer ran across the land before him. Time, changing weather patterns and harsh desert winds had shifted the path of the great river, leaving behind dry river beds and baked earth, where there was once water and loamy soil. The land once capable of sustaining everything from wheat and barley to garlic and dates, was now empty desert and the verdant fields where goats, oxen and sheep once roamed had withered away, leaving behind the hardier desert creatures like the spider, scorpion and snake.

Ahead of them, perched on top of a hill, looking nothing like a majestic city of ancient times, Eridu waited. What remained of the impressive temple ziggurat, once surrounded by small buildings covering almost the entire plain, was a nub worn down by time and erosion. Only faint edges of the construction could be seen, the geometric shapes blunted by history. I

It had taken them the better part of a week on the Darlin' Millie to circumnavigate the globe and find themselves here at last, at the foot of Eridu, located in what was now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Once Chris had determined the location of the city where the Tablet was found, they left Four Corners immediately, refusing to linger in the event the Erran was able to trace their location.

After the cult's amazing ability to ferret out their hiding places, Chris was taking no chances. Not only were the Pillars in their possession, but they now knew the location of the city. The leader of the Seven had no doubt, the Erran would kill them all for usurping their holy crusade from right under them. Buck mapped out a route that would take them a little longer to reach the Middle East but would be obscure enough to ensure even the Erran would be left scratching their heads at the Millie's fight plan.

Instead of heading to the East Coast, Buck had instead chosen to fly north, leaving the North American continent via Canada and the Hudson. Crossing the freezing waters of the Labrador Sea, they set down briefly in Greenland before continuing onto Europe through Norway and the Ukraine, before finally descending over the Black Sea into Turkey and finally Riyadh. The journey had been exhausting even with the brief intervals of freedom when the Millie needed refuelling.

They landed in Riyadh in a private airfield recommended by one of the Professor's contacts in the city. Before Orin Travis enlisted the seven to procure his antiquities, the scholar had travelled widely across the Middle East, forging friendships with his peers in the antiquities world. Orin assured them the Millie's entry in the Kingdom of Saudi was entirely anonymous.

It was just as well because the politics of the region made Chris wish to conduct their business and depart as soon as possible. A short three years ago, the House of Saud had unified the country and its prosperity was evident in the urban sprawl Chris saw when they were flying above the city. Still, it was an uncertain place for foreigners, who not too long ago, had exploited the country and its people. Furthermore, he was painfully aware of how easily the Erran could hide in the crowds, now that they were in their native regions.

During the journey, Mary revealed what she knew of the Erran, beyond what they had discussed about the cult itself. Her investigations had revealed a vast network of operatives, not all warriors like the ones the seven had been encountering since the museum. The fanatics had infiltrated branches of governments and had a supply of paid informants that could easily give them away if they were not careful.

Thus, when formulating the plan to reach Eridu, Chris had opted for an unconventional approach. While it would have been expedient to simply race across the desert to reach their destination like tourists, Chris had a feeling if the Erran's reach was as vast as Mary indicated, then chances were likely they had agents in most of the cities across the Middle East. He had no desire to give themselves away by using familiar methods of travel to reach the city.

Instead, they'd surrendered the creature comforts of cars and with the aid of one of the Professor's acquaintances, had set out from Riyadh in the dead of night, on camels, wearing native dress and looking like just another local caravan journeying across the desert. As usual, Ezra Standish had little difficulty procuring what they needed, even though he was none too happy at being forced to travel this way, even if it was for the best of reasons.

"Mr Larabee," Ezra grumbled as he shifted in his saddle, still trying to wrap his mind how the Bedouins could stay on the infernal creatures for hours on end without suffering permanent back injury. "I wish it known that as former men of the cavalry, this method of transport is completely undignified."

Offended by the remark, the camel Ezra was riding promptly spat on the desert floor.

"You stay out of this!" Ezra snapped, giving the creature a dark look.

"You're just pissy because you have to hide your Abercrombie and Fitch under all those robes." Nathan teased, finding it highly amusing to see Ezra struggling to control the beast beneath him. Like all cavalry men, Ezra found the notion of a camel, beneath him. Nathan couldn't claim to feeling the same attachment. During the war, he had been with the 92nd, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers, who were strictly foot soldiers. It was only after Chris, with Orin Travis's pull behind him, had him transferred to K Troop, did he come into contact with the animals and even then, he was always a medic, not a rider.

"I hate you," Ezra glared at him, "I cannot believe I consider you my best friend."

Chris rolled his eyes and exchanged an amused look with Vin, accustomed to listening to Ezra bitch over the years. Just like it had been in the aftermath of the Oise-Aisne Offensive when Nathan had become a part of their number, the healer seemed to be the only one who knew how to diffuse Ezra's verbal rages. When Vin dragged Nathan across the muddy trench to save Ezra's life, it had been the start of an unlikely friendship, considering the origins of both men.

Although no one ever voiced it, Chris suspected their friendship thrived because Nathan appeared to be the only one who could tolerate Ezra's sometimes overbearing manner, perhaps because in life, he was accustomed to people talking down to him, or regarding him as less. Since Ezra thought the same of just about everyone, colour notwithstanding, Nathan was able to give as good as he got.

Of course, unlikely friendships were what the seven was about, Chris thought as he faced front again. Vin Tanner was a scrawny child when Chris met him, wearing a uniform all too big for him, looking terrified because his plan of joining the army to flee the orphanage had not prepared him for the utter carnage of the Western Front. The recruiter had thought him to be at least twelve, but he was just past ten. Chris had almost sent him back until he realised Vin's situation would not be improved and a part of him knew even then, Vin's place was at his side.

At the moment, the sharpshooter was riding a double saddle on the camel, dressed in flowing white robes that revealed his cobalt coloured eyes, while behind him, Alex Styles had her arms wrapped around his waist, looking like any young native couple. Like the rest of them, Alex was forced to adopt the traditional costume of a female Bedouin, with light coloured fabrics that covered her hair and body, with a thin veil across her face. It was a testament to the lady, she still managed to look lovely in such exaggerated clothing.

"Is he always like this?" Mary asked as she was seated behind him in the double saddle, her arm wrapped around his body, as they saw Eridu approach, resembling a man-made plateau, perched on a hill. Like Alex, she was dressed like a local, although Chris thought the veil made her blue grey eyes stand out even more.

"Yeah," he drawled after a moment. "You should have heard him when we were in India, having to ride elephants."

"Elephants?" Mary glanced at the gambler who was having a heated discussion with the dromedary ferrying him across the desert, about the proper conduct of a steed, which had little to do with the ejection of bodily fluids wherever one pleased. The idea of the pernickety gambler seated on a howdah made Mary smile.

"Oh yeah," Chris grinned. "I usually leave him to Nate, who'll either shut him up or shoot him, whichever comes first."

Mary uttered a short laugh and Chris had to admit, when she wasn't being a pain in the ass, it was quite a nice one and made her look radiant.

Despite himself, he liked how it felt having her ride double with him, even though Chris told himself it was because he wanted to keep an eye on the woman. The way she tended to stick her fingers in everything, she'd probably violate some local custom which would end up getting herself thrown in to a Saudi jail. Best he kept her close so that he could save her from herself.

Yeah right, an inner voice snorted with derision.

+ + + + + + +

From a distance, Eridu looked like a moderately sized hill with a few terraced steps running the length of one slope. No more than thirty feet high, it was obvious in its day, the base of the hill supported a higher structure now vanished thanks to time and the harsh desert winds. Indeed, one could see what remained of the baked brick wall that made up its foundations. Where there might have been a stone path leading to the main entrance of the structure, there was only a gradual ramp of broken stone and gravel leading to the peak.

From what Chris, JD and Orin learned during their journey across the globe, having reviewed what texts they were able to acquire regarding the city, the unimpressive and somewhat denuded hill was once 18 levels deep beneath the ground. Chris was convinced if the Tablet was here, it would most likely be kept at the lowest level of the building where the original temple was constructed in the earliest days of its existence. Over time, the Sumerians would build more floor above it but if this city was where the god Enki had begun, then it stood to reason the Tablet would be placed there.

Buck Wilmington stared across the parched, desert landscape surrounding Eridu and saw nothing but emptiness and yet his gut told him, just like it had told Chris when Chris, Vin, JD, the women and the Professor headed into the ruined city, the Erran would be coming. Even though they had taken every precaution to ensure otherwise, Buck just knew that the sons of bitches would ferret them out.

This part of the world was their home. Their religion had probably risen from the sands of this very desert. Back in the States, they were limited to how many men they could bring into the country without raising too much notice. But here, there was no telling how large the cult was and their singular purpose for being had been stolen away by infidels who were intending to claim the Tablet for their own. Of course, they were coming.

The question was how many there would be when the axe descended.

Across the eroded plateau of the city, he saw the others getting ready for a fight. Josiah was stretched across the ground, checking the sight on the sniper rifle he had poised on its tripod, ready to take out long distance targets when they presented themselves. Next to him was a FN M2HB machine gun, with enough ammunition to take out a small army, which Buck hoped wasn't what they were facing. Buck himself wish he was in the air, being able to offer air support but the Millie wasn't made for that kind of combat.

Buck was cradling his own Breda 30 light machine gun, his shoulders heavy with the ammunition belt of additional rounds and noted Nathan setting up a space behind one of the few walls still standing, with his first aid equipment. While Nathan was good in a fight like all of them, with him it was always keeping them alive that commanded his attention first. Then again, hadn't it been that way during the war. It saddened Buck that Nathan never got a chance to be a real doctor because the man would have been a damn fine one.

"Mr Wilmington, I have a confession to make."

Buck shot Ezra a look. "We ain't dying up here Ez, you don't need to make any confession."

Ezra returned Buck's look with one that was equally withering. "If I felt the need to make that kind of confession, you would not be the person to whom I would seek absolution. I am needing a second opinion and Mr Jackson is preoccupied at the moment."

"Okay, okay, don't get your panties in a bunch, what do you want to get off your chest?"

Suppressing the urge to call the man an idiot, Ezra spoke up. "I was considering buying Paloma's."

Buck stared at Ezra in surprise. "No kidding. You got that kind of money lying around?"

"Mr Wilmington, did you forget what I did for a living prior to our current situation?" Ezra asked, a little offended by the assumption he would make such a suggestion without the capital to make it happen.

"Yeah," Buck nodded and then added with a smirk. "I also recall Chris having to bail you out of jail because you lost your shirt in the crash."

"Do not remind me," Ezra grumbled, remembering the humiliation of that entire period. He'd been good at stock broking but the truth was, no one could have seen the catastrophe coming. Maude perhaps, but then he hadn't spoken to her in years at that point, so she wouldn't have been able to warn him, even if she had the foresight. "As a matter of fact, I have been making good investments from our earnings and you recall Roberto had some difficulty in ‘32?"

Buck did remember. The man was on the verge of losing the place. Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, their favourite watering hole had been saved by a secret investort. Suddenly, Buck realised what Ezra was implying.

"You?" His tone was almost an accusation.

"Yes, I own forty-nine percent of the establishment," Ezra shrugged. "I had no desire to see the place meet its demise, so Roberto and I came to an agreement. I would be a silent partner and he would continue to run the place as normal."

"So, what happens now he's gone?" Buck asked, uncertain if he liked the idea of Ezra having a stake in Paloma's but supposed it couldn't be any worse than having some stranger come who would come in and try to change everything around. Besides Ezra had been content to let Roberto run things without interference so Ezra might continue to do the same, if he owned the place outright.

"I was considering buying the place outright from his heirs." Ezra explained.

"Does he have any family?" Buck couldn't recall Roberto ever mentioning anyone. Of course, Roberto had been a quiet sort, much in the way Josiah and Chris were, keeping things pretty close to the chest.

"I do believe so," Ezra nodded. "I am hoping I can convince her to sell me her share in the business when this affair is done."

"Her?" Buck's baser instinct kicked in.

"Yes," Ezra rolled his eyes, unsurprised by the reaction. "A daughter. I think her name is Inez."

+ + + + + + +

If the mound they had entered to find the Pillar belonging to William Styles was ancient, then this place felt positively biblical. As they slipped through the triangular shape doorway leading into the top most level of the structure, they were confronted by pitch black darkness. Once again, they came prepared and torches lit the way down the slowly descending staircase of hard brick, covered with dust and sand. There was enough wind to reach down the throat of the stairwell, ensuring what cobwebs there were, did not remain long enough to become overwhelming.

By the time they penetrated two levels of the construct, punctuated by smaller chambers that were either newer altar rooms or additional priestly chambers, the arid winds had slowed into stale, musty air. The cobwebs regrouping without the assault of strong air currents began to create a canopy of dust over their heads as they moved along. Naturally neither Mary nor Alex were too fond of this situation after their previous experience in the mound. In truth Chris would have preferred both women were kept far away from the Tablet, considering their role in the ritual of uncreation. However, the risk they might be abducted by the Erran was one Chris or Vin for that matter, was unwilling to take.

"So, what are these trials we have to face Mr Dunne?" Mary asked, trying to distract herself as she brushed away another strand of cobweb from her face. Even though Mary was braver than most women, she did not much like the skittering sounds she could hear in the darkness.

"Oh, you can call me JD, ma'am," JD said politely, feeling uncomfortable at being addressed so formally.

"Alright JD," she flashed him a little smile through the light of the torch she was carrying.

"Yeah come on JD," Vin urged, noticing how Alex was clinging to him every time something scurried along the ground, he just knew had more than four legs. "Don't keep us in suspense."

The Professor laughed shortly. "Go on young man, your audience awaits."

Despite the situation, Orin Travis was exceedingly pleased with how well JD fitted into Chris Larabee's team. When he first recommended the boy take up the position of linguist, it was because he had no wish to see a brilliant mind go to waste, simply because of Mariette Nichol's desire for vengeance. Peter, who had grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth, had sorely deserved the trashing he got and if Orin could have pinned a medal on JD for it, he would have. The best Orin had been able to do was give JD an alternative, but it appeared he'd given the boy something infinitely better.

He'd given JD a family.

"Well the translation I got from Akkadian texts says ‘Only the worthy, those who have been touched by Enki, close in heart to his spirit may breach the mid realms between creation and entropy. And he who walks through this nightmare realm, with pearls of wisdom granted to the first man, may escape the stark horror of Tiamat's mad children to claim the Tablet of Destiny."

"What the hell does that mean?" Vin had to ask. t was Chris, JD and the Professor who were the experts. His entire purpose on this expedition was to keep everyone safe and watch their backs. Of course, he was also greatly motivated by his feelings for Alex but he had more faith in the weapons he carried than the clues provided by ancient riddles.

"Well the mid realms sound like what existed before the Ea, where the world was neither tangible but not completely air either." Orin explained. "A plane of existence before the gods got together to make the world."

"And we have to walk through it?" Alex was still having trouble wrapping her mind around all this. To her it sounded like superstitious nonsense and she couldn't believe how much effort had gone into the belief of such a fable.

"I don't like this business of a nightmare realm," Mary said unhappily. "That sounded most ominous."

"Can't say I blame you," Chris replied, concerned about the quality of air the further they descended into the tomblike structure. They could see the eroded inscriptions on the walls, records of days from a time so far back in history, it was hard to imagine it was able to survive into the present. "I'm pretty sure, whoever decided to hide the Tablet here, wanted to make sure it didn't fall into wrong hands, so everyone keep your eyes open."

"Chris, I'm concerned about these torches," Alex spoke up as they continued moving through the dark. The smell of something acrid and sickly sweet was growing gradually stronger in her nostrils and Alex really had no wish to know what it was, however the healer she was couldn't help but try to identify it. In the process of the attempt however, Alex reached a rather unpleasant observation. "We don't know how much air is down here. The further we go, the thinner it might get. The torches are going to burn it up a lot faster."

"Darlin, it ain't wise to go wandering around here in the dark," Vin pointed out even though he understood what she was saying.

"She's right though," Chris had to give the lady the point and he could smell something too, it was acrid but with a sharp, sweet tang that was also unsettling. "We should reduce how many torches we use. Vin, you and me will keep our torches lit, everyone else put it out. Between the two of us, that should be enough light."

"If something crawls into my hair, I blame you." Mary shot Alex a look.

"Don't even joke about something like that." The healer grumbled as they entered another chamber, this one occupied with two stone columns, with cuneiform engravings that were barely readable, thanks to erosion and time.

"Don't worry Mary," Chris couldn't help but tease. "If something crawls on you, It will probably bite you long before you can worry about it getting into your hair."

And as it was whenever Chris Larabee chose to throw down a gauntlet at Fate, she chose to answer with spectacular results. The first of the hand-sized scorpions, chose that moment to crawl into the glow of the torches, their black gleaming bodies heading toward the intruders in a swarm.

CHAPTER TWENTY:

SWARMS

The last time he had almost died, Ezra Standish was struck by how blue the sky was, despite the carnage surrounding him. In the aftermath of the battle that left him broken and bleeding, what struck Ezra most about the whole situation was the contrasting beauty of the sky above, when around him there was nothing but death.

He had been lying against the cooling body of his beloved horse Chaucer, who had been his mount for most of the war, trying not to weep tears because Ezra was forced to put a bullet in the animal's head to end its suffering. In the charge that left him with an almost certain mortal wound, Chaucer was felled by a broken leg and riddled with bullets. Aware he would not be long for the world after, the gambler had sworn his last act on Earth would not be to let his trusted steed suffer.

Once the deed was done, Ezra had relinquished his hold on the weapon, allowing it to tumble into the mud next to him. Instead, he reached into his soiled tunic and retrieved the deck of cards he'd carried with him throughout the war, feeling a little closer to the mother he had not spoken to since joining the army.

Around him, the battle raged on but Ezra was beyond noticing since he was preparing to die. After three years in the trenches, seeing so many others die, their bodies lying across No Man's Land like uncovered graves, Ezra knew he intended to shake off the mortal coil with dignity.

Appearances Ezra, his darling mother would say. Appearances are everything.

However, it appeared he would not be meeting his end alone when Vin Tanner skidded next to him. Covered in mud and clearly showing his age, Ezra once again wondered how on Earth any recruiter could have seen a young man when it was so clearly a child in front of him. Vin was trying not to panic, even though his blue eyes widened like saucers seeing Ezra's current condition.

"Sit with me, Private Tanner," Ezra had offered him a smile, trying to assuage the terror he saw in Vin's eyes. For himself, Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington, it was almost reflex to comfort the boy. "Indulge me in a game as I see out the end."

"No!" Vin balked at the suggestion. "I'm gonna get you help! You can't die! You...you...ain't told me what happens to Hercules when he goes to fight them lady Amazons. We still got more labours to get through!"

Despite the pain he was suffering, the life draining out of his body, Ezra couldn't help smile at recalling those fireside chats where the boy would listen in rapt attention as Ezra filled his head with tales of minotaurs and flying horses. Vin had emerged from the orphanage with a middling ability to read and it occupied Ezra's time strengthening those skills to an acceptable level.

"I'm sure I've aided your reading enough for you to pick up a book without my assistance. I'm sure you'll be able to read the conclusion of our Greek hero's adventures on your own."

"NO!" Vin had shouted vehemently and run off, leaving him on the battlefield to stare at the sky and resign himself to the fact, he was going to die alone.

Today, the sky was that same shade of blue and Ezra wondered if Lady Luck was trying to tell him something. Especially when he stood at the edge of the denuded roof of the ancient ziggurat, staring into the horizon of dunes and craggy terrain, straining to listen for the sound both he and Nathan recognised almost immediately.

Not that either Buck or Josiah was in any way less expert than them in such matters. Both men could identify, just by the rumble it made and know immediately, that screed in the air wasn't the hard wind blowing but the subtle nuances of a piston engine. From a BMW114 to a Manasco Buccaneer, Buck and Josiah knew their craft well enough to be able to identify, the make, model and the function of a plane's engine before it even appeared in the sky.

Just like he and Nathan recognised the thunder of horses when they heard it.

With white robes flowing around him, he looked very much like Lawrence must have done, comfortable among the desert dwellers, save for the sea green eyes squinting into the distance, trying to see past the landscape of craggy hills and rolling dunes to determine the direction of where the charge was coming. Just like he had been when he was astride Chaucer, the horse he still missed, staring into the ruined landscape surrounding the Oise River, Ezra wondered the same thing.

Where was the charge coming from?

"How many do you think?" Nathan asked, no trace of usual mischief in his voice. Nathan had joined the cavalry after the Oise-Aisne Offensive but mostly functioned as K Troop's medic. The true cavalryman was Ezra, who had ridden alongside Chris Larabee since the beginning of the war. If Nathan could detect the riders on approach, Ezra would be the one capable of offering more specific information.

Ezra didn't speak, he merely listened. Closing his eyes, he took stock of the clouds of dust beginning to appear on the horizon, how far they stretched across the dunes, the rumble of hoofbeats and the low rise of a war cry, growing in tempo as it approached. When he faced Nathan again, the pleasant gambler's demeanour, so full of affable charm was gone. In its place was an expression of hard steel, a look Nathan recognised when the man was about to make the kill.

"Mr Sanchez, we have incoming!" He shouted. "Gentlemen, I believe we may be in for a deluge."

"Oh shit!" Nathan swore and saw Josiah hurrying towards the machine gun he set up a short time ago, getting into position behind the sight in readiness to fire.

"What have we got?" Buck demanded as he hurried up to Ezra, his eyes searching the dunes and finally catching sight of the dust cloud approaching them. He couldn't tell exactly how many of the Erran were approaching them, but it took no feat of genius to know that there were a lot.

"At least a regiment," Ezra remarked as they faced the hordes converging on them. "Our best option at present is to cut down their numbers before they reach us."

"What about Chris and the others?" Nathan asked, glancing at the entrance to the temple.

"They're on their own," Buck stated before Ezra could. "With any luck, he'll hear the ruckus and do what he has to do to keep the girls safe or lay low until it's all over."

"It may not end the way we wish," Ezra pointed out.

"That's what I like about you Ezra," Buck scowled. "Always with the optimism."

"I prefer a dose of reality."

"I prefer it if you three get your asses into position before they get here!" Josiah hollered at them, his normally gravelly but erudite voice sounding like a demand from the Almighty above.

"Right," Buck agreed, thinking Ezra's strategy and Josiah's order was a good one. Searching the breadth of the platform they were occupying, he spotted a large enough slab of stone behind which to take cover. "See you over the top."

"Could you pick a better salutation, Mr Wilmington!" Ezra grumbled as they spread out evenly across the plateau, each settling into their own nooks, taking cover from the inevitable barrage of artillery they would soon be forced to deal with.

Ezra found himself a similar refuge, the remains of a wall that had long since crumbled, leaving behind only a few feet of bricks for him to use as cover. His own Ceska Zbrojovka vz. 30 poised ready to fire, he held his breath watching for the enemy to come into view. He could hear their voices now, riding the wave of a battle cry that rode the dry, desert wind rolling towards them.

They rode out of the dust storm created by their mounts, like the horsemen of the Apocalypse and as many as Ezra had thought they were going to be, there were more. Just looking at the line of riders on fast approach to their location, Ezra knew there were almost fifty of them, about to overrun the temple. It was more than ten to one odds without Chris, Vin and JD in attendance and the gambler in Ezra knew poor odds when he saw it.

However, that didn't matter, they were going to have to hold the line, just as they had done in the war.

"Jesus!" Ezra heard Buck exclaim. The pilot was unaccustomed to facing a battle from this vantage point and Ezra knew, he was going to have to step in and take control of the situation in Chris Larabee's absence.

"Steady!" Ezra shouted to his comrades. "Do not fire until they are within range of your weapons! We must make every bullet count if we are to prevail!"

"Just say the word," Josiah called back. "And I'll let God sort it out for himself."

As they faced front, watching the enemy through the crosshairs of their weapons, the riders approaching were undoubtedly Erran. As they became more than specks in the distance, the four men waiting to receive them with artillery fire recognised the distinct red robes and wondered if they knew such colours did not aid this ambush. If nothing else, it made it easier to pin down targets.

Three of the four waited for the gambler to give them the word, it was Nathan who was reminded that next to Chris Larabee, the highest ranking officer had been one Ezra P Standish. The gambler, despite being a pernickety cynic, was capable of employing the formidable intellect that made him such an expert cardsharp at the tables, to military strategy when the moment took him. In recent years, Vin Tanner had taken up the role as Chris's Lieutenant but Nathan remembered the time when it was Ezra they looked to for direction when Chris was occupied elsewhere.

"FIRE!" Ezra shouted.

The explosion of gunfire was deafening and as four guns blazed in unison, its sound travelling across the desert terrain like claps of thunder, their effects were evidenced by the tumbling of bodies into the sand as the bullets met their mark. Gaps began to appear in the line of riders as bodies fell and horses pulled up in an effort to avoid them. The battle cry began to rise in pitch and fervour and that was murderous vengeance they could hear in the enemy's approach.

Ezra saw the incoming riders and knew without a doubt in his mind, that he and his friends were not going to be able to stop them.

+ + + + + + +

"Those are Arabian fat-tailed scorpions!" JD exclaimed as the swarm came towards them, quickly covering the walls as well as the ceiling of the chamber they had entered. "They're native to this area and pretty lethal. I think they inject some kind of neurotoxin."

Both Chris and Vin let out an exasperated groan corresponding perfectly with the predictable squeal of horror from the two women next to them following that statement. As it was, the tide of black, bloated bodies, each the length of a man's hand, scurrying across the faded tiles of the columns in front of them and along the fresco-covered walls, were forcing both of them into retreat, towards the steps they had descended to reach this chamber.

"Stay where you are!" Chris barked, using such a tone of command, it didn't just freeze Mary and Alex in their tracks but startled JD and the Professor too. "We've got to get through them if we're going to reach the tablet!"

"You must be joking!"

Of course, it would be Mary that offered him argument.

"Use the torches!" Chris ordered grateful they hadn't yet extinguished the flames on the torches carried by everyone except himself and Vin. Considering the circumstances, the torches were now their only protection against the arachnid deluge about to sweep past them.

"Alex, stay close to me!" Vin told the lovely young doctor who obeyed without question, having concluded since she met him, there wasn't much beyond the sharpshooter's ability. Since they'd met, despite all the insanity they seemed to get into, his ability to navigate her through it couldn't be questioned.

"No problem there!" She bit back as the first of the scorpions came into view above their heads and she shuddered, raising her torch above her head and finding some sense of relief when the ceiling reappeared at the creatures retreat from the fire.

Meanwhile, JD and the Professor were flanking them, using their own torches to drive away the swarm of scorpions attempting to reach them. Stemming from the rear entrance they had to pass to keep going, the swarm had almost covered half the chamber by now. It was clear no progress to the tablet could be achieved without first going through these creatures. Furthermore, the scorpions all seemed to be converging on the trespassers, trying to reach them from every direction.

Mary brushed up against Chris, staying close because she was terrified and wished she'd put her hair up when she came down here. Now more than ever, she was conscious of her golden locks and what might get ensnared in them. Waving the torch over her head as she saw the creatures scurrying on the ceiling, she hated showing vulnerability, especially in front of this man, whom she found intriguing if he were not such a chauvinistic jackass.

"Will you stop doing that?" Chris growled at her as she pressed her body against his as he tried to clear a path for them through the scorpions on the floor like Moses parting the Red Sea. The flames were forcing the creatures away and he felt his jaw clench in disgust watching them climbing over each other to escape the heat.

"Doing what?" Mary asked as she waved the torch once more, to keep the creatures from dropping onto his back and her hair. The idea of any of those monsters in her hair made her cringe in horror.

"Stop rubbing your body against me, it's very distracting."

Mary shot him and look and considered briefly turning her torch on him. "This is hardly the time for you to practise your ancient mating rituals!"

"Really?" Chris grunted as scorpion fell from the ceiling in front of him and he swatted it aside with his torch, sending it tumbling into the darkness. "I don't know, it's dark, there's candlelight and an interesting view." He tossed her a smirk before facing front again.

"You are an idiot," she bit back.

Chris didn't answer because he was thinking hard. It was taking too long to get through this and sooner or later, they were going to get stung by one of these creatures. Perfectly aware of how dangerous this species was, Chris knew he was going to have to get creative before the women fainted or something. Yeah, he was being sexist but he was a product of his times and not about to apologise for it.

"JD, gimme that bottle of whiskey you got stashed in your pack!"

"This is not the time for drinking!" Mary stared at him aghast. Chris however, ignored her.

JD who was presently brushing off a scorpion that had fallen on the Professor's pack with a torch straightened up in confusion until his mind quickly grasp what Chris was asking.

"I gotcha Mr Larabee!" He said enthusiastically and quickly reached into the satchel he'd been careful to retrieve from the Shah's boxcar before his escape and produced the bottle of Red Eye and handed it to Chris.

"You thinking we can make a run for it?" Vin asked, guessing Chris's plan and decided it was a good idea. Alex was ready to climb on his back and the way she was handling that torch, someone was going to get singed pretty soon. She was mighty jumpy. The woman was perfect in every way but like all her kind, she was just no good with bugs. Vin made a mental note to never take her camping.

"Yeah," Chris nodded as he unscrewed the bottle. "You okay with that Professor?"

While Orin Travis wasn't exactly decrepit, the man was advanced in years and this would require speed. What he intended was dangerous but they had no choice. They had to reach the doorway and hopefully escape this chamber. Chris only hoped this deluge of scorpions wasn't endless.

"I'll keep up," Orin answered, unoffended by the question. In his youth, he was quite the field archaeologist but he had been inside for the last decade. It was part of the reason he sought out Chris Larabee and his friends to take up the role of relic hunters for him. Still, he was by no means completely out of shape, though he appreciated the sentiment behind Chris's question.

Tossing the bottle a few feet ahead of him, the glass shattered against the paved floor with a loud crash, sending shards and liquid in all directions. A small island formed around the broken fragments as the creatures steered away from the glass fragments as well as the smell produced by the whisky. Wasting no time, Chris hurled the torch in his hand soon after.

The floor lit up with flames as the whisky ignited, spreading out as far as the liquid had sprayed when the bottle was smashed. As the room lit up with amber light, Chris grabbed Mary's hand and started running. He ignored her horrified squeals as her boots crunched the creatures underfoot as they rushed through the wall of fire. While it was dangerous to cross the space in such conditions, Chris knew they would be alright as long as they could get through fast.

"JD! Professor!" Chris called out behind him as he and Mary ran along the burning path. The kid would be smart enough to help the Professor if needed and no doubt Vin would ensure Alex was safe as they made the same journey.

With the flames illuminating every corner of the large chamber, the door at the rear was well lit now and Chris could see through it well enough to know there were no scorpions beyond the doorway, much to his relief. Running across the floor, he continued their rapid pace, dragging Mary along even though they were now beyond the range of the whisky-fuelled flames. He ignored the crunching beneath his boots, even though he knew the sound made would turn even the most sensible woman in the world to utter goo upon hearing it.

"Oh God..." he heard Mary's complaint and tried not to smirk. It was nice to know there were some things about her that were still inherently female.

They reached the doorway a few seconds later, leaving behind the chamber of horrors behind them or so they thought. Turning around, Chris saw Vin dragging Alex across the carpet of arachnids in much the same fashion as he had done with Mary. Still clutching their torches, they were soon followed by JD and Orin. Orin didn't move as fast as Chris would have liked but the old man was still pretty spry and join them in the hallway beyond the chamber a short time later. Behind them, the room continued to burn with the scorpion hordes moving through the passage they had descended, presumably heading towards the safety of the next level.

"Everyone okay?" Chris asked when everyone was in the hallway with him and pausing a moment to catch their breaths.

"Oh, I'm just peachy," Alex grumbled, brushing her hair furiously to make sure none of the creatures had inadvertently hitched a ride and would send her into hysterics when it finally made its appearance.

"We're good," Vin threw her a sidelong glance.

"JD, Professor?" Chris looked to student and teacher in quick succession. After what JD managed to do while in the company of the Shah and his men, the leader of the seven was no longer as concerned about the youngest of them being able to fend for himself. Still, it was habit that made him ask.

"We're fine," Orin said dusting himself off and throwing a glance behind him at the sight of the flames and the nest they had just escaped. "It has been some time since I've had to go through one of those. Nice to know I still can keep up."

"OH MY GOD!"

Chris winced and realised he left Mary alone. Spinning around immediately, he realised the woman had gone ahead into the next chamber. If it were not for the fact her father was present, a number of choice words would have escaped him as he stormed after her. After being confronted with scorpions, not to mention the last time she was left alone to her devices, she had almost gotten them all killed, Chris wasn't about to let her wander off alone.

"DON'T TOUCH ANYTHING!" He shouted after her.

Vin shook his head, grateful he and Alex had shared an instant connection upon meeting because Chris's approach to mating left a lot to be desired. "Man's going to give himself an ulcer." He grumbled before following Chris up the hallway.

"Welcome to my world," Orin sniggered softly.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE:

THE VAULT

He had been nine years old the first time he saw an aeroplane fly.

Chris Larabee's father, the General, had taken both boys to Fort Myer in Virginia to attend some army business Buck Wilmington no longer remember. Buck had damn loved the man for the invitation because the man didn't give two licks about the fact Buck was a product of the local bordello. All Marcus Larabee ever saw was a boy who needed a man's influence in his life and was willing to provide it. His mother who was similarly touched by the gesture had permitted it, sending Buck on his first trip out of state.

They had journeyed to the fort at the same time another visitor was conducting business there. Buck had never heard of Orville and Wilbur Wright until that visit, but following his time in Fort Myer, he would never forget it. Watching the Flyer soaring over the skies was like revelation and young Buck knew from that moment on, he would never want to be anywhere else. The plane, little more than a construct of spruce and fabric, with its twin propellers, was nothing like the Darlin' Millie but Buck knew he was born to fly.

In the war, being a pilot had allowed him to see the fighting from above and despite the losses in the air to the German Air Force, he had to admit, it was nothing like the carnage on the ground. Buck doubted he would have made it back from Europe otherwise. Flying overhead, he remembered seeing the bodies and praying each time he did, Chris and his friends were not among the dead. During the Oise-Aisne Offensive, seeing the death below him had made him feel ashamed he was safe in the seat of his plane instead of being in mud below, dying.

Right now, as he watched the converging Erran forces closing in around the ruin of Eridu like a ring of steel, Buck supposed he finally knew what it was like to share the battle with his friends at ground level. In retrospect, it was an experience he could do without. Despite Ezra's expert direction, surprising not just him but Josiah as well, the Erran were overwhelming them with sheer numbers. The red-robed devils were closing in and while Ezra was using every ounce of experience he possessed as a former cavalryman, he could not keep the enemy at bay.

Buck continued to fire his rifle, the rat-tat-tat of gunfire exploding in his ear as he continued to shoot, his belly pressed against the dirt. He saw the barrage clip one man in the shoulder, enough so that he had almost been unseated. He slumped to the side of the saddle and clung on with one hand, to avoid tumbling into the dirt. The rest of the payload from Buck's gun was nowhere as merciful on the man next to him. Three bullets slammed into the rider's body in quick succession. Through his sight, Buck saw the man jerk like a puppet for a few seconds before he fell away from the horse like the animal had shed its skin.

If he did not die when he hit the sand, he certainly did when the horses behind him trampled over his body, despite their best efforts to avoid him. Yet the enemy was still coming and Buck found himself reaching for more ammunition, carefully watching the supply and wishing once again, he was in his plane with a couple of bombs he could drop on the bastards.

"They're getting closer!" Buck shouted to no one in particular, dropping his head down when a bullet whizzed past, impacting on the rock wall behind him. It spat small fragments of stone across the ground upon impact. "We're going to have to use our ace in the hole!"

Ezra who had been firing steadily at the approaching targets, lifted his head up from the sight of the gun resting on the rock wall behind which he was taking refuge. While still wearing the face of the consummate poker player who gave nothing away, Buck knew the man long enough to know Ezra was also seeing their situation deteriorating which each inch of ground being claimed by the enemy. They had planned for this assault but no one could have expected the Erran to come with such numbers.

"We must wait until they are closer!" Ezra declared, putting to end any suggestion of using their ace in the hole. Both he and Chris had come up with the idea jointly and now that it was needed, he did not intend to squander its worth by acting prematurely. "We will only have one shot at this and even so all we can hope to do is reduce their numbers. We must give Mr Larabee and the others enough time to reach the Tablet."

"I don't know if I want them that close!" Nathan hollered from where he was. He had paused to reload and was grateful Josiah was maintaining the protective cordon around them because the Erran were quick to take up the gaps he provided by his brief pause. As he kept his head down, fumbling for the bullets to reload his gun, he could hear the explosion of artillery and their heat passing over him as they sought out new targets in their predefined trajectory.

"I do not think we have much choice in the matter!" Ezra declared. "Nevertheless, before they arrive, I am certain we can reduce their numbers significantly."

The gambler faced front again and noted the dwindling Erran numbers, while significant, was nowhere enough. There were still at least thirty of them on close approach. Raising his binoculars to his face, he peered through them and studied the line of riders. Unsurprisingly, he saw amongst the cultist, the woman who attempted to poison them on numerous occasions, her companion the large behemoth who nearly choked the life out of him and of course, the Shah himself. Ezra had ridden in the cavalry long enough to know who was in charge by their positioning in the formation.

The manner in which Shah was being guarded on all sides meant nothing else.

Ezra wondered if he were a better sniper like Vin, would he have made the attempt and decided it was a worthless expenditure of time since he wasn't certain he could make the shot to put down the leader of the Erran. Instead, he saw the enemy approaching the invisible line he and Chris had drawn around Eridu, as a contingency for the possibility of this situation becoming a reality.

"Mr Sanchez!" Ezra shouted over the sound of returning gunfire at the former seminary student who was manning the submachine gun with deadly precision. "I think it's time!"

Josiah didn't answer immediately, too distracted by the piston-like rhythm of the gun's discharge. Spent shell casings were scattered around him and up ahead, the wall of artillery swept at least two of the Erran from their saddles while another was unseated when one of those bullets struck horseflesh. The older man flinched at that, never much liking the animals wounded by the foolishness of human riders.

"Someone take over!" He called out and waited for a second before he saw Nathan crawling across the ground like a snake, trying to keep from being hit. The medic made a run for it in the last few feet, his back bent into a question mark before he slid into place next to Josiah, like he was Satchel Paige himself.

"All yours brother," Josiah remarked, tipping his cap at the younger man before making a quick run for a partially crumbled wall at the rear of the temple floor.

"Thanks," Nathan remarked, taking charge of the weapon and resuming the deadly fire aimed at reducing the Errans' numbers. "I feel honoured."

Josiah ran past Ezra in much the same fashion as Nathan had approached, keeping his head down by crouching low. Bullets were riddling every surface the ruined city and Josiah wondered if God was watching out for them since none of his companions had felt the sting of any projectiles as yet.

"Say when Ezra," Josiah reminded as he dashed past.

"I will not keep you waiting long," Ezra responded before he went back to shooting. "Tell me when you're in position."

"Yes Lieutenant," Josiah grinned, perfectly aware Ezra hated being reminded of his military rank. The man still claimed it was some madness that had overtaken him in his youth that prompted him to enlist in the first place.

"If you are going to resort to name calling..." he started to say when another bullet whizzed past his face and he fell backwards.

Josiah uttered a little laugh, indulging in a little gallows humour as he continued onwards, pausing here and there as he weaved past the path of bullets crossing Eridu's length and breadth. He practically had to dive over the shortened wall, wondering what on Earth he was thinking by making the attempt, since he was nowhere as spry (or young) as the others, before he landed in a roll.

Scrambling to his feet, he crawled towards the detonator box waiting impatiently for his return, the handle standing impudently at attention. The box was sheltered by the wall, the brick providing the perfect shield from the bullets, far better than anyone else was being protected at present. Josiah sat up, kneeling in front it, placing his hands on the handle and shouting out, certain Ezra was listening, waiting to hear he was in position.

"I'm ready!" Josiah called, his normally erudite voice booming loudly.

Ezra who was poised and waiting to hear Josiah's words stared at the terrain in front of him and knew this was the last chance they had of reducing the odds against them. They might not win the day, but it would be a pyrrhic victory for the Erran. The enemy was less than fifty feet away from Eridu and it was the safest point for the detonation, without causing significant instability in the ancient structure.

As the gunfire continued, along with the dull thunder of horses, Ezra gave the order.

"NOW!"

Without even needing to see Josiah pushing down on the handle of the detonator box, the explosion of sound that resulted felt like the earth being split open. As the tremendous roar filled the air, terrifying any animal in the vicinity as the deafening noise was followed by bone shattering rattles, a wall of earth rose up in the air at the detonation of the dynamite charges. Chris Larabee, ever the pessimist had been certain the Erran would find them, despite their best precautions and Ezra had suggested this little contingency in case they did. Thus, they planted the explosives around the site almost as soon as they arrived in Eridu.

He saw the horses buckling and like all former cavalrymen, Ezra flinched at seeing it. The animals were caught in the line of blasts, their frightened braying filling the air as others retreated, colliding with the horses behind them. Some of the creatures reared themselves on hind legs, dislodging their riders. The entire line was in disarray, scattered across the desert sand like someone had thrown a rock at an anthill.

"That should give Chris a bit more time," Buck spoke up as the gunfire paused momentarily while the Erran attempted to regroup.

"Hopefully," Ezra said as he reloaded his gun and prepared for the next wave. "He is encountering fewer difficulties than we are."

+ + + + + + +

When Chris finally caught up with Mary in the chamber at the end of the corridor where they had escaped the swarm of scorpions, he was convinced she had succeeded in triggering the mechanism of yet another death trap to be found in the temple. Her journalistic nose as well as her fearless nature (which could be somewhat attractive), made this an inevitability. Yet when he stepped into the room and glimpsed what she was seeing through the amber light of her torch, he could appreciate what engendered such a fearful exclamation from her lips.

Slowing down as he was confronted with the same scene as she, Chris came to a stop next to Mary and had to admit, he might have made a similar utterance, albeit with a slightly more colourful language, if he had stumbled upon the scene she was viewing with wide eyes.

Surrounding them on every inch of wall space, save the floor and ceiling, were corpses.

They stood upright, stacked two or three deep in carved slots against the wall, resembling dried husks of cordwood instead of mummified corpses. Pack tightly together, with arms folded over their chests, dressed in a mixture of armour and jewellery over the swaddling used to encase them once the embalming process was done.

The scene reminded Chris of Paris. He had spent time there after the war, shortly before they were to be shipped home and Chris had visited the city's famous catacombs. In that stygian underground cemetery, the dead were marked by the skulls they left behind. What he was seeing now, did not look that dissimilar, except the bodies were all intact and posed as if they were keeping watch over the room for any unwanted trespassers.

"It's okay," he assured her, finding it satisfying she could be unnerved like any other woman. "It's the live ones you gotta worry about."

Mary tossed him a look. "I admire your ability to make such distinctions Mr Larabee."

Despite the situation, Chris couldn't help but admire the fire in her eyes, even when it was projected out of those dove like eyes. "I think since you've almost gotten me killed in a Mesoamerican water trap, you can call me Chris."

Even though he said it with a straight face, the teasing in his voice was apparent.

Mary crooked a brow in his direction, her frown fighting to remain on her face. "Alright then, Chris," she spoke with that imperious tone even though the slight curl at the corner of her lip betray the warmth she was trying not to show him. "What is this place?"

"I'm not sure," Chris confessed. "It's obviously a burial vault but I'm not the expert. JD? Professor?" After four years doing this, he knew something of Sumerian culture and was aware they buried their dead instead of cremating them. Still, in comparison to the two scholars in their company, he was an amateur. Both men were probably being held back by Vin who would not let them proceed further until Chris gave the signal, deeming it was safe. "Come on down, it's clear."

It did not take them long to enter the room to join Chris and Mary who were continuing to study the bodies arrayed. They were mostly men, although there were one or two women and obviously high born, if their ornate burial clothes were any indication. The positioning of the bodies bothered him though, he couldn't imagine why they were standing upright like that when Sumerian culture buried their dead flat.

The familiar tickle in the back of his mind, the one that warned of caution, made itself heard as the others entered the room.

"Of course," Alexandra Styles exclaimed as she entered with Vin and threw up her hands in exasperation more than fear. Being a fourth-year medical student, dead bodies weren't that much of a surprise to her but the macabre nature of the place was in keeping with the rest of this situation, she decided. She was really tired of being confronted with one awful thing after another. "What's next? Flesh-eating bugs?"

Vin decided this was not the time to mention the tiger beetles they'd encountered at a dig in Egypt.

"Don't worry Darlin'," he tossed her a wink. "I'll protect you."

"Oh, you're lucky you're pretty." She flashed him a radiant smile of warmth, wondering how this insanity was tolerable to her, just because she was with him.

"Oh," Orin Travis stated with interest as he stepped into the chamber and surveyed the place and its dead occupants. "This is a vault. Judging by the adornments, I would say these were the city's nobles and leaders. The everyday Sumerian buried their dead in the home." Glancing at JD, the Professor spoke to the young man as if he were teaching a class. "Can you tell us more Mr Dunne?"

JD smiled affectionately at the Professor who continued to be a teacher even now and would forever have his undying loyalty as a friend. Orin Travis had changed his life when he introduced JD to Chris Larabee and the men he now considered family. In becoming part of the seven, Orin had ensured JD would never be alone again

"Yes Sir," he flashed the Professor a smile, accepting the challenge. "All Sumerian homes had a vault or tombs, whatever you want to call it. They buried all their dead there, even left spaces for where wives and husbands would eventually end up. They even kept the household pets there."

"Very good," Orin said proudly, glad to see the young man's academic prowess was still as sharp as ever. Taking a step closer to one wall of corpses, he studied their shrouds and the objects they were interred with. "Most of these men are armed, they must be temple or royal guards."

Both Chris and Vin noticed that first.

Even by modern standards, they looked quite formidable. Each guard wore a helmet of bronze and iron, their body armour was a circular breastplate held in place with straps around the arms. Sheathed in scabbards at the hip were Mesopotamian swords or khopeshes and short daggers. Also, within reach were spears and maces. Even under four millennia of dust, Chris thought they looked quite threatening.

"Why would they be buried here?" Mary had to ask. "I thought you said this was for the nobility?"

"There may be a further chamber," Chris replied. "One where there's a king or something."

"Well there's the door," Orin pointed to the exit at the far end of the room, just like the one with the scorpions. "Perhaps the vault for the nobility is through there. If so, it would make sense the guards being placed here, to keep watch."

"You know what's odd though," JD commented. "Why are they standing up like that?"

"Yeah I was going to mention it," Vin spoke up, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Alex was not straying too far. "Ain't they supposed to be lying down or something?" Granted Vin was no expert on these things, his sole contribution here was not to let anyone get killed in whatever danger they triggered by attempting to retrieve the Tablet.

Alex drifted away from the talk, inching closer to one of the corpses. Despite her earlier complaint, she was a little fascinated once her shock had worn away. Not that she was about to let Vin on this fact. She knew she was almost certainly in love with him. The connection between them felt so strong and natural, it was uncanny. However, as much as she might care for him, she did not intend to be a regular companion on his adventures if they were all like this.

Taking a step forward with her torch in hand, Alex reminded herself most strenuously she was not to touch anything after what Mary did in that mound dwelling in New Mexico. Leaning in closer, she studied the corpse of a male, who was almost six feet tall, despite his desiccated state. On top of the swaddling around his body, he was buried with his bronze aged armour, a helmet on his head and his khopesh hanging at his hip. In life, she had no doubt he would look quite frightening.

Alex had to admire the sophistication of the embalming process because even though this man had died four thousand years ago, she could see his distinct features exposed through the withering material of his shroud. He had a strong straight nose, refined features and deep-set eyes. In his day, he would have been quite the...

His eyelids flew open silencing any further thought in her mind.

At first, Alex thought it was a flicker of the flame from her torch. Blinking, she wanted to clear her eyes to ensure she wasn't imagining things. When one was surrounded by corpses, it wasn't an unheard of possibility. Except he blinked too. As old skin flexed and cracked, small particles of dust broke free around his face, revealing the blackness of empty eye sockets.

Still trapped in disbelief by her scientific mind, Alex stared in horrified fascination until the thing tilted its head in her direction and pulled its thin lips back, revealing a mouthful of yellowed teeth that resembled stained wood instead of enamel. It was at this point, Alex's survival instincts kicked in and she retreated, just as it started moving.

Her scream jarred everyone.

Vin swung around the instant he heard that cry and saw Alex recoiling just as corpses against the walls started to come alive around them. One by one, they were pulling themselves free from their placements in the wall, creating clouds of dust as they surrounded the new arrivals with surprising speed. Unsheathing their blades or clutching the spears and maces left for them, they moved forward in a ring of steel. While Vin would react faster than Alex, for the first second he could only gape at what was happening in front of him before his mind discarded his astonishment, to deal with the threat.

"Get behind me!" Vin barked and that was one order she was not about to disobey.

Mary uttered a cry of terror when an arm lashed out of the darkness and grabbed her arm. Reacting reflexively, she kicked out and planted a foot in the corpse's sternum. The force of the kick drove the breastplate and her foot through the creature's chest until she was almost ankle deep in ancient flesh and organs. Despite its injury, the dead Sumerian was not about to be impeded by its prey and regained his grip on her, holding Mary in place as he sought to run her through with the blade in his hand.

"MARY!" Orin shouted in horror as he saw his daughter in the grip of a zombie.

Understandably, it took a few seconds for everyone to react as they should. Scorpions were one thing but the dead rising up from the grave was straining belief. Unfortunately, there was no time to debate the matter since it appeared they were about to be overwhelmed by the creatures who were about to slaughter them in this chamber.

Orin's cry had mobilised Chris and he reacted without hesitation, drawing his gun and jamming the weapon against the creature's skull before pulling the trigger. The discharging bullet made the thing's head explode, sending pieces of skull and dry brain matter in all direction as it tumbled to the tiled floor. As it collapsed, its arm detached from the rest of its body, leaving its hand to maintain the vice-like grip around Mary's forearm.

"Get it off me!" She squealed in uncharacteristic hysterics.

"How in the hell is this possible?" JD managed to ask as he saw one of the creatures advancing towards him and wasted no time firing at it. There were so many of them now, he wondered if they had enough ammunition to deal with them all. Orin was trying to make his way to Mary when JD saw the almost skeletal figure closing in on his mentor.

"Professor, look out!" JD leapt into action, placing himself in front of the man before squeezing the trigger repeatedly. As twp bullets slammed into the creature's chest one after the other, JD saw it stagger backwards, jerking about spasmodically in reaction. The young scholar expected the corpse tumble to the ground so he could deal with the others when it did the exact opposite.

The corpse shook off the effect and straightened up. It lifted its head at the young man and JD swore it was almost smiling before it started moving again.

"Aw Jeez! Chris!" JD shouted at the gunslinger. "I think we have a big problem!"

As Chris saw them closing in, their weapons gleaming, he thought JD had sorely underestimated the situation.

They had several big problems.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO:

NIGHTMARE REALM

Since the attack at the museum, the woman had been monitoring the situation.

When the Heart of Enki was discovered and brought to the United States, she expected events to unfold in more or less the fashion they had. The Shah's desire to fulfil his family's destiny would ensure the Erran left bloodshed in their wake and though she considered intervening, she knew things had to play out until the final curtain on this affair was raised, and she could act.

What she had not counted on was the involvement of Chris Larabee and his relic hunters.

She was peripherally aware of the Seven during her surveillance of Travis's activities. The Professor in his day had been quite the relic hunter himself, and it was only natural he would employ similar men to do the same now that he was getting on in years. She respected him for that but still kept her eye on him nonetheless. When William Styles was killed, she had been in Europe, attending to matters almost as equally dire.

While the Shah was up to his intrigues to uncreate the world through the Tablet of Destiny, what was happening in Germany was proof entropy needed no ancient relic to take place.

Still, her failure to save William stung. She had never met him but was aware of his investigations once she began to make her own. He understood better than all of them, the danger the Erran posed and while she did not hold his beliefs in the supernatural, she understood what drove him. After he was killed, she knew it was time to make contact with Orin Travis at the party unveiling the Heart, but the intervention of Larabee and his men forced her withdrawal.

"They're going to be swamped," her companion said as he lowered the binoculars and turned to her. They were both staring at the scene from one of the hills surrounding Eridu, watching the rapidly diminishing number of Erran closing on Larabee's men, who were defending the ruined city.

"We hold firm," she spoke coolly. "If I know that bastard, he won't kill them. He'll need to use them as hostages to get his hands on the Tablet when Larabee appears."

"You think Larabee will find it?" He said to her, somewhat dubious at the thing even existing let alone being used for a trade.

"Without a doubt," she replied. "We'll wait for all the players to take the stage, then we'll act."

+ + + + + + +

As the buffer of bullets between them narrowed and the bodies scattered across the desert continued to grow, Ezra Standish knew with utter certainty, they could not prevail. Their ammunition was fast dwindling and when the Erran did reach the city, they would be overwhelmed by numbers. Yet he refused to surrender even though it was unlikely they would be killed. The Erran still needed the Tablet and if anyone could navigate the traps set in place around it, it was Chris Larabee.

Ezra also knew Chris would smash the Tablet into a thousand pieces if he for one second suspected any of his men had been killed by the Erran. The man could be viciously vindictive and Ezra had more faith in that than all of Midas's dreams of gold. Glancing at Nathan from his vantage point, he could see his best friend reloading his rifle and unleashing another barrage of gunfire in the thickest part of the Erran riders.

No matter how good he was in a fight, Ezra knew Nathan was wincing with the discharge of every bullet. At the heart of him, Nathan was a healer who did not enjoy killing. The bodies being swept up by the desert wind, half submerged in the sand after the line of dynamite had detonated would prey upon him heavily. Ezra wished he could share the healer's compassion because when he saw the Erran break up at their approach, he knew instantly the strategy they were employing. A contingent of them would keep the four men busy, perfectly aware they had the numbers to provide a distraction, while the others would circle the base of the city and find an alternate path to ambush them.

"Ezra!" Buck shouted, voicing the thought as it crossed Ezra's mind. "They're splitting up, I'll bet you anything they're going to try and sneak up on us from behind."

"I will take that bet, Mr Wilmington," Ezra declared, continuing to shoot. "You and Mr Jackson ought to ensure they do not tip the odds too much in their favour. Josiah and I will remain here and maintain fire!"

"You heard him, Nathan! Let's get moving!" Buck hollered to the healer. Nathan

"All right, all right," Nathan grumbled, raising his head from where he was positioned to shoot. "Let's go pick up the trash before it piles up on our doorstep." The healer pushed himself off the gravelly ground and kept his head low even as bullets whizzed over him, striking the stone walls and every other surface in their immediate vicinity.

"Keep your heads down!" Ezra shouted as he watched the two men retreat to the rear, using the cover of crumbling walls, still standing doorways and statues that lost their shape long ago. The gambler spared no more than a second ensuring they got to the other side of the ruins safely, before facing front again.

"I fear it remains to you and I Josiah, to repel this horde!" He said to the mechanic and demolition expert who was still laying down a line of continuous fire to the enemy, but even Ezra could see the ammunition at Josiah's side was starting to get low.

"I don't know how much longer we can be repelling any horde!" Josiah returned, watching another Erran cultist tumble into the dirt.

There were three rows of riders and as they approached, Ezra noticed the Shah, the behemoth JD had revealed was called Krestos and the woman, whom he had faced off at the Professor's home was approaching from the rear, ensuring the others went first like cannon fodder. Clearly, they intended to reach the city, even if it meant sacrificing their own to see it done. Ezra was hardly surprised, it was always the way of fanatics to convince the gullible to die for a meaningless cause as if it were a call to glory.

Ezra took careful aim as he placed the Shah within the crosshairs of his rifle, thinking if he could put down the man, they might end this conflict prematurely. However, the chaos of riders surrounding the Shah ensured Ezra couldn't get a clean shot and the gambler suspected, that was the intention of the formation, to begin with. Perhaps if Vin were here, the sharpshooter might have been able to make the shot but Ezra wasn't the sniper Vin was. He was a crack shot with small arms and a demon with a blade, and as impressive as he was with the rifle, he was nowhere in Vin's league.

"Here they come!" Josiah shouted, giving Ezra the warning they were out of time. The gap between the enemy and the foundations of Eridu had closed and now the barbarians were at the gate. The slope leading up the mountains was gradual enough to allow the horses to progress all the way to the top of the city ruins. Even as Ezra discarded the rifle and reached for the Ceska machine gun he had armed for this very purpose, he could feel the thunder of hooves beneath him.

Josiah continued firing a little more but the would be preacher gave up the idea as well when he realised their attempt to avoid being overrun was futile. Like Ezra, he grabbed the Tommy gun Vin had left him and slipped a number of round magazine cartridges into his jacket. His eyes followed Ezra running across the terrain, seeking out a more defensible position and did the same.

"See you on the other side brother!" He shouted at Ezra who had taken refuge behind the partial rock wall Buck had used earlier. Josiah headed for one of the deep doorways leading into the underground levels of the city.

"Try and show a little optimism, will you Mr Sanchez!" Ezra hollered back. "I do not intend dying today!"

"We've got to go sometime!" Josiah grinned.

The first of the horses crested the top of the slope with Josiah unleashing a hail of bullets at the ground directly in front of them. The loud roar of sound, not to mention the dirt being sent into the air like projectiles startled the animals who promptly reared up on their hind legs in fright. At least four men were unseated or very near close to it since the abrupt halt of the animals was not merely limited to the ones frightened by the gunfire.

Once the Erran were unseated, the fight no longer became one where they could hold firm and defend their position. It was a brawl now, a brawl with guns and fists. Ezra who hated menial labour, darted from his refuge, shooting down the Erran on the ground just as the still seated riders returned fire. He knew the odds were against them but if they could keep moving, if they could provide a running target instead of a stationary one, then they might give Chris Larabee the time their leader needed to recover the Tablet and have something to bargain with.

He hoped.

+ + + + + + +

They were fighting corpses.

Chris Larabee was trying to wrap his mind around the fact they were fighting people who were dead. Not only dead but had died two thousand years before the birth of Christ. Furthermore, unlike the creature played by Boris Karloff in that movie Vin made him sit through, these mummified corpses were neither slow or lumbering, they moved with speed, displaying the agility and skill of any living assailant.

After firing his gun at the creatures closing in on them and discovering the things were hard to kill, Chris decided he needed another weapon Bullets, being small projectiles had little effect on desiccated organs. Chris sighted one of their blades lying across the floor and immediately dove for it. Rolling across the dust-covered tiles, he picked up one of the khopeshes and raised the weapon just in time to ward off an axe.

Shoving back hard, he stood upright, knowing his disbelief had better take a back seat because this was happening and if he didn't think on his feet, he was going to get run through or worse. While the mummified guard staggered backward, another of them came at him, forcing Chris to take a swipe at it. The swing was wide but practised, with Chris aiming high. Since battling these monsters, Chris had come to the realisation the best way of ending them was either by decapitation or dismemberment. Only direct shots to the head would put them down otherwise.

With little or no hesitation, the blade sliced through grey, flaking skin that reminded him of burnt paper, just as the creature tried to stab him with a particularly nasty looking spear. It was screeching at him and Chris thought they sounded like the screams of magpies in the morning. The cut severed its head from its body, causing the skull to flip in mid-air before landing on the ground hard. The skull shattered like someone had dropped a bowl of flour from a great height.

"How is this possible? They're dead!" Alex demanded, her mind still unable to accept what she was seeing, even while she uttered a cry of fright when one of the things came at them. Flattened against the only free piece of wall, she saw Vin leaping backwards, keeping his guts from spilling across the floor when he narrowly avoided the deadly swipe of a blade.

"Uh Darlin'," Vin shouted back at her, some exasperation creeping into his voice. "Maybe you could just not stand there and try to get to the door?"

At that warning, Alex saw one of the mummified guards lunging at her and she ducked, causing it to slam against the wall behind her. Dropping to her hands and knees, Alex began crawling across the floor, just as Vin spun around and obliterated its skull with a well-placed shot. Terrified, she crawled towards the door and shouted back at him.

"Vin Tanner, you may be a great kisser, but I REALLY HATE YOUR JOB!"

"You think I'm a great kisser?" Vin asked just as he jammed his gun into the face of another creature and pulled the trigger.

"VIN!" Chris who was close enough to hear barked angrily. "Focus!"

"Sorry," Vin apologised as the creature's head disintegrated, putting an end to its attack.

Alex uttered a horrified squeal when bits and pieces of mummy rained down on her, covering her skin and hair with scraps of ancient flesh and body parts. As she frantically brushed herself off, she became aware of Vin helping her to her feet, just as another mummy took advantage of her panic and tried to bring an axe down on her.

"Alex, head for the door!" He ordered, shoving her in that direction while he dealt with this latest attacker. Alex didn't argue and glanced over her shoulder at him before doing as he ordered.

Meanwhile, Mary had picked up a khopesh herself and found it was not all that different to a foil in fencing, although the blade was heavier and did not require as much finesse to use. Parrying when one of the living corpses came at her, she fended off the blow before dropping gracefully to her knees and slashing the thing in mid-thorax.

The cleaved corpse fell against the tiles in two large pieces and it was with revulsion, she saw what had not disintegrated with the hard landing, was still capable of movement. The legs attached to the thorax was staggering about like a Saturday night drunk, while the arms attached to the upper torso was still waving the blade about, trying to get to her.

Chris glanced at Mary finishing off the creature she was fighting and felt a surge of relief at her ability to defend herself. As the thought crossed his mind, he fired a shot at another mummy closing in on him, penetrating its bronzed helmet. Chris watched in horrified fascination as he saw its skull starting to disintegrate inside the ancient piece of headwear. There was little time for respite because even as he saw its face crumble away, something else was coming at him, something armed with a mace.

He ducked just as it swung, avoiding the blow which only succeeded in striking the mummy closing in on him from a different direction. The mace ripped apart the second creature's shoulder and detached its arm from the body. The limb landed on the ground and started crawling towards Chris. Chris threw a kick as if he were a kicker for the NFL, sending the arm flying into the air, far away from him.

Like his older comrades, JD was similarly astonished by what he was seeing but was more focused on removing his mentor from the chamber. Ducking as a corpse swung his blade at him, the young man kicked out his foot and connected with the creature's ankle, bringing it down with surprising speed. Once they made eye contact, he jammed a gun into its mouth and pulled the trigger, ignoring the chill that ran through him as it stared at him with those eyeless sockets. As its head exploded, JD stepped back quickly, since the thought of being suffocated by mummy dust was quite revolting.

Turning his attention to Orin, he saw the Professor had little difficulty defending himself. LIke Chris, Orin Travis was a former cavalryman and knew how to handle a blade. The older man was searching the room for his daughter and was both relieved and impressed when he saw her throw a flying kick at one of the creatures and forced it back against the wall from which it had emerged. He had no idea where she learned to fight like this but Orin was grateful she broke the mould of society's outdated ideas on how a woman ought to behave and learned.

At least now he knew when she was out chasing her stories she was capable of protecting herself.

Alex, on the other hand, was another matter entirely. She was still trying to navigate the battle taking place around her, with little experience in using her fists or participating in anything as brutal as combat. In that, she was definitely William's daughter, a healer. In their youth, it was William who always tried to come up with a different way of attacking a problem instead of using physical violence, unlike hot-headed Hank who loved a scrap.

"Alexandra!" Orin beckoned her towards him as she tried to cross the floor to reach the exit as Vin ordered. "Come to me!"

Wide-eyed, she nodded and ran across the tiles, avoiding the dismembered limbs still crawling about the place, trying to understand how this could be. She was a doctor and to her, a dead body was a dead body, it shouldn't be alive or have its hacked limbs crawling about the place like they were organisms of their own. She knew her scientific mind was attempting to analyse supernatural waters, and failing to do so. Still, there was no doubting the clear and present danger they were facing.

Sighing with relief when she reached her father's oldest friend, she was grateful to feel Orin taking her hand and towing her to the door. She glanced over her shoulder at Vin and saw him kicking away another corpse, using one hand to fire, while the other fended off another coming at him with a blade. Wanting to call out to him, the opportunity was lost when she felt herself being pulled through the doorway and prayed despite her words to him, Vin was able to take care of himself.

"Chris!" Mary shouted as she saw one of the creatures sneaking up on him from behind while he was wrestling with another.

Chris looked over his shoulder just in time to see Mary running to his rescue as she had done at the museum. She ducked just as the thing swung at her, skidding to the floor, and bringing down the creature with an efficiently delivered leg sweep. As it crashed against the tiles, she used her blade and promptly decapitated the corpse. Chris spared a brief second in observation before a stray thought crossed his mind.

That was pretty hot.

Meanwhile more and more of the creatures were emerging from the wall and Chris had to wonder just how many of the things there were, as he fired point blank at another advancing corpse. It seemed with the number they been killing so far, there should be less, not more. Yet the things continued to advance as if the walls were porous and behind them, was an endless supply of corpses dedicated to wearing down trespassers. It was at this point, Chris realised it was futile to fight them all, and though it stung for an ex-soldier to admit it, Chris knew it was time to retreat.

"We're getting out of here!" He shouted. "Vin, we are leaving!"

"You ain't' getting no arguments from me!" The sharpshooter returned and threw a fist into the face of one of the approaching assailants. His stomach hollowed when his hand went through bone and teeth and was nearly stuck in the thing's mouth. Pulling back his fist in disgust, he searched the floor and was relieved to see Alex being dragged out of the room by Orin Travis while JD covered their backs.

"CHRIS!" Mary Travis uttered a fearful scream as a trio of dead bodies lunged at her. She dropped to the floor, trying to avoid them but one of the creatures managed to catch a handful of golden hair and yank back sharply. She uttered a cry of pain at the strands being torn savagely, even as her knees landed on the hard floor. Mary winced in pain but forced herself to crawl out from beneath them. Suddenly, she heard the deafening sound of gunfire as a hail of bullets whizzed overhead.

Mary was covered with bits of mummy dust and found herself reverting to type when she squealed in horror, only to feel a hand grip her shoulder and yank her to her feet. She was about to fight when she found herself against Chris, who was looking at her with concern. For a moment, the intensity of his emotions struck her and she felt the air rush out of the room as she stared into those icy coloured eyes and became lost in them. The man was such an enigma, a contradiction in every way and just as tantalising a mystery to her as the Tablet itself.

"Are you okay?" He asked quickly, unable to deny the cold fear he felt at hearing her cry out like that. Despite their continuous bickering and arguments, the truth was, she had gotten under his skin the same way Alexandra Styles had entered Vin Tanner's heart. However, while Vin was willing to show the lady he cared, Chris was nowhere ready to take the same step. Hell, he was still wearing his wedding ring. Nevertheless, hearing her vulnerability frightened him. It was to his surprise he suddenly realised, how much he valued her ability to take care of herself.

Though he'd have to be raked over coals before he admitted it to her or to anyone else for that matter.

"Yeah," she nodded as they both started out of the place, quickly outpacing the creatures Vin was keeping at bay with his guns.

They ran out of the room, fighting their way through the corpses, wondering how far they'd have to run to outdistanced these things to escape. Chris saw that JD, Alex and Orin had already left the chamber and hoped they did not go too far ahead. After fighting mummy guards and swarms of scorpions, he did not want to know what other supernatural creatures, this quest for the Tablet was likely to throw at them.

However, what confronted him when he, Mary and Vin crossed the threshold, halted them in their tracks immediately.

"What the hell?" Chris exclaimed, stunned.

Alex, Orin and JD turned to him, wearing similar expressions of astonishment and bafflement on their faces. It appeared they were just as flabbergasted by what they were seeing

"How can this be?" Mary mused, her blue-grey eyes sweeping across the place.

"We just came through the doorway and then we were here," Alex explained, her expression showing she was almost at the limits of how much improbable information she could process.

Here was a platform in the middle of a still ocean. Above them, there was a blue sky, devoid of birds, clouds or for that matter wind. The platform they were standing on was a square floating dock, with no signs of land in any direction.

"But we were inside," Mary stuttered. "We were in the middle of a desert!" The journalist took a step backwards as if retracing her steps would return them to where they had been. This was too much for her, even with mummified corpses coming to life and swarms of scorpions.

Suddenly, JD spoke up. "I don't think we've gone anywhere."

"What do you mean?" Chris stared at him.

"I don't think we've gone anywhere," JD repeated himself. "I think we're still in the city."

"JD, this doesn't look much like a city," Vin pointed out, aware he was stating the obvious but he was just as flummoxed as the others and wanted an explanation fast.

"Don't you see, it's the translation from the Akkadian texts," JD explained, understanding, at last, the context and how it related to their present situation. "I get it."

"I see what you mean," Orin nodded. "Only the worthy, those who have been touched by Enki, close in heart to his spirit may breach the mid realms between creation and entropy. And he who walks through this nightmare realm, with pearls of wisdom granted to the first man, may escape the stark horror of Tiamat's mad children to claim the Tablet of Destiny."

"The nightmare realm...." Chris realised. "You mean everything we've been seeing is an illusion. That we've been just seeing things and can pass through it if we believe that's all it is?"

It sounded too preposterous to be true and yet he had a feeling it was exactly as JD claimed.

"Well there's just one way to find out," JD said staring at the horizon and without another word, stepped off the dock.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: TABLET

JD Dunne knew he had nothing to prove.

His place as one of the seven had been cemented within weeks of joining the group. Even though the men with whom he worked with could never explain it, there was something about his arrival among their ranks that completed the circle of their brotherhood. Despite their usual reluctance to accept outsiders, they had welcomed him with open arms and JD had never looked back. Even now, the circumstances that brought him to Chris Larabee and his team, no longer angered him as it had when he realized what he'd gained.

In just six months with the team, he'd earned enough to pay for his college tuition for the whole year because even though he was its youngest member, Chris Larabee paid him like an equal. It was to his astonishment, that the others did not offer any objection to that state of affairs. In fact, they'd gone out of their way to teach him what they knew.

He could sort of fly a plane thanks to Buck and what Vin had taught him about fighting hand to hand, made certain if Peter Nichols ever crossed his path again, the snotty bastard would walk away with more than just a bloody nose this time. Ezra taught him how to read people and Chris taught him there was always a way out of a situation. Josiah didn't teach but he listened and Nathan had given him driving lessons.

Now, he would prove to them why he deserved to be on the team. Stepping off the dock, ignoring the cries of everyone behind him, JD closed his eyes and decided whatever happened, would happen. However, in the last few minutes, revelation had come to him on how exactly it was they were seeing the things they had, since entering Eridu's bowels. While he might have accepted the swarm of scorpions as possible, the sudden animation of mummified corpses and the fact they were standing in the middle of an ocean, when two seconds ago they were in an underground passage, made him question everything they had seen so far.

Realizing he could be swallowed up by the depths, his foot landed not on water but against hard stone. When he opened his eyes, he found himself not immersed in water, although the illusion of it swirled around his ankles like a fine mist. As he took another step forward, the image of the sea around him continued to shudder and beneath it, he could see the hard rock tiles that paved most of the ancient city's floor. In fact, the more he walked, the thinner the veneer of the illusion became until the horizon itself became translucent and the projection began to waver.

"See Chris!!" JD said looking over his shoulder at his comrades and their companions. "None of what we've been seeing is real! It never was. It was just a trick!"

"A trick?" Vin questioned immediately because he knew what he had been fighting in the chamber before felt real enough. Those corpses had come alive! He remembered the musty smell of their desiccated limbs, the way flakes of dry skin drifted into the air as he fought them, the sound their blades made upon striking steel and the lifeless vacant holes where their eyes should have been. It was beyond his ability to comprehend all that could have been an illusion. "How can that be. I mean, we fought them. Hell, I barely missed getting run through."

"And if you had, you would have thought you were dying," JD replied, pausing in his steps long enough to explain further. "Whatever made us see those things, it tricked us into believing whatever happened to us would feel real, including dying."

"You mean like a self-induced coma?" Alex asked, trying to wrap her mind around the idea of the mind's power and supposed it might be possible but it usually required help, like some form of narcotic. "Wait a minute..." she turned quickly to Vin and the others, realizing she might have stumbled onto something important. "Do you remember that strange smell just before we saw the scorpions?"

Chris and Vin exchanged quick glances and Vin nodded because his senses had been sharpened thanks to his partial Navajo upbringing. When they first descended the lower levels of the fortress, he detected an odd smell which he attributed to whatever was decaying inside of Eridu.

"Yeah, I remember, kind of sickly sweet."

With all the incense and herbs the Sumerians must have used in their rituals, Chris had not questioned it. However, now that Alex brought it up, he knew the exact moment when the smell had impressed itself upon his senses, it was a few minutes before they first encountered that swarm of scorpions. What if it placed them in some kind of hallucination?

"Like a narcotic?" Chris stared at the woman.

"Yes!" Alex nodded. "Exactly like that. Something that made us susceptible to some kind of mass hysteria. "Possibly some kind of ergot derivative."

"That would explain this," Orin said to Chris who was now watching JD closely.

Even now, Chris could see the kid continuing to walk on water...no, not water. Now Alex planted the suggestion that this could all be in his head, he was observing with greater scrutiny, the young man's steps across the ocean he should be plunging into, not walking on like Jesus Christ. As he made ripples across the water, Chris could see the projection diminishing, as if there was something beneath it all, like a different layer to reality.

"In that case," Chris said finally and stepped to the edge of the platform on which they were taking refuge. Even as he did, a surge of admiration filled his heart for the young scholar, who was with every passing day, proving what a valuable asset he was to the team. Chris suspected JD might still think he didn't deserve it.

"Chris!" Mary cried out as she saw him preparing to step off the platform, her secret affection for him choosing that moment to surface, in spite of herself.

Her outburst made him turn. For a split second, he saw the fear in her eyes for him and more than that, a softer emotion she hadn't intended to reveal. Despite all his reservations about moving on with his life and letting go of Sarah, what was reflected in her blue-grey eyes at that moment affected him more than he believed possible. Chris felt a surge of excitement that was more than just the anticipation of reaching the Tablet but of what might happen between them after.

"I'll be fine Mary," he winked and stepped off the edge.

With his mind more or less deciding Alex was correct in her theory and JD proving it, Chris did not immediately sink to the bottom of this false sea when his foot touched the water. Instead, the ripple caused by the contact revealed the existence of something beneath the water, something that took him a second to identify.

It was a tile.

The square pave bore the faint design of an eight-pointed star, with each point coloured in faded red which Chris knew to be a popular design in ancient Mesopotamian architecture. Seeing the other swirling patterns in the stone, told Chris he was standing on marble. As he continued to walk, more and more of the tiles began to appear underfoot and when he looked up, he could see this fake expanse diminishing to reveal what lay beneath.

"Looks like the kid's right," Vin Tanner suddenly spoke and Chris glanced over his shoulder to see the familiar sight of the young man following him, watching his back. For a second, Chris was struck by the memory of that ten-year-old boy, wearing a uniform too big for him because they simply hadn't come that small, his face covered in dirt and long hair barely visible from the helmet that covered his face. Vin had followed him back then too, keeping close because that was what Chris ordered him to do. Now it was because Vin wouldn't let him face any danger alone.

"He almost always is," Chris grinned.

As three of the seven continued to walk, the illusion around them began to swirl and shudder, unable to maintain its hold of them under the assault of their disbelief. As it began to disappear, what was revealed was not the dusty, ancient rooms of cracked stone and too many cobwebs, but something grand and beautiful.

The room they entered appeared as pristine as the day it was built. Four majestic columns, evenly spaced, faced each corner. They were almost two feet wide and carved into the stone, were cuneiform inscriptions from four thousand years in the past. The walls were covered in blue tiles, with the symbol of the lamassus, the most prolific Sumerian protective deity with its body of a lion, human head and bird wings, set in white stone. At the front of the chamber, flanking a set of steps that led to a raised floor, were two tall statues almost twenty-five feet high, holding up the ceiling of the chamber.

"Oh my God," Mary gasped as the illusion more or less collapsed now it was no longer supported by the people present to believe in it.

"I think this is Enki," JD announced to the others as he stood in front of the statue of the figure carrying the scroll.

"I think you are right, Mr Dunne," the Professor agreed. "And this is Marduk, his son."

"Makes sense," Chris remarked as he walked past them towards the steps. "If the lore around the Tablet is correct, Marduk was the one who helped Enki defeat Tiamat back in the day."

Chris had paused at the foot of the staircase, examining the walls flanking it with deep scrutiny to ensure there was no possibility of any last deathtrap waiting to be sprung. Fortunately, the tiled mosaic walls of lapis lazuli, a blue mineral favoured in the ancient world, showed no signs of any dangerous mechanism. Once he was satisfied with its safety, Chris turned his attention to the tiled steps giving it a similar examination, searching for evidence of pressure plates that might be triggered if stepped on. Despite seeing nothing, he still remained cautious.

"Let me go first," Chris ordered and started up the stairs, mostly because if he was wrong, he would suffer the consequences alone.

Chris made his way up the steps cautiously, conscious of everything around him with each step he took, until finally reaching the top. In the last four years, Chris had become accustomed to the reality that it was usually the final seconds before claiming their prize which was often the most lethal. Of course, none of the objects he and the rest of the seven had claimed approached the enormity of what the Tablet represented, but he refused to take any chances. Not when it was Mary, Alex, and the Professor's life would be at risk if he underestimated the danger in any way.

Once he reached the top, he was momentarily mesmerized by the flicker of the flames in each cauldron, watching its dance across the wall and giving life to the mother of pearl and lapis lazuli tiles depicting the Enűma Eliš, the Babylonian tablets depicting the creation of the world. Even if he wasn't an archaeologist himself, Chris wished he had time to study the walls in greater detail. However, he was painfully aware of how little time they had to resolve this situation and turned his attention back to the bronzed doors.

LIke the mosaics adorning the walls, the twin doors were held close by a lock whose configuration Chris recognized immediately. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw JD approaching cautiously with the others now that he had made it to doors with his skin intact. Both JD and the Professor were studying the place in wide-eyed fascination, mostly because this was their field of expertise and Tablet or not, this room was one a hell of a find.

As always, Chris noted Vin was the last to reach the doors. Being a sharpshooter, it was his habit to ensure he could keep an eye on his comrades, to provide them a way out in times of trouble. While there was no sweet spot for him to maintain his vigilance at this moment, staying in the back ensured he could help them if anything went wrong. Chris knew it was Alex and Mary Vin was most concerned about, his feelings for Alex notwithstanding. The two women had the least experience in relic hunting and were unaccustomed to the dangers usually encountered on such expeditions.

"JD," Chris said not looking at the young scholar. "Give me the Heart."

JD was about to ask why when a quick glance at the lock holding the twin bronzed doors provided explanation enough. Without further argument, he immediately retrieved the heart, tucked away with the Pillars, inside his satchel. While the artifacts had seemingly served their purpose by giving up the location of the Tablet, Chris had been convinced they were not done with the Heart yet and now it appeared he was right.

The lock holding the door close was grooved with a slot that was a perfect fit for the Heart. Fishing out the relic that had been the start of this entire adventure from the leather satchel he carried everywhere, he handed the Heart to Chris.

"It's a good thing we brought it," JD declared.

"It's been used to open everything else so far," Orin agreed. "It doesn't surprise me it's needed here too."

"Okay," Chris said preparing to put the Heart into place, "everyone, hold back. Considering all the surprises so far, I don't want us to get caught unawares now that we're getting close to this thing."

The unanimous agreement that this was good advice made everyone retreat a step or two backward, all except for Vin who had no intention of abandoning Chris under any circumstances. The leader of the seven looked over his shoulder and saw the sharpshooter's challenge to order him back if he dared and decided against it. Facing the lock again, Chris didn't realize he was holding his breath when he placed the Heart in its groove and turned it.

The soft cracking of fire was suddenly eclipsed by unseen tumblers locking into place, creating the clang of metal reverberating throughout the chamber. Throughout the room, they could hear the mechanism groaning into movement, shaking off centuries of inactivity to carry out its only purpose. In front of them, the doors jolted into motion, shaking lost some dust from their edges and forcing everyone to take another instinctive step back. Then with a low squeak, they swung open inwardly.

The smaller chamber it revealed was nowhere as large as the one they were in. If anything it was no bigger than a modestly sized bedroom. However, there was no doubting its importance. Every inch of wall was plated in gold. Chris thought absurdly if Ezra was here, they never would get him out with his sanity intact. The gold was engraved with ancient cuneiform and images of Enki and Marduk's epic battle to defeat Tiamat. Like the walls outside, Chris could imagine JD and the Professor already studying them with avid interest. Fortunately, JD's eidetic memory would ensure much of what he saw would be retained for closer examination when they left this place.

The centre of this room was occupied by a pedestal carved from green soapstone. With the cauldron lamps burning brightly and bouncing light off every surface, the pedestal radiated iridescent colours and appeared utterly breathtaking. However, It was nothing compared to the Tablet itself. It lay flat on its back, carved from heliotrope, or bloodstone, as it was more commonly known, with swirls of red against black. The words inscribed upon it was filled with gold and aesthetically, it did look capable of unmaking the world.

"My God," Orin exclaimed softly. "It's here. It's really here."

Chris supposed for Orin, this was the culmination of a lifetime of worry and secrecy, the final act of a play that began almost forty years ago by four friends who thought they were embarking on an adventure, only to have it rule their lives forever. Chris exchanged a glance at both Vin and JD, reaching a unanimous decision in their silence.

"Orin," Chris stepped back. "Go ahead, take it."

Orin Travis shot Chris a look, one filled with a gamut of bittersweet emotions. He stared at the Tablet and wished more than anything his friends were here to share the moment, especially William. William had understood the Tablet better than all of them and deserved to be here even more than him.

"Thank you, Chris," the older man said, trying to hide the emotion in his voice. Like Chris, he did not express them often and his display of it now revealed how much he was affected.

"Do it for my father Orin," Alex added gently. "He would have wanted you too."

Her eyes glistened with moisture then, thinking as Orin was thinking, how William Styles ought to have been present and felt Mary's fingers in hers, squeezing them tight, offering her a smile of support.

Orin nodded and reached for the Tablet. He picked up the object and marvelled at how this place could exist here, seemingly in a vacuum of space, unaffected by time. The stone felt cool to the touch and sent a slight buzz through his fingertips as if it were lightly charged by some unknown power.

Lifting it up from its surface, he had no more than a moment to reflect upon it when suddenly another loud mechanism was heard and the pedestal started to retreat into the floor. As it descended into a shaft beneath its base, a tremor rumbled through the building, not unlike an earthquake. Trails of dust began to drift to the marble floor and the cauldron lamps shook on their clawed legs, spilling oil across the ground. It coincided with the gold-plated panels against the walls falling away and allowing a deluge of white sand to start flowing into the room.

"Oh, I just knew this was too easy...." Alex groaned, wondering if this nightmare would ever end.

"Orin, give JD the Tablet!" Chris ordered. " Everyone else, head for the door!"

The Professor immediately handed the artifact to the younger man, who promptly slid it into his satchel, just in time to hear the cauldrons tipping over, their flame extinguished by the wave of sand quickly swallowing them up in its depths. Vin had grabbed both Mary and Alex by the arm and was leading them to the doors and down the stairs. Chris made sure he did the same for Orin as they fled the rapidly filling chamber, the white grains chasing them down the steps once they passed through the doors.

When they entered the large chamber again, the situation was no better. Sand was beginning to pour through newly formed gaps in the tiles, quickly covering the marble floor. The tremors were growing even more violent, causing the statues standing guard over the Tablet's inner chamber to rock dangerously back and forth. As Vin, Alex and Mary ran through it, the statue of Marduk started to tip giving Chris, JD, and Orin only a precious few seconds to cross over before it collapsed entirely.

Chris saw a piece of the ceiling break free, to shatter a few inches away from Mary and let out of sigh of relief as Vin pulled her safely out of its path. For his part, Chris kept a firm grip on Orin as they raced at top speed down the steps with JD a few paces ahead before the statue crashed onto the steps, barring their way. He could hear the older man's panting and hoped it would not do him permanent harm running this way, but there was really nothing for it.

They crossed over just as the statue smashed against the steps, destroying itself and the staircase it landed on. Large chunks of broken marble chased them across the floor as columns shifted on their bases, threatening to fall. More and more sand was filling up the room and it appeared as if Enki himself had decided once its purpose was done as the receptacle of the Tablet, it should be swallowed up by the desert again. The six adventurers ran towards the small doorway bringing them into this chamber when it had been projecting its illusion of a vast sea.

It didn't take them long to reach the doorway, even though when they passed through it, the quaking stopped. Still, the flow of sand spilled through to the next chamber where the group had battled the mummified corpses. Except this time, the corpses remained against the wall, unmoving and oblivious to them as the day they had been interred there thousands of years ago.

As the deluge filled up the chamber and pushed the adventurers to the surface, Chris could only think that Enki was finally claiming Eridu for himself again.

+ + + + + + +

Chris knew the instant he stepped into the sunlight, something was wrong.

Emerging first, followed by Vin, he had no sooner stepped out of the deepened staircase leading to the top of Eridu when he froze in his tracks. Ezra. Buck, Josiah, and Nathan were just beyond the steps, kneeling on the ground, their arms folded behind their heads, with Erran cultists aimed their guns at them with every intention of shooting them dead if they did not comply. Turning his head, Chris saw they were surrounded by the Erran in the dozens and knew any attempt to resist was going to get them all killed.

Stepping to the front, flanked by the large henchman called Krestos, and the dark-haired siren who nearly killed him at the Museum, Adashir Shah stepped forward.

"Mr Larabee, how nice to finally meet you," the man said with the supreme confidence of his power over them all. "I believe you have something that belongs to me."

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR: RITUAL

It was strange how the best things in life could move with such speed, one could get whiplash trying to see through the blur while the worst things slowed down as if making some effort to ensure the experience was endured with agonizing clarity.

Such was the case when Chris Larabee and his companions emerged from the depths of Eridu to be confronted by Adashir Shah and his Erran. It took but a second for Chris to process how things had played out when he saw his friends, Ezra, Buck, Nathan and Josiah, forced to their knees and guarded by the Erran, before he, Vin, JD and Orin were forced into the same position beside them. Judging by the amount of Erran surrounding them and the number of bullet holes riddling every surface he could see, it was clear his men had put up a good fight before they were overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

In truth, this had been a possibility looming in Chris's mind ever since they landed in Riyadh. Mary might not be exaggerating the reach of the Erran and they did indeed have contacts in key positions across the city, preventing the Seven from sneaking into Eridu without notice. He supposed it mattered little now, the Erran were here and thanks to Chris not heeding Vin's warning about what it would take to stop these fanatics, the Tablet was now in their hands.

Not just the Tablet, but also the two daughters of the men who had first uncovered the Four Pillars.

It took every ounce of control Chris had to hold his temper when he saw Alex and Mary being separated from them, dragged fighting and kicking away by the Erran. One if not both of the women were needed to conduct the ritual of Uncreation, a ritual the Erran had every intention of performing immediately now the pieces they needed for its completion were finally within reach. Not that it kept the Shah, as Chris heard him being referred to by his followers, from extracting his pound of flesh from the men who caused him so much trouble since the night at the museum.

"You have the Tablet!" Orin spoke up, perfectly aware it was a useless effort, but compelled to make it because his and William Styles's worst nightmare was unfolding before his very eyes. Not only was the Tablet in the hands of those who would use its power for evil, but the lives of their daughters were now terribly connected to its fate. "Let the girls go."

Shah, who was flanked by his sister and his henchman Krestos, stared at Orin for a second before bursting into laughter.

"You must be joking. You know the ritual as well as I do, I am certain. If not better," he gave JD a look of pure contempt, his ire at being tricked by the boy still fresh in his mind. "Thanks to Mr Dunne here. You know that the ladies are required for Tiamat to make her entrance into the world. This one," he walked over to Alex who was being restrained by an arm around her throat and waist, "will suit the Goddess well."

"GET YOUR GODDAMN HANDS OFF HER!" Vin growled, eliciting the response Chris was certain the Shah was aiming for. No doubt the man was still smarting from being chased out of the Styles's home by Vin during his rescue of Alex. No sooner than the sharpshooter had spoken, he was struck on the back of the head by the Erran standing closest to him. As Vin was thrown face first into the ground the rest of the seven reacted in kind, their rage rippling through them as they were forced to watch helplessly, held at bay by the guns pointed at them.

"Don't hurt him!" Alex pleaded despite the arm pressing against her windpipe, the fear in her eyes as she saw Vin's assault, revealing to the men present the true depths of her feelings for Vin Tanner. "I'll do what you want! Just please, stop!"

Vin raised his eyes to Alex, an expression of anguish crossing his face because he had promised to keep her safe and now he was powerless to do anything, as these bastards prepared to use her for God only knew what. Since meeting her on top of that roof at the museum, Vin knew he was lost. The minute she told him he could stay, he had known subconsciously, she was the one he was waiting for all his life and now he was about to lose her without being able to do a damn thing about it.

"I don't blame you for your passion Mr Tanner," Shah remarked approaching Alex while relishing the emotion being traded by the two which made his vengeance all the sweeter. Running his fingers down Alex's tear-stained cheeks, she flinched at the contact and sent a surge of fury through every member of the seven, seeing the way she was being touched against her will. Shah's fingers traced a line down her neck and down her breast, perfectly aware it would send Vin Tanner into a rage and give his men the excuse they needed to dole out more punishment to the infidel who had humiliated him.

"Vin, he's just trying to goad you," Chris said to the younger man, who was fairly shaking with rage at the way the man was touching her. His feelings for Alex had displaced his normally unflappable demeanour making him exceedingly unpredictable, enough to throw caution to the winds and get himself killed. "He can't hurt her. He needs her alive."

Vin's blue eyes flashed and Chris could see that was killer rage in the sharpshooter's eyes. When the time came, he suspected Adashir Shah was going to know the full vent of it. Swallowing the bile of anger down his throat, Chris saw Vin nod almost imperceptibly, a promise to keep his head despite the clench fists at his sides showing otherwise.

"She is very beautiful, in fact, they both are. Miss Styles here will be an appropriate offering to Tiamat, a worthy receptacle for a goddess and Miss Travis here," he said turning his eyes to Chris and Orin. "I will keep for myself. A golden-haired trophy for my efforts to remake the world."

"I'll kill you first," Orin growled and was shoved to the ground with the Shah's laughter ringing in his ears.

Chris, on the other hand, knew if the Shah laid one hand on Mary, it would be the last thing the bastard ever did in this life.

"I'm nobody's trophy and I need a man, not an impotent little boy with delusions of grandeur." Mary snapped, never being able to tolerate such posturing.

Chris winced inwardly, adoring the woman for her moxie, even though he knew what was coming even before she finished the sentence.

The blow came not from the Shah or his men, but from Aisha, no doubt in retaliation for the indignity of her defeat at Mary's hands at the museum. She struck Mary across the face hard enough for the blonde woman's head to snap back. Orin tried to go to his daughter's aid but one of the Erran moved in quick, pressing the barrel of a gun against his temple, making sure he knew the consequences if he made one more move forward.

Once again, he saw the outrage on the faces of the others, as they watched this display with impotent fury. Buck, in particular, could never stand any threat made to a woman and Chris glared at him to be still because they had to bide their time and wait for an opening. All that would happen if they reacted now, would be to get themselves killed and be no good to either Orin or his daughter.

Mary recovered from the blow with magnificent poise, shaking it off like a dog shaking water off its back. Her eyes met Chris's briefly and even without saying a word, he got her message loud and clear. I'm all right. While it did not assuage Chris's worries for her, particularly since the injury to her cut deeper to the bone than Shah's pathetic posturing, it did give him some comfort knowing she wasn't badly hurt.

Mary faced front again, her chin raised in defiance, not at all cowed by Aisha's violence or Shah's threats. She moved her jaw from side to side as if testing its flexibility before spitting a mouthful of blood right in the woman's face.

While an audible gasp ran through the Erran at the insult to their Amira, a soft snigger move through the seven as Aisha let out a squeal of disgust, when blood and spittle splattered across her cheek. Krestos moved in to strike Mary, his large bulk standing over her like the proverbial beauty and the beast, as he raised his large hand to deliver revenge for the slight to Aisha who was wiping her face with her veil.

"Mary," Chris said sharply, drawing all attention to him. He met her blue-grey eyes and wanted to tell him that he thought she was goddamn perfect for what she did, but her defiance was going to get her killed. "Enough."

Mary was about to respond when she saw his warning for what it was, an impassioned plea not to provoke them any further because any harm to her would cause Orin to react strongly and most likely get her father killed. She saw Aisha's eyes blazing in fury about to lash out again and braced herself for it when suddenly the Shah spoke.

"A man who knows how to handle his woman," Shah smirked, more amused by Mary's action despite the slight to his sister. "I'm afraid we cannot dispense with Miss Travis yet, my dear. We may need her if the ritual doesn't work. Once Tiamat is satisfied, she will be a gift to us both."

The answer seemed to satisfy Aisha who looked at Mary and hissed, "I shall take great pleasure in that."

+ + + + + + +

You smash it so it can't be used.

Never had any sentence haunted Chris Larabee as much as the words uttered by Vin Tanner, did right now. Still, in the power of the Erran, surrounded by cultists who would shoot him and his comrades down at first opportunity, Chris could do nothing as they were marched to the middle of the eroded ruins of the ancient city. Thanks to the Shah's need to gloat, they were going to get ringside seats to the ritual about to take place.

They were in the middle of what appeared to be a square, framed by ruined stone constructs which Chris suspected might resemble those at Stonehenge and Rujm el Hiri before time had broken them down. Occupying the middle of this circle as if it was the centre stage for its participants. Chris cursed himself again for not destroying the Tablet while he had the chance, instead of bringing it to the surface where it was now in the hands of the Erran who would make William Styles's worst fears for his daughter a reality.

Vin was standing next to him, his breathing hard, almost in panic because the sharpshooter could do nothing but watch while the girl he cared for, was being used as the sacrifice for their ritual of Uncreation. A ritual that would begin once the Goddess Tiamat was resurrected in Alex Styles's skin.

As it was, seeing Alex stripped off her clothes, wearing a dark shift that clung to her body, her black hair swirling about her in the wind, made her look very much like a receptacle for divine possession. Her wrists were shackled by heavy manacles attached to chains connected by two hooks driven into the ground. With the drums pounding in slow halting beats in the background, Alex didn't look too unlike Fray Wray in that movie about the giant ape.

In the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Mary who was being watched closely by Aisha, who had no intention of letting Orin Travis's daughter out of her clutches. One way or another, the woman intended to have her vengeance on the blonde.

"Chris, this can't be real right?" Buck hissed, staring at the fervour in the eyes of the Erran as the Shah stepped forward, about to begin this insane ritual.

"Of course not!" Chris hissed, refusing to believe this was any more than delusion. He was more worried by the Errans' reaction when the world wasn't uncreated, proving their pursuit of the Tablet was a fool's errand. It was likely all of them, Alex included, would be killed out of sheer spite.

"It don't matter," Vin said icily. "They believe it!"

"Then again," Josiah drawled, taking the opportunity to speak since the Erran were preoccupied with what was happening to allow them to talk without consequence, though not enough to escape. "There might be something to it if they've maintained their faith for so long."

"Surely you do not believe this nonsense is going to result in the remaking of the world?" Ezra exclaimed, staring at the older man in shock as he watched the proceedings in disgust, feeling his southern sensibilities truly provoked at being unable to help the young lady in the centre of all this. "It is nothing but fiction! We have travelled the globe for the last four years and not once have we seen anything that proves the existence of a supernatural force behind any of the artifacts we've collected, beyond blind superstition and wishful thinking."

"Belief is a powerful thing," Orin stated, his voice strained because what was happening was something he had never wanted to see. His eyes were fixed on his daughter, who while not intended to be apart of this dark ceremony, would still suffer for his sins. "Will believed it and there's no denying we only had daughters and no other, after that one child. That may not be a coincidence."

Vin listened to none of this because he was staring at Alex, wanting to break free but knowing if he made one move towards her, he'd be dead before he could even finish the thought. After all the trouble they caused, Vin had no doubt the cultist were waiting for an excuse to end them once and for all, now the Erran were within reach of their goal. Alex was struggling to escape, trying to squeeze her wrists free of those cruel shackles, her eyes meeting his in fear, pleading for help even though she knew he was just as trapped as she.

There was something else, he realised then. The fear in her eyes that this ritual might be as real as the Erran were claiming, that despite the refusal of her logical mind to believe any of this, the possibility that Tiamat may actually claim her soul, was starting to impress itself upon her mind.

"We gotta stop this Chris," Vin said suddenly, anxiety dripping from every word. "We gotta stop this before..." Before what? The possibility was too unbelievable and yet Vin found himself on the cusp of belief as he questioned what exactly did he mean. What would happen? Was Alex actually going to become the receptacle for Tiamat? It was crazy!

Anything he was going to say next was silenced by the Shah finally stepping up to address his followers. Even the drum beating in the background had paused, giving Shah everyone's undivided attention, his captives included. Behind him, Aisha had stepped forward, holding the Heart in her hands, now fashioned into some kind of necklace with a leather cord, which she promptly slipped over Alex's head to be worn around her neck.

"It has been a long road my brothers," Shah addressed them all and though Chris could still feel the barrel of a gun pressed against his spine, his guard, like all the other Erran, made themselves heard in a rumble of agreement that moved through the crowd like a dissonant wave.

"We have waited since the beginning of history to return Tiamat to her rightful place, to have her rise and destroy the infidels who have taken over the world, denying prosperity to all but a select few. Infidels have crushed our spirits, kept us silent while forcing us to accept the truth of their jealous god, who would have us bow to no other, for fear of death. Well, we will now show them a true god, one who created the world and the stars, before she was wrongfully struck down. Tiamat, will rise in the flesh and walk amongst us again," he looked at Alex.

"YOU'RE INSANE!" Alex shouted, her nerve finally failing her. She had tried not to buy into this nonsense but the fervour she saw in the eyes of her captors was making her believe it was more than her life she was about to lose, but her soul as well.

"Fear not," the Shah walked back to her smiling, "your pain will disappear. Your doubts will vanish. When Tiamat takes you, you will be the mother of all, the Queen of Forever."

"Alex!" Vin called out to her, trying to will her his strength even if he could do nothing else. "It's gonna be okay! Just look at me darlin'. Just look at me!"

It was breaking him inside to see her terror, even if they still had trouble accepting that Tiamat might be coming down to possess her. Yet there was no doubt in either of their minds, something terrible was about to happen.

Alex could feel it pressing down on her, making her feel like the sands of her life were running out. She stared at him, thinking about how perfect their first meeting had been, how he had chased away the despair threatening to overwhelm her in the wake of her father's death. Whatever happened, she wanted him to know that, wanted him to remember what they could have been to each other.

"Whatever happens Vin, I'll never forget what it was like to share Sugar babies with you on that roof."

"Me neither Darlin'" Vin replied, ignoring the fact they were being watched even though he was certain the Shah was watching their exchange with smug relish.

Chris saw Vin's anguish and gritted his teeth, feeling his senses damn near overload from the fury at being unable to do anything to stop this...whatever it was...from happening. He didn't have to look at the others to know they were similarly furious while the pain on Orin's face was indescribable, just as the sorrow on Mary's face at what was happening was reflected in her blue-grey eyes. Once again, Chris cursed himself at not destroying the Tablet when he had the chance because now it was going to rip Alex's soul from her.

Even as his mind railed against the impossibility of it, something in the last few seconds had started to feel very real about the Shah's belief in the Tablet.

"You never know Mr Tanner," the Shah said almost grinning. "Tiamat may need a consort."

"Go to hell!" Vin barked and this time he did move, but before he could take a step forward, was struck against the back of his head once more. This time the tracker did hit the dirt and the look of triumph on the Shah's face made Chris swear to kill the bastard himself, no matter how this turned out. If the world was going to be uncreated, Chris Larabee was going to make damn certain the Shah never got to enjoy it.

"Vin!" Alex cried out. "I said I'll do what you want! Don't hurt him!"

The Shah ignored her, throwing a smile at his sister and Krestos respectively, before lowering his eyes to the Tablet in his hands and beginning to read the gold inscribed words that had waited for four millennia to be recited.

"GEMEGANZA OD CNILA GEMEGANZA NOSTOAH OIAD OL OIAD LONCHO GEMEGANZA. GAHA OIAD NANAEEL OL!"

"What's he saying?" Nathan asked no one in particular.

While both JD and Orin were listening carefully, it was JD who made the translation.

"Great Tiamat, Creator Goddess, this is your legacy to the world, your instrument of creation, use its strength and return from your place of exile. Ride the winds that took you from us and be whole again."

As he said those words, the sun which had been shining glaringly overhead in disapproval, suddenly vanished behind thick, heavy clouds that seemed to appear in the sky out of nowhere. Chris had to blink at the sight of them because he distinctly remembered seeing it blue and cloudless only a few seconds ago. Now all traces of it had vanished, concealed by heavy, pregnant clouds that promised a storm of some intensity when it arrived.

No sooner than the overcast sky was registered, he heard the whistle of a strong wind dragging the sand across the dunes as if someone were pulling the covers over the desert. The powerful winds began tugging on their robes, causing it to billow and Chris caught sight of Buck's eyes and saw the puzzlement on the face of his old friend. He could well understand why. As a pilot, Buck had a better sense of the weather than anyone in the Seven and he could tell that this sudden change disturbed him.

"What is it?" Chris hissed.

"I don't know," Buck shook his head. "But this don't feel right."

In the background, the Shah continued to recite the ritual, his voice growing louder and more fevered, the more he read. "OBZA OIAD OL TELOC OL GEMEGANZA LOAGAETH MAD OD COMMAH OIAD NOSTOAH one. NANAEEL GEMEGANZA NOASMI AG NOSTOAH CORSI IP NANAEEL. OD NOROMI IP OL BRGDO CRCRG OL!"

"Come to us from the Vault of Heaven, from the stars in the cloudless sky and from the blood of the great twin rivers, we call to you oh Tiamat! Come and be whole again, come and take your place as Queen of the Universe. Mother Creator!"

A bolt of lightning flashed across the dark sky behind Alex, creating spidery tendrils of blue against the grey cumulus. It was followed by a sharp crack of thunder that made Alex stiffen where she stood, her spine suddenly becoming ramrod straight. The wind was blowing harder and the shadows caused by the overcast sky, surrounded Alex like a shroud until her golden skin seemed almost black and only her eyes could be seen. Except they weren't the soft, brown pool that so captured Vin Tanner's heart.

Now they were totally white, without irises.

"Jesus Christ..." Vin hissed.

She wasn't listening. The fear and sorrow in her face had melted away and her expression was one of vacancy. She held out her arms as if waiting to receive something unseen and the shadows swirling around her felt almost alive, like dark tongues of black that coiled around her arms and around her waist. Her hair was blowing in the wind, the strands taking on a life of their own and being shaped into something that seemed ominous and terrible.

"What's happening to her!?" Buck demanded, unable to comprehend what he was seeing.

"It's taking her!" Vin started to get up but the Erran behind him forced him back into place. "Tiamat is taking her!"

Hearing the name, Alex's eyes moved in his direction briefly but if she recognised him, she did not indicate it. Instead, her chin jerked up suddenly, her white eyes staring into the sky above. The Shah was still reciting his words, invoking the power of the Tablet as the clouds above them opened up, revealing not the blue sky, but a vortex of black spewing out flecks of diamond dust whose shape bore the resemblance to a dragon.

"She comes." Shah laughed. "Tiamat is coming!"

Then suddenly, without warning, the loud crack of a gunshot was heard and the skull of Adashir Shah, a descendant of Sassanid king Adashir the First, exploded.

+ + + + + + +

"There," the woman lowered the Russian Mosin–Nagant sniper rifle and did not need to use her binoculars to know she made the shot. "That ought to give Mr Larabee some room to maneuver."

"You think that will do it, Miss?" Captain Francis Riley who was observing the aftermath of the shot through the telescopic sight of his own rifle, asked even though he had to admit, she was a bloody good shot.

"Yes," Julia Pemberton replied, getting to her feet before she dusted the sand off her breeches. "I think that will satisfy my account with the Shah's father very nicely."

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE:

TIAMAT

Chris didn't believe in divine intervention but when the Shah's head exploded, spraying blood and meat across Aisha and Krestos, Chris was ready to believe in God.

And damn if he didn't love the Almighty's methods.

A split second after the gunshot, which both Chris and Vin recognized immediately as one fired by a rifle, had a chance to fade away, the roar of the wind and the thunderclaps bursting like artillery shells, was temporarily eclipsed by Aisha's hysterical scream as she watched her brother sink to his knees. Shock and horror gripped the Erran as they watched their leader collapse to the ground, half his face missing, while his sister ran to his side anguished. Krestos was still staring at the grisly scene in stupefied shock, no longer noticing the ritual set in motion by what now appeared to be Adashir Shah's last words, was still continuing without him.

Alexandra Styles was oblivious to the unexpected wrinkle in her circumstances. She was staring up at the sky, looking into that black hole beyond the clouds, awaiting the arrival of whatever power was descending upon her like a spectral dragon about to consume her. Her lips were moving, continuing to recite the words that the Shah had been unable to complete. She appeared almost exultant as if welcoming the beast about to descend upon her.

"COMMAH OIAD NOSTOAH NANAEEL GEMEGANZA NOASMI AG NOSTOAH CORSI IP NANAEEL. OD NOROMI IP OL BRGDO CRCRG!"

It was only when the second rifle shot rang out, dropping another Erran, this one standing next to Krestos, who had obviously been the target, was when all hell broke loose. It was followed by another, in rapid succession by a third shot and this sent the entire area into complete pandemonium. Aisha was still kneeling at her brother's side, wailing in sorrow at his death, her robes covered in the Shah's blood. Krestos was shouting at the Erran, telling them to get cover even as another shot caused another one of his men to die where they were standing.

Taking advantage of the confusion gripping the Erran behind him as Krestos barked at the scattering Erran to locate their leader's killer, Chris Larabee decided the moment to escape was now.

Swinging around while the man who had a gun to his back was distracted, Chris twisted sharply and caught the hand holding the weapon. When the Erran saw what was happening, he instinctively pulled the trigger. Chris shoved his hand aside before the bullet was discharged, sending it into the Erran guarding Buck. The pilot reacted immediately, snapping his head back hard and connecting with the face behind it, even as its owner was reeling in pain from the bullet. Buck spun around and snatched the weapon from his hand before turning his attention to the other Erran guarding his friends.

As the man took aim to fire, JD threw himself back and slammed his body into the man's side, forcing him to pull the trigger and sending his shot wide. Cursing, the Erran was about to react before Buck promptly put a bullet in the man's skull and ended the son of a bitch before he could harm JD who just risked his life for Buck.

The latest shot from the high-powered rifle brought down another Erran and it appeared whoever was firing the shots were picking targets at random. In the same way, Vin laid cover fire to provide them with a distraction whenever they got into trouble, their mysterious ally was out there putting down the Erran was performing the same service for them now. Whoever their guardian angel was, Chris was not about to argue because, with each Erran dropping to the ground, the rest were driven further into panic.

Meanwhile, the rest of the seven were utilising the distraction provided most effectively. Josiah had gotten the upper hand with the Erran closest to him and was presently driving the man into a wall, forcing him to relinquish his gun. The weapon fell harmless against the hard, baked sand as Josiah repeated the action a second and a third time before the collision knocked him out cold and left a smear of blood against the rock. Picking up the weapon quickly, Josiah stepped over the body and went to seek out the rest of his friends.

Ezra was in the process of wrestling with his Erran assailant, elbowing the throat of the man he was fighting, cutting off the air from his lungs and distracting him long enough to wrestle away his gun. As the enemy clutched his throat, Ezra put him down for good and went to assist Nathan who was on the floor, rolling around with an Erran whose gun was out of reach but not the blade he was preparing to drive into the healer's stomach. However, when it came to knives, Nathan had no peer. Wrenching the dagger out of the man's grip, Nathan drove the blade through the soft flesh of the man's chin and ended him there and then.

And then there was Vin.

Vin Tanner was only focussed on one thing and that was what was still taking place in the middle of the square. Almost as if she was existing in a vacuum, completely oblivious to the carnage taking place around her, Alex was continuing the ritual even though the Shah was dead. Vin did not know what it was that was in that shower of silver descending upon her, the one that was shaped like some kind of dragon, but he knew if it reached her, without understanding how he could be so certain, it would be too late. Not just for Alex, but for all of them.

Rushing forward, he ignored the sound of gunfire coming from behind him, no doubt the result of Chris and the others getting loose or the sniper fire of someone who was apparently watching their backs. Whoever it was, Vin would like to buy them a drink, if they lived through this that is. Aisha was still sobbing with the Shah's body in her arms and if the bastard didn't completely deserve getting his brains blown out across the dirt, he might have felt sympathy for her but right now, all he could see was Alex.

"Alex!" Vin called her name but she was no longer registering him or anything else taking place around her.

Throughout the pandemonium of gunfire and bullets, the gusty wind and the claps of thunder had not abated. If anything they had intensified, making Vin think he was in the war, running through the ruined landscape in France, with artillery exploding around him and bodies lying everywhere as German and Allied guns attempted to annihilate each other. Yet Vin knew that was just a war, what would happen if this thing possessed Alex may well mean the end of everything.

"Alex!" He called out as he reached her, grabbing her arm so she would notice he was there.

She swept him aside with a backhanded blow hard enough to send him sprawling. Vin was almost airborne after she struck him and he landed a few feet away from her, gaping in astonishment as she continued to recite those terrible words he couldn't understand but oozed menace. The cloud was descending even faster, and though he was certain he was imagining it, he almost saw the silhouette of some great beast, flapping its wide, webbed wings as it slowly closed in on her.

Like Vin, JD's attention was fixed on what was happening to Alex, aware from his studies of William Styles's research, that the gunfight taking place around them was the least of their troubles. He did not know if the world was really going to uncreate but what was taking place around them was making a rather compelling argument for it. The sky was indeed opening up and whatever that shape approaching Alex was, he knew it had to be stopped and it had to be stopped now.

"Buck I gotta go help, Vin!" JD told the big man. "She's coming and we've gotta stop it!"

"Who's coming!" Buck asked as he shot another Erran from behind the wall they were taking refuge.

"Tiamat!" JD pointed to Alex, who had just swatted Vin away like a fly. "She's coming to take Alex. The minute she does, she'll be unstoppable! We can't let that happen!"

Buck was about to tell the kid he was crazy, that this was a whole load of hooey, but then he put the pieces together of everything they had seen since the Shah began reading from the Tablet. Hell, he didn't know if the world was about to end or not, but there were way too many ladies he had yet to meet for that idea to be palatable. Besides, JD was smarter than all of them put together, even if the kid was young. If the JD said there was a reason to worry, Buck was going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"GO!" Buck ordered. "I'll cover you!"

JD nodded and waited as Buck lay down the cover fire needed and rushed into the fray, hoping to hell they could stop a god from coming to earth.

+ + + + + + +

When Chris saw Vin heading towards Alexandra Styles, it prompted him into seeking out Mary Travis now that things had gone to hell. It didn't take him long to find the golden-haired beauty in the scattering of red robes and gunfire. The Erran guard who had been restraining her was discovering just how tenacious and difficult the woman could be when one let one's guard down.

Welcome to my world, pal, Chris thought.

From his refuge behind a crumbling rock wall, he saw the gun carried by the Erran sail across the ground after Mary managed to get the drop on him by promptly kicking the weapon out of his hands. Not giving him enough time to go for the blade whose hilt was so obviously sticking out of his belt, she completed the maneuver with a roundhouse kick that had her spinning on heels like a dancer, before laying the guy out flat on his back.

He was about to go after her when suddenly he caught sight of Vin flying across the ground. The sharpshooter landed hard as Chris tried to unravel what he had seen. It took only a second for him to realise it was Alex who had done that to him and as Vin scrambled to his feet attempting to deal with the situation, he heard Orin Travis shouting after him.

"Chris!" The older man was crouched behind a jagged column, shielded from the bullets and the dust storm created by the strange forces surrounding the Tablet. Although Chris's first instincts had been to go to Mary, the truth was his conditioning to obey Orin was simply too strong. Keeping his head down, Chris narrowed the gap between them and was soon at his former commander's side

"You have to get Mary!" The professor shouted over the gale. "I'm going after the Tablet!"

"Why?" Chris shouted, having thought the best way to help Alex was to get rid of the Heart worn around her neck. Still, truth be told, this whole situation was so far out of his experience, he wasn't certain if it was entirely the right thing to do.

"Because Alex is connected to the Tablet!" Orin explained hastily. "To it and through it, Tiamat!"

Once again, Chris fought the urge to dismiss this whole thing as superstitious nonsense, but the impossible was unfolding in front of his eyes and he knew he had to accept it if he wanted to stop what was happening. Something was emerging from that black vortex from the sky, something with shape and substance, moving on its own power towards Alex, who was no longer fighting its approach but was caught in a trance that seemed to be inviting it in. This was beyond his understanding but it didn't matter, Orin was right. The Tablet was the key.

"How do we stop it?" Chris asked, discarding the last of his doubts the goddess was indeed on her way and with her arrival, the end of everything they knew would not be far behind.

"The Tablet has to be destroyed!" Orin stated, echoing the action Vin had wanted to take from the beginning. As it was, the sharpshooter was attempting to reach his girl with little success. "The link between them has to be broken. The Tablet was created by Tiamat and its how she's going to ride her way into Alex!"

Chris could well believe it. Alex was staring up at the heavens, the whites of her eyes only visible now as she held out her shackled hands as if she were about to welcome an old friend. Like Vin, Chris knew it that happened, they would lose her for good and then nothing would matter because Tiamat's day would have arrived.

And the Uncreation would begin.

+ + + + + + +

Aisha was numb.

She held Dash's body in her arms, trying to comprehend how this corpse with its half face, was her brother. One side of his head was a ruined mess of flesh and bone while the other still retained his beauty. She knelt on the ground, still soaked in his blood, trapped in the disbelief at how the moment of their triumph could go so completely wrong. Sparing a brief glance across the ancient square, Aisha surveyed the situation and saw the Erran were still scattering to avoid the unknown assailant cutting them down. Equally bad was the escape of the seven men who had caused them such inconvenience.

"I will make them pay," she swore under her breath. "I will make certain the Goddess makes them all BURN!!"

She saw the lover of William Styles's daughter making some futile attempt to reach her, although by now the link between her and Tiamat made that impossible. Even now, Aisha saw Tiamat's imminent arrival, saw her beating wings in the sky above and knew when the Goddess came, she would remake the world. Understanding struck Aisha at that instant with the intensity of the lightning flashes in the sky above her. The power of it left her gasping at the possibilities.

Tiamat could bring Dash back! If she could uncreate the world for a new one, she could bring back Dash, her most loyal servant. Surely, what they had gone through to shepherd her return to the world deserved a reward! Yes, Tiamat could bring Dash back!

This realization coincided with the observation one of the seven, the boy, was making a run for the Tablet. It took her but a second to discern what he was going to do and Aisha would not have it. The Tablet was Dash's best hope of survival, she would let nothing stop Tiamat's arrival Releasing her brother's body and uttering a soft sob when she saw him roll off her lap into the blood-soaked sand, Aisha allowed her anguish fuel her actions next.

If the boy tried to stop the ritual Aisha was going to kill him.

+ + + + + + +

With the wind lashing at her blond hair, Mary brushed the strands of gold out of her face as she saw the Erran whom she had knocked flat on his back, get on his feet, his face a mask of outrage at the indignity of having a woman get the better of him. Flashing her a set of yellowed teeth that gave Mary the immediate urge to floss, she looked around for a weapon as he brandished the cruel looking jambia, ready to use it on her.

"I will gut you like a fish!" He swore at her and stabbed the point at her, forcing Mary to jump back in an effort to avoid the weapon. She knew the smart thing to do would be to run but there were too many bullets crisscrossing the square right now and she had been trying to reach Alex, who was caught in a supernatural nightmare with no help in sight.

Mary and Alex had grown up together and were practically sisters. Although they lived in separate cities, they still maintained a close relationship which was difficult to do, given Mary's nomadic lifestyle as a journalist.

Somehow Mary had to get past this chauvinistic buffoon to help her.

"I hope you do that better than you fight!" She shouted, dropping to her knees to avoid his latest swipe and scrambled away when suddenly, Chris Larabee appeared out of nowhere and brought the butt of his gun against the back of the man's skull. He tumbled forward, uttering a short shriek when he landed. As he rolled onto his back, Mary saw he had inadvertently impaled himself on his jambia and become his own killer.

"I softened him up for you," Mary looked up to see Chris offering her his hand.

"Yeah, I could tell," Chris remarked as he pulled her up, wearing his usual sardonic expression but in truth, he was relieved to see she was alright and also a little proud at how magnificently she had held her own with the son of a bitch bleeding at their feet. When another bullet exploded too close to his ear, Chris flinched and quickly grabbed her arm so they could get moving.

"Come on, we need to get you to cover!"

"To hell with that," Mary snapped. "We have to help Alex!"

Without giving him a chance to debate the matter, she darted past him, hurrying towards trouble, leaving Chris cursing after her and wondering to himself, how she had become the tiger he had caught by the tail.

+ + + + + + +

The Tablet had flown out of the Shah's hand when he was shot, landing face up in the sand. As JD Dunne approached it, he saw the golden words gleaming with some hidden power and knew that it was Tiamat's approach making it glow. Keeping his head down amidst the gunfire, he knew Buck was covering him as he closed the distance. Vin was on the ground again, suffering another blow from Alex after his efforts to coax her back to herself had failed. Vin didn't understand Alex wasn't in charge anymore.

"VIN!" JD shouted at the man as he continued towards the Tablet, hoping to stop Vin from making any more futile attempts to reach Alex. "She can't hear you anymore! The Tablet's the only way to get her back."

From where he was, JD saw Vin's eyes flash in understanding before he returned his attention to the Tablet, still lying in the sand where the Shah had dropped it. As he closed in on the artifact, he saw the Shah's sister heading for it too, and judging by the glare she sent him, she had no intention of letting him get to it first. Refusing to let her beat him to the Tablet, JD sprinted forward, ignoring the danger to himself because if she got her hands on it, Alexandra Styles fate would be sealed and JD cared too much for Vin to see him devastated.

However, when he passed the Shah's dead body, it occurred to him Aisha might have stakes almost as high, invested in the Tablet. With it, she might have a chance at resurrecting her dead brother.

JD skidded to the ground, even as bullets riddled the dirt and broken ruins around him, trailed by the same cloud that followed a runner sliding into home plate. As he did so, he snatched up the Tablet before coming to a stop, with the weight of the thing slowing him down quickly. It seemed to vibrate against him as if charged by power. Unfortunately, JD did not have much time to ponder this because when he looked up, he saw Aisha looming over him. She appeared almost savage, covered in her brother's fresh blood.

"GIVE ME THAT!" She demanded but the words sounded like the angry snarl of an animal.

"Sorry ma'am," JD replied rolling onto his knees. "I plan on finishing college and you uncreating the world is just gonna mess that up!"

"Infidel!" She cursed and rushed at JD, jabbing the blade in his direction.

JD blocked the strike with the tablet, feeling the customary shudder that came with the sound of metal chinking against stone. However, the woman was a hellion and she apparently knew how to wield a knife because she recovered far quicker than JD gave her credit and struck again. This time JD could not avoid the blade and felt it sink into his side. He uttered a cry of pain and felt warm blood spilling down his hip, soaking his shirt. The metallic smell almost made him gag but JD was not letting go of the Tablet.

"JD!" Vin cried out, seeing JD stagger, even though the kid had somehow remained on his feet and was continuing to keep his grip on the Tablet but he was hurt bad and Vin could see it even as he closed in on them. The woman, aware she had dealt a crippling blow, moved in to finish her victory with a kill. Vin was going to deny her that. Ignoring the fact he was dealing with a woman, Vin slammed into her like a linebacker. He heard her utter a cry of indignation as he tackled her to the ground, the knife still in her grip.

As Vin wrestled with the woman, JD grit his teeth and ignored the pain, his hand still clutching the Tablet, while the other was holding his side, trying to ease the blood flow he knew pulsing out of his wound. It didn't matter, he told himself. No one was getting their hands on the Tablet, not when the stakes were as high as they were. So many had died because of this thing already, he wasn't about to let another person end up the same way.

Even if the last life it took was his.

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX: ENTROPY

Even as he was holding down the Shah's sister, trying to keep her from gutting him with that knife of hers, Vin was more interested in where JD had gone.

Despite the somewhat frenzied struggles of the woman beneath him, Vin was used to going hand to hand with Indians who were a hell of a lot more challenge than this fanatic with her fancy knife. He was trying to pin her down, but she was fighting him every inch of the way and though he was resisting the urge to take his fists to her, he knew the time was fast dwindling when he had a choice in the matter. Even as she tried to take a bite out of his neck, which he responded to with a hard smack of his forehead against hers, he could see the kid stumbling away from the scene, the patch of blood soaking his shirt growing larger by the second.

Something moved in the corner of his eye and Vin had just enough time to glance over his shoulder before he saw the behemoth named Krestos about to bring both fists down on his back. With faster reflexes than the man about to attack him, Vin immediately let go of the woman's hand and rolled off her body. Krestos barely stopped himself from taking Vin's place on top of Aisha as his quarry slipped out of reach. Vin was still on the floor, needing to buy time to get upright. He kicked out his foot, the heel of his boot connecting with the man's ribs hard enough for Vin to hear something crack.

The Erran henchman uttered a groan as he staggered back, providing enough of a gap for Aisha to scramble out from under him and resumed her pursuit of JD again. Unfortunately, Vin was in no position to stop her. As it was, he wasn't even sure he could take this big bastard alone. A brief glance at the shadows closing in on Alex told Vin, he had no choice but to try. If he was going to be any help to her, he had to get past this son of a bitch.

Krestos reeled from the blow but recovered quickly enough. Once he overcame the shock that an unknown enemy had emerged out of nowhere and snatched the Shah away from them at the moment of their greatest triumph, he realized the Amira was now their leader and she was in danger. As he was duty bound to protect her brother, he was more determined to do the same for her because of their personal relationship. While Aisha was living and the Tablet was within reach, the Erran could still fulfil their destiny.

Vin saw the man towering over him and cursed under his breath. Aiming for the throat, it wasn't exactly the fairest way to fight but that chest was almost twice his size and Vin had a feeling, aiming for it was going to do little good. He threw a well-aimed punch but Krestos proved immediately he had reflexes almost as good, despite his size. He caught Vin's fist in his large meaty palm with ease and clenched so hard, Vin knew it wouldn't take much exertion for the man to break his fingers.

Son of a bitch, Vin cursed as Krestos chose to grab his arm and twist hard instead. Vin fairly spun around in mid-air before landing hard on his back. He had no more than a split second to catch his breath from that maneuver when he saw Krestos about to bring down a boot on his sternum. Vin rolled away just in time to avoid having his chest crushed but Krestos was determined to stomp him into the ground and crush him like an insect underfoot.

"Get away from him before I put a bullet in your goddamn head!" Chris Larabee's voice suddenly shouted over the sound of the roaring wind.

Vin knew Chris would never shoot a man in the back without a warning and hoped Krestos had sense enough to comply but even as Krestos started to turn around to face Chris, Vin could see the calculation in his eyes. Before he turned to face Chris, Vin glimpsed the murderous rage in his eyes and knew he was not going to go down without a fight. As he started to turn towards Chris, Vin saw his hand move ever so slightly but it was enough to prompt the sharpshooter to shout a warning.

"Chris watch out!"

Krestos flung a jambia at Chris who pulled the trigger at the same time. While the blade dug into Chris's thigh, the gunshot stuck Krestos in the shoulder, wounding him just as badly. Vin jumped to his feet and leapt onto Krestos's back, locking an arm around the man's throat and held on. He'd once had to break in a particularly testy horse when working at a ranch in Texas and Vin hoped this wasn't going to be as hard.

+ + + + + + +

With blood running down his fingers, now staining his pants, JD saw Aisha coming at him again, now that she was able to escape Vin, who was preoccupied with Krestos. Searching the area, he saw the others busily fighting off the remaining Erran and knew he had no help there. The pain was almost total and JD knew in his present condition, he was in no shape to stop her. However, he was damned if he was going to let her have to let the tablet. Now when he could see Tiamat's spirit about to descend on Alex to take possession of her body. He estimated they had little more than minutes before it was too late.

"Give it to me!" Aisha stalked the boy once more, holding out her jambia like a lioness about to bring down game. She would endure no further delay. Even now, she could see her brother's dead body being covered by the shifting desert sands. If life was to be brought back to him, it had to be done now. "Give it to me and I'll make your death painless! Fight, and I'll carve you up like the pig you are."

Aisha lunged at JD, this time aiming for the young man's chest, aware his hands were too occupied to stop her from killing him. He stepped back instinctively when suddenly Mary Travis came out of the dust storm and caught Aisha's wrist, halting any attempt to impale him with the weapon. Mary followed up the catch with a timely kick to the woman's leg, driving her to her knees. As Mary maintained a vise-like grip of Aisha who was struggling to wrench her arm free, the blond turned to JD.

"JD! Go destroy that thing!" Mary Travis ordered before slamming a palm in Aisha's temple, this time driving her to the ground. "NOW!"

"No!" Aisha screamed when she hit the ground and saw through her daze, the boy staggering away, his clothes stained with blood but still clutching the Tablet tight. She watched him disappear into the growing dust storm taking over the square and headed to the epicentre of the maelstrom. She could no longer see Dash's body and realized he like the tablet was slipping out of reach.

Enraged she scrambled to her feet and faced the blond witch who was keeping her from the Tablet. Still clutching the knife, she glared at Orin Travis's daughter and jabbed the jambia in her direction, determined to slice the woman's belly open. "You have interfered in my affairs for the last time, infidel whore! I am going to kill you."

"So you say!" Mary retorted and sidestepped the woman 's overextended reach when she thrust the blade in Mary's direction. The blond journalist slammed an elbow against her back, sending her sprawling. Before she could fall, Mary kicked her once more, planting a foot in the small of her back and sent her stumbling out of control. Aisha landed on her knees again. But this time Mary didn't hold back. She kicked the hand holding the blade and sent it flying through the air, disappearing somewhere beyond the cloud of dust circling them.

As soon as the knife disappeared, Mary pulled Aisha to her feet by the shoulders and punched her hard enough to hear bone crunch. This time, when Aisha went down, she stayed there.

+ + + + + + +

Grateful that Miss Travis was dealing with the Shah's sister, JD staggered away from the scene, searching for anything he could use to destroy the Tablet. He couldn't see Chris and Vin anymore, because the storm created by Tiamat's approach had made it damn near impossible to see. He was squinting through the grains of sand threatening to blind him, trying to see where the others were in this maelstrom of dust and wind. All he knew was above him, Tiamat was going to make her arrival.

Two figures appeared through the dust and JD tensed, unable to tell whether they were friend or foe. He had no weapon except the tablet and he was hurt. If they came to steal it from him, JD didn't know if he would be in any position to stop them. Taking a deep breath as they closed in, he resolved himself to fight them, because if he lost the tablet, it wouldn't be the end just for him, it would be the end of everything. He could not bear knowing his failure meant the friends, no the family, he found in the last year, who welcomed him into the fold, would be condemned right along with him.

However, when the shape appeared it wasn't an enemy, it was the one person JD wanted to see most if he was going to leave the mortal coil.

"Jesus Christ! JD!" Buck Wilmington exploded as soon as he realized the stumbling figure through the storm was JD Dunne. When the Professor had gone after the tablet, Buck chose to accompany him, aware that JD had gone after the thing himself and wanted to make sure the kid was alright. Staring at JD now, his shirt and pants soaked in blood, filled Buck with nothing less than raw panic. On top of his voice, Buck bellowed so loudly it might have given Tiamat who was about to make her earthly debut, pause.

"NATHAN! JD'S HURT!"

"Hey Buck," JD let out a deep sigh of relief at seeing both Buck and Orin Travis because it now meant he could rest and let this cup pass from him to another. In a way, it was only appropriate. This whole affair had begun with Orin Travis and his friends all those years ago. It was only right it ought to end with him.

"Hey Professor, you think you can take this thing now? It's getting kind of heavy."

"I imagine it is," Orin spoke, trying to keep the emotion from his voice. If anything were to happen to this boy because of the tablet, Orin would never forgive himself. So many had died already, paying for the sins of his youth. He couldn't bear it if that price also included JD Dunne. "You can rest easy son. You did well. I'll take care of this now."

Through the storm, he saw the familiar silhouette of Nathan Jackson appearing with the remaining members of the seven. The Erran, those who were not dead, were leaderless and in disarray. Orin saw these friends who forged a bond in the trenches of Europe, much like the one he shared with Hank, Donnie, and Will, and prayed they would always be seven. More than anything, he wished at this pivotal moment, he was not the last man standing. A profound sense of sorrow filled him then, along with the knowledge it was time to finish this, not for the sake of Alex or the world, but for the friends who were no longer here.

The kid had handed off the tablet and collapsed in the pilot's arms when Nathan reached them.

"Oh Christ," Nathan exclaimed seeing the state of their youngest member. They had taken from him most of his medical supplies, except what he carried on him, having been deemed during the search by the Erran to be harmless. Yet, seeing all that blood made Nathan fear, it was not nearly enough. "Quick, let me look at him."

As Nathan tended to JD with Buck holding him, Orin Travis knew his own course. "You take care of the boy, I'm going to destroy this thing."

"You ain't going anywhere alone Professor," Buck Wilmington looked up from where he was cradling JD in his arms as Nathan pulled open his bloodied shirt. "Ezra, Josiah go with him."

"I can manage alone..." Orin started to say when Ezra cut him off.

"Professor, you are not going to face this without us. If it were not for you, none of us would be here." Even though he was shouting, Ezra still managed to make his case most eloquently and the impassioned plea, one not customary for him, was affecting. "Resign yourself to the fact you are stuck with us."

"Amen," Josiah said adding his voice to the statement. Without Orin Travis, they would not have each other and their lives would be so much poorer for it. In the war, the man had kept them alive and after it, he had brought them together and gave them the bond they now shared. He was much a part of that brotherhood as any one of the seven and it was time Orin understood that.

Touched by the sentiment, and feeling emotions that were too hard to deal with at present, Orin looked up to the sky and saw the shadow of Tiamat finally upon them.

"Gentlemen, I believe we have a genie to put back in the bottle."

+ + + + + + +

Somewhere in her mind, Alexandra Styles was screaming.

It felt as if she were trapped within a cell of glass, where she could see through her own eyes like one staring out a window but at the same time, her cell was shrinking. Smashing her fists against the barrier, she could do nothing to escape and was forced to witness her doom while being powerless to stop it. Those strange words she could hear being uttered using her voice but were not her own seemed to be the source of it all and even though she covered her mouth with her hand, hoping to silence herself, the words kept coming.

She saw Vin trying to reach her but her pleas to him went unheeded and the thing using her flesh like a suit of clothes, was hurting him. Watching his determination to reach her, no matter how much abuse his body suffered, made her heart break from the sheer pain of it. His love for her and that was what she was seeing in his eyes every time he looked at her, made Alex wish she had said it to him because she surely felt the same.

Now as the walls closed in around her until she was feeling doom press up against her spine, threatening to snuff out her existence for all time perhaps, she knew she was never going to get the chance.

+ + + + + + +

"Good God!" Ezra exclaimed as they reached Alexandra Styles.

The woman standing in the middle of the square was not the young doctor in waiting whom they had come to know just a scant week ago. Gone was any trace of the lady who joked and bantered with Buck, who held her own in a poker game with him, or argued Descarte with Josiah. No longer was she the medical student who treated Nathan like a colleague, or the fellow college student of JD, and she was certainly not the girl who made Vin light up every time she walked in the room.

She was Tiamat.

Her skin was now marked by strange symbols and markings, not unlike those found on the tablet. Golden words were carved into her skin were glowing and all that could be seen of her eyes were the whites. Her hair was blowing around her like the serpent coils of a gorgon and her hands were no longer shackled. She was an empty receptacle, Ezra realized, waiting to be filled.

"Professor, I think we are out of time."

Orin nodded and saw Will's worst nightmare unfold before his eyes. Everything his old friend had ever done was to ensure their daughters never had to face this fate. Yet here he was now, seeing it about to claim Will's beloved Alexandra. As he stared at the girl, who was looking at him with Willi's eyes but lacking its warmth, there was not an ounce of recognition for any one of them. He had to do something before Tiamat's possession of her body became permanent. Searching the area for what he needed, Orin sighted it after a few seconds and knew if Alex wasn't registering them now, she soon would be.

"There!" Orin pointed and hurried to what he had found, the tablet clutched tightly next to his body.

Ezra followed him while Josiah remained behind to keep an eye on Alex since neither man was reluctant to leave her alone in her present condition or allow Orin to go anywhere on his own. With the storm's momentum at a climax, it was too easy to lose him in this maelstrom. When he caught up to the old scholar, Ezra found Orin standing next to a broken marble column whose jagged edge had been worn down to a slab by the harsh desert wind.

"Here goes nothing," Orin declared as he raised the Tablet over his head and prepared to smash it to pieces.

"Inspiring," Ezra said dryly as the Professor brought down the tablet against the marble.

When the Tablet of Destiny struck the column, it was not the sound of rock against marble that filled their ears but the outraged bellow of a titan from above. Its roar was powerful enough to be heard over the storm and suddenly, Ezra had a feeling Tiamat would be coming for them if they did not conclude this business quickly. The initial impact did not break the tablet as desired but a crack did fissure the golden words across its surface, interrupting the ritual.

"Keep going!" Ezra shouted.

Bringing down the tablet against the marble again, this time, the fracture became more pronounced, as did the howl from above. Whatever was descending upon them was not at all happy by the assault on the ancient artifact. As if responding to the battery, the hurricane surrounding Eridu became more intense, until Ezra could see objects being swept up into the air, guns, blades, a fluttering length of material that could have been an Erran robe. Overhead, the silver-speckled beast, Ezra now thought looked like a dragon was about to swoop down on them like a bird of prey.

Suddenly, through the swirling sand, Ezra saw Josiah being hurled through the air. The former preacher landed a few feet from him, groaning in pain as he landed on his side, before rolling onto his back after the hard impact.

"JOSIAH!" Ezra hurried to his side.

"Whatever you're going to do, you better do it fast!" Josiah grunted certain something had cracked when he hit the ground.

"What do you..."

He had no sooner spoken when he saw Alexandra Styles emerging through the dust. She appeared almost on fire, the inscriptions on her skin were glowing so brightly as if flames were bursting through the flesh. Walking past them, she was striding towards Orin, her fists clenched with an expression on her face that promised nothing less than menace. Without understanding how he was so certain, Ezra knew it was not Alex about to confront the Professor but Tiamat.

Jumping to his feet, Ezra knew he had to intercept her before she reached the older man and stopped him from continuing his assault on the tablet. Sprinting towards her, he reached out to grab her when she lashed out her arm and struck him across the face before he was able to get close enough.

Orin saw Tiamat closing in and knew he was out of time. If the Tablet wasn't destroyed now, the goddess, using Alexandra's body was going to kill him. That she was able to assume this much control on her future vessel without actually taking complete possession of Will's daughter, told him how close she was to achieving her goal. It was now or never. Mustering all the strength he had inside of him and praying Will and the others were with him, Orin Travis raised the Tablet of Destiny into the air above his head one last time.

The tablet smashed against the marble column as if it had dropped from a great height. The sound was like a crack of thunder eclipsing the chaos around them. Orin felt the artifact crumble beneath his fingers as the tablet split in half first and with that one crippling fracture, created fault lines of weakness across the rest of the slab that gave way immediately. Chunks of rock crumbled about his feet and with its destruction, a scream tore through the air.

It did not come from Alex but from whatever it was above them. The wraithlike beast that had been only seconds away from them, reared its serpentine head and opened its jaws to utter a final roar of fury and indignation before it lost cohesion completely. Returning to a formless, silver shower, it was soon drawn towards the vortex from which it had emerged, to begin with. As it retreated, it dragged with it, the canopy of the grey clouds blanketing the sky with darkness. As if howling in protest, thunder boomed impotently before it and the roaring wind faded into nothingness.

The peace that descended lasted only a second before the ground started quaking.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee wished he had a slingshot.

Maybe if he had one, taking down this Goliath in front of him might be a little less painful. The giant who served Adashir Shah so loyally even now was putting one hell of a fight, even though Chris had put a bullet into his shoulder. He'd managed to use Vin who was still attached to the back of him like a man riding a wild stallion, to knock the gun over his hand and forced Chris to go after him hand to hand, even though his leg hurt like hell after the son of a bitch managed to stick him in the thigh with a knife.

Still despite the pain in his leg and Vin's arm locked around the Erran's throat, refusing to be thrown off no matter how hard the man fought, the leader of the seven was able to act. Fortunately, the blade had penetrated the fleshy part of his thigh and Chris knew enough about human anatomy to know he was damned lucky the injury wasn't worse. Despite the man's dogged determination not to yield, his injured shoulder and the lack of oxygen was making Krestos increasingly incapable of fending off the punches Chris was throwing like a jackhammer.

Despite fighting them both like a demon, Chris knew the man was running out of steam. Vin was holding on for dear life, perfectly aware until this Erran was put down, he could not go after Alex. Vin was too loyal a creature to leave him to deal with Krestos on his own. For all their sakes, Chris hoped Orin was able to do what was necessary to help Alex because that spectral image in the sky was awfully close.

Then as if in answer to his prayer, the agonized howl of something terrible shook the air from above. All three men looked up to the sky and saw the silver silhouette disintegrate into a harmless cloud before being sucked into the vortex like poison being drawn from a wound.

"NO!" Krestos cried out in horror, understanding at that moment while he was busy dealing with the two men before him, the rest of these infidels had managed to stop Tiamat's arrival into the world. Worse than that, they had managed to send her back to the void.

"Orin's done it!" Chris shouted at Vin, still wrestling with Krestos. "It's over!"

"NEVER!" Krestos screamed and struggled even harder to break free, determined to reach the Amira and gain her counsel as to what was to be done next. Without the Shah, she now ruled the Erran, what remained of them anyway. The thought no sooner crossed his mind when suddenly, the ground rumbled violently, making both Krestos and the blond infidel stumble.

All three men fell silent for an instant, with Chris recognizing what that tremor meant better than anyone. He spent enough time in California to know what an earthquake felt like and when a fissure appeared a short distance away from them a second later, he knew they were about to have one now. When the ground shook again, Krestos took advantage of the distraction and flipped Vin over his shoulder, finally wrenching the sharpshooter free. Chris barely avoided the collision and searched for his gun when another fissure burst out the ground like the blowhole of a whale, spitting out hot gasses.

Taking advantage of his distraction, Krestos bolted away from the two men and Chris decided neither he nor Vin had the time or the inclination to go after him, not when it appeared Tiamat's banishment back to the netherworld where she had come from, had unforeseen consequences. Limping quickly to Vin, Chris leaned over and grabbed him by the arm, hauling the sharpshooter to his feet.

"Vin! We gotta move! I think this whole place is about to go!"

Vin, shaking the disorientation out of his head, could only think of one thing now he no longer had Krestos to deal with. "We have to get to Alex!"

Both men shifted their gazes to the square, visible now that the storm of sand had disappeared, although they were about to be hit with an equally dangerous calamity. Alex was lying across the dirt, seemingly unconscious with Ezra and Orin nearby. Vin leapt to his feet and sprinted forward, not waiting for Chris who hobbled after him. As they ran across the ground, more fissures appeared and Chris searched the space for Mary and found her near Buck and Nathan, dealing with JD who looked badly hurt.

Resisting the urge to demand how the boy was, Chris knew such questions could wait. Right now, they had to go out of Eridu fast.

"EVERYBODY GET MOVING!" Chris bellowed at them. "WE NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE NOW!"

They needed no further prompt than that, already suspecting as much but Chris's sharp bark got them moving, with Buck and Nathan lifting JD up. Mary met his gaze and quickly saw he was injured. Once again concerned filled her eyes and she crossed the space towards him, ignoring his order and making Chris wonder if it was possible her entire existence on this Earth was dedicated to ignoring every single thing he said.

"You're hurt!" She exclaimed in dismay, her eyes fixed on the blood she could see on his pant leg.

"I'll live!" Chris swore at her in irritation, wanting her to leave with Buck and Nathan. "We've gotta get out of the city. I got a feeling now that the Tablet's gone, it's going to take Eridu with it."

As if to prove his point, another eruption of hot gasses was vented through a new fissure in the rock, making Mary squeal in fright, fear crossing her face as she comprehended the danger and promptly grabbed his arm. "We'll let's get moving then!"

"I can walk on my own!" He grumbled but had to admit the arm she offered was welcomed because it allowed him to take some weight off his injured leg which was stinging like a son of a bitch. Of course, hell would freeze over before he admitted this to her.

"Don't be such a baby!" Mary retorted and started moving forward, ignoring his cursing as she dragged him along.

+ + + + + + +

When he reached Alex, he saw Orin leaning over her and for a moment, despite what was happening around them, with geysers of hot air erupting all across the breadth of Eridu and the ground shaking beneath them, he was never more afraid then seeing her lying on the ground unmoving. For one terrible moment, he thought freedom from Tiamat's possession might mean death and the idea of it was so unimaginable, it made his gut twist in horror and his heart turned to ice in his chest.

"She's alive Vin!" The Professor stated quickly upon seeing Vin and reading the expression on his face before mercifully giving him the answer he needed before Vin descended into despair. "She's unconscious, probably exhausted from whatever she just went through."

Vin's held breath escaped him in a near gasp as the relief flooded his soul. Bolting forward, he skidded to her knees next to her, to get her out of this place. Alex was lying on her side, her dark hair splayed across her face, oblivious to what was taking place around her. He touched her skin and felt its warmth, taking in the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed.

"Thank you," he met Orin's eyes as he slid his arm under her body to pick her up. "Thank you for saving her."

"No thanks needed, son," Orin answered. "I could no sooner sacrifice her than I could Mary. It's the least I could do for Will."

"Well then," Vin said as he lifted Alex off the ground and saw Ezra helping Josiah to his feet. "Let's get the hell out of here."

Orin couldn't argue with that. After long last, he was finally done with the Tablet of Destiny. He hoped wherever they were, Hank, Donnie, and Will could, at last, rest easy.

EPILOGUE:

THE NEW NORMAL

TWO WEEKS LATER

It was odd how things could change so radically in such a short time.

As Ezra Standish reflected upon the events of the past month, he had to admit, even for one as adaptable as him, the number of changes had taken some getting used to. Starting from the last time he and his associates occupied their table at Paloma's to the conclusion of their most recent adventure in Riyadh, it had been a heady number of weeks. Arriving before his associates to conclude a little bit of business with the new majority owner of Paloma's, Ezra couldn't say he was terribly upset at Roberto's heir preferring to remain a silent partner.

In truth, Ezra's only reason for wishing to buy the place was to ensure it stayed the same and the new owner promised him any changes would be slight. It was important to everyone; Roberto's legacy was preserved, and Ezra wholeheartedly agreed. Sitting at their table waiting for the others to arrive, it would be the first time since their return from abroad they would be sharing a drink together. The place was unusually busy, and Ezra wore a faint smile of amusement since he was privy to why this was the case and wondered how his comrades would react when they found out themselves.

Glancing at the door, he saw Josiah stepping into the establishment, appearing better recovered from the injury he sustained at Eridu. They managed to leave the place within seconds of it sinking completely into the desert. While Ezra still had difficulty believing in the supernatural forces that wiped the ancient Sumerian city off the face of the Earth, there was no denying what they witnessed. By the time they had reached a safe distance from the ruins, all that remained of Eridu was a huge crater, smoking with clouds of dust and heat.

There was no sign of the Erran. Those who were not killed during the gunfight were presumably swallowed up by the sinking city or fled when Adashir Shah was killed. The fate of Krestos and the Shah's sister was also a mystery. Mary claimed the woman was alive when the blond left her to find Buck and Nathan, if somewhat unconscious. It did not matter Ezra supposed, whether Aisha Shah escaped Eridu, because if she was alive, Chris Larabee was convinced they would see her again.

Despite all the injuries the seven and their companions sustained, Chris wanted to leave Riyadh immediately. Considering they were at the epicentre of the ancient landmark's destruction, it was possible they might be held accountable when the authorities came to investigate what took place at Eridu. Besides, Chris suspected and rightly so, the explanation they had thwarted the uncreation of the world by an ancient Sumerian goddess might not be well received by the predominantly Muslim people.

Nathan stabilized JD long enough for them to reach the Darlin' Millie, where the healer had a fully stock infirmary capable of treating the boy's injuries during the flight away from Arabia. Even though Chris and Josiah sustained wounds of their own, both men were willing to suffer a little discomfort to aid their hasty departure. Within an hour of arriving at the Darlin' Millie, the seven were on their way out of the country.

When she finally regained consciousness, Alexandra Styles seemed to suffer no ill effects from her ordeal as Tiamat's temporary host. She awoke a little dazed but possessing no memory of what happened to her beyond the Shah's opening performance of the ritual, but everything else that followed was a fog she could not decipher. Under Vin's behest, no one enlightened her. It was best to remain one of the many mysteries encountered during this whole affair.

Much like the identity of their mysterious ally who had come to their rescue when things were at their worst. According to Vin, the shot that killed Adashir Shah would have to have been made from at least 800 yards away and while the sniper later was equally skilled, that initial shot was fired by someone who was a formidable marksman. Vin who was capable of taking out targets in the 1000-yard range, was impressed.

It was a mystery that bothered Chris Larabee who hated riddles, however, for now, it was one the leader of the seven would simply have to live with.

"Ezra," Josiah offered his usual understated greeting when he finally reached the table and sat down. "You're here early. Aren't you the one who's always saying it's good to be fashionably late?"

"I am," Ezra admitted, not at all repentant by it either. "However, on this occasion, I did have business to conduct before our libations tonight."

"With the new owner," Josiah nodded in understanding, aware now like the rest of the seven, Ezra had a stake in the place. It didn't surprise Josiah in the least that Ezra would have secretly bailed out Roberto in a time of crisis. While the gambler professed to being a terrible cynic who would never part with his cash unless it was at gunpoint, Ezra also possessed a core of decency he did not like to reveal to anyone. "So, are they going to sell you the business?"

"No, they have chosen to retain majority ownership of the establishment," Ezra said with a sigh as Josiah gestured at one of the regular waiters to bring him his usual order. "I am not disappointed. To tell the truth, I always preferred being a silent partner. I only invested in the establishment because Roberto needed the capital. I prefer our expeditions as relic hunters to earn my keep rather than playing barkeep."

"Fair enough," Josiah remarked as he noticed Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee coming through the door. Other than a slight stiffness in his walk, Josiah noted Chris showed no signs of being injured. "Let's hope they don't change things too much. I like the place the way it is."

"Likewise," Ezra agreed, raising his glass at Josiah in solidarity. It coincided with Chris and Vin's reaching the table. "Mr Larabee, Mr Tanner, I trust you both are well?"

"He's still an ornery cuss needing me to drive him around, but he's fine." Vin threw Chris a smirk, aware of how much their leader hated having to rely on anyone. Despite their close friendship, getting Chris to admit he needed help was like pulling teeth and the last week had been no exception.

Chris threw Vin a dark look. "Between your woman and Nathan, I thought I'd just give in and spare myself the bitching."

On the few occasions Alex had been with Vin when the sharpshooter dropped by to check on him, the lady was just as adamant as Nathan that he rest his leg and not exert himself. Despite Krestos blade avoiding anything vital when he was stabbed, it did penetrate muscle and that took time to heal. Resigning himself to the fact that neither of them was going to leave him alone unless he acquiesced, Chris knew when to yield to superior numbers.

"Hey, I can't help it I landed a doctor," Vin smiled proudly as both men took up their customary seats at their table, taking note of how busy the place was tonight. It felt like every regular at Paloma's had found it necessary to be present at the establishment this evening.

"If my ma were alive, she'd be awful proud."

"Every boy's dream," Josiah chuckled but the happiness in Vin's eyes at the mention of Alex was unmistakable. It was plain to every member of the seven Vin had fallen very hard for his doctor and it was just as pleasing to them, that the feeling was mutual. No one who saw their exchange during the ritual of the tablet could deny there wasn't something very special about Vin's romance with Alex Styles.

"Will the lovely Miss Styles be joining us this evening?" Ezra asked, thinking this was the new normal he was going to have to get used to, the fact their circle was growing larger with the arrival of Alex Styles and Mary Travis.

"Yeah," Vin nodded with obvious pleasure. "She and Mary are on their way. Alex has been staying with the Professor since her Pa's house burnt down."

"Bastards," Chris couldn't help but hiss at the memory of that. He still felt angry all of William Styles's work had been reduced to a fiery pile of ashes. There was no reason for the Erran to torch the place except out of spite. It gave him some satisfaction knowing the Shah's head had been blown off without the man ever seeing the Tablet fulfil its purpose.

"It won't be for long anyway," the sharpshooter continued. "She's going to have to head back to school in Pennsylvania on Monday."

"That's too bad," Josiah said noting Vin's sigh of disappointment at that revelation. Pennsylvania was a long way from New Mexico, almost on the other side of the country. It was a hell of a distance for two people who were very much in love.

"Yeah," Vin admitted he was already missing Alex and it would be even worse when she left after the weekend. They had spent almost every day together since their first meeting and though they had not shared each other's bed yet, there was no denying how intimate their relationship was. Still, he was terribly proud she was a doctor and he took solace in knowing it wasn't forever.

"It's okay though, she's only got four more months in Pennsylvania and then she'll be heading back to Albuquerque to do her internship at a hospital here. She's also got a two-week vacation coming up, so we'll make it work." He said confidently.

"I managed to do it for years," Chris added, finding it odd that lately it didn't ache nearly as much to discuss his marriage to Sarah. "Couldn't always get base housing so Sarah had to stay with her dad while I was stationed somewhere. You and Alex will be fine." He gave the younger man a look of encouragement before making eye contact with a waiter who knew enough about the Larabee glare to never leave the man in black without a drink for long.

"Where are the others?" Vin asked, scanning the room for the rest of their comrades, unable to see them amongst the crowd of people.

"Mr Jackson is going to make a brief detour at Mr Wilmington's abode to ensure JD is fit enough to join us this evening. It seems he was somewhat skeptical at young Mr Dunne's insistence to join us."

Buck had insisted JD stay with him during his recovery since JD's present address was still the off-campus lodgings he occupied when he had his scholarship. Chris had a feeling it wouldn't be too long before that empty room in Buck's apartment was going to be JD's permanently. If it were not for that possibility on the horizon, Chris might have made similar overtures to JD who had truly risen to the occasion during this whole business with the Erran. If nothing else, JD's injuries had driven home to the rest of the seven just how much he meant to them.

"There they are now," Josiah remarked, glancing at the door as the three men stepped through the main doors.

Nathan stepped through first, always drawing the attention of those newcomers to Paloma's who wondered why a dapper looking black man wasn't in a fancy jazz club somewhere. Of course, there were those who questioned it for uglier reasons, but they never lasted long in the establishment. JD followed close behind, moving slowly with Buck hovering next to him in concern.

Even from here, Chris could tell Buck wasn't entirely happy JD was up and about but knowing JD as well as they did now, the young man would have been determined to be present tonight, despite the fact he wasn't entirely recovered. At the thought, Chris made a mental note not to rush immediately into their next job to give JD time to recover so he wouldn't have to sit it out. It was telling just how much a part of the team JD had become because it felt damned odd to imagine embarking on any new hunt without him.

If asked, none of the others would be able to explain why JD joining them felt as if some cosmic mechanism had fallen into place, as if in the scheme of things, JD would always be one of seven.

+ + + + + + +

"So how have you been fairing Mr Dunne?" Ezra asked once the seven were finally seated and armed with drinks. There was a rumble of excitement moving through the crowd and although inquiries had been made as to the reason why, Ezra revealed nothing, interested in seeing his friends' reactions when the unveiling was done.

"He ought to be home resting still," Nathan grumbled, unhappy the kid was moving around. JD had sustained kidney damage and even though neither he nor Alex were doctors, they both agreed the wound Aisha inflicted on JD was serious. Unfortunately, there was little to be done to fix such an injury beyond treating the symptoms, which in JD's case had been blood loss. The kidney could repair itself if the patient had the good sense to rest appropriately.

"Oh, I'm alright Nathan," JD insisted happily, still chuffed by the fact he was out of Buck's apartment after days of being a shut-in. "Besides, if I didn't get out of Buck's place, I was going to go stir crazy. Either that or Buck was going to drive me there," he added with a playful smirk.

"What did I do?" Buck looked at him with mock hurt, aware he had probably been a little overprotective in his effort to care for JD. He couldn't help it, he had a real affection for the boy that bordered on the paternal. "Except feed you, tucked you in at night, read you bedtime stories and picked up your favourite Dick Tracy funny books. Fine thanks I get..."

"You offered to get me a girl...!" JD pointed out, giving the others a look that spoke volumes about how he felt on that subject. When it came to women, JD was almost as shy as Vin had been before Alex had come along.

"Rest Buck!" Nathan exclaimed aghast. "Getting him all hot and bothered over a girl or in your case girls, isn't getting rest."

"Oh, hey now," Buck defended himself immediately. "I'll have you know I did not offer to get him a girl. This stewardess I know, Jill, well she was in town for a day or two and she had a friend..."

"Nice Buck, nice." Nathan rolled his eyes in exasperation. "You want to saddle the boy with a stewardess, in his condition? Try him on something with training wheels first."

"That's what I told him!" JD started to say before Nathan's word sank in. "HEY!"

Deciding to spare JD any further embarrassment by moving the subject somewhere safer, Josiah turned to Chris. "Any idea what's next for us?"

Chris took a sip of his whisky and noted the entrance of Mary and Alex through the door, even though he feigned ignorance for the moment. The others would notice them soon enough, but he couldn't help but wonder how a woman wearing a loose-fitting, silk white shirt and ladies' slacks could still manage to look stunning. Next to Mary, looking equally lovely was Alex who was dressed in a light summer dress of blue that turned heads as she walked by and approached their table.

"I think we might take a week off," Chris said casually, not wanting to let on he was doing it for JD's sake. Knowing the kid, JD would feel guilty and kick up a stink about it. "I'm going to give up my place in town and move into the ranch."

"Really Chris?" Buck sat up, a little smile of pleasure on his face. "That's a great idea. Place been empty for too long."

"Yeah," Chris nodded, not wishing to delve too deeply into the reasons why he had stayed away, telling himself the spread was going to waste and it was somewhere he could get a little peace and quiet. Besides, Sarah hated waste and she wouldn't want him to let the place stay empty. She would be the first to tell him it was time to get on with life and let the past go. "It's time."

Understanding the sensitivity of the subject, the others chose not to question Chris too much on his motivations and were simply glad he was taking a positive step forward. It was almost a relief when they sighted Alex and Mary arriving, giving them the perfect segue to leave the topic behind.

"Hey Darlin'," Vin greeted sighting Alex who promptly leaned over and kissed him on the lips.

"Hey Cowboy," she smiled affectionately at him just as Josiah pulled out a chair for her and shifted his chair a little, so she could fit between them. "Hey everyone." She greeted and then saw JD. "You look better JD."

"Thanks, Alex, I'm feeling good," JD said, showing her the glass of Cola he was drinking. In his condition, Nathan would just kill him if he attempted to touch alcohol. "Even if I have to drink this stuff."

"You need to take care of yourself," Mary added, recalling how brave the young man had been at Eridu. Even though he had been bleeding like hell, he was determined to save Alex nonetheless. In Mary's book, JD deserved all the admiration and encouragement that was owed to him.

"Especially with Buck trying to fix him up with stewardesses," Nathan threw in, still unable to believe Buck had tried to fix JD up in the condition the young man was in.

"Really?" Alex gasped and promptly leaned over to swat Buck across the shoulder. "What is wrong with you? Is there a switch in your head, set for horndog or something?"

A burst of laughter followed across the table as Buck glared at her with mock dislike. "When are you leaving again?"

"We'll be heading back East on Monday," Mary replied from her seat next to Ezra. "Alex and I thought it might be fun to travel back together. I've got to get back to New York, one of my contacts gave me a lead they're about to arrest Lucky Luciano. I intend to be there for that arrest."

Chris who was in mid swallow just about choked at hearing that revelation. "The mob guy?"

"It wouldn't be a story if he was the guy at the pretzel stand, Mr Larabee," Mary said smoothly, amused by his reaction.

"Are you insane?" He stared at her incredulously. "You could get yourself killed messing around with those sons of bitches. The next time the Professor hears from you it will be when they fish you out of the East River!"

"Really Mr Larabee," Mary rolled her eyes at him. "Don't have a conniption, I've done this before. It's my job. I know how to keep out of trouble."

"Evidence so far says otherwise," he returned just as sharply.

"Well if you would rather me accompany you boys on your next adventure," she stared at him with a brow raised in clear challenge. "That would be almost a good a story as the one in New York."

Chris narrowed his gaze and realised he had just been played. "Not a chance in hell."

"Why not?" Mary protested in exasperation. "I could be an asset!"

"You're off by two letters..." he growled.

As Chris and Mary launched into another argument, oblivious to their companions at the table, Buck could only stare at the spectacle, shaking his head, trying to remember if Chris's relationship with Sarah had been this cantankerous. It took him a second to realise it was.

Frankly, he was amazed they managed to conceive Adam.

"After all these years, he still has no idea how to keep his temper around a woman," Buck said quietly to the others as the two continued to bicker, lost in their volatile version of foreplay. "Good thing he has me to keep an eye on him since I know how to handle the ladies...."

The strum of a guitar suddenly silenced everyone in the room.

They turned to the bar and suddenly Buck Wilmington realised why it was so busy here tonight. Perched on the edge of the counter, dressed in a white peasant blouse and a flowing red skirt, was one of the most beautiful women Buck had ever seen (and he'd seen quite a few). With wild, tousled hair, adorned with a red flower that might have been a hibiscus, she was the quintessential sultry Latin beauty. Wearing a smile that was nothing short of dazzling, Buck could only stare mesmerised as she continued to strum the guitar.

"My, my, who is that?" Josiah whispered as she began to play a soft, haunting melody that captured everyone's undivided attention, managing the impossible by wrenching Chris and Mary out of their argument.

"That is Roberto's daughter," Ezra replied just as quietly, a dimpled smile across his face as he listened to her play. He wondered if she did requests. He always liked Red River Valley...

"That's Roberto's daughter?" Nathan exclaimed, unable to imagine grizzled old Roberto, producing such a lovely offspring.

"So that means, she's the new owner." Vin declared as the lady started to sing.

"That is correct," Ezra nodded.

"Aquellos Ojos Verdes

de mirada serena,

dejaron en mi alma,

eterna sed de amar ...

"She's awful pretty isn't she Buck?" JD remarked and turned to Buck. "Buck?"

Buck Wilmington was no longer listening. He was too busy thinking about how he was going to get her to go out with him. "I think I know who I'm going home with tonight."

"Oh God," Alex groaned, wondering if the man's ego could get any bigger. "I think you're being extremely optimistic."

"All I gotta do is lay on the charm," Buck grinned at her cockily. "She'll be as good as mine. No way she can resist my animal magnetism. You just wait and see."

+ + + + + + +

She knew Lansing from her earliest days in the firm and though her expression remained as always mercurial to those around her, seeing the man who had once been a teacher, lying broken and bruised, surfaced a wave of emotion within her. Brushing her fingertips against the hands that once played the violin like a virtuoso, now crushed like kindling, she felt a swell of hatred for the ones who did this to him.

The harsh light of the morgue concealed nothing and as he lay against the cold slab in the small room, like a side of beef hanging in a meat locker, she was privy to every bruise and every bit of cruelty inflicted upon him. The wounds made the peaceful expression on his face even more profane. Lansing deserved better than this. For a lifetime of service, he should have ended his days surrounded by his roses, playing lawn bowls in the afternoon and taking tea with Penelope, his wife.

Instead, he was in the morgue of a small police station in Tangiers, having been found floating in a nearby canal, discarded like rubbish. It wasn't right.

"They tortured him," Riley stated, though he was certain she knew this already.

"For quite a while and judging by the damage they did, I don't believe he gave them what they were after."

"So the item is still in play." Riley finally drew the sheet over Lansing's face. There was no need to see any more. They had gleaned all they could from the man's dead husk.

"I believe so," Julia Pemberton nodded. "They've brought in Isabella Krauss, which means Hitler is interested."

"Why? It's a bloody relic." Riley stared at her bewildered.

"I think recent events have proven relics can have power and Hitler does love those. In any case, an object doesn't need to have supernatural qualities to have power. I prefer we keep this particular one from the Reich. They have enough of an inflated sense of importance as it is."

"Can't disagree with you there Miss," Riley conceded agreed. "So do we go after this thing ourselves?" He looked at her dubiously. Riley had many skills, one of which was being a rather good sniper, but ancient artifacts were not his forte.

"No," Julia remarked turning on her heels and heading towards the door. "I think we both know a group of men who are better able to handle this matter for us."

Riley smiled and answered, "that we do Miss and if I recall, they do owe us a favour."

THE END

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