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The Magnificent Seven and the Jewel of Cintamani
by Scribe

Alternate Universe: Relic Hunters

A/N - I've used elements from the mythologies of several cultures in this story. No offense is intended.


Prologue:
Gulag

1933 - SOLOVKI PRISON, USSR

The cold numbed the pain.

Lying in a pool of his blood on the cold, stone slabs making up the floor of his cell, Bernado knew he was going to die. It wasn't as if he didn't have days to prepare for this outcome. He'd led them on a merry chase across the globe, from Mongolia to Tibet and through Ukraine before they finally caught up with him. Bernado didn't blame the family who turned him into the Joint State Political Directorate, the organisation presently serving as Russia's secret police, better known as the OGPU. With Stalin inflicting a genocidal famine on the region, why wouldn't they sell him out for a belly full of food?

How he came to be here, mattered little. He was here and at the mercy of men who used every method of torture they could imagine to break him, but Bernado had been Cristeros and was more than accustomed to persecution. Even in the dwindling hours of his life, God was with him, and so Bernado did not fear death.

He lived a good life, full of victories and defeat.

A soldier for the church after that devil Calles turned Mexico against all Catholics, he fought long and hard for God. When it was done, he left his country for good because he had become a father and needed to provide for his family.

An old friend from the days when the Soviets courted Mexico openly, had come to him for help. Bernado met George Roerich at university and kept in touch through the years. Aware that Bernado was capable of staying one step ahead of hunters, George commissioned him to locate and retrieve an artifact his famous father, noted artist Nicolas Roerich, was forced to hide from the OGPU. The money was too good to turn down.

Leaving Inez behind in Val Verde with their young son Roberto, his search took him across Asia, searching for an amulet gifted to Nicholas. The Tibetan amulet crafted from a piece of moldavite meteorite was deemed to be a talisman of some kind, capable of protecting its bearer from all harm. Considering where he found himself at present, Bernado begged to argue the veracity of that belief.

Tracked by the ruthless members of the OGPU after he found the amulet, Bernado did the only thing he could when they closed in on him. Hide it.

"You have one last chance Comrade Recillos to tell us what we wish to know."

Standing inside the small cell with two faceless uniforms, whose role Bernado knew was to ensure he made no attempt to attack the Colonel asking the question, Grigory Feduleev stared at him with ruthless calculation. Even though he was wearing a plain blue suit worn by any office worker, Colonel Fedulev was nothing so unimportant. Bernado knew he was a top party member and occupied a seat at the high table of the OGPU hierarchy.

"I do not know what you want to hear," Bernado offered the same response he had given them since his capture. "I buy antiquities for private collectors in America. I know nothing of the piece you speak."

Fedulev nodded at one of the men behind him and Bernado braced himself for a boot slamming into his side, breaking ribs as another burst of pain filled his body, and he uttered a weak cry. He had strength for little else.

"Where is the amulet?"

"As I said," Bernado whispered, spitting blood as he lifted his chin and looked at Fedulev through blood swelled eyes. "I delivered it to my client via the mail. The address was a post office box in London."

"How disappointing," Fedulev sighed. "I had hoped you would be reasonable, but no matter. I'm sure we will find it eventually."

Fedulev stepped back and nodded once more at the soldier standing behind Bernado.

Bernado closed his eyes and knew what was coming. Fedulev was no fool, the Colonel knew he would never reveal the truth, and with that, Bernado had outlived his usefulness. The man probably thought he was doing it out of some misplaced loyalty to George, but it was not that at all. In a moment of desperation which he now cursed himself for, Bernado sent the amulet to the one place he hoped these men would not think to look.

To Inez.

With any luck, she would think of it as a gift from some exotic place in the world, a poor substitute for the husband who promised to come home with enough money to set them up, but would instead leave her a widow. His heart ached, knowing he would never see her or their son again. He only hoped she would forgive him.

It was the last thought he had before the bullet ended him.

Colonel Grigory Fedulev watched dispassionately as Bernado Recillos, on his hands and knees already, flopped against the stone floor. The slab beneath his face was splattered with gore and blood, and his left leg twitched once before going still for good.

"What now, Colonel?" Lt. Oblonksy, Bernado's executioner asked, stepping away from the dead man as the remaining soldier in the room proceeded to remove the body.

"We will retrace our steps and learn everything about Mr Recillos. I do not think he had the opportunity to deliver it to Comrade Roerich before we reached him."

"Then where is it?" The younger man, a tall, broad-shouldered specimen with Magyar origins, looked down at him in question.

"I do not know," Fedeluv confessed, "but have patience Oblonsky, it will turn up eventually, and when it does, we will have it and the Jewel."

Chapter One:
Outback

Chapter Notes - Please note that I have taken some liberties with the mythology of the Australian Aborigines. It is not meant to offend.

ULURU
AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK
1935

Vin Tanner was by no means a spiritual man, but he liked to think he and God had an understanding.

As a child, he believed in the Almighty, and though he spoke of it to no one, not even Josiah, his fondest memories of Emma Tanner was her fussing over him as she readied them to go to Sunday Services. Those memories were now vague, but he still remembered her smile when she helped him with the buttons of his shirt, straightened his bow tie and combed his hair. At church, he'd listen to the preacher and his sermons, understanding little of it but happy just to be there with her.

After she died and he was discarded into the overworked foster system, the so-called "Christian' administrators chose to beat God into him so severely, he fled the first chance he got. Vin didn't hate God then, but he did have questions about why the Almighty chose to take his momma away. God didn't answer, and Vin was on the road to believing he never existed to begin with, just some fiction adults made up to make themselves better when bad things happened.

On the Western Front, when he wandered into the trenches, covered in mud, shit and blood, realising he'd left one hell behind for something even worse, Vin prayed to God for deliverance. He prayed hard, even though he expected no answer. God hadn't granted him the wish to bring back his mother, why would he provide deliverance to a stupid kid who made a monumentally bad decision? Scared out of his mind, Vin didn't expect an answer.

Except one came.

It came in the form of a just turned twenty lieutenant with dark blond hair and an icy stare that cut through you like a knife. When Vin laid eyes on the man, Vin was sure he was going to be sent back to the orphanage. Instead, Chris Larabee took a good long look at Vin before cracking his glacial mask with a smile and reassuring him without a word spoken, everything would be all right.

"It's okay kid, I got you."

After that, Vin understood God was around. He even sent help when he could, but it was a good idea to help yourself in case he couldn't.

When Vin jumped off that train, taking him across New Mexico, he wandered the desert alone until Kojay found him and gave him sanctuary on the Navajo Reservation. For the next few years, Kojay taught him that God wore lots of faces and when he stared into the skies at night, seeing the wondrous canvas of stars above, it almost felt like Vin could reach him.

Until he came to this place.

It wasn't quite dusk yet, but the blue sky had become the most vibrant sapphire he'd ever seen, with the sun brushing the horizon with strokes of amber as it descended. The land was flat as a tack with only one rock formation comparable in size to some of the more massive mesas he'd seen in his life. The white man in this country called it Ayers Rock, but its actual name according to the Pitjantjatjara people or Anangu who occupied the land, was Uluru. Vin liked their version better.

Sitting on top of it, Vin wondered if this formation was the real altar of God.

He imagined the Almighty or the Rainbow Serpent as the Pitjantjatjara called him, coming down here to observe his handiwork. With the stars appearing in the shifting sky, Vin soaked the transcendent atmosphere, communing with it on a most spiritual level. He wondered if this splendour was one of those soft places medicine men spoke of, where the walls of reality were translucent and if you wanted, you could slip through.

If he reached up, would he touch heaven?

"Any sign of them?"

Josiah Sanchez asked after setting down his book Native Legends, unable to continue reading with the diminishing light. He'd been studying the books written by their client David Unaipon and learned to his disgust, the Australian Aborigines had been treated almost as horrifically as the Native Americans. Driven to the brink of genocide, their lands stolen, and their children taken away to be given Christian upbringings, it was no wonder why their client had set them on their current adventure.

None of the seven had been to Australia before this, but Professor Orin Travis's friendship with old colleague Herbert Basedow had facilitated the meeting with Unaipon. Upon listening to his story, Chris had agreed on their behalf to take the job, with only their expenses paid. While it wasn't usually their practice to be so charitable, Chris knew his friends would be willing to make an exception for the Professor. Each and every one of them was indebted to Orin Travis. He had raised them all from the dark place they had been at the onset of the Depression.

"Of Chris or any of those interested parties Mr Unaipon mentioned?" Vin drawled, his keen eyes surveying the landscape at Josiah's behest.

"Both," Josiah stated, reaching for the FN M2HB machine gun next to him.

"No sign of anything," Vin answered and hoped the rumours Roderick Packard, a financier who wasn't above hiring mercenaries to collect objects of interests, were just that. "I sure would hate to start a gunfight here. Feels kind of wrong, you know?"

Josiah agreed, sweeping his gaze across the landscape and getting lost in its beauty as well. Like Vin, Josiah had a complicated relationship with God, but he understood the younger man's sentiments. There was a mystical quality about this land, one that made you feel your soul was not some new thing, but an ancient component from a galaxy of life force, given flesh and blood form for a brief time on this plane. Josiah wouldn't like to commit an act as vulgar as firing a weapon up here.

As it was, the rock was sacred, and the climbing of it was considered disrespectful by its people. Josiah suspected the only reason the seven were allowed permission was because they were not of the tribe. Furthermore, with what they were tasked to do, the trespass was a necessary evil.

"You think they'll come?" Vin asked.

"Yeah," Josiah nodded grimly, "if it can be stolen, taken apart, and sold to the highest bidder, they'll come."


"Don't touch anything."

Chris Larabee tossed the warning over his shoulder at JD Dunne who was following him down the narrow fissure flanking them on each side. The space they were travelling in was barely a tunnel, tilted at a steep downward incline of almost 45 degrees, with fists sized rocks broken and sharp covering the ground. The sandstone walls were no better with their uneven formations scratching at both men as they made the descent into the darkness.

The air had yet to get thin, but they would be descending more than a mile through the earth before they finally reached their destination.

"I won't," JD nodded, perfectly aware that all Australian fauna seemed to want to kill you in the most horrible ways.

As usual, the young scholar conducted his research on the country when they'd accepted the commission to come here. What he learned of the wildlife scared JD enough to demand Nathan Jackson stock three times worth of everything in his first aid kit. With his torch in hand, JD lit up every surface, determined not to get killed by some tiny creature no sane person would think was dangerous, because they underestimated it.

"I mean everything kills you here!" JD continued, his voice echoing through the narrow passage. "They've got the deadliest snakes in the world! The taipan that likes deserts, not to mention the brown snake and the tiger snake! Did I tell you about their spiders? Almost every one of them can kill you. Redbacks, wolf spiders, funnel webs, and there's one that makes your flesh rot away after it bites you. You're not much safer in the water either. There's the great white shark, they can grow up to 25 feet, salt-water crocodiles that chase you in the water and then out of it! Blue ring octopuses, jellyfish and stonefish."

Chris glanced over his shoulder again. "Should I have left you on the Millie, JD?"

JD straightened up at that, realising he was getting carried away with his anxieties at that question. "No, I want to come. I'm just saying..."

"Just take it easy," Chris assured him. "We've handled worse than bugs and snakes, and we're nowhere near an ocean."

JD had to admit Chris was right about that. After fighting a gorgon, outrunning Nazis and other death cults, they were still alive with their skins intact. He had to have faith in that. Besides, what they were doing mattered and JD didn't want to let Chris down because he was getting a little paranoid at the possibility that every single creature on this continent was out to get them.

Even if it was true.

"Sorry Chris," JD apologised.

Chris hadn't really been bothered by JD's rants, more concerned with the kid driving himself crazy with the potential of certain death jumping out from every corner. The leader of the Seven had travelled to enough tropical locations with similar perils since he started artifact hunting, to trouble himself too much with JD's report. There would always be dangerous creatures wherever they went, one just had to exercise caution.

"It's okay," Chris remarked with a little smile as they continued their descent.

The temperature was starting to rise, which was saying something considering how hot it could get in this country. Chris could feel beads of sweat forming under his hair and against his back. He was also conscious of their air supply, aware the deeper they went underground, the thinner it would be. Fortunately, Chris and Vin had made this journey a day ago, trying to determine what kind of equipment they would need to acquire the artifact located here. So far, there had been nothing to imply they were in any danger, but vigilance was never a waste of time.

"You think it's really there?"

"The Wanambi Shield? The Anangu seem to think so." Chris paused a moment and reached for the canteen hooked to his belt. Unscrewing the top, he took a swig of water, relishing the cool as it journeyed down his throat.

The shield, supposedly crafted by the great Snake King Wanambi, was fashioned from a solid block of opal when he descended from his watering hole on the peak of Kata Tjuta, another formation not far from Uluru. The Anangu believed the Snake King used the shield to protect the world from hurricanes and other natural calamities and remaining on sacred Anangu land was necessary for it to continue. With most of their cultural artifacts already plundered by unscrupulous men such as Roderick Packard, the need to protect the shield became paramount. Unfortunately, the Anangu were forbidden to touch the shield which left them with quite the predicament.

Thus it was up to the Seven to retrieve the shield and return it to Anangu, who would use a trusted outsider to hide it away again. This time in a place no one would find it. Unfortunately, a large block of opal was bound to attract the interest of men who would be happy to break it up into smaller pieces for profit. Chris knew there were unscrupulous collectors like bored tycoons, museums and even Nazis, who kept mercenaries on the payroll to steal such artifacts for their own end.

Not if he could help it.

"I suppose it would be easier to believe if we had some archaeological evidence of its existence," JD confessed.

"The Anangu don't work that way," Chris replied, understanding JD's frustration. "Their people don't rely on the written word to remember their past, they use oral histories. If the first Europeans who got here bothered to ask, the Aborigines could have given them a geographical map of the entire continent, without them having to explore it by land. Tribes that ran into each other felt it was necessary to share their knowledge, so an aboriginal tribe could have information about another region thousands of miles away without ever setting foot there."

"I suppose," JD shrugged, supposing his love of written language was why he loved this work so much. The hours he spent pouring through ancient tablets, old books yellowed with age, written with reeds or styluses was a source of endless fascination to him. "I guess I prefer to have something in my hands that doesn't change with the telling."

"I know what you mean, but every culture has its ways, the Anangu are no different."

As they descended, the air began to feel moist and humid, with green vegetation appearing along the walls of the tunnel. No doubt the moisture in the air had provided the bryophytes with the perfect environment to thrive. Moss crept along the walls, along with lichens, following them down the further they went. The air had started to thin even more, and Chris suspected they could breathe because the presence of the moss had circulated the air somewhat.

After long last, they reached the end of the tunnel into the vast chamber Chris and Vin had charted the day before. Its size was immense and looking at it, reminded Chris of the enormous underground sea the Seven had travelled during their quest to find the Aegis. The leader of the seven prayed this adventure would be nowhere as eventful. Although like that chamber, the moss growing across the ceiling had some bioluminescent qualities as is revealed in glorious detail, the underground artesian basin he and JD had come all this way to reach.

"Now that is something," JD gasped, staring at the underground sea before them.

"No kidding," Chris echoed his sentiments since it was not too different from Vin's reaction the day before. "Covers almost 22 per cent of the country's underbelly and is more than 600,000 square miles across. They say it's almost ten thousand feet deep. The Aussies get most of their inland water supply from this."

"How far through it do we have to go?" JD asked as he saw Chris walked towards the edge, removing the backpack he had been carrying all this way. The younger man followed his leader, remembering that they weren't here to sightsee. There was a job to be done.

"According to the Anangu, once we pass into the Dreaming." Chris grinned, aware JD would hate that answer.

"What does that mean?" JD stared at him.

"It means we'll just have to see," Chris replied, removing the inflatable raft from his pack and began unrolling it so they could put it to use. JD did the same, except the scholar was carrying the oars, crisscrossed against his back.

The thing had been burdensome, but the load was reduced by their downhill trek, and Chris didn't intend to carry the Societe Zodiac inflatable kayak uphill after they had retrieved the shield. No doubt Ezra, their procurer would bitch about abandoning it after all the trouble he'd gone through to acquire the equipment. However, if Ezra wanted it so bad, he could come down here and retrieve it himself.

It didn't take long for them to inflate the two-man kayak and set out across the dark water. Leaving behind the shore, Chris looked ahead at the cavern and saw nothing to indicate where the shield might be. JD was studying his notes, having written down everything the Anangu told them about this leg of their journey. The tribal elder he spoke to hadn't been particularly helpful, citing they would know the place, and the place would know them when the time was right'.

Neither Chris nor JD noticed the slight ripple following their craft in the darkness.


My dear Julia,

As always when I pen this missive to you, I am thinking of how long it has been since we last saw each other and hope you are taking all precaution when parlaying with the nefarious folk it is your lot in life to engage. For my part, we have travelled to the other side of the globe in search of an object whose existence can only be substantiated by the tales told by the tribe holding it in reverence. I hope we have not made this arduous trek to discover this was not the product of a practical joke told by one drunken fellow to another, and passed on in perpetuity..."

BUH BUH BUH BUH!

Ezra lowered his pen and looked up, seeking out the source of that odd noise that sounded like the sputter of an emptying sink. He was seated on a slab of rock, just flat enough to be a comfortable place to sit, his Colt handgun beside him while he waited for Chris and JD to conduct their hunt for the shield. It was almost approaching night, and though Ezra didn't voice it, he suspected they might have slipped beneath Mr Packard's notice in this instance.

SNUF SNUF SNUF SNUF!

Ezra stood up and looked around, seeing nothing but a small ringed lizard take up position next to his leather satchel, its nictitating eyes blinking twice before sticking out a blue tongue at the gambler. Looking around, Ezra heard more of those odds noises, wondering what on Earth was causing them. Both sounds were different, one more like a drumbeat, the other like snuffling one might hear from pigs. Surely they couldn't be from the same animal?

Reaching for his gun, he used his other hand to return his writing implements to the satchel, while keeping his attention focussed on the alien environment. The noises seemed to be growing louder. Worse yet, they were now joined by what appeared to be pounding footsteps, a lot of them. As alarm ran through him, Ezra wondered how Vin and Josiah had missed anything making that much noise closing in on them.

A second later, he had his answer.


ONE MINUTE EARLIER

"Where's Ezra?" Buck asked Nathan as they started a campfire near the Millie, deciding the evening was just warm and pretty enough for it.

"Oh he says he's keeping watch," Nathan replied as he added the kindling to the woodpile. "But I think he's writing Miss Julia another letter."

"How does he even post them?" Buck asked he added the coffee grounds to the pot of water that would sit over the fire. "I mean, she's a secret agent. It's not like she has a permanent address."

"Oh, they go to Julia's momma in England," Nathan explained just as he reached for his matches now the wood was ready to burn. "Her stepdad gets it to her."

Buck response was interrupted by the rumble of pounding feet and a cacophony of odd sounds accompanying it. All of a sudden they saw Ezra running towards them, the gambler moving faster than either man had ever seen him move, at least without jungle Indians or sex-starved Nordic warrior women chasing him.

"RUN! THEY'RE RIGHT BEHIND ME!"

"What's right behind you?" Nathan shouted back.

The birds, flightless, stood at least five feet tall with grey feathers and sharped three-toed claws capable of eviscerating their prey. Whatever it was Ezra had done to piss them off, the entire flock was chasing after the gambler who was keeping ahead of the creatures by a hair's breadth. There were at least fifteen of them, running with speeds that would make any cheetah envious and it was clear, they were more than a match for Ezra's sprint.

"Oh shit!" Buck swore and decided running was not a bad idea.

"Can't you use your animal magnetism on them!" Nathan shouted as he left behind the campsite and made a run for Millie. "Oh yeah, it ain't working these days, right!"

"This is not the time to bring up Inez!" Buck cursed as all three men raced towards the plane.


"Should we help them?" Josiah inquired, trying to hold a straight face as he and Vin watched the spectacle below as a flock of emus chased the three men across the desert.

The sharpshooter tossed Josiah a grin, "now what fun would that be?"

Chapter Two:
Guardians

Entirely oblivious to their comrades' avian experience, Chris Larabee and JD Dunne continued their journey through the underground lake, far beneath the red sand of the Australian Outback. The bioluminescent vegetation creeping across the ceiling and the walls of the underground basin provided them with some illumination as they paddled forward, carried along by slow-moving currents. A light mist swirled around them, generated by the varying temperatures in the reservoir of groundwater.

"This is really something," JD commented, admiring the vastness of the basin. "You know all this stretches across 600 thousand square miles. You could fit the whole of Texas in here."

"Don't say that to Vin. You know how crazy Texans are," Chris warned as he paddled, more interested in what lay ahead. The strobe of the torch only reached so far, and he could see nothing beyond it except more water. The Anangu were understandably vague about just how long they would have to travel to reach the shield and Chris supposed he could sympathise with their reluctance to trust him and his team. After what they'd been subjected to, much like the tribes of North America, it couldn't be easy placing their faith in a white man to recover a sacred artifact.

JD laughed before aiming his torch at his notes again. Even though the young man possessed a near-photographic memory, he still preferred referring to his notebook. Perhaps it was the feel of paper and the smell of ink that reassured him they weren't on some wild goose chase but something based on tangible facts. Right now, he felt like they were at the bottom of the world, where they could die of toxic air long before they reach the Snake king's shield.

"Well, according to the Anangu, we have to keep going until we find the Island of Kalpurtu's tears."

"The Rain Spirit," Kris nodded, having read up on as many of the Aboriginal Dreamtime legends as he could before their arrival here. While the tribes themselves relied on oral histories to pass down their stories, European scholars were more traditional in their methods, recording the stories which were unique from tribe to tribe. It was one of the more distinct cultures the treasure hunter had ever encountered, and Kris wondered if it was due to how isolated they were from the rest of the world for much of their history.

"Yeah, that's it," JD continued to speak. "It's apparently guarded by the Ancient Guardians, who pays tribute to the Rainbow Serpent by sending him the spirits of the unworthy who try to claim Wanambi's shield."

"Ancient Guardians?" Kris paid attention. After five years of doing this, there was always something to such warnings, whether it was strange and deadly booby traps left by the original architects, or creatures lying in wait, cloaked in modern disbelief until the final terrifying moment. "Like what?"

"Who knows?" JD shrugged. "I mean these stories are passed on from person to person, so who knows how accurate any of it is? All I heard was the Ancient Guardians have been protecting Wanambi's shield since they were granted favours from the Rainbow Serpent. There is no record of what kind of creatures they were, except when it came time to be rewarded, they didn't want to be men. Still, he wanted to reward them, so he made them bigger and stronger than any of the animals here and gave them the title of guardians."

"BIgger and stronger," Chris frowned. "That's never a good sign."

The leader of the seven straightened up and scanned the area, trying to detect anything that could be dangerous. The mist covered the area around the raft, making it difficult to see. Aside from the sloshing of water against the side of the rubble inflatable and the dark walls of the underground cavern, there was no other sound. When the fog cleared enough for him to see the surface, he noticed a slight ripple in the water from the currents below, not unusual considering how much geothermal activity was taking place down here. Yet after JD's warning, Chris's internal alarms were warning him to be cautious.

With no trace of immediate danger, Chris faced front again, continuing their journey through this underground sea. Looking over his shoulder, the shore they left behind was no longer in sight, and he hoped this place didn't turn into a maze because he did not relish getting lost down here. After what JD said about how the size of the Great Artesian Basin, they could be wandering here for God only knew how long and he had plans with Mary when he got back to Albuquerque.

The jolt almost made him drop the paddle in his grip.

It came so suddenly that both men stopped what they were doing immediately. JD quickly stashed the notebook back into his pocket while Kris waved his arms about, trying to sweep away the fog so they could see what caused the sudden turbulence. For a few seconds, they waited for another recurrence. The seconds stretched into a minute, and Chris wondered if they had just bumped into some underwater formation by accident.

Another jab followed, this time more violent. It startled JD enough to grip the sides of the raft while Chris set down the paddle and unholstered his gun. He didn't know what was beneath them, but he suspected it was poking and prodding the inflatable with curiosity, trying to feel them out.

"Give me the torch," Chris ordered JD as he leaned over the edge, trying to see past those swirls of grey at what might be trying to tip them over.

"You don't think its really some ancient guardian?" The kid asked as he handed Kris the torch.

"I don't know," Chris replied, searching the water for whatever was attacking their raft. "Has anything we gone after, ever not turned out to be a little real?"

The possibility made JD shudder because in the past year he'd seen a lot of strange things. Gorgons, ancient Mesopotamian goddesses, sirens and zombies, just to name a few. Ancient guardians could mean anything, but with the kinds of creatures roaming about this continent, JD suspected what awaited them in the depths was not pleasant. He was shaken out of his current train of thought by another sharp jab, this one lifting the raft above the surface just high enough for it to slap back down hard, splashing them with water and nearly sending Chris over.

"CHRIS!" JD grabbed him by the belt to keep him from hitting the surface.

"Thanks," Chris tossed the younger man a grateful look.

Beneath them, the water had started to froth, and the spray chased away the mist surrounding the raft. Chris aimed the torch at the surface just in time for something huge to swim past the beam of light. His spine stiffened as he measured the length of the creature's body before it disappeared out of view. At first, he thought it was one of those crocodiles Australia was famous for. However, this was bigger.

Much, much bigger.

"JD," Chris said in a neutral voice trying not to show the kid just how worried he was about what just swam beneath them. "Hold on!"

JD quickly wrapped his arm around the bowline of the raft at the order as the jostling resumed, this time with more intensity. Equipment was starting to slide across the narrow floor of the raft, others shuddered where they had been placed, threatening to fall out entirely. He watched as Chris scanned the water, wondering what on Earth the leader of the Seven had seen to make him so fearful.

The creature came for another pass, and this time, Chris wasn't about to give it the chance to attack. Taking aim with his gun, he waited until that silvery body passed through the beam of light. He squeezed off three shots in quick succession, and the sound was like cannon fire inside the cavernous underground. It was nowhere as startling as what rose from out of the depths a split second after the first bullet struck.

When it emerged, all Chris and JD saw were teeth.

Lots of teeth. Its mouth resembled that of a crocodile, with three inches of serrated, conical teeth on its mandible and upper jaw. When its tail appeared, Chris was able to estimate this ancient beast was almost thirty-six feet long. It did not take kindly to being shot at and lunged at the raft, prepared to take a bite. With only a split second to react, Chris took aim and fired again, praying he either killed the creature or sent it into retreat. One thing for sure, there was no way they could let it deflate the raft.

The second barrage of bullets produced a shriek of pain from the creature, and Chris thought he saw the bullets tearing through its thick hide. Its head reared up, allowing both JD and Chris to see the pale flesh of its underside before it vanished into the water once more. Still, the turbulence beneath the raft was a clear indicator the creature was not gone, merely regrouping.

"What the hell is that?" JD managed to ask, having retrieved his own gun and scanning the other side of the raft in case the creature attempted to come at them from a different direction.

"I think it's a kronosaurus!" Chris yelled over the sound of splashing water and the boat's precarious rocking. "Kronosaurus queenslandicus was discovered in the 1800s."

JD's eyes widened. "A dinosaur! That thing is a dinosaur?"

"This basin was formed 120 million years ago," Chris returned, deciding they needed something a little more formidable to fight the saurian when it came back. "Plenty of time for one or more of those things to get isolated down here!"

The idea of a living fossil existing this far down would have usually been a source of great excitement to the young man. Still, having seen those teeth, JD's scientific sensibilities was overtaken by the desire for survival. Just as the thought crossed his mind, he saw the silvery body moving beneath the raft. JD was about to call a warning to Chris when the rubber beneath him heaved, throwing JD off his feet and into the air.

"JD!"

Chris watched JD disappear into the black water and knew the kid was dead unless he thought fast. His gun seemed woefully inadequate to the task of ending the ancient pliosaur, and though he hated to kill it, he was not about to let it eat JD. Buck would never forgive him, and Chris wouldn't be able to live with himself either. Suddenly, inspiration struck, and Chris quickly grabbed the small case that came with the raft. Earlier on, he'd debated why he'd took the thing but was thankful for it now.

Snatching the case up in his arms, Chris quickly flipped the lid open and retrieved what was nestled inside. He had one shot at this, and as he straightened up and saw JD emerging from the water, swimming frantically towards the raft for dear life, he could see the utter terror in the boy's face. Breaking the surface behind him was the wounded kronosaur, about to take a bite. Its massive head and mouth widened in readiness to devour JD when Chris made his desperate gamble.

The flare gun fired, sending the magnesium-based payload into the creature's open mouth. Brilliant white light filled the creature's mouth, making Chris wince at the glare as the flare began to burn. The ancient predator managed a roar of pain, tossing its head from side to side as the pyrotechnics continue to hiss, capable of surviving even as water sloshed into the creature's mouth. The dinosaur forgot all about JD and dove, the glow from the flare visible as it disappeared into the depths.

Chris scrambled towards JD who did not waste the time Chris afforded him with the flare gun. He was halfway into the raft, fighting to gain traction on the slippery rubber surface when Chris reached him and pulled him the rest of the way. JD tumbled clumsily against the slick floor, panting hard and grateful to be alive. He could imagine nothing worse than being ripped to shred by those teeth.

"You okay?" The leader of the seven was trying to spot the creature and hoped the flare had caused enough injury to the animal to either kill it or drive it away for now.

"I told you," JD said coughing, wiping the wet from his forehead, "everything in this country wants to kill you!"

Chris couldn't argue with him there.


While it had been amusing to watch his three friends running from a flock of overgrown turkeys, Vin Tanner's amusement came to an abrupt halt when he heard a noise. Something was rumbling across the Outback landscape. To the untrained ear, it sounded like the propellers of a plane, starting and stopping at intervals of a few seconds. With Buck presently running towards the Millie's open door, that was an impossibility.

"What is that?" Josiah asked, attracted to the sound as well.

"Trouble." Vin retrieved the spyglass from his pack and aimed it in the distance.

During Chris's meeting with their client David Unaipon, the seven spent some time with the Anangu people. Vin found their culture fascinating and absorbed everything he could about them. He made a mental note to visit again in the future. Like the Navajo, the Anangu's culture was steep in tradition, and their reputation as the best trackers in the world was not to be underestimated. Some thought the Aborigines were telepathic due to their uncanny tracking ability. While Vin did not subscribe to any of this, he was impressed enough to wish to learn more.

One of the things shown to him was the device the tribe used to communicate over long distances, the bullroarer. Little more than an elongated piece of carved bark bound with a length of thin cord, it could produce the haunting sound Vin now heard when spun. It was used during rituals and ceremonies, and Vin suspected he could only listen to it now, because the Anangu were trying to send him a message, or worse yet, a warning.

Staring through the eye of the spyglass, Vin surveyed the surrounding terrain trying to spot any signs of danger. The Anangu didn't use a bullroarer lightly. The device was generally used in tribal ceremonies and forbidden to women. They had been squirrelly enough just describing its use to him. If they were using it now, then they must have a good reason for it.

It turns out they did.

Through the telescopic lens of the spyglass, Vin sighted at least two vehicles approaching from a north-easterly direction, using the meandering dirt road through the forest of gum trees and short burn grass. They rumbled across the red gravel, creating clouds of dust as they sped toward the great rock. Only when they got closer, Vin identified the twin Wills-Overlander pick-ups, carrying two passengers up front and a half dozen more in the back tray.

These were Packard's men, bought and paid for, probably flown in from the nearest large town, Alice Springs.

From what they were told from Ezra's numerous contacts, Roderick Packard was an arms merchant. Following the crash of '29, Packard changed the fortunes of his company by abandoning its tool and die origins and taking up arms production instead. He was rumoured to be instrumental to Aufrüstung, the rearmament of Germany against the Treaty of Versaille, carrying out the manufacturing outside Germany and in secret.

Ezra called the man a butcher who was sharpening a knife to be used on the world.

As a result, Packard was now a millionaire and able to satisfy his predilection for rare antiquities.

While this was their first run-in with Packard, other folk in their line of work had violent confrontations with the man and his cohorts. Packard was ruthless when acquiring artifacts, and he had enough money to ensure he got whatever he went after. Vin didn't have to see their faces to guess the men on those trucks were most likely mercenaries and would kill every one of them, including the tribe, to get what they want.

"We got company!" Vin revealed when he lowered the spyglass.

Josiah followed Vin's gaze and sighted the vehicles surrounded by the cloud of red dust. It seemed the Anangu had been right to worry about the shield of the Snake King Wanambi after all.

"Guess the Lord decided we were getting too comfortable up here," Josiah grumbled as he saw Vin setting himself up at a sweet spot to give the new arrivals a proper greeting.

"I reckon so. You want to let Buck, Ezra and Nathan know we got company, while I say hello to these boys?"

"I think I can handle that," Josiah nodded and got to his feet before he was running across the plateau to warn their friends to be ready for a more dangerous animal than the emus presently attempting to corral them.


BOOM!

The first bullet fired from the M1 Garand rifle froze everyone in their tracks, human and emu alike.

Everyone stood frozen in place as the thunderclap startled them out of their present situation. The avians came to an abrupt halt, having enough experience with the noise to associate it with pain and death. They ceased their pursuit and lingered for a few seconds, with feathers ruffled, heads bobbing in anxiety while a few brave males stamped their feet. The gunshot had not only brought the sudden cessation of hostilities to a close but also made audible the bullroarer's warning.

All three men were armed and had been heading toward the Millie to avoid drawing their weapons on the formidable flock of native birds. Emus were curious more than they were savage and didn't deserve to be gunned down because of it. Furthermore, the treasure hunters had been attempting to conduct themselves discreetly in this expedition and discharging weapons was a surefire sign alerting anyone in the area to their presence. Of course, this was now a moot point.

"WE'VE GOT COMPANY!"

Josiah shouted at them from the top of the rock. His booming voice, the bullroarer's whirring and gunfire was all the commotion the emus were prepared to deal with at this point. The ungainly creatures decided it was time to retreat. They departed, uttering their annoyance with their odd drumbeat voices, heading away from the off-putting din.

"Now why didn't you think of that?" Nathan asked, catching his breath a moment now they had stopped running, a few feet shy of the Millie's main doors.

"Because the last time anyone attempted to subdue these creatures, it resulted in the Emu War," Ezra explained with both hands on his hips. "You should read what the locals endured with these large avians. Not even men armed with machine guns were able to defeat them. We were fortunate, they did not break up into packs, each with a commander engaging in guerilla tactics."

"So, sort of like Chris," Nathan grinned.

"I dare you to reveal that observation to our illustrious leader," Ezra bit back, unhappy because he was just as dishevelled as Nathan and he prided himself in always looking pristine, even in these Outback surroundings.

"Will you two ladies get moving!" Buck barked with exasperation as he climbed on top of the Millie's wing to see what was coming at them.

It did not take Buck long to sight the enemy on approach. Even from this distance, Buck could tell they meant business. The ladies man was just about to climb down when another crack of gunfire exploded in his ears.

The second bullet fired from Vin's rifle struck one of the trucks, because the vehicle tilted sharply to one side when its tyre ruptured. Black rubber was quickly shredded by the rims as the driver struggled to maintain control of the truck until a two-foot-high boulder in its path tipped it over all the way. All passengers in the back tray were flung clear of the vehicle, tumbling across the burnt grass like rolling dervishes. Meanwhile, the other truck continued to narrow the distance between them, with its passengers returning fire.

Buck leapt off the Millie's wing, taking cover behind the plane as he saw Ezra and Nathan retreating to the base of Uluru, with its cover providing boulders and high ground. If they could gain that advantage, Buck knew they could keep the enemy at bay long enough for Chris to retrieve the Shield of the Snake King.

Chapter Three:
Subterranean

Less than thirty minutes after being thrown into the same water occupied by a prehistoric monster, JD Dunne wished he was back in the depths once more.

There was no sign of the kronosaurus Kris so effectively chased off with a flare gun. However, when the inflatable continued to be carried further into the Artesian well, JD began to understand why. The temperature was starting to climb. When they first entered the cavern, they assumed the warmth was due to the hot springs originating from this basin. Still, as they travelled deeper underground, it became clear the heat would continue to rise until the sulphur suffocated them or cooked them alive.

Even now, JD could smell heated rubber as the inflatable struggled to withstand the rising temperature. His clothes had dried and then become saturated again by the sweat forming against his skin. His eyes stung with the salty moisture running down his back, through his hair and down his forehead. The leader of the seven didn't appear to notice the heat, although Chris's shirt was plastered to his body, and his favourite black hat was hanging across his back.

JD glanced over the side of the raft and saw the water bubbling lethargically, producing periodic bursts of sulphuric air. It wasn't hard to breathe yet, but even JD knew they were approaching that limit. He supposed he ought to be grateful the plesiosaur was nowhere in sight. These waters were probably warm even with the creature's formidable tolerance.

"Chris," JD finally had to ask. "How long can we keep this up?"

Chris frowned, having considered that himself. As much as he would like to claim the shield for their client and the Anangu people, the truth was, it might not be possible for them to keep going. Water tapped from this underwater reservoir was known to hit 100 degrees when drawn from the ground. It stood to reason if they ventured deeper into it, the temperature would increase, beyond the ability of human tolerance. How it had been brought down here in the first place was a question Chris would like answered, but they had only oral histories to guide them which were not entirely reliable.

"Not for much longer," Chris finally admitted. Right now, the heat was just uncomfortable, but soon it would become life-threatening. "We'll keep going another thirty minutes. If it gets any warmer, we're heading back. If we can't get through, I don't think the tribe's gotta worry about anyone else trying to snatch the shield either."

"That's something," JD shrugged, hating that they might have to give up the idea of retrieving the artifact. They almost always got what they went after, but on occasion, it was simply too difficult. With the temperature continuing to soar the further they travelled, it would only be a matter of time before the heat drove them back.

The water beneath them continued to churn with Chris paying particular attention to the vulcanized rubber, hoping the heat didn't soften it too much to make it impossible for them to remain afloat. Chris knew the instant he saw any sign of increased elasticity, this expedition was over. The comforting turgidity of the raft, keeping the treasure hunters afloat was diminishing rapidly. No artifact was worth risking JD's life. Despite hating to disappoint their client, he had no intention of risking his men on a fool's errand because of stubborn pride. The stench gaining intensity in his nostrils was no longer the sulphuric familiarity of rotten eggs but burnt rubber.

"Chris!"

Chris looked over his shoulder, expecting some fresh calamity, but instead of darkness and certain death, what lay ahead of him made him gape with the same surprise he detected in JD's voice. Less than fifty feet away and rapidly closing, was a small island. It was little more than a jagged protrusion of rock peering above the waves, but they managed to see it because directly above it was a teeming shower of water illuminated by the sunlight it drew through the tiny cracks in the ceiling. The hairline fissures were just wide enough for water to pass and provided the island with an unearthly glow.

"It's an aquifer layer. That's how water is reaching this place through the surface." Chris explained as best he could, but he was no geologist and supposed there might be a more sophisticated answer. For now, however, he was convinced this was the place they were intended to find. "Come on, help me paddle."

Both men picked up the oars and began steering the craft towards the scab of rock, eager to reach it quickly if only to give the rubber raft a brief respite from the rapidly heating water. If the shield was here, then they might be able to get back to the shore without compromising the raft any further. After seeing what lurked in the depths, Chris had no desire to swim for it. He suspected neither he nor JD would make it to shore alive.

"How do you think it got down here, Chris?" JD asked as they closed in on the rocky shore.

As they neared it, Chris observed the jagged ring of stones they would have to take great care climbing over, because a slip could crack their heads open with ease.

"Probably the same way we did. Although I liked to know how they got past that damn lizard."

"Maybe they had a bigger boat," JD pointed out and stopped paddling when the raft finally reached the short stretch of shore made of smooth pebbles.

Chris got out first, not about to let JD step foot on this place until he knew it was safe. The cracks of light from above provided them with just enough illumination to create shadows everywhere. The air was still hot, but everything about the island looked cold and foreboding. Ensuring his gun was tucked in its shoulder holster, Chris gestured at JD to wait. The young man immediately frowned at the order to stay behind but nevertheless obeyed.

The island was no more than fifty feet across, although the high rock walls made it seem more extensive. Thanks to the moisture dripping from above, the sweltering heat had been blunted, and Chris looked up at the pinpricks of sunlight telling him there was a world outside as it sprinkled over him. The only signs of life were the patches of moss growing on the boulders and rocks, but nothing else stirred. For a few seconds, Chris relished the water on his skin, feeling mildly refreshed after the suffocating heat and the hellish stench of sulphur.

"Come on JD," Chris gave the younger man permission to step out of the boat.

Like Chris, JD was happy to bask in the spray from above, but he was eager to join Chris and didn't waste any time emerging from the inflatable kayak. He stepped onto the rocky terrain, taking care not to slip on the wet stones as he carried their gear. Chris was making his way up the slope when JD spotted something when the light of his torch swept across something, partially hidden by a cluster of larger pebbles.

"Chris, wait up," JD called as he went to investigate. One thing he had learned since becoming a member of Chris Larabee's team of relic hunters, it was never to underestimate the value of seemingly unimportant observations.

"What is it?" Chris paused in mid-step and looked over his shoulder. Despite his being at a higher elevation than JD, he could not see what caught the younger man's interest.

"I'm not sure," JD took the slight detour, convinced his torch had caught sight of something that shouldn't be here. Gravel crunched beneath his boot while he took care navigating this uneven terrain, he aimed his flashlight at what he had found, determined not to get caught unawares. In the background, he heard Chris descending the slope and joining him as he closed in on his discovery.

It was a boat.

Made of bark, it was so fragile he was reluctant to touch it in case it fell apart at the contact. Moisture and heat had hastened the deterioration of the wood, and JD couldn't imagine how long it had been down here. It could be for hundreds of years! Inside the long, narrow kayak, covered in mould were hunting tools, and an empty wallaby-skin water carrier. JD identified axes and spear throwers but noted the absence of any clubs and spears. Then again, if the passengers had left their vessel, they might have armed themselves just as Chris had done.

After all, if they had come in search of the shield, they might have encountered the kronosaurus too and survived long enough to know it might not be the only dangerous creature about.

"I wonder if they came looking for the shield just like we did," JD remarked, stepping forward to inspect the remaining artifacts. If they could be salvaged, he was confident the Anangu would want them back, and even if they didn't, these were valuable relics from the earliest inhabitants of this continent. Most of the objects broke apart when he picked it up, crumbling with rot. Still, the water carrier kept its shape, and several natural glass tools were in good condition.

Chris didn't stop JD from collecting the tools, because his mind was fixated on another more alarming thought. If ancient travellers made it this far, why hadn't they left? Their boat was still here. Whatever ended them, took place on land, specifically, this patch of dry land.

"JD, get out your gun."

JD stopped what he was doing immediately and looked over his shoulder at Chris, about to question the older man until the same realization dawned on him. He stood up, bolt straight, forgetting the rest of the artifacts, having already taken what could survive the trip home. Wiping the wet hair out of his face, JD retrieved the gun he had placed in his backpack before climbing out of the raft.

"Come on, let's get this done and get the hell out of here."

Staying close to Chris, JD followed the older man up the slope, mindful of how slippery the rocks were from the shower above. The light spray and the rising heat had been warring for some time, resulting in air that was hot and humid. If not for the cascade from above, JD suspected the environment would have been just as insufferable as it had been before they reached the island.

When they reached the top of the slope, they looked down to realize they were standing on the rim of a crater.

The peak at its centre was almost four feet high, flattened to appear like an altar. Chris could understand why the ancient people who came here would have chosen it as the final resting place for the snake god's shield. Surrounding the peak, the bedrock was covered in large rounded grey stones, no doubt smooth after years of water erosion. Like everything else in this place, its slick wet surfaces gleamed under the dim light.

Resting against the stone altar was the Shield of Wanambi, the Snake God.

Thanks to the moisture and the illumination from the aquifer, the black opal artifact captured the light, and in this dismal place, it was a breathtaking sight. Shaped like a pellet and almost three feet tall, it reflected iridescent colours across its smoothed opal finish. It was dazzling even in this light, and Chris could imagine why the Anangu wanted this protected. Broken up into pieces, the shield's value was significant, but left it intact, it would be priceless.

"Damn it's real!" JD exclaimed excitedly, "and it's really here!"

Truth be told, he confessed to having doubts because oral histories could be notoriously unreliable, and JD was accustomed to relying on recorded texts to mark history's passage through the time. He took a step forward, preparing to descend the rim of the crater so they could claim their prize when those slick grey rocks heaved.

Not heaved, Chris realized a second later. Moved.

Mesmerized with horror, Chris watched as the armoured creatures lifted themselves onto eight spindly legs, their elongated bodies culminating in an extended prehensile tail. As he watched the prehistoric spiders catch the scent of new prey, Chris had only one thought in his mind.

JD was never coming back to Australia after this.


Unaware of what their leader and their youngest member were presently facing, the remaining members of the seven were confronted with their own difficulties in retrieving the shield of Wanambi.

Although Vin managed to stop one of the trucks or as they were known in this country, utes, from approaching, the other was still racing towards the monolith. The mercenaries that were thrown from the first ute chased the dust and smoke trail left by the remaining vehicle as it crossed the outback terrain. Even from a distance, Vin could see the group of a dozen men armed with rifles and handguns. As he peered through the sight of his own weapon, he recognized a familiar face.

"Packard's attack dog is with them!" Vin shouted over the sound of Josiah's gun firing at the trespassers.

"Rihs?" Josiah stopped shooting for a moment. He had been trying to keep the mercenaries on approach busy enough to allow Ezra, Nathan and Buck time to get into position.

"Yeah," Vin nodded, facing front as he took careful aim at the windscreen of the remaining vehicle. "Unless it's some other albino son of a bitch."

Vin had never seen Conrad Rihs himself but recognized the man from Chris's descriptions. Travelling in the circles they did, they learned Packard seldom did his dirty work nor did he unleash his gang of armed thugs like rabid dogs. When Packard sent his mercenaries into any situation, they were usually led by his trusted lieutenant, Rihs. The tall German with white-gold hair, light blue eyes and pale skin was easily mistaken for an albino, though he was not one.

Personifying Aryan purity, it was rumoured Rihs was really a member of the SS and Packard's liaison to the Third Reich. Whatever his origins, the tall German, who matched Buck in height, was as ruthless as they came. If he was here, then he intended to claim the shield for Packard, over their dead bodies.

Vin tried to take out the tyre or the driver, whichever came first. Unfortunately, with Rihs behind the wheel, expecting the attack, the vehicle veered erratically as it roared forward, making it difficult for Vin to make the shot. From the back tray of the ute, his men returned fire, unleashing an equally deadly barrage of bullets against their vantage point. The sharpshooter ducked down to avoid being struck by dangerous fragments of shattered rock.

Despite this, Vin was confident they could stave off Rihs's ambush. As it was, he could see Ezra, Nathan and Buck getting into position to join the fight. With the firepower they brought with them anticipating an attack, not to mention seizing the high ground, Vin was convinced they would have no trouble keeping Rihs and his men at bay until Chris got back.

No trouble at all.


Buck knew what it was almost immediately.

In hindsight, they should have expected Packard to take extra precautions when chasing after the same prize as Chris Larabee. Except for one stubborn archaeology professor back east, there was no one as tenacious and relentless when it came to hunting antiquities as the leader of the seven. No wonder, Packard felt the need to take out some added insurance to see the shield of Wanambi in his hands.

From his position above the ground among the boulders of Uluru facing the approaching band of mercenaries, Buck's spine stiffened at the sound rising above the bursts of gunfire. Being a pilot during the Great War, he learned how to distinguish it even with artillery shells and shooting erupting around him. Lifting his gaze to the sky, he searched the cloud for its appearance, and though he could not see it yet, Buck Wilmington knew what was coming.

Looking down from the ledge on which he was perched with his gun ready to start shooting, Buck glimpsed Nathan and Ezra making good use of their own vantage point. As always the duo was side by side, as it had been since the two met at the Oise-Aisne Offensive, bitching about something like an old married couple. On the top of the monolith, he didn't have to see Vin or Josiah to recognize their handiwork when one of Packard's men fell in midstep.

By the time it appeared through the clouds, it was loud enough for everyone to hear and Buck took a second to admire the German plane, made available to Packard by the Luftwaffe because of his affiliation with the Reich. The Bücker Bü 133 Jungmeister was usually a training craft, but as Buck studied it and saw it swooping down to make a pass at them, he realized it was going to be used for anything so benign.

"WE GOT COMPANY!"

His cry drove everyone on the rock to take cover. As Buck huddled against the large boulder he was using for the same purpose, his eyes widened when he saw something tumbling from the plane's cockpit. With dismay, Buck guessed what it was. He'd seen this payload dropped numerous times across Allied entrenchments on the Western Front. The horrific aftermath was never a sight to be easily forgotten.

"INCOMING!"

His words were cut short when the 16-pound high-explosive bomb struck a patch of dirt near the Millie. The roar was deafening as dirt, rocks and dust flew in all directions. Some of it pelted the body of the Fokker, and Buck realized if he didn't get the plane in the air, the B133 would destroy it on the ground. The idea of anything happening to the Darlin' Millie overrode any thoughts of personal safety. The Millie wasn't just an integral part of their adventures across the globe, it was his plane.

And damned if he wasn't going to let any son of a bitch blow it to kingdom come.

"COVER ME!" Buck shouted at anyone who would listen and then started running towards the plane.


The blast had temporarily deafened Ezra Standish but not enough to keep the team's procurer from hearing Buck's announcement. Both men kept their heads down when the biplane made its pass. It was followed by a cloud of dust rolled from the epicentre of the explosion. The only casualty of the first drop had been the dry landscape, and Ezra suspected it might have been a warning shot to convince them to lay down their arms. They would not be so lucky when the next bomb fell.

"What the hell is he doing?" Nathan demanded as he saw Buck leaving his place in the rocks to make a run to the plane.

"Saving the Millie no doubt," Ezra searched the air for where the biplane had gone. It was presently making a loop, preparing to attempt another run at them. Whether or not the enemy would target the Fokker was unknown, but any harm to the Millie would cripple their operation beyond repair. It then dawned on Ezra that Packard might know this too. Taking out Millie was one way of ensuring they did not get in his way again.

Whether Packard possessed such insight did not matter, Ezra knew Buck wasn't waiting to find out.

"That's crazy!" Nathan burst out watching Buck sprinting across the landscape, dodging the shots coming at him. "He's going to get himself killed! Even if he gets the plane in the air, he can't fly that thing and handle the turret at the same time!"

Ezra couldn't argue with him. There was virtually no cover between Buck and the Millie because the plane needed cleared, flat land to act as a makeshift runway. With that in mind, Ezra made a quick decision.

"Cover me!"

"Cover you?" Nathan baulked. "Are you crazy?"

"No," Ezra bit back. "I went through too much anguish procuring us that aeroplane, to begin with, I will not allow it to be destroyed and be expected to perform the Herculean feat of acquiring another."

Chapter Four:
Dad-a-chum?

Chapter Notes: Shameless homage to Stephen King to follow.

Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum? Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick?

"Did those things just talk?" JD shot Chris a look as the swarm of prehistoric spiders began moving towards them.

Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum? Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick?

Chris didn't know if the creatures were talking, but the sounds produced did sound quite human and was rather disturbing to hear from something resembling the unholy union of a spider and a scorpion.

Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum? Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick? Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum? Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick? Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum? Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick?

The conversation, whatever it was about, intensified. On closer observation, Chris noticed hundreds of eye stalks turning in their direction, scrutinizing the two humans after reaching some kind of decision. Whatever was consensus was reached between the creatures, Chris had a feeling they were not going to like it. The leader of the seven tensed, perfectly aware there were more of these prehistoric arachnids than either he or JD had bullets.

Meanwhile, in the centre of this swarm, Wanambi's Shield continued to await the outcome of its fate with indifference.

Then, like the rising swell of an impending wave about to rush to shore, the swarm moved. Hundreds of legs clicked and clacked as their carapaces rubbed against each other. They crawled towards Chris and JD, uttering that peculiar chant that sounded like gibberish and a rallying cry all at once. Chris reacted instinctively, drawing his gun and firing once into the air, to see if the echo in this cavernous place would have any effect.

BANG!

The deafening burst of sound was amplified tenfold inside the subterranean chamber and was loud enough to make both Chris and JD flinch. The creatures halted at once, startled by the alien sound and then scattered in all directions. Spreading further across the crater, their dispersing numbers produced gaps that allowed the two men to see the ground. As the spaces between the swarm thinned, the terrible fate of those who journeyed here before was finally revealed.

Bones picked clean, some existing as little more than fragments and shards, lay across the gravel and dirt. Chris identified immediately, the rounded familiarity of human skulls, jawbones and detached femurs and tibias, the remains of the ancient travellers who brought the shield to their final resting place. There were so many fragments; it was impossible determining how many people had met their doom here. It didn't matter, these creatures were not going to add two more humans to their body count.

"What do we do, Chris?" JD demanded, overriding his first impulse which was to run back to the raft and not come back.

Chris told him quickly, and JD caught on with a nod, noticing the creatures were regrouping. The sound had frightened them temporarily but had realized sound and fury did not equal harm and were turning their attention back to the prey once again.

"What about you?" JD asked, lingering for a second longer.

"I'm going to get that shield." Chris faced front, his gun in hand after replacing the spent bullet.

"How?" The younger man blurted out, not liking the sound of that one damn bit.

"I'll figure that out as I go," Chris braced himself, having some idea of how he was going to reach the shield. "You just do what I ask, so you can get me out of trouble!"

His bark sent JD running, and as the kid hurried off, Chris turned to face the stampede of arachnids coming in his direction. He took a step or two back, but not to retreat but to charge. He could make it across, but he'd have to be damn quick, and he'd almost certainly need JD's help getting out, but Chris had faith in the kid. Taking a deep breath and he reminded himself if he failed, to save one bullet for himself.

This time, there would be no warning shots.

Pulling the trigger after taking careful aim, the first shot obliterated the creature it struck. Its carapace cracked open like an egg, sending meat and grey blood in all directions. Once again, the thunderous round scattered the animals. The death of one of their own drove them back temporarily. Chris did not waste any time and sprinted forward. He made a running leap off the incline and landed on one of the arachnids, his boot pressed hard against the broad shell of its back, driving it into the ground, its legs splaying out at the sudden weight slamming against its body.

Dad-a-chum! Dum-a-chu...!

It uttered an outraged squawk which Chris did not stick around to hear repeated. He launched himself off the creature's back and landed on another. Like before, the beast had no chance to respond before Chris's weight flattened it against the crater floor. As the others tried to regroup, Chris continued forward, running through the gaps and using the animals as stepping stones in his effort to reach the shield. Looking over his shoulder, he saw no sign of JD on the rim and hoped the kid didn't take too long.

Running down the slope had given his forward momentum speed, and so he was able to use the creatures as stepping stones to reach the shield. Firing another bullet, once again obliterating another arachnid with another loud boom, the noise had the desired effect of creating a path forward. However, Chris wasn't so stupid as to believe they would not figure out how to close in on him. Besides, his supply of bullets wasn't inexhaustible.

Some of them had become bold, snapping at him with their menacing pincers as they converged on him once their disorientation passed. The shield was just ahead of him and Chris fired at arachnids coming at him from the side. The shot killed the thing outright, but others were crawling over its dead body to get to him. Sudden pain forced a grunt from his lips when one of those pincers caught the back of his calf, the injury blunted only because of his trousers. Still, Chris felt warmth spreading over his skin and knew he was bleeding.

Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum? Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick?

The chant was becoming louder and louder, more excited as if in the gibberish of their language, they were formulating some kind of plan. Chris started firing blindly, no longer trying to conserve his ammunition because he needed to reach the shield. The peak where the shield rested, was closer than the rim he just descended. His leg was still aching but Chris forced himself to move because the creatures knew they outnumbered him. Attacking from all fronts, Chris killed several more and knew he would soon need to reload.

Another snap of pincers had him uttering another groan of pain, this time at radiating from the fleshy part of his thigh. He responded to the attack with another bullet, putting it between the two eyestalks. Glancing down, he saw the flare of red across his khaki coloured pants and while the previous wound had been a mild nip, the spread of blood showed this was much worse.

Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum! Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick! Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum! Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick! Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum! Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick!

The chanting became more rapid, and they crowded him, their fear of his gun no longer a factor as something was spurring them to reach him. For the split second that he had before he jumped onto another creature's back, narrowly avoiding the pincers attempting to cut into him in outrage, he realized what had sent them into this frenzy.

Blood.

His blood had set off their ravenous hunger, and it was almost with relief when he saw the crater was only a few feet away. Chris used the last of his ammunition to clear a path to it before he finally scrambled across the flattened piece of rock. By now, the pain in his leg was becoming debilitating, and Chris hoped they hadn't nicked his artery because that could be fatal. The drops of blood left a trail and Chris barely noticed the shield as he quickly reloaded his gun. He doubted he had much time before they climbed up after him.

He sighted the first eyestalk peering over the edge of the rock and promptly fired at what passed for its face, sending it flying back to the ground. Another managed to climb over, crawling towards him with the speed of a roach before Chris lashed out with his leg and managed to kick it off the stone altar. The shield was now within reach, but Chris couldn't even admire it as he picked up the relic, struggling with its weight.

As another creature came after him, Chris thought quickly and swung the shield. The hard jewelled surface made a terrible crack against the tough shell but did the job of sending it flying off the platform Chris was using for his refuge. However, the scent of blood did little to halt the swarm as they continued to close in on him, climbing in from all directions. With one arm holding the shield and the other gripping his gun, Chris squeezed off more rounds, shooting the arachnids before they could reach him as they swarmed around him.

CRASH!

Glass shattered, drawing Chris's attention away from the swarm. He looked over his shoulder and saw JD descending the slope, holding the flare gun Chris sent him to retrieve. The leader of the seven let out a sigh of relief, and the breaking glass drew the swarm's interest away from him briefly. The fragments of the kerosene lamp disappeared among the sea of bodies, but Chris smelled the stench of petroleum even from here. The creatures, realizing there was more prey to be had, shifted their attention to JD.

"CHRIS! GET READY TO RUN!"

Easier said than done, Chris thought, his leg stinging but he kept his grip on the shield and was poised to act when JD carried out his rescue plan.

The young scholar aimed the flare gun and fired. The brilliant glare from the magnesium projectile overloaded the retinas of creatures accustomed to almost pitch-black darkness. They squealed in pain but nowhere as much as the effect of the magnesium on kerosene.

The flammable liquid ignited with a loud whoosh, setting alight the creatures who had been doused with kerosene when the lamp was broken. The others scurried away, the fire scaring them enough for Chris to make his escape. Limping and ignoring his own wounds, Chris climbed off the peak, clutching the shield under his arm as he ran into the fire, he held it in front of his body to protect himself from the flames.

As he ran through the fire, crushing more creatures underfoot, gunshots erected. This time, they came from JD's gun as the younger man cleared Chris a path towards him. With the wall of flames that would last only as long as the kerosene and JD's well-aimed shots, Chris was able to navigate the sea of carapaces to reach the slope again. The shield weighed him down, but the pain and fear of being cut to pieces by these prehistoric monsters kept him moving.

"Chris! You're hurt!"

When Chris reached him, JD knew those things would be coming after them soon enough. The fire would not last long, and there were still too many of them to fight off. Even with bullets, they were vastly outnumbered against these monstrosities.

"Here take this thing!" Chris handed him the shield and JD took it quickly, his knee bending a little until he adjusted to the weight and straightened up. The creatures regrouped again when the fire started to die out. The scent of blood replaced the noxious odour of fading kerosene.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Chris prompted as the two men hurried up the slope to the rim of the crater. Behind them, they could hear that damn chant and the skittering sounds of too many legs in pursuit after them.

Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum! Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick! Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum! Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick! Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum! Ded-a-chek? Did-a-chick!

"No argument from me! I never want to see another spider again!"

Chris couldn't blame him. As they reached the rim of the crater with the arachnids in pursuit, once again filling the air with their strange war cry, Chris doubted he'd ever feel safe around a Maine lobster either.


The first time Ezra flew in a plane, he'd thrown up. Nathan hadn't been impressed since the healer was sitting next to him at the time, but Ezra felt oddly satisfied after.

These days he was a better flyer. With the team having to travel by air to reach the exotic destinations where most of the artifacts they sought out were found, Ezra had no choice in the matter. He had to admit, it was certainly faster than months onboard a ship. However, that didn't mean he was still comfortable with the whole notion of flying thousands of feet above the ground, where crashing would mean almost certain death.

Especially when he was standing behind the trigger of a Browning .50 calibre machine gun in the aperture turret on the nose of the Millie, currently in flight.

Following Buck on board the Millie, the pilot wasted no time bringing the engines to life. As the propellers whirred into action, Ezra saw the enemy aircraft conducting its bombing run, dropping the explosive payload on Nathan and the others. He prayed silently that his friends knew how to take cover when he saw multiple blasts erupting across the sacred monument. Ezra hoped they didn't damage it too much but realized it was more likely than ever, their actual target was the treasure hunters standing between Packard and the shield.

Fortunately, Vin, Nathan and Josiah had spent enough time in the trenches of the Western Front to be familiar with aerial bombardment and took cover as soon as they saw the plane. Meanwhile, the Millie rumbled across the red earth of the barren outback, needing desperately to become airborne before the enemy came back. As it left behind the monolith, the buzzing drone of the enemy craft intensified once more, and Ezra had to only peer out the window to see it was closing in.

"BUCK! INCOMING!"

"Get to the gun!" Buck shouted back from the cockpit.

Ezra gaped down the aisle at him for a second, frozen in place as that order registered in his mind, one hand clutching on the edge of a seat to steady himself as the plane continued to gain takeoff speed. "Surely, you jest?"

"Surely, you go!" Buck shouted back. "If you don't, that Kraut plane is going to bomb us to kingdom come!"

"I can do that from here!" Ezra protested.

"No, you can't!" Buck shot him a look of exasperation. "Get moving!"

Ezra cursed as he ran toward the cockpit, wondering what on earth was he thinking when he followed Buck into the Millie. This was usually Chris or Josiah's duty to perform since Vin's tolerance for air travel was possibly worse than his. Reaching the cockpit, he saw Buck pushing the throttle as the plane achieved the velocity for takeoff. He peered through the window and saw the B113 speeding towards them.

"Buck, that craft is exceedingly close to us...!"

Buck wasn't listening, with the flaps dropped and lift achieved, the Millie soared off the ground, creating a minor dust storm as she became airborne. The B113 banked hard to avoid a collision because while the larger Fokker 20 might survive the impact, the smaller craft would not. Buck had to give its pilot credit for being able to perform the maneuver that took it out of the Millie's path for the moment. He had to do the same for Millie, angling the Fokker as soon as it reached the air, to avoid the same destructive end.

"Ezra, get to the gun! Once he gets clear, he's going to be coming at us!"

Ezra cursed once again as he dropped to the floor of the cockpit and pulled open the hatch that led to the makeshift gunnery turret Josiah had built into the plane shortly after they acquired the craft. The team's procurer had no idea what kind of preacher Josiah would have made if the man had chosen to follow his passion into the clergy, but as a mechanic, Josiah was a damned genius. He'd created a small aperture on the nose of the Millie, just before the engine, and mounted a .50 calibre machine gun to provide the aircraft with a formidable arsenal if it came under fire.

Slipping on the safety harness Josiah installed, Ezra swore once again, uttering a litany of profane statements debasing the parentage of all those responsible for putting him in this untenable spot, before sliding the hatch above him across. The roar of the wind immediately filled his ears as he stood up and cranked the gun into position, feeling his stomach lurch at the sight of the sky around him.

Not that he had much time to suffer because through the rush of air in his ears, the drone of the enemy aircrafts engines became audible. Ezra searched the sky to see the B113 flying towards them. The smaller craft was closing the distance quickly and as soon as it was in range, unleashed a barrage of bullets that made Ezra duck down to avoid being hit, like a gopher in a hole. The bullets tore across the nose of the Millie, one of them cracking the cockpit glass. Ezra craned his neck to make sure Buck was alright.

The pilot gestured with a thumbs up, and Ezra nodded in relief before taking charge of the Millie's own weapons. The Fokker did not come with a gun, so Ezra hoped to give their enemy a bit of surprise. As the B113 came into range, attempting to attack them from the side, Ezra started firing, sending a murderous hail of .50 calibre shells at the smaller craft. As it flew by, Ezra saw through the deafening roar of gunfire, its fuselage becoming riddled with the large bullets.

By now, Buck had gained enough altitude to be able to bank the Millie hard enough to fly after the smaller craft which had not been mortally wounded. However, it was now aware that this Fokker was nowhere as defenceless as previously believed. Once again, Ezra fought the disorientation at the steep turn and tried to hold down whatever lunch was in his stomach. When he'd run after Buck earlier, he'd hoped to be able to protect the craft from the main door, not be perched upon the nose like a fly on the windscreen of a car.

Of course, he had always been too damn optimistic for his own good.

To shake the Fokker from its tail, the B113 performed a corkscrew maneuver, circling the larger plane while opening fire. Once again, Ezra had to drop down into the turret to avoid getting hit while Buck performed another sharp bank to escape the fire. Ezra forced himself back into position again, his stomach telling him in no uncertain terms this abuse would not be tolerated indefinitely. Ignoring his nausea, he fired once more, sending another barrage of bullets in the direction of the smaller aircraft.

From inside the cockpit of the Millie, Buck saw Ezra shooting once again, and this time the bullets riddling the fuselage of the enemy plane did significant damage. The engine was hit because the craft started pouring out thick black smoke as it lost altitude. The B113 broke off from the dog fight as it banked hard to escape the gunfire it could not afford to sustain. However, its ability to fly was severely compromised, and Buck sighted the damage to the wing. The biplane headed towards the Fokker, its pilot struggling to maintain control.

Buck performed a barrel roll to avoid a midair collision, praying Ezra had his harness on or this was going to end very badly. As the world spun around, he saw the black trailing past him as the B113 flew past the nose of the Millie, disappearing into the sky beyond the Fokker's starboard side. The Millie was too big for these kinds of shenanigans, so Buck quickly righted the plane and was grateful to see Ezra was still in the turret. The gambler looked up and Buck winced, never realizing any human being could be so green until the cockpit window was splattered with something chunky and viscous.

Damn, he hoped he didn't have to have to clean that up.

Chapter Five:
Parlay

Vin Tanner did not like Conrad Rihs.

The albino son of a bitch reminded him of a statue, carved in marble and devoid of humanity, no different from those found in the fancy museums Alex sometimes dragged him to. Perhaps Rihs had wronged him in a previous life, and he would always be cosmically predisposed to hating the man. Maybe the asshole just pissed Vin off for leading the charge against him and his friends. Whatever the reason, Vin peered through the sight of his rifle, trying to get Rihs in his crosshairs.

Unfortunately, Rihs appeared adept at avoiding Vin's bullet.

The group of men hired by Roderick Packard had gotten as close as they could to the monolith without Vin, Josiah and Nathan cutting them down. Some had taken refuge behind the steel frame of the utes, one lying on its back like a turtle and the other having come to a halt unable to advance further. It concerned Vin he could not see what they were doing behind the second, upright vehicle. If Rihs had brought an arsenal that included a biplane, then there was no telling the destruction they were prepared to unleash to get Wanambi's Shield.

This battle was taking place in the middle of the Outback, hundreds of miles from the law or help, and Vin thought with a frown, no restraints.

At present, Rihs and his men were taking cover, including the ones who managed to escape the truck Vin had driven to a halt. Not all of them were trading gunfire, some like Rihs kept their heads down. They were trying to make for the rock which seemed reckless considering the barrage of firepower being unleashed on them. They would be cut down before they even reached the base of Uluru. Rihs was a smart son of a bitch, Vin thought, he would have been prepared for the contingency if Chris Larabee's treasure hunters got to the holy mountain first.

The biplane was meant to take them out from above, but as Ezra was so fond of saying in similar situations, was that the only card he had to play?

The sound of propellers and engines rumbled distantly and Vin looked up to see the Millie and the biplane doing battle above the skies, weaving in and out of the clouds in their mortal combat. Both planes were trading gunfire, and despite himself, Vin was grateful it was Ezra operating the gun up there, and not him. Vin was not a good flyer. Dropping his gaze back to the terrestrial fight, he supposed he ought to be grateful Buck was keeping the B113 busy.

From their high perch, the relic hunters had done damage with wounded bodies sprawled against the dry grass of the red, outback dirt. Still, Vin felt the absence of Buck and Ezra most profoundly. When a crown of white-hair appeared through the passenger window of the parked vehicle, Vin took another shot, hoping to nail the leader who ran the show. He was convinced if he took out Rihs, the fight would reach a conclusion faster.

A cracked web appeared instantly in the glass and created a corresponding effect on the driver's side window. Rihs dropped at the last minute to avoid the shot, eliciting a curse of annoyance from Vin. More gunfire was aimed at his direction, and Vin dropped down to avoid being hit. However, when he peered over the outcrop of rock protecting him, he saw Rihs had also emerged. He was standing behind a Maschinengewehr 30 machine gun with an ammunition belt attached perched on top of the utility's hood.

"Oh shit!" Vin swore and then shouted at Josiah and Nathan who were further down the monolith, laying down a barrage of gunfire at their weapons. "Watch out! He's about to.m."

He never finished the warning before the weapon fired.

The Maschinengewehr 30 capable of firing 600 to 800 rounds in less than a minute and would be modified as an aircraft weapon in less than a decade, unleashed a deadly hail of bullets at Nathan. The healer, who was the closest to the ground, was forced behind some boulders to avoid being shredded. The rapid-fire delivery kept Nathan from being able to return fire, and with that opening in their defences, Rihs men began to move in.

Josiah looked up at Vin's direction, needing guidance on how to deal with this fight that had suddenly become a battle on two fronts. Vin thought quickly and conveyed what they needed to do in two quick hand gestures. The failed seminary student nodded quickly and started shooting again, this time aiming for Mr Rihs, trying to get through the wall of gunfire produced by the M30 to give Nathan a way out of his predicament.

Meanwhile, Vin turned his attention to the men attempting to reach the base of the monolith, to come at them from a different direction. Taking aim with his Winchester, he dropped at least two men, aiming for their knees to ensure they got no further. Vin didn't want to kill them and did his best to disable them instead. Others returned fire, forcing him to duck down to avoid being hit but Vin rebounded fast, although each time he did, their progress bothered him.

Then without warning, the guns went silent.

Rihs was waving at his men to stop shooting, and within a few seconds, the explosive bursts from numerous guns stopped. Only the gunfire of the planes in the air still remained, but they seemed distant. As the smoke from the discharged weapons disappeared, Vin looked down at Josiah and Nathan who were staring at him puzzled, trying to figure out what was happening. Vin had an idea, but he gestured to his friends to standby, at least until Rihs made his play.

"Mr Tanner! Can we parlay?"

Okay, this was new.


Vin exchanged a glance with Josiah who was taking his shots from a rock shelf a little further down. The older man shrugged, undecided about what ought to be done and chose to leave it in his hands. Nathan, who emerged from the boulders he used for cover, showed him the same reaction. In Chris's absence, it was his call.

Vin wished otherwise because negotiation was Ezra's wheelhouse, not his. Then again, at present their procurer was in the air, most likely introducing the clouds and birds to what he'd eaten for breakfast, so Vin supposed he could try.

"If parlay is a fancy word for talking, go ahead!"

"Can I be assured if I take a step closer, you will not open fire? We are civilised men, after all." Rihs shouted.

"I won't blow your head off if that's what you mean!"

"It is!" Rihs's head bobbed back and forth to show his trust in Vin's word. He emerged from behind the utility and walked a few dozen feet closer to the rock, mostly so he could be heard without having to shout. His men were holding positions, their guns aimed at the treasure hunters in case someone broke the terms of this temporary ceasefire.

"That's far enough," Vin warned when Rihs stepped into the shadow cast by the rock. "I can hear you just fine."

"Very well then," Rihs stopped, and Vin decided up close, the Kraut pissed him off even more. "There is no need for this unpleasantness. We are willing to pay you for the shield. Mr Packard will match and double, even treble any offer promised for the delivery of the shield."

"That's mighty generous of you, but I'm going to have to say no. This ain't about money and the person you should be horse-trading with isn't here."

"Yes," Rihs answered, appearing to look thoughtful. "And where would Mr Larabee be right now. I cannot help but notice you are all not here."

"Where he is, doesn't matter," Vin stated, not about to let the man know Chris was at this moment retrieving the shield, although he suspected Rihs guessed it already. "There ain't no deal to make. The shield is going to the people whom it belongs to."

"And how long will it be before we take it from them?" Rihs asked.

"That ain't our problem," Vin replied. "So it's best you just pull up stakes and leave. We don't want to kill you, but if you come any further, I can't make that promise."

Rihs burst out laughing. "Mr Tanner, you may have the high ground, but you are deluded if you believe you are in a position of advantage."

"LOOK!"

Vin didn't recognise the voice shouting, he knew what it was that got them so excited. The buzzing drone of the plane propellers which had become background noise during their firefight suddenly grew louder. The first plane to appear out of the clouds was the biplane. It trailed a thick cloud of smoke as it struggled to remain afloat.

"Its engines have been hit!" Vin heard Josiah call out.

Vin supposed if anyone would know it would be Josiah. The oldest of them was responsible for the maintenance of all their vehicles, including the Millie.

It was apparent the biplane was going to make a rough landing when it arched across the sky. Was it the same for the Millie? Then as if in answer to a prayer, the Fokker F20 appeared showing no signs of any damage capable of grounding her. Unlike the B113, whose landing point or crash site was anyone's guess, the Millie was headed straight for them.

As soon as the plane's snub nose dipped towards them in its descent, Vin registered Ezra behind the machine gun a split second before the procurer started raining gunfire on their assailants, unaware of their current detente. The men behind the utility reacted in kind, aiming their guns at the approaching aircraft while Rihs deciding this parlay was over, ran back to join them.

"Cover them!" Vin ordered, and soon all three of them were shooting again, sending more deadly fire at the enemy now assailed from the ground and air.

More and more men started to tumble into the dirt as Rihs was forced to divide his forces, unable to stand up against the united assault. Sand and rocks erupted like geysers as the aircraft's gun ripped across the ground in its race to the enemy. Rihs's men scattered as the gunfire reached them. The discordant behaviour allowed Vin, Nathan and Josiah to pick them off quickly. By the time the Millie circled around for another attack, too many of Rihs's men lay sprawled across the desert, wounded.

Rihs stopped running. The tall German surveyed the scene around him, taking in the sight of his injured man, the other upturned truck and even the pillar of smoke in the distance, the result of the biplane's crash. Raising his eyes to the monolith, he stared at Vin as if marking the moment as significant. From where he was poised behind the sight of his gun, Vin suspected Rihs was making a promise that would not bode well for him or his comrades in the future.

Then just as suddenly, Rihs snapped out of his fugue and shouted the order Vin and the others recognised without having to hear the words spoken.

Retreat.

"Hold your fire!" Vin shouted although he doubted he needed too. Like himself, Josiah and Nathan had only aimed to wound Rihs's men instead of killing them outright unless it was unavoidable. They certainly wouldn't be putting any bullets in anyone's back.

Rihs headed towards the truck riddled with holes, still motioning his men to do the same. The M30 used earlier to such good effect lay across the ground, forgotten. If Rihs made one step towards it, Vin would end the son of a bitch. The sharpshooter's compassion only went so far. Fortunately, Rihs's only plan at this point was to leave, recognising the numbers against him since his ace in the hole, the biplane, was now a black spot somewhere in the Outback.

Vin doubted Rihs counted on Buck Wilmington's determination to save Millie or the plane's ability to defend itself.

As the Millie appeared in the sky once more, the truck roared to life intending to leave the area. At this point, Rihs was unaware if the Fokker was making another attack run or landing, either way, he didn't intend staying around to find out. Before Rihs climbed into the front passenger seat of the ute, the mercenary paused long enough to stare across the empty plain, to look directly at Vin. Even though he was too far away for Vin to see what he was trying to convey, Vin had no doubt it was him Rihs was addressing.

Rihs offered him a short salute, and Vin knew immediately something had been set in motion between them even as the truck started moving away.

Whatever it was, Vin was sure he wasn't going to like it.


"That turned out better than I thought," Josiah said when they descended from the monolith to greet Ezra and Buck when the Millie finally touched down.

In the aftermath, all that remained was the upturned truck and the column of dark smoke rising in the distance. Once Vin had ensured Rihs and his men had vanished over the horizon and didn't try to sneak back, he rested easier and climbed down the revered monument to the ground below.

"Yeah," Vin nodded, still a little bothered by his exchange with Rihs. There was something personal about the way the man saluted him, some menace he couldn't discern. Vin wished Chris were here because the leader of their team always seemed to have a better understanding of such things than Vin himself. "I think Chris is right, I think Packard and that Rihs fella are gonna be a problem for us in the future."

"I think the future is on a crash course myself," Josiah shrugged as the Millie's engines sputtered to a stop. "Packard works for the Nazis, and they're starting fires everywhere."

"You think Miss Julia is right?" Nathan asked next to him. The lady spy had mentioned the intelligence community's growing alarm with the rise of Nazi Germany in Europe. With Japan and China engaged in war and Benito Mussolini flexing his muscles in Italy, not to mention Franco's rise in Spain, things were starting to get ugly. "That we might be headed for another war?"

"It looks like it," Vin shrugged, not liking what that would mean for him. Except for Chris, Buck and Josiah, all of them would be drafted. He'd fought in the Great War, and that was bad enough, he didn't like the idea of seeing JD in that kind of situation. Of course, if there was a fight, none of them would stay out of it, but that would mean a forced separation.

"I say we worry about that calamity when the time comes," Josiah spoke up as the Millie's propellers slowed to a stop. He understood their worry and didn't wish to see any of his friends, no family, on the battlefield again. However, it was a situation out of their hands and worrying about it when it was still an intangible was pointless.

"Good idea," Nathan shook the thought out of his head when he noticed the state of the MIllie's cockpit window. "What the hell is that?"

"I don't know," Vin stifled a smirk but knew exactly what it was. "But I don't think Buck will be letting Ezra anywhere near Millie's guns for a while."

"Damn," Nathan winced, recalling what kind of flyer Ezra was and realising the acrobatics the Millie would have had to perform to fight the biplane would not have aided matters with Ezra handling the gun. "I better break out the Pepto."

The main doors of the Millie swung open and emerged first, was Ezra. The usually dapper southerner looked green to the gills and paused at the doorway, taking a deep breath of the dry, outback air before prompt leaning out and throwing up again.

"Ughh..." Vin made a face. "That's ain't pretty."

"Ezra, are you alright?" Nathan hurried to his best friend, his usual jibes at such opportune moments, cowered into submission by his healer's instincts.

Ezra's language silenced them all.

"There ain't no call for you to be cussing at us like that," Nathan frowned approaching Ezra who had exited the Millie and was leaning against the fuselage. His eyes were closed, and his head tilted back trying to recuperate from his traumatic ordeal.

"Leave me alone," Ezra grumbled, "I wish to expire in peace."

"Not today," Nathan smiled. "I'll get you some Pepto for your stomach and soap for your mouth."

"You are not my friend. You're some miscreant that happened along my path. If you had any pity, you would kill me now and put me out of my misery."

"Ezra, I swear you are cleani...." Buck Wilmington's booming voice stopped short when he stepped through the doors and spotted the rest of his friends. "Oh hey, you boys all right?"

"Yeah, we're fine," Vin spoke up. "Thanks to you both. The Millie showing up like the cavalry, shook them up some."

"Well my baby's a little heavy, but she got it where it counts," Buck patted the metal hull with affection.

"She took a bit of damage," Josiah noted out as he inspected the bullet holes in the fuselage. He was just as protective about the Millie as Buck, since it was Josiah who was responsible for her maintenance and the repair of any damage.

"Not enough to cause us hurt," Buck stepped aside and allowed Nathan to enter the Millie to retrieve his medical kit.

"Did you catch where Packard's men were before you landed?" Vin inquired, wanting to make sure Rihs wasn't going to double back on them or anything since they would have to stay put here.

"As far as I could tell, they were headed straight for Alice," Buck answered, having surveyed the area when he started his landing. "Don't know where the other plane went though. I didn't see any parachute so the pilot may not have made it out."

"Well that's their problem," Vin stated coldly. "Just want to make sure they don't try to surprise us."

Chris and JD had yet to come back with the shield and judging by the way Josiah was examining the Millie, the mechanic would want to check the plane out thoroughly before they flew again. Vin couldn't say he minded Josiah's insistence on this point. The last thing they needed was to discover a problem when they were flying over the North Atlantic.

But Buck wasn't listening because no sooner than the comment escaped him, Buck was pushing past Vin and hurrying towards the monolith. When Vin turned around, he understood why. A glint of something too bright caught him in the eye and Vin had to avert his gaze. Once the gleam diminished, Vin realised it was more than just the distant flash of light that sent the big man running towards the sacred rock.

It was Chris and JD.

Chris was using the shiny object as a crutch while JD's hand was gripped around his upper arm to provide him with support. As Vin and Buck closed in, leaving Nathan to tend to Ezra while Josiah continued to examine the condition of the MIllie, the sharpshooter noticed the soot and dirt covering both men's clothes and skin. They had emerged from the far side of the rock, using the path leading into the cavern below ground in their search for the shield.

"Chris, what happened?" Buck demanded and like Vin realised what Chris was using as a crutch was the shield in all its priceless and iridescent glory. "Is that the..."

"Yeah," Chris managed a smile, "that's the shield."

"You're hurt," Vin stated simply, thinking both men looked as if they just climbed out of a furnace. There was a stain of blood on the lower half of Chris's left pant leg, and though Vin couldn't see the injury, he suspected it was more severe than Chris would admit to if he needed JD's help to walk.

"It's nothing that won't heal," Chris was glad to see the others had fared well in their absence. "We got any trouble from Packard?"

"Nothing we couldn't handle," Vin replied, eyeing Chris with concern as Buck liberated the shield from Chris and handed it to him. The thing was heavy, and Chris would do much better with Buck's help walking. "Mr Rihs and some hired guns tried to make trouble, but we held them off."

"Don't forget those crazy emus," Buck reminded.

JD snorted. "Spiders, lobsters, giant lizards and now crazy big birds. This whole continent is trying to kill us. Can we go home now?"

Before either Buck or Vin asked for an explanation, Chris cut them off, shaking his head at the same time. "Tourists."

Chapter Six:
Mrs Recillos

Life could be strange.

When Inez was eighteen years old, living in Val Verde, she was raised by a mother whose bitter relationship with her father, meant a constant reminder of why their lives were not better. In those days, she wanted nothing more than to travel the world and leave that resentment behind. She loved Paloma Vega but hearing the daily barrage of complaints against her father Roberto made Inez wonder if perhaps her mother didn't hate her a little for being his child.

It was why she ran away to join the fight of La Cristiada.

The conflict of the Cristero War, a rejection by Mexico's religious population against the mandated secularism of the Calles Regime, had raged from its introduction in 1917. Like all Mexican girls growing up in an agricultural community, she was raised Catholic. Inez was never a staunch believer, finding priests too quick to label women with thoughts of their own as wantons or disruptors, however by eighteen she tired of living at home and saw the fight as a way to escape home. Inez loved her mother Paloma, but their relationship was tainted by Paloma's disdain towards Roberto.

At first, her role in Brigadas Feminanas was mostly to facilitate the movement of money, supplies and ammunition to Cristero strongholds. This was easy enough to do because of her voice. Singing opened doors for her, giving her access to military camps and hospitals where she entertained troops and robbed them of supplies when they weren't looking. The first time she wore a chalecos, a vest used for smuggling munitions, exhilaration rushed through her because of the danger, not the cause.

Inez was no devout, but the fight taught her much and challenged her view of life, of what it meant to be a woman in a world built by men. She learned it was pointless to blame men for all the ills of her life when she possessed the power to change her destiny. By the time she was twenty-two, she was a nurse working on wounded Cristeros in caves and mountain encampments. They, in turn, taught her how to shoot guns, set explosives and stand up to Federales chasing her and her pious sisters through the jungle.

It was during these turbulent times she met Bernado Recillos.

During their nights at the camp in Laguna, Inez would entertain her comrades by singing and playing her vihuela, a traditional stringed instrument. Bernado who was present for one of her performances was enchanted. To Inez, he was the handsome, brave soldier who was also kind and intelligent. He was the only son of a religious studies Professor, prosecuted and jailed for his beliefs that one should worship how they pleased, without the government's interference.

They fell in love despite the conflict tearing their country apart.

While she managed to maintain her anonymity, for that was the Brigadas Feminanas' most important rule - secrecy. Bernado was known to the Federales and could seldom remain in one place for long, but they still met when possible. Yet when they were together, they would sit watching the stars, talking about the world outside Mexico, the places they would visit together. Before he became a rebel, he was a student learning languages and wished to return to it once the war was over. He promised to show her the world.

Inez didn't need that much from him, just the promise of being together forever. He was her first love, and if he did not make her bitter and angry as her mother had been at her father, Inez would be content with that.

When Inez fell pregnant, Bernado was delighted, even though the realities of their situation meant she could not continue as an active soldier for the cause. Inez saw no difficulty in this. The life they created together was something she would protect as fiercely as the right to worship. Besides, she could continue to serve even in her delicate condition. Scores of other women across Mexico fought for the Cristeros without needing to be on the battlefield.

They married in secret at a small chapel outside Tula.

By the time little Roberto Benardo Recillos entered the world, the war was almost on the verge of ending. Inez returned home to Val Verde, and despite Paloma's acidic tongue saying otherwise, her mother was pleased to see her home. Together, they raised Benny and to Inez's surprise, her relationship with Paloma strengthened. The years apart had allowed both women to see life from each other's perspective and in that understanding, they found common ground.

When the war did end, Bernado returned home, and though Inez tried to help him, there was no denying the difficulty he found in adjusting to civilian life again. His search for work took him away from Val Verde, and Inez found she was raising little Benny on her own. Despite this, her love for him remained as strong as ever, even though she was aware Paloma feared history repeating itself. The old woman did not wish Inez to live her life, resenting a husband who was never present and projecting her anger onto a child who would flee to escape it.

Then, at the behest of an old university friend, Bernado was offered a translating job in Europe. Although she envied his journey, Inez feared it as well. Something had not felt right about the whole affair, but Bernado promised her, this could be the start of a new life. When he was settled, she and Benny would join him in Prague. Bidding him farewell, Inez watched him board the plane that would take him to Czechoslovakia, feeling a tightening in her chest she couldn't explain.

She heard nothing further from him for months. Inez assured herself he was fine. After the war, she knew how capable he was of looking after himself. However, when the weeks stretched into months without even a letter, Inez began to worry. Her investigations into his whereabouts offered more reason for concern when she realised just how little he'd told her about this supposed 'job'.

Inez didn't even know the name of the friend who made him this offer and her request for information from the Mexican Consulate in Prague, revealed no information about Bernado after he set foot in the city. Inez suspected the worst but there was little she could do about it. She had little money and an infant to support. Her mother Paloma was ill, making it impossible for her to leave a child in the older woman's care. There was nothing she could do but wait.

Three months after he vanished, Inez received a package.

It did not come to her through any conventional means. Instead, it was delivered by Father Garcia and had come from some forgotten place in Soviet Russia, care of the Tula chapel where she and Bernado were married. The brief note that accompanied it told Father Garcia, who was the intended recipient and the priest accustomed to clandestine dealings during the war, saw it delivered to her in secrecy.

When Inez received the gift, she had no idea what to make of it.

It was a necklace, fashioned from bronze and crystal and while exquisite in its design and craftsmanship, was not at all valuable. The pendant which was the most unusual thing about it was a piece of translucent crystal with distinctive markings etched across its face. Bernado's brief message to Inez did not illuminate the mystery of it or his current whereabouts. All that was contained in the short note was his promise he would be home soon and that he loved her. He wanted to see her wear the necklace when he came home.

He would never get the chance.

Two years later, Inez resigned herself to the reality Bernado was dead. Her mother had died in the spring of 1935 from a stomach tumour, leaving Inez the family home which the young widow maintained with her job as a cook in one of the restaurants in Val Verde. Alone, struggling to raise her son, Inez no longer played the vihuela or sang the songs of her youth. She had no desire to marry again, even though she did not lack suitors. She was beautiful, but her love was intended for the son Bernado left her.

Out of nowhere, she received a surprise letter from her father's lawyer in America. Roberto Vega had passed away and left her his bar. It was a chance at a new life, and Inez took it, even if she found his only request for her acceptance of her inheritance somewhat puzzling.

To always take care of the seven men who were his best customers.


PALOMA'S BAR - A WEEK LATER

The night before I went to your house,

I hit the padlock three times,

You have a heavy sleep.

Oh! Sandunga, Sandunga

Mama, for God's sake.

Sandunga, don't be ungrateful,

Mom of my heart.

You offered to accompany me

From the church to my hut,

But since you did not arrive

I had to come alone.

On the banks of the Papaloapam

I was taking a bath yesterday,

You passed by the banks

And you did not want to see.

It was Emily Wilmington who told Buck a long time ago, a woman's heart was an infinite universe of stars, and every twinkle of light held its own secret. The first time he heard Inez Recillos strum her guitar and sing in that achingly sweet voice of hers, he knew he wanted to chart every one of them.

His friends called Inez was his Holy Grail, the woman he only wanted because she wouldn't give him the time of day. Buck's motives were nowhere that shallow. So much of her was familiar to him. Beneath the fierce mother cub who would defend her child to her last breath and no-nonsense businesswoman was someone whose heart was far more fragile than she would have most believe.

His mother was like that.

Like Inez, Emily was fierce and proud, even though she raised him in a cathouse, and though she claimed to beyond the insults of society, Buck knew every unkind word made her bleed. Yet she loved him and gave him the best life she could in her situation. When she passed, the hole she left in his heart was a void he tried to fill with too many women who never quite measured up until Roberto's daughter took charge of Paloma's.

When Inez sang her songs, the haunting melody of her voice broke his heart every time he heard it. More than anything in this world, he wanted to take the sadness in it away, just as he wished he could have taken it away from Emily.

The burst of applause around him snapped Buck out of his thoughts and back to the present. From his chair at the seven's favourite table at Paloma's, he saw the audience clapping with appreciation when the song had concluded showing clearly they would like more. Buck joined in the applause and swept a glance at those present. Ezra was looking dapper as ever in a black and white tuxedo, preparing for a night at the gaming tables. Josiah was at the bar getting drinks, while Vin was seated next to Alex, his arm draped around her shoulder in affection.

Still, their number was not whole.

Despite Buck's efforts to convince JD otherwise, Buck could not get him to abandon his plans to work on a paper he needed to submit for his college matriculation. Even though the kid travelled the world with them, receiving a better education through their adventures than any found in a book, JD still needed to do the work to get his degree. So instead of living it up with his friends tonight, JD was at a university library studying. Meanwhile, Chris was at the ranch, being fussed over by Nettie Wells who intended to nurse him back to health whether he wished for it or not.

Buck only hoped Nathan's promise to check on him would keep his old friend from homicide if he got ornery enough.

Inez stepped away from the small space set aside for the stage, choosing not to give the audience an encore. As always, she wore traditional Mexcian clothing that included a white embroidered peasant blouse, a flowing red skirt and a flower in her hair. Carrying her vihuela, she looked as if she stepped out of another century.

"My friends, I'm afraid your drinks do not serve themselves!" She declared to her patrons who reacted to the banter with laughter. Inez flashed them all a radiant smile of farewell before she surrendered the stage to the four-piece band who were ready to resume their set after a well-deserved break. Lively music soon broke out, attracting couples to the dance floor.

"Darlin', that was beautiful," Buck stood up from his chair when she approached their table. "You sang like the prettiest songbird I ever saw. Maybe you can sing for me sometimes," he gave her a look of suggestion. "In private."

"I'm sorry Senor," Inez returned smoothly, more than accustomed to these invitations by now and fairly adept at sidestepping them by now. "I'm afraid I do not do private shows."

"Then maybe I can serenade you," Buck insisted, not about to cry defeat yet. "I can sing you an awfully pretty love song."

Ezra Standish, who was sipping cognac from a snifter choked in mid-swallow. "Mr Wilmington, I feel obligated to intervene on Inez's behalf having heard your vocal stylings. Serenading is not your best accomplishment."

"Depending on where I am, when I'm doing it," Buck threw Ezra a grin.

"Oh God," Alex groaned. It never ceased to amaze her the height of Buck's arrogance, mainly where it came to his prowess with the opposite sex. "You have no shame."

"Most women love that," Buck enjoyed provoking Alex's distaste. Although they often teased each other, Buck was glad to see Alex here tonight. Since Alex had become an intern at a local hospital, she and Vin struggled to spend time together. Tonight was the first free evening she had since their return from Australia and Buck was glad Alex could join them.

"So how about it, Inez?"

Inez exchanged a look with Alex, one universally shared by all women when dealing with a troublesome man. Her expression shifted to one of infinite patience when she regarded Buck again. Since her arrival in America, and taking over her father's bar, Inez had become more than accustomed to Buck's less than subtle invitations. Most of the time, she found them more amusing than irritating. She was sure his pursuit had to do with her immunity to his charms than any real affection. Like the greyhound at the track. Once it caught the rabbit, the dog lost all interest in the chase. However, Inez did not intend to sacrifice her virtue just to neuter his interest.

In truth, as exasperating as the man could be, she did find him sweet and charming. Of course, men like him traded on those qualities to bed as many women as he could, and while Inez could not deny he was attractive, there were too many shadows left in her heart to bring any new light to it.

"Some other time Senor Buck," she said good-naturedly. "Besides, it is a school night, and I promise Benny I will tuck him in bed."

"Hey, I can help you with that! Kids love me."

"Since when?" Vin blurted out, voicing everyone's unspoken thought.

"I did alright with you, didn't I?" Buck returned, refusing to have his skills as a potential father decried in front of Inez. He was quick to remind Vin how young Vin had been when he wandered onto the Western Front.

"If doing alright was telling me which French brothel had the cleanest girls, I guess you did," Vin threw him a smirk.

"You did not," Ezra glared at Buck reproachfully. During the war, Vin's care had mostly fallen to him and Chris and had that revelation been made at the time, Buck wouldn't have to worry about German planes shooting him down, Chris would have done it himself.

"These are important things to know!" Buck protested.

"I'm sure," Inez laughed, enjoying these men and their foolishness.

After meeting them herself, she understood why her father cared for these men so much and asked her to pay special attention to their care in his establishment. It was equally pleasant they had become her extended family in America. They showed her the same regard as her late father with Ezra evolving into the protective older brother she never had, and Josiah, a surrogate father in Roberto's absence. Even Alex and Mary Travis when she was in town, provided Inez with the female friendships she missed since leaving the Brigadas Feminanas.

"Maybe another time, Senor."

"I ain't gonna give up on you Miss Inez," Buck declared as she drifted towards the bar, watching her departure with longing.

"Give it up Mr Wilmington," Ezra advised with a knowing smirk. "The lady is devoted to her son and has far too much sense to be swayed by your charms."

Buck let out a sigh of disappointment but he was determined not to give up. Even as he watched her leave, brushing past Josiah who was approaching the table, Buck knew what he felt for her was no aberration. He knew the difference between the chase and genuine affection and what he felt for Inez was certainly the latter. His friends could make all the jokes they wanted, but he knew how he felt, and if it required a bit of patience, he could wait her out.

Alex noticed his silence and was struck by the possibility his feelings for Inez may be something more profound. As much as they teased each other, she knew he had real affection for the women he bedded and always made clear his intentions to them. Still, she was aware of why Inez held not just Buck but all suitors at arm's length. Perhaps it was time Buck was told why Inez was keeping her distance, if only to give the widow some peace from his constant invitations.

"Buck," Alex spoke up after a moment, "It's not that she doesn't want to date, she's not ready to believe she's a widow yet."

"What?" Buck stared at her. "What does that mean?"

"It means," Ezra agreed with Alex it was time to let Buck on this little bit of information for the sake of Buck's sanity. "Her husband is missing, presumed dead. She does not know for certain."

That was news to him.

"What? How come I didn't know this?" Buck scowled at the faces of his friends in accusation. It was bad enough they hadn't said a word about Inez having a little boy, but this omission felt like a conspiracy. It also made his heart sink a little, realising that Inez was still mourning for her husband, who might not be dead at all, just missing. It explained the source of her sadness, not the loss of him but the lack of knowledge regarding his fate.

"Roberto told me before he died," Josiah, who just returned to the table with his drink stated. "Inez's husband disappeared back in '32. He took off to Europe and never came back. He was supposed to have gone to Czechoslovakia for a translating job and disappeared. She tried finding him, but no luck since."

As much as he detested the idea of her husband returning from the dead, Buck hated it more she was trapped in the limbo of not knowing. How could she move on if she had no answers? Nothing provoked Buck's nobler sentiments than coming to the aid of a lady.

"So what are we doing about it?"

"We?" Vin stared at him, bewildered by the question. "What can we do about it?"

"Come on!" Buck exclaimed all fired up, now that he had a quest to fulfil. "We chase things through history when no one has a clue where it might be! We do that almost every second week! You're telling me, we can't find one missing husband?"

Vin had to admit Buck did have a point. Thanks to their adventures across the globe, Chris and Ezra had contacts all over the place. Now with Mary and the resources of her paper available to them, it was possible they could help Inez solve her problem.

"He's got a point," Vin glanced at Josiah and Ezra.

"He does," Josiah agreed. "If he was supposed to take on a translation job, that narrows the field quite a bit, especially in our line of work."

"See!" Buck said excitedly. "We can help her! I mean Ezra you got more friends in Europe than anyone at this table, Not to mention you date a spy."

Ezra straightened up and looked around him, making sure no one heard that little morsel of truth before glaring at Buck again. "A little louder Mr Wilmington. CANADA did not hear you."

"You know what I mean," Buck gave him a withering look.

Ezra considered it silently for a moment. Under normal circumstances, he would be loathed to intrude on anyone's business, but if there was a chance he could get Inez the answers she needed, perhaps even help her find closure, then he was compelled to help.

"Alright," he conceded defeat. "I'll see what we can do, but say nothing to Inez until we have something to offer her. The last thing I wish to do is disappoint Inez with any false hopes."

Chapter Seven:
Saturday Night

He was supposed to be studying neo-Assyrian cuneiform.

Instead, he was peering over the top of the book he was studying, A.R George's translation of Gilgamesh, at a girl. She was seated at the next table at the library, engrossed in a book almost as thick as the one he should be reading about the goddess Ishtar. Brown eyes scanned the yellowed pages of the leather-bound book, while her chestnut coloured hair was styled in a neat bob that suited her very well in JD's opinion. She wore a pink polka dot dress with pilgrim collar, with the cutest button nose he'd ever seen.

So far, his gawking had gone unnoticed, and JD wondered what he would say if he actually spoke to her. Buck Wilmington had taught him everything there was to know about women, and shortly after that Ezra Standish told him to forget all of it. What worked for Buck was specific to a man with all the confidence in the world and the devil's own charm. It was not a one size fits all instruction, Ezra advised wisely.

It was almost seven o'clock on a Saturday night, and though JD wished he could join the others at Paloma's, he'd done the responsible thing by coming to the library and studying for the exam he would have to take on Monday with Professor Travis. Even though he knew he would be travelling with Chris Larabee and the rest of his friends for the foreseeable future, JD still wanted to get his degree. His mother saved her hardest, going without so he could go to college, and JD intended to honour her wishes. Besides, the group ever retired, unlikely as that might be, JD wanted to continue his career in the field.

He'd been here for most of the day, pouring over stacks of titles, scribbling notes and trying to apply some of what he'd seen abroad with the content of the books. After where he'd been at Chris's side, JD couldn't deny it felt painfully dull. Still, the work needed to be done, and he threw himself into it. He was doing fine until an hour ago when she walked in.

The library at the University at Albuquerque was virtually empty on a Saturday night, with most of its students enjoying the weekend. JD hadn't expected anyone to be here, save one librarian who appeared to be conducting an overhaul of the filing system, so he had the place to himself. It was to his surprise when he heard the clacking of heels across the marble floor, followed by the sashaying of a full skirt as the girl walked by. Their eyes met briefly in acknowledgement as she passed him and went to the unoccupied table in front of his own.

Now an hour later, he had yet to say a word, even though he'd tried out a few lines in his head for effect. None of them seemed right, and JD frowned, wondering if he ought to give up altogether and become a monk.

"So, are you going to talk to me, or are you going to keep staring all night?"

Her eyes had not shifted from the pages of her book, but there was no doubt the comment was meant for him. JD frowned, a little embarrassed at being caught staring and needed a few seconds to think of something witty to say. He didn't want to sound like a chump, but he didn't want to appear insincere either.

"Well I was trying to figure out how to tell you, you've got something stuck in your teeth."

Where the hell had that come from? JD groaned inwardly.

The comment made the girl look up at him in disbelief, before breaking into a smile. Not just any smile but a killer smile. A bullet to the brain, waiter can I have the check, this goose is cooked, hold the phone smile that made his heart skip a beat.

"Liar," she returned with a laugh.

"Okay," JD smiled back, "you got me."

The empty chair next to her shifted when she kicked one of its legs gently inviting him to join her. "We're not supposed to make noise in a library."

"Right," JD got to his feet and took up the seat offered. "I'm JD."

"Nice to meet you, JD," she offered him her hand. "I'm Casey."

JD took it and felt another surge of excitement by the warmth of her palm against his. Up close, she was even prettier, and JD wondered what a girl like this was doing alone in a library on a Saturday night. Some fella must have asked her out, If she was his girl, JD knew he would not be leaving her to languish on date night.

"So I got a makeup exam to take on Monday so that's why I'm here, but you gotta have something better to do tonight?"

"I like the library on Saturday nights," she returned. "It's quiet, I usually have the place to myself, and most of the reference books I need to study aren't checked out by anyone. What about you?"

"Oh, I don't have a choice," JD shrugged. "I have to sit for an Advance Classical Language exam on Monday. I'm just here boning up."

"Advanced Classical Language?" She raised a brow in surprise. "I take that class. How come I've never seen you?"

"I don't come to classes," JD explained, feeling a little annoyed for once he wasn't attending classes like a typical college student. He would have liked to have seen her there. "I do work for the university that keeps me out of town most of the time. Professor Travis fixed it so I only have to hand in the assignments and take the exams."

"Oh my Aunt Nettie works for someone who does the same thing..." she started to say when JD cut her off realising who she was talking about.

"No kidding! Nettie Wells is your aunt?" JD exclaimed in wonder at realising she was the niece of the no-nonsense army nurse he saw on the few visits to Chris Larabee's ranch. "I work with Chris Larabee."

"You work with Mr Larabee?" Her eyes widened in excitement. "I've been living at the dorm for the last few months, but I go out to his ranch sometimes. Usually when Nettie needs help cleaning up the place when he's gone."

"Wow," JD leaned back in his chair, marvelling how small the world could be. "I can't believe we never ran into each other."

'We have now," she flashed a look of radiance. "I guess I'll have to go up there more often."

"Me too," he grinned, suddenly no longer interested in Assyrian cuneiform. "So how long do you plan on hanging around here?"

Casey smiled, closing her book and eyeing him coyly. "Depends."

"On what?"

"On what you have in mind. Though I got to be back at my dorm by ten."

JD remembered that for girls, they had to be indoors by ten o'clock although he'd dated one or two who knew how to sneak back into their rooms after curfew. It didn't matter. He liked Casey and didn't want to get into trouble. Girls could get expelled if caught breaking curfew and having almost suffered such a fate himself, JD didn't wish to risk her academic future on their first date.

Besides, three hours was plenty of time to go someplace fun and get her back to her dorm in time.

"That's fine," JD agreed, getting to his feet and extending his hand to help her stand. "I got a motorcycle, I can get you back in plenty of time."

"A motorcycle?" She paused gathering up her books and gave him a long look. "You know Aunt Nettie says I ought to be careful with fellas riding those things. They might be dangerous."

"Dangerous, huh?" JD laughed, liking the sound of that. "Believe me, after what I've seen, a motorcycle is the least dangerous thing in my life."


While everyone was enjoying the evening downstairs, Buck Wilmington took the opportunity to slip away.

He'd spotted Inez leaving the counter shortly after her song, assigning the bartending duties to one of the girls she employed to slip upstairs. He gave her about fifteen minutes before he followed her up, not wishing to intrude in her time with little Benny. Since learning about her husband's disappearance, Buck had wanted to apologise, realising just how difficult it had to be for her. He'd had front row tickets for Chris's bereavement after Sarah and Adam had died, and knew it had to be worse for her, not knowing if her husband was alive or dead.

It made him somewhat embarrassed by his behaviour towards her to date.

No matter how misjudged he was by his friends regarding the lady, Buck knew his heart. It was not something given away lightly. The first time he saw Inez, he was done for. Hook, line and sinker. Approaching her, however, was no easy thing. She wasn't like the women he usually dated. This one had depths he could not fathom, and tonight, he realised how much of it was due to pain. Fortunately, dealing with people suffering from an unimaginable loss was something Buck had plenty of experience.

Leaving behind the music and chatter below, he ascended the steps to see Inez emerge from Benny's room, having just said goodnight to her little boy by the looks of it. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of him, and Buck guessed she thought he'd come up here to make some lame attempt to get another date. Her annoyance was justified even if her conclusion was wrong.

"Senor Wilmington," her tone was not quite hard, but it was definitely hostile, and Buck couldn't blame her for it. He hadn't given her any reason to expect this private audience would be about anything other than another attempt to get her to go out with him.

"Inez, can I talk to you a second?" He asked, gesturing towards the suite of rooms the seven used as their private den.

"I really don't have time for this," Inez returned, thinking the man had to be crossing some boundaries by following her upstairs like this. While she found him attractive and funny, often intriguing, there were claims to her heart she was not ready to give up, and his advances only drove it home more.

"I know," he nodded, "but I'd appreciate it. I swear, I don't plan on making any moves or giving you a line, I just have something to say in private."

Now she was curious because his tone was different than what she had become accustomed to from him. There was no charm or mischief in it, just sincerity and it surprised Inez how affecting that was. Then again, this was how Bernado won her heart, by being sincere. Shaking the notion out of her head, Inez ignored her baser instinct and decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"Alright," she agreed with a nod and followed Buck into the suite.

Thanks to Ezra Standish's silent partnership with her father, Paloma's had remained afloat during the worst years of the Crash. After Inez's arrival, Ezra had given the business a fresh infusion of cash in exchange for the use of the unoccupied rooms above the bar. It allowed her to improve her father's apartment into something more suitable for herself and Benny as well as make some much-needed improvements. In exchange for his investment, Ezra had converted the empty rooms into a private lounge for himself and his friends, where they could gather to talk business.

Stepping inside the room with Buck, she wondered what was on his mind. She didn't think it was not some crass attempt to make a pass at her.

"Buck, what is this about?" She asked when the doors inside the well-decorated room with leather upholstery, oak panelling, new carpet and fixture, including a wagon wheel chandelier that filled the place with a warm glow after Buck switched on the lights.

"Look," he exhaled loudly, aware her patience like her temper operated on a very short fuse. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I didn't know your husband was missing. I figured you were a widow, but I had no idea he was still out there somewhere."

Inez was touched by the apology, and she wondered how he learned about Bernado. Perhaps her father Roberto had been keeping an eye on her and was aware of Bernado's absence. He might have revealed it to Josiah with whom he had a close friendship. In any case, it was no secret.

"He is dead Buck," she said firmly.

"Well you can't say for certain," Buck countered, not wanting to rob her of all hope even though it was more than likely. "There could be a dozen reasons why he hasn't come back to you. The world's a big place with a lot of crazy going on right now. He might have gotten caught up in it."

"No," she shook her head, thinking of the shy young man who listened to her sing and promised her he could give her nothing but his love because the war had taken everything else. She remembered the tears in his eyes the first time he held his son in his hands. Bernado would have fought tooth and nail to come home to her.

"He is gone Buck," she repeated herself and then saw the sympathy in his eyes. "If there was breath left in his body, he would have come home to me. This much I know."

Buck wanted to tell her that after their conversation tonight, Ezra was going to use his contacts to see what he could learn about her husband's disappearance, especially after he saw the anguish in her eyes. However, the possibility Ezra might come up empty changed his mind. He didn't want to see Inez disappointed by giving her false hope. Instead, Buck went to one of the cabinets against the wall and reached for the decanter of cognac Ezra left there with several snifters. He poured them both a drink, suspecting she needed it.

By now, Inez had drifted to one of the leather wing chairs and sat down. This was not an easy subject to discuss and now that she had opened up, was left drained. Bernado's loss still burdened her and it surprised her how talking to Buck Wilmington of all people, had helped. When he returned and handed her a glass of cognac, Inez took a sip, feeling the malt taste of the liquor comforting.

"I needed that," she looked at him when he took the chair across her.

"I'm guessing you don't talk about it much?"

She was like Chris in that way, except Inez used her pain to keep going while Chris had deconstructed because of his. Women seemed to handle sorrow better than men, Buck thought. Perhaps because they weren't afraid of admitting their emotions, while men were taught from birth to conceal theirs. All it did was create a timebomb of grief inside them that would eventually explode.

"No," Inez admitted. "I know he's dead Buck, I know it but I can't...."

"Let him go?" Buck ventured a guess.

"Yes," she nodded, dropping her gaze to the carpet because hearing him call her out on it made her relive the hurt. "I never could."

"It's okay," Buck resisted the urge to touch her because this aspect of their relationship was new and he had no wish to push before she was ready to accept such a gesture. "I know how it feels to lose someone, maybe not like your husband, but I have lost people I care for, and it's never easy."

"You do?" She looked up at him curiously.

Buck nodded slowly and took a sip of cognac before looking at the door to the suite to assure himself no one would interrupt. "When Chris was still with the army, he had to leave home a lot. By the time Adam was born, Sarah wanted a permanent home, so he got them base housing. He could be gone for weeks at a time, and I'd call in on Sarah, just to check in on her and Adam. I was flying private by then so I could come and go as I pleased, which helped at home because Sarah was alone with Adam a lot."

"You mean you and Sarah?" Inez's eyes widened, convinced if Chris knew this Buck would be going through life without the use of his limbs and several major organs.

Buck caught her meaning and laughed. "Nothing like that. I want to keep breathing. We were just friends. She was an army brat because of her dad, and I think she liked talking to someone who wasn't. Sometimes I took them away from the barracks for the day, you know just to give her some breathing room, especially when she was missing Chris."

He fell silent thinking about the talks they'd had at her kitchen table where Sarah would serve tea in delicate china cups that were passed down to her from her mother. To this day, he couldn't touch the stuff because it didn't feel right drinking it without Sarah.

"Being around Sarah and Adam," Buck recouped after a moment and saw Inez understood all too well what emotions were churning inside him, "made me think being married wasn't so bad and could do it too. She made me understand with the right person, it could be easy to love having a family."

"It can be," Inez agreed, remembering the place she had been when she met Bernado. She was a freedom fighter, running ammunition and secret messages from camp to camp, with real dangers facing her every day. Bernado made her want more, like sharing a life with him. She could tell Buck wasn't just regurgitating a line for her benefit.

"And then just like that they were gone," Buck's voice dropped an octave as he surfaced feelings he'd kept buried for so long. "Chris was just...." he couldn't say it, but then he didn't have to.

Like everyone else who knew him, Chris wore his grief like a second skin. Even now, with Mary in his life, there was no hiding the sadness that masked itself as his brooding persona.

"I was scared as hell he was going to kill himself. It's taken five years to rebuild him, sometimes with my help and sometimes without. In all that time, I had to forget that I cared about Sarah too because if I did, I wouldn't be able to help Chris through all that pain."

This much about him she knew, hearing the talk from the others how Buck had kept Chris Larabee from total deconstruction.

"So you didn't even get a chance to mourn them," Inez realised then just how much he hid for the benefit of his friends. He always seemed to be the life of the party, the one who ensured everyone was taken care of. Chris protected them, but Buck was the keeper of their spirit. Until now, she never realised how seriously he took that role.

"Chris needed me," Buck shrugged as if that would explain everything and it did really.

It surprised Inez how much she liked talking to him. She supposed this was how he charmed all those women into his bed, but she suspected the Buck she was speaking to now, was one few had ever seen.

"I still dream about him, Buck. Even though I tell myself he is dead, I still hope that maybe, he is not. Sometimes when I look at Benny, I pray to God that maybe Bernado will come through my door and give us both a reason why he disappeared, but it's a foolish hope. It's the not knowing he is dead that is so terrible and I think this too, is what Chris feels. It's knowing in your heart, even without seeing a body, they are gone forever. "

Buck said nothing to that, noticing the moisture in her eyes at that revelation. He suspected she'd never told anyone this truth and instinctively he reached inside his coat to give her his handkerchief. Inez accepted it without hesitation, dabbing away the tears. After a moment, she looked up at him composed and back to her old self.

"Senor Wilmington," she said with a little smile. "Perhaps tonight is the night we should have that date."

"How about just a drink for now?" Buck refused to take advantage of her when she was feeling vulnerable. "Although if you get me drunk, the sky's the limit."

"Oh, shut up," Inez laughed, but she was smiling when she said it.

Chapter Eight:
Abduction

MOSCOW - 1935

Bernado Recillos.

It was a name from the past Grigory Fedulev would have liked to have forgotten. To this day, the man continued to be a thorn in his side. Even though the colonel who encountered Recillos was now a general, with the OGPU folded into the NKVD, Bernardo provoked chagrin every time his name surfaced. Recillos represented the one thing Fedulev could never tolerate in others or himself.

Failure.

Burying the fool in an unmarked grave somewhere in the wilderness of Siberia had been Fedulev's way of forgetting the man existed or what he represented. For the most part, it worked, Fedulev had left the dank, blood-stench interrogation room where Recillos met his end and moved onto other challenges. He was promoted to general following the collapse of the OCPU. Instead of becoming a victim of reshuffling so favoured by bureaucrats everywhere, he was not discarded like the rest of his comrades. They'd given him a leadership position, and he continued to do good work, suppressing the dissidents corrupted by western excesses.

But Recillos still haunted him.

Not because he felt any remorse for being the instrument of the man's death. Not in the slightest. Fedulev was grateful to send the stubborn piz`da to his grave. No, Fedulev regretted not making him suffer such exquisite agony Recillos would have been grateful to relinquish all his secrets. Instead, Feduelv let the man die too quickly, taking with him the vital clue he needed to recover the prize that still remained unrecovered.

The jewel.

Two years after the fact, the vital amulet had not surfaced. For a time, Recillos's wife had been watched, but it was clear she had no idea where her husband had gone, not if the inquiries made after his disappearance were any indication. With no clues to follow, Fedulev was forced to move on, and with the internal strife taking place between Trotsky loyalists and the government, the matter of the amulet was forgotten. Still, it made Fedulev bristle with annoyance to think about it, for he was not a man who was comfortable with failure.

He stared out of the window of his office in the Lubyanka building, observing people going about their business across the paved square. In the distance, he could see the ornate beauty of the Zaikonospassky Monastery in its neo-classical glory. No longer a place of worship, these days it was home to a television station since the Soviet had no use for houses of worship. Fortunately, the Bolshoi Theatre, the grand old lady of Moscow was still the home to the most splendid ballet company in the world.

A sharp rap against his done drew him away from the sunshine outside, and Fedulev put aside his debate about where he would spend his lunch. Who was behind this intrusion? He had no appointments this morning and had intended to study the field reports delivered to him this morning.

"Enter."

The door swung open and behind it was Captain Oblonsky, his chief aide. Still a brutish bear of a man with large hands who never seemed comfortable in his uniform, Oblonsky was a loyal second with little ambitions of his own. Fedulev suspected it was easier for him to assist a great man than to try to be one himself because Oblonsky knew his limitations. He served better as a blunt instrument than as a tactician.

"What is it, Leonid?"

Oblonsky's expression was part excitement, part disbelief, two emotions the man very rarely showed. It was his lack of human expression that allowed him to intimidate most people and Fedulev had to admit some surprise to seeing his mask shaken. "We have had inquiries about Bernando Recillos."

Fedulev turned sharply, wondering if it was fate that the man's name was brought up after Fedulev had been thinking about him. "From where?"

"America," Oblonsky replied, having a complete report ready because the General did not like to have information fed to him in snippets. "Our sources in Poland tell us inquiries were made at the Consulate by someone from the Jagiellonian University, a Doctor Jakub Nowak. I sent our agents to follow up, and after interrogation, Comrade Nowak admitted an old acquaintance of his, an Ezra Standish of America, asked about Recillos and whether he might have been conducting translation work in Warsaw."

"Who is this American?"

"According to Doctor Nowak, Standish is a part of a group of antiquities hunters who have quite the reputation for finding priceless artifacts. Many of the universities in Europe and the Middle East have been employing their services. Standish's group might be hunting for the jewel."

"They cannot find the jewel without the amulet," Fedulev snorted, but then again all attempts to retrieve the thing had been fruitless. Was it possible it was because Recillos sent it somewhere it never occurred to them to search, like America? "Although, if they found it and did not know what they had, it might be why they are trying to find Recillos."

"What do we do Comrade General?" Oblonsky asked. "Shall I send our agents to America? Standish and his team come from a place called Albuquerque."

"Yes," Fedulev nodded, "but you will go with them. If Standish knows where the amulet is, I trust you can convince him to talk."

"It will be done, Comrade General," Oblonsky was perfectly willing to make the journey.

As the man who killed Bernado Recillos, he too hated the waste of a good killing when nothing resulted from it. The amulet and the jewel's whereabouts was still a mystery. If it was a mystery Ezra Standish could solve, he was more than happy to ensure the man did just that.

This time, Oblonskly would not let Ezra Standish die until he'd revealed all his secrets.


TWO WEEKS LATER

Who's that little chatterbox?

The one with pretty auburn locks?

Whom do you see?

It's Little Orphan Annie.

She and Sandy make a pair,

They never seem to have a care!

Cute little she,

This Little Orphan Annie.

Bright eyes cheeks a rosy glow,

There's a store of healthiness handy.

Mite-size, always on the go,

If you want to know - "Arf", says Sandy.

Always wears a sunny smile,

Now, wouldn't it be worth the while,

If you could be,

Like Little Orphan Annie?

Josiah paused as he walked past the door of Inez's apartment on his way to the upstairs den where the rest of the seven were gathered to discuss what their next job would be. Since the room had been converted to their use, Chris Larabee had called impromptu meetings so they could talk about the jobs they had lined up. While Chris usually picked their jobs, the increased number of expeditions lately made Chris feel the need to gain his friends' opinion before he made his final decision.

The music he heard through the door was crackling and loud, enough to capture his attention. The former seminary student recalled seeing Inez downstairs getting ready for the evening crowd. Checking his watch, Josiah realised it was after four so little Benny was at home. He liked the boy, even if he was prone to getting into trouble. Inez believed it was due to the lack of a male influence in his life until now, Although Josiah wondered if his eclectic friends were really the best role models for a seven-year-old.

Josiah twisted the doorknob to the apartment and widened the crack in the door just enough to peer inside to ensure the boy wasn't getting up to mischief. It was something he and Ezra were happy to do for Inez, aware it could not be easy juggling the stewardship of the bar and being a mother to a young child. Despite Ezra's claims to the contrary, the team's procurer had a real way with children and often babysat for Benny, even if he claimed it was a waste of his 'God-given talents'.

The music was coming from a contraption of corkboard, wire and thumbtacks. It took Josiah a second to process what it was Benny had built on the rug where he was sprawled. It was a crude device no doubt, but Josiah recognised the copper wire wrapped around a wooden spool, the paper clips twisted out of shape and the razorblade turned blue from heat. The theme song of 'Little Orphan Annie' was coming out of what appeared to be the removed receiver from an old telephone. A radio.

The kid had built a radio.

"Hey Benny," Josiah greeted, watching Benny trying to tune the thing with the small pencil he had attached to the razor blade flattened against the board. "You built this?"

Benny, who was fixated on what he was doing, didn't look up at Josiah, more interested in his creation. "Uh huh."

Josiah dropped to his knees, fascinated by the simplicity of the design and noticed the cannibalised candlestick phone Inez had recently replaced with a newer rotary model. Benny had used its components for his construction and Josiah had to admit to being impressed since Benny was just seven years old.

"You figure this out all by yourself?"

Benny pointed to a magazine lying face down across the floor, a few feet away from his rug. Josiah lifted his chin and realised it was a copy of Popular Mechanics, with the words 'How to Build a Radio' proudly declaring its culpability in Benny's activities. The boy sat up straighter and frowned, his small face showing his unhappiness at what he built, even if the scratchy sound coming from the receiver proved it worked.

"The wire needs to go higher," Benny looked up at Josiah then. At present, the wire drawing the signal to the receiver went as far as the window, but it was clear it needed to go outside.

"Why don't you open the window?" Josiah suggested.

"Can't," Benny shook his head. "Not allowed."

Josiah could understand that. The apartment stood two storeys above the ground, and a fall from this height would seriously harm a child. The transom window allowing air into the place was too high for Benny to reach so the boy had to make do. Josiah made a mental note to ask Inez if she would like him to put up some safety rails against the windows. When Roberto had lived here, Josiah doubted the man had given much thought for making the place safe for a child.

"You try building anything else?'

"Yeah," Benny shook his head. "Wanted to make my go-cart faster, but mama won't let me touch the lawn mower. Don't think it will work though. Could make my wheels go melty."

Josiah suppressed a little smile, understanding that even a small horsepower engine might be more than a simple kids go-cart could handle. Still, the thinking that allowed Benny to reach that conclusion proved Inez might have a little prodigy on her hands.

"Well, maybe if your mother lets you, you can come with me to my workshop sometime. We'll see if we can find wheels with better tread."

Benny's eyes sparkled. "Really?"

"Yeah," Josian nodded. "Leave it to me and make sure you don't build anything that catches fire. Your mother will not be happy to know how you got that razor blade to turn blue."

Guilt immediately showed on Benny's face because mama took the rules about fire and matches very seriously, especially after that attempt to make fireworks in their bathtub.

His butt was still sore.

"Okay, uncle Josiah." He nodded and went back to his thoughts about how he could make the radio work better.

Without blowing up anything this time.


When Inez saw Buck was the last of the seven to depart for the evening, she wondered if the man had something in mind that involved her. If so, she thought as she wiped down the bar and continued the process of closing Paloma's for the night, he was going to be disappointed.

Aside from the fact she'd been on her feet all day, the temporary vulnerability she displayed the night they spoke about Bernardo, embarrassed her the next morning. Still, his refusal to take her up on the invitation revealed to Inez there was more to Buck than his notorious womanising reputation. While she was nowhere ready to date anyone, because there were still too many wounds left behind by Bernado's disappearance, Inez could not deny feeling warmly towards Buck.

In fact, she rather liked the place they were at right now, where every second word to her was not a proposition, and they actually carried on conversations. Since learning about the status of her widowhood, Buck had allowed her to use him as a shoulder to cry on, recognising the sadness that crept into her eyes when she thought no one noticed. She suspected his so-called prowess with the opposite sex might be due to his empathy for their feelings.

Buck approached Inez at the bar, trying to decide how he was going to deliver the news he was about to give her. It had been a slow few weeks because of Chris's injury and also because they had earned enough for a rest. Taking advantage of the time, Ezra had used his sources from abroad, not to mention Julia, to make inquiries about Bernardo Recillos. When Ezra gave him the information he'd gathered today, Buck debated telling Inez. Buck wasn't sure he wanted to tarnish Inez's image of her husband, but then again, she also needed to know why her searc in Europe had come to nothing.

"Inez, can we talk?"

Inez paused what she was doing immediately and looked up from the counter. His tone was devoid of its usual flirtation or humour, and that caught her attention.

"What is it, Buck?"

Buck drew in a breath and let it out before answering, "it's about Bernardo."

Of all the things he could have said to her, that statement was one that caught her immediately by surprise. "What do you mean? What about Bernado?"

Buck leaned against the counter and met her eyes. "When I found out you never knew what happened to him, I asked Ezra to do some digging. Ezra's got a lot of friends in Europe, not to mention Julia. If anyone could get you some answers, I thought it would be him."

"Did he?" She tried not to sound hopeful because being in sight of the truth was something she dreamed about and did not wish for another disappointment.

Inez was a realist. She knew Bernardo was dead, she could feel it. Yet how it happened still gnawed at her. However, Inez had to admit it never occurred to ask Ezra for help although now that she thought of it, it made perfect sense. "Did you find anything?"

Buck could see the effect this was having on her and kept going, aware delaying would be torturous after so many years of darkness. "We know he arrived in Warsaw but Inez, he was never there for a translating job."

"But he said he had a job at a university...." she started to say and then fell silent because it was clear from the minute she began her search for him after his disappearance, not everything he told her was the truth.

"No, not any university," Buck continued, "but we did find that soon after he arrived in Warsaw, he went across the border."

"To where?"

"Russia."

"Russia?" Inez stared at Buck mystified. "What was he doing there? Bernado could not speak Russian!"

"We're not sure, but he didn't go there for any translation job. Julia managed to get some information from a checkpoint between Poland and Belarus. He crossed over into the Soviet Union less than a week after arriving in Warsaw. Whatever he was doing there, he wasn't translating."

Inez was about to question him further when something clicked in her head, something that did not register until this moment. Dread and realisation flooded her eyes. "Come with me."

"What is it?" Buck asked, realising something had come to her.

"I'm not sure," she said as she headed to the edge of the bar.

She had almost emerged from behind it when a loud thud through the ceiling above startled them. Inez froze in her tracks as she and Buck's eyes shot upward in surprise.

"MAMA!"

Benny's sudden scream revealed an Inez Buck had never seen before.

"BENNY?" She cried out just before leaping over the bar counter like a gymnast, paying little mind to the glasses and ashtrays she sent tumbling to the floor. The recently polished counter meant she slid across the smooth surface, landing on her feet before she bolted towards the staircase. It took a second for Buck to recover before he went after her, reeling slightly by her quick reflexes.

"Benny, I'm coming!"

Above their heads, more thuds were heard against the ceiling, and Buck knew immediately that Benny wasn't alone up there. Paloma's had unwanted guests, and they were up there with a child who was crying for his mother in terror. Whether Inez heard any of this mattered little. The woman raced up the stairs, driven by the maternal instincts of a grizzly bear about to protect her cub.

"Inez! Hold up!" Boone called after her. Not that he had any hope of getting her to hold back, but the warning was to remind her whoever was up there knew they were coming.

Inez ignored him and kept going, reaching the top of the landing first. She had just enough time to register the man standing in the hallway, aiming the barrel of a Soviet-made PPD-40 machine gun in her direction. The split-second pause where both parties faced each other was all the time Buck had to grab Inez by the waist and yank her back before the PPD exploded in a roar of deafening gunfire.

They tumbled down the staircase in an unruly tangle, narrowly avoiding the spray of gunfire that tore into the wall and window behind the top landing. Splinters and glass rained down on them as they landed hard against the floor, with Buck feeling it most acutely because Inez was on top of him. Nevertheless, Buck registered the pause in the shooting because the enemy was coming after them.

"Inez we gotta move!"

Shaking off her disorientation, Inez rolled onto her knees and launched herself towards the bar like a runner who just heard the starter pistol. Leaving Buck behind because she was sure he would not be long after her, she jumped over the bar again. They both dove behind its safety, chased by a renewed barrage of gunfire. Bullets tore into the counter, shattering the glass shelves behind the bar, destroying anything in its path.

"Make yourself useful!" Inez shoved a Browning handgun in his direction.

Buck took the weapon and pulled back the hammer, ready to fire when he saw Inez stand up during the pause in gunfire when the shooter reloaded.

"Inez!" He was about to shout at her warning when he saw what was in her grip.

Their would-be killer had assumed they were helpless and Buck wondered what his reaction would have been if he knew what was coming when Inez stood up. Buck peered over the counter just in time to hear the distinct sound of a shotgun being primed.

BOOM!

The single blast from the Remington Model 20 was all that was needed to send the man sprawling, his chest a ruin of flesh from the spray of pellets. The force of the shot threw him across the table, its legs collapsing beneath the weight. Inez did not waste any time to check to see if she was dead, once again emerging from the counter, now covered in glass, splinters of wood and debris from the destruction of the PPD's gunfire.

"Jesus Christ," Buck stared at her, deciding then and there that if they ever dated, he was never pissing her off.

"MAMA!"

Benny's cry halted Inez's progress to the staircase, and both she and Buck exchanged glances when they realised Benny was no longer upstairs. He was outside.

This time it was Buck who got to the main doors of Paloma's first, while Inez had to double back to join him. Emerging into the night air, a dark sedan with the engine running was waiting in the empty parking lot. Two men in dark suits shoved Benny through the open door of the back passenger seat.

"MAMA! HELP ME!"

Buck started shooting, unable to aim at the men because with Benny struggling hard to break free of them, Buck couldn't get a clear shot without risking harm to the boy. Instead, he adjusted his aim, intending to shoot out the tires before they could take off. He squeezed off one round when another shooter leaned out of the window, also armed with a PPD.

"BENNY!" Inez screamed as she appeared through the door and was quickly forced to duck for cover when the hail of bullets was unleashed.

Both of them were driven to the ground, with Inez forced to watch helplessly as Benny disappeared into the car. Meanwhile, lying on his stomach, Buck returned fire, compelling the shooter back into the vehicle. However, the instant his companions had slammed the door shut behind them, the idling engines roared to life. As the wheels rolled forward, Buck jumped to his feet, continuing to shoot, hoping one of his bullets met its mark, but with the darkness and the widening gap between them, the car continued to roar away.

Buck refused to give up, not until every last bullet in his gun was fired but that moment came soon enough, and as the vehicle picked up speed, the gleam of its tail light continued to diminish. By the time the click of an empty chamber was heard, there was nothing left of the vehicle but points or vanishing red in the night.

"NO!" Inez ran past Buck, having dropped the shotgun on the ground, refusing to give up.

"Inez! He's gone!" Buck raced after her, feeling his heart torn at her anguished wail, part fury and despair. He grabbed her by the arm, trying to stop her from going any further because he needed to get the others together so they could go after little Benny before Inez did it herself. Right now, she was just driven enough to do that.

"NO!" She whirled around and snapped at him, her face wet with tears. "They've got my baby! I have to find him! I can't lose him...!"

"Inez I know," Buck tried to calm her while staring into the night where the car had vanished feeling bitter disappointment at failing to get Benny back. "We'll get him back, I promise."

As she started to weep, Buck drew her to him, shouldering her anguished sobs, while having the terrible suspicion he might have caused this abduction by trying to help find the truth about Bernardo Recillos.

Chapter Nine:
Leverage

Less than an hour later, after the police had come and gone with statements taken, and the coroner's wagon carting away the dead body left behind, Chris Larabee was able to get to the bottom of what took place at Paloma's tonight. Experience told them it was best to let the police know as little as possible when they were so much in the dark themselves. If not for the need to explain the corpse on the main floor of the bar, Chris would have preferred they not be involved at all. Instinct told him Benny's abduction might be beyond the ability of local law enforcement to deal with.

The main floor of the bar was in shambles, the devastation caused by the power of a submachine gun marking the walls in bullet holes with fragments of shattered bottles and glasses covering the polished wood floor. While the dead body was gone, blood spots marked the place where it had been. Buck's call had rallied them all to Paloma's within twenty minutes.

"We have to do something!" Inez continued the rant that began as soon as the police left the bar. She paced the debris-covered floor in front of the bar counter, crushing glass and wood beneath her stomping feet. Inez was itching to find her son but had no idea where to begin. The inability to do anything stoked her fear into white-hot panic no one in the room could blame her for.

"Inez, darlin', we're gonna find him," Buck, leaning against the bar, tried to assure her. He fought his desire to approach because if she proved anything tonight, this woman was far stronger than anyone had imagined her to be.

"I still don't understand why they took him!"

"Leverage," Chris stated. The leader of the seven mostly healed now faced the distraught woman, trying to be kind but recognising her need for answers. If it were his own child, Chris would want the same consideration.

"Leverage?" Vin, who with JD who was helping to clean up the shambles after the firefight, paused in mid sweep at that statement. "He's just a kid."

"No better way to get our attention," Buck retreated behind the bar and grabbed one of the few remaining bottles of liquor not destroyed by the Russian PPD-40 to pour himself a drink. "These bastards know we'll do anything to get him back." He met Inez's eyes to show her his words were spoken in earnest. It was true. They would do everything in their power to return little Benny to his mother.

"What is it they want?" JD asked while he gathered up broken pieces of furniture so they could take it out to the trash.

"That's what we got to figure out," Chris directed his statement at the frantic mother. "Inez, do you have any ideas?"

The question dissipated the storm of panic in Inez's head, giving her focus as she reminded herself before she was a mother and a bartender, she was someone else. She was a soldier of the Brigadas Feminanas, who often went into enemy territory, who could handle guns and explosives, who was in combat for almost three years. That fierce resistance fighter needed to return if Inez wanted to retrieve Benny.

"Buck told me tonight, you were helping me find out what happened to Bernardo," she returned Chris's question with one of her own.

"We were?" Chris eyed his friends, unaware this was happening. Then again, he'd been stuck at his ranch the last few weeks because the muscle damage done by those monstrosities in Australia required he remained immobile to recover fully.

"Yeah," Buck admitted. "We figured with Ezra's connections, we might find out what happened to Inez's husband."

It was a good idea, and Chris felt a little embarrassed he never considered offering their help before this. Roberto had been a good friend. The seven accepted their daughter and his grandson into their circle because of their affection for him. Besides, Chris knew what it was like to lose a wife. He couldn't imagine anything worse than having a question mark looming over the cause of her death.

"What did you find out?"

"Well according to Ezra," Buck repeated what he told Inez earlier before all this insanity started. "He found out Bernado didn't have any kind of translation job in Warsaw. He was last seen crossing the border into Russia."

"Well that explains the hardware then," Vin stated having taken a look at the gun the assailant had used before the police bagged it for evidence. "Ezra might have kicked up a hornet's nest he wasn't meant to."

"Yeah," Buck frowned, realising that this could all be his fault. "I'm sorry Inez, I really thought we were helping you."

If this had come about because of inquiries about Bernardo, then she was guilty of the same thing. She had asked similar questions when he first went missing. What if these men had come after her then? At least now she had resources, friends who were willing to help her. "It's not your fault Buck. You were trying to help, and I do appreciate it, even if it might have brought these men to my door."

Footsteps descending the staircase soon revealed Josiah and Ezra's arrival. The two of them had been upstairs examining Benny's room after the police were done with it. Their return coincided with Nathan's appearance from the kitchen where he'd brewed a pot of coffee for those who needed something to keep their heads clear at this hour. Most of them were on their way home from Palomas or there already when Buck's call had come.

"It appears our intruders were uninterested in the rest of the premises," Ezra announced having checked their belongings in the den upstairs and aside from some minor damage from the gunfire outside the room, it was unscathed.

"They only wanted the boy," Josiah frowned, although he carried a curious construction of board, wire and paperclips in his hand. "They didn't take anything else."

"Yeah that's what I thought when I looked around," Chris thought when he had gone up earlier and was glad to have someone else confirm his findings, even though he was pretty sure he hadn't missed anything. "All we can do right now is wait."

"Wait?" Inez stared at him, about to demand an explanation when Chris spoke.

"They took Benny for leverage, Inez. Chances are its because they want something. I don't think they'll make us wait too long to tell before they tell us what that is."

"Josiah, what have you got there?" JD inquired as Josiah joined Chris at the table.

"This is Benny's radio," Josiah replied, staring at the device thoughtfully.

Inez uttered a choked sob before turning away from the men, hiding just how overwhelmed she was by emotion. Nathan, who was about to offer her coffee, set down the cup and patted her gently on the shoulder in a sign of comfort.

"He built a radio?" JD exclaimed, impressed. "Hey, that's pretty neat."

"By himself?" Vin asked, just as surprised.

"He's always building things," Inez gave Nathan a grateful smile as she dried the damp from her face. "He tried to make fireworks once and blew up the bathtub. My mama was so angry, but he was not foolish about it, he did it somewhere he could not harm himself."

"It appears you might be raising a prodigy," Ezra smiled, thinking of the boy he had gone quite fond of. Benny had shown exceptional skill with mathematics, an ability Ezra discovered when he taught the kid how to play cards.

"It's not just that," Josiah spoke up. "He used a razor blade to tune the radio. That's gone."

Chris sat up at that. "Gone?"

"Yeah," Josiah nodded. "I think he took it off this thing before they kidnapped him."

"What's he gonna do with that?" JD asked.

Josiah stared at the radio in his hands. "I'm not sure, but I suspect it will be interesting."


When he read Oblonsky's report, Fedulev was struck with inspiration.

The more he read about Chris Larabee and his team, who so far managed to acquire a plethora of impressive artifacts since entering the antiquities scene five years earlier, the more Fedulev concluded this was not a man to bet against. Most recently, Larabee's defeated enemies included one of Hitler's favourites and a wealthy capitalist dog, and Fedulev had no wish to join their ranks. He was also unwilling to expend resources in pursuit of a man who knew his craft better than Fedulev's own men who were soldiers.

Finding the amulet was only just one step, and before Bernardo Recillos had stolen it, Fedulev knew he had only the first piece of a larger puzzle. It's secrets needed to be unravelled to find the prize and Fedulev decided Larabee was just the man to do it. Of course, Fedulev was astute enough to recognise American morality when he saw it. No doubt Larabee's connection to Recillos' widow meant the relic hunter would guess how the man had died, ensuring any request to locate the artifact on behalf of the Soviet state would be refused.

Until Oblonsky reported Recillos had a son.

After reading up on Larabee's history, Fedulev suspected Larabee would not allow the child of a friend to be harmed, in fact, none of his men would permit it. With this in mind, he instructed Oblonsky to act. As always, Oblonsky carried out his duty with excellence. While the extraction was nowhere as smooth as it could have been, the child was in their hands and with him, Larabee's eventual capitulation.


After finishing her shift at the hospital, Alex arrived at Paloma's at Chris's request. Although the young doctor was understandably tired, she was quick to come to Inez's side. Even if Inez displayed a stronger than expected reaction to Benny's abduction, anyone who knew her well could see the fractures forming in her strong demeanour. It led Chris to the conclusion she shouldn't be left alone after they left Palomas.

Vin tended to agree, aware when he and the others were off on their expeditions, Alex and Inez spent time together. With Mary splitting her time between Albuquerque and New York these days, Alex didn't know anyone else in the city. Besides, both Inez and Alex were independent, career gals who found common ground in each other's company.

"So we have no idea what Bernardo was doing in Russia?" Alex asked after being appraised of the night's events.

"He said he was conducting a translation job," Inez whispered. The effect of a mother's anguish was taking its toll on her, and it showed by her deflated mood. It wasn't just little Benny's abduction which left her bereft but the reality that Bernardo not only lied to her but may have gotten himself killed because of it.

From where he was, Buck tried to hide his concern, but they were nowhere at the point in their relationship where he could offer her comfort, not that there could be any while Benny was missing. Instead, he turned his attention to solving the mystery of why the boy was abducted at all and remembered Inez had wanted to show him something before the shooting had broken out.

"Inez, before that Commie started shooting up the place, you said you wanted me to go with you..."

The reminder snapped Inez out of her fugue, and she came to life with the possibility that surfaced in light of his revelation Bernardo's reasons to be in Europe were not what she thought. "Yes, I'm sorry I forgot..."

"It's okay, Inez." Alex, who was next to her at the bar, didn't allow her to finish that thought. "You had other things on your mind."

From the corner of her eye, she saw Vin's smile of appreciation at her support of Inez and returned it with an affectionate wink.

"With no news of Bernardo after two years, I stopped looking for him. I was sure he was dead. If it was anything but the truth, I knew he would have found some way to come home to me." Despite her best efforts, it still hurt Inez to say those words out loud. "I had to move on and raise my son. So I went to live with my mother in Val Verde so she could help me with Benny. Then one day, out of nowhere, I was visited by Father Garcia. He was the priest who married Bernardo and me in a chapel at Tula. During the war, Father Garcia was a courier, and he told me he received word from Bernardo through the old channels."

"The old channels?" JD had to ask.

"Bernardo and I were Cristeros."

"You fought in that war?" Chris blurted out, sharing the same surprise as the others in the room. Of course, they all knew about the war that gripped Mexico for three years but had begun a great deal earlier when the government declared war on the Catholic faith. The war had torn the country in half, and Chris supposed it made sense Inez, like so many of her countrymen, would have become embroiled in the conflict.

"Yes," she nodded, thinking how it felt like a lifetime ago, and supposed it was really. "I was Brigadas Feminanas. I fought in the jungle, carried messages and munitions between rebel camps. It was how we met. Not long before the war ended, I fell pregnant, and we were married in a small church outside of Tula. Only Father Garcia was there to witness it. Bernardo didn't want anyone to know we were married because he was afraid the Federales might use us against each other."

Buck was fascinated, realising there was so much to Inez than he ever imagined. It did explain how resourceful she had been earlier on though. The way she ran after that Commie bastard proved she knew how to handle herself.

"That makes sense Chris," Buck glanced at his old friend. "If Bernardo wanted to get a message to her, this was as good a way as any."

"So pray tell what was his missive to you, my dear?" Ezra asked.

"It was," she paused a moment, collecting herself as she felt the gentle squeeze of Alex's hand in hers. "It was a necklace with a short note telling me he would be home soon. He hoped to see me wear it while we danced." A lump formed in her throat, which she had to swallow away to keep speaking. "Father Garcia told me it was delivered to him almost a year and a half earlier, and he was told to keep it secret. He was not told why."

"You didn't try to find out more?" Nathan asked.

"Of course I did," Inez bit back and then felt immediately ashamed because these men were standing by her because they respected her father and she had gained their loyalty because of it. "I'm sorry, Nathan."

"Don't worry about Inez," Nathan looked at her with a healer's empathy, aware of how frayed her nerves were right now.

His understanding made her feel worse, so all she could do was keep going. "There was nothing to learn. I was met with the same answers, and now the trail was old. In the end, I had no choice, I had to accept he was dead. I could not live my life, hoping he would come back."

"Inez," Chris spoke gently, understanding her grief all too well but this necklace was now his sole focus. "Can I have a look at this necklace?"

"Yes," she nodded and retreated upstairs to find it.

"This is my fault," Buck shook his head. "We should have left this alone. Us trying to find out what happened to her husband is what brought those bastards here."

No one could disagree on that point, but none were unwilling to let him blame himself.

"Buck," Josiah spoke up. "They've been waiting a long time to catch up with her. It's best this happens now when we're here, and we can help her deal with it. Besides, there's no good coming from having the Sword of Damocles hanging over one's head."

"Josiah is right," Alex gave the ladies' man a little smile. "Better Inez finds out about this now, then years down the track when we might not be around to help her."

"Mr Larabee," Ezra spoke up, "it disturbs me they did not search the premises for this necklace if that is indeed the cause of their interest. Ms Inez took no pains to hide it. A search would have yielded the item, without resorting to kidnapping."

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "It means they want more than just this necklace. They've got something else in mind."

Almost on cue, the telephone rang.

The shrill noise startled everyone. The phone, which usually lived beneath the counter of the bar, had survived the shooting and continued into its second ring before they overcame their surprise. Buck, who was behind the counter, quickly snatched up the receiver even as he heard Inez running down the staircase at the sound of it, her pounding footsteps announcing her arrival.

"Hello?" Buck spoke neutrally, uncertain of what to expect.

"I will speak to Comrade Larabee."

Buck's spine stiffened, his eyes darting immediately to Chris. The male voice was cold and thick with a recognisable accent. Russian, he thought immediately and realised he was speaking to the people who took Benny. "This is Paloma's, Mr Larabee doesn't live here."

"Neither do you Comrade Wilmington," the man countered, unsurprised by his answer. "But you will let me speak to Mr Larabee if you want to see the boy again."

The mention of Benny crumbled Buck's defiance, and his expression hardened even as Inez started battering him with questions.

"What's happening? Who is it? Are they the people who took Benny? Let me speak to them!"

"Inez, wait," Alex tried to calm Inez, her intuition told her Inez's volatile state might not aid the situation.

Inez wanted to insist but then next minute Buck lowered the phone. "Chris, he wants to talk to you."

"What? Why?" Inez shot Chris a look of accusation at why Benny's abductors would wish to talk to Chris, not her. She was his mother!

Chris did not respond to her demands but crossed the floor to take the call. They were about to learn what this was about and Chris didn't want to waste any time.

"This is Larabee."

"I regret having to engage your services under these circumstances, Mr Larabee, but I suspect you would not have agreed to my request otherwise."

"Our services?" Chris raised a brow.

"Yes," the man wasted no time getting to the point, not when he had his quarry on the line. "You will retrieve the jewel for us. You and your team will use your considerable expertise to locate it and bring it to us if you want to see this boy again. If you refuse, we will return him to you, one piece at a time."

"I don't even know what you're talking about," Chris returned but suspected the man would not be helpful in this regard either.

"If your reputation is what it claims to be, then you will learn soon enough. Otherwise, it will be most unfortunate to the child in our custody. Do we understand each other?"

Chris showed no reaction, but inside he was bubbling with anger. "Yeah, we do."

"We will be watching Mr Larabee," the man warned. "Do not fail us."

Chapter Ten:
Shambhala

After Chris hung up the phone, the room was frozen in silence as the full measure of their predicament sunk in. Benny was a hostage until his abductors had their prize.

"What do they want Mr Larabee?"

Ezra's question was mirrored on all their faces, except Inez. There was only one look on hers, and as a father who lost a child, he recognised it all too well. Anguish.

"Our services.," Chris stated, still processing the conversation in his mind.

"Our services?" Vin drawled with disbelief. "Hell of a way to hire us. Didn't they know a cheque would have done?"

"Well, these Commies want us to retrieve a jewel in exchange for Benny. If we don't...." he didn't look at Inez when he couldn't complete the sentence.

Inez was clutching the amulet so tightly in her fist, the indents it created in her palm almost drew blood.

Chris didn't need to say it. She was accustomed to dealing with evil men and knew what Benny's fate would be if they did not get what they wanted. The one-sided conversation between Chris and the kidnapper told her as much. When Inez saw his eyes hardening at being forced to admit he understood, she guessed immediately her son's life was tied to the thing she was holding.

"Inez?" Buck saw her standing so rigidly he thought she might snap from the sheer tension. A trickle of blood seeped out of the creases of her called fist, and no matter how much he swore he'd hold back, the sight of it had him moving towards her.

Inez lifted her chin and in her eyes was that same sadness, the one he recognised so well in his sainted mother. In Emily, it was despair knowing her choices had branded him a whore's bastard, and no matter how much love she gave him, she would never remove that indelible stain. The despair was no less potent for Inez, whose fear was her inability to protect little Benny, that she would be forced to relinquish her role as protector to someone else.

"Come on, Darlin," he spoke with all the kindness he could muster. "Let Chris see what you got so we can get your boy back."

She blinked away the steely mask and the glistening moisture running down her cheeks told Buck how close she was to breaking. Her son was all she had left in this world, and if he were gone, Buck knew she would not be able to bear it. When her palm opened revealing the necklace, a heavy thing of gold and turquoise stones, it was smeared with blood.

"Oh, Inez."

Buck heard Alex gasp and from the corner of his eye saw both the doctor and Nathan closing in to deal with Inez's injured hand.

"I cannot lose him Buck," she whispered, "he's the reason I wake up in the morning, the reason I am breathing. He's my heart, and I will die if anything happens to him."

"It won't come to that," Buck assured her, taking the necklace out of her hand and eyed Chris. "Will it?"

Chris, who was at the bar, did not look at Buck but stared intently at Inez. "It won't, I give you my word we'll find him."

Inez allowed herself to be wrapped up in the warm blanket of Alex and Nathan's protection as Buck drew away from her, confident of her welfare as he walked over to Chris and handed his old friend the artifact. Chris took it with a nod of affirmation that his promise was one every member of the seven would keep.

Why not? As Buck glanced at his comrades, he saw how profoundly the others were affected by Benny's abduction. They all were fond of Benny in one way or another. How many times had Buck seen Benny seated on the hood of Inez's car when Josiah was giving it a quick service. Just like how Buck sometimes heard Ezra reading to Benny at bedtime, a memory which prompted him to glance at Vin because he remembered the gambler doing the same to the child Vin had been on the Western Front.

Meanwhile, Chris cleaned off the necklace with a bit of his whiskey, his jaw clenching at the blood and how it came to be there. He knew what it was like to lose a child, and while there was still a chance to get Benny back, it did not lessen Inez's torment. In any case, the words of that son of a bitch reminded him viciously of the task they needed to fulfil.

Find the jewel.

Whether or not it started its life as a necklace was an answer for the ages, but the centrepiece of the artifact in front of him was two square pieces of gold flattened two inches wide. One sat on top of the other in a hexagonal formation. The gold was embedded with ancient writing that Chris recognised as eastern though he could not be more specific than that. The green beads turning the artifact into a necklace was jade, and Chris wondered how Inez would feel knowing how much it was worth.

A polished elliptical stone, gleaming in emerald beauty, sat in its centre.

The stone while beautiful did not interest him as much at the writing etched across its gold surface. Studying it carefully, Chris frowned at the difficulty in recognising it. While he could not translate most of the languages he encountered, he was able to identify them by their unique script. This one was one he had never seen before although, on first glance, he thought it might have been Indian.

"JD, come look at this."

At Chris's call, JD crossed the floor, burning with curiosity to see the artifact himself. Clearly, it was valuable if someone was willing to go through all the trouble of abducting Benny for it. It was a good thing Inez had kept it hidden away for so long. Walking past the lady, who was being treated and consoled by Alex and Nathan respectively, he reached Chris's side and looked down at the object on the bar counter. Almost immediately, he was captivated by the tiny etched letters across the gold.

"What is it, pard?" Vin asked, speaking for all of them when he voiced his burning curiosity.

"Not sure," Chris looked up, his attention momentarily distracted at the sight of Alex speaking quietly to Inez, while Nathan tended to her bleeding hand with the contents of a first aid kid. "I think it's Indian."

"North American?" Josiah piped up.

"Not American Indian," Chris clarified and noted Vin taking a glance at Alex, whose mother had come from that distant country.

"It's not Indian," JD ended this speculation without looking up, still studying the artifact. "It looks similar, but it isn't from India. I could be wrong, and I'd have to check with Professor Travis, but I'm pretty sure this is neolithic Tibetan. There are enough similarities to the script written by the Majiayao people who spread through the area as late as 3200 BC."

Buck, like the others in the room, took a moment to absorb the new information, and even though he didn't understand it, he was still impressed. "So you can read it?"

"It's not that simple Buck," Chris explained, now he knew the script's origins. "The language was evolved almost five thousand years ago, translating it could take time."

"Does Benny have it?" Josiah rumbled. The question was rhetorical because none of them believed Benny's abductors understood patience. They would want results quickly and would unlikely be willing to wait while Chris and JD tried to nail down a translation.

"If they want us to find this thing, they better keep Benny safe," Chris warned with menace. "They're not getting their hands on this jewel otherwise."

Vin rose to his feet and strode over to the window, peering through the glass at the darkness outside. Beyond the parking lot was twilight blackness and Vin whose night vision was better than most, was satisfied he could see no cars using it for concealment. If what he suspected was right, it was likely they had been watching the place for some time now. Enough for them to guess Bernado Recillos's widow owned Palomas and had friends who could be of use to them.

"What is it, Vin?" Chris asked.

"I wonder how long they've been watching us," Vin revealed, adding to no one's comfort. "They knew we'd all be here for Inez when they took the boy. They couldn't have guessed that unless they'd been watching us."

"If they know how close we are to Inez. That may simply be an educated guess on their part." Ezra countered. Being able to read people meant Chris's body language telegraphed how much danger Benny was in and Ezra tried not to worry for the safety of the boy he'd come to care for a great deal. "

Still, no one liked the idea of being watched now that Vin planted the possibility in their heads. Chris was adamant that even if they acquired this artifact in exchange for Benny's life, they would not be doing this in front of an audience. If there was one thing the leader of the seven despised, it was being manipulated by thugs and anyone who would abduct a child, whatever place they held in the world, was nothing else.

"Chris," JD straightened up, "did you say it was a jewel they wanted us to find?"

"Yeah. Why?"

Leaving the counter, JD brought the artifact with him and headed toward Ezra and handed it to the gambler. Ezra whose knowledge of precious metals could rival any New York diamond merchant would be able to identify the stone far quicker than anyone else in the room. "Ezra, can you tell me what kind of stone that is."

Ezra raised a brow and reached into his jacket to produce a loupe, the small eyeglass used by all jewellers and watchmakers, before taking the artifact from JD.

"You carry one of those things on you?" Vin had to ask.

Nathan, who went back to bandaging Inez's wounded hand, answered for Ezra. "You're surprised?"

"Please" Ezra confirmed putting the loupe against his eye. "I am not about to take some opponent's word that the diamond ring he intends to use as a stake is genuine."

"Ezra, focus," Chris said sharply, a reminder not to just the gambler but to everyone else, this was not the time, not in Inez's present state of mind.

"My apologies," Ezra said quickly before returning to his own examination of the artifact.

"What are you thinking, JD?" Buck asked, recognising the intense look on JD's face. It was the expression of someone who was trying to prove an idea.

JD didn't answer Buck, but he did speak. "Have any of you ever heard of the Jewel of Cintamani?"

Chris straightened up and stared at JD. "You think this is it?"

"It's possible," JD looked at his leader and mentor. "The writing speaks of Shambhala, the mythical city where one of the four great treasures of the Dharma reside, guarded by the Nagi until Triratna can be achieved."

"What are you talking about! What has this to do with Benny!" Inez burst out, needing answers and for that matter, explanations.

"Sorry Inez," JD apologised, feeling a little embarrassed at being wrapped up in a legend when a flesh and blood situation needed resolution. Receiving a slight nod from Chris telling him the floor was his, JD faced Inez and the others, explaining what he knew about the fabled Jewel of Cintamani.

"The Jewel of Cintamani was supposedly one of four relics that fell from the sky and would be needed for the minds of everyone to begin Triratna, a state of perfect enlightenment. It passed into the possession of King Thothori Nyantsen who kept it in a temple in the city, but as the centuries passed and the kingdom declined, it fell to plunder, and the relics vanished. To protect the Jewel which is believed to be the most powerful of all the relics, the monks used its own power to protect it from discovery."

"Power?" Buck asked, "what kind of power?"

"It's a wishing stone. Whoever holds it can get anything they want. It's supposedly a manifestation of Nirvana, you know paradise."

"You mean like a magic lamp?" This question came from Nathan.

"Except there is no limit to what it can be asked to do. It is meant to give you true happiness, which means more than just wealth and prosperity. It can grant you immortality, love and the power to bring back the dead, family, lovers anyone you want. It can pretty much shape reality to satisfy the happiness of whoever holds it."

"Well I can see why the Commies want it then," Vin said, meeting Chris's gaze since they both shared the same thought. "They get their hands on this thing, and this whole world is theirs for the taking."

"But this can't be real..." Inez stated. Her Catholic upbringing refused to let her believe this could be anything but nonsense.

"It doesn't matter if it's real or not," Chris replied, not about to discount the Jewel's power just yet, not after everything they'd seen in the last few years. "These Russians think it is and they want us to fight it. JD, keep going."

"According to legend, a monk used it wishing the Jewel to be hidden beyond the reach of all. That's just what happened. It vanished into a city along the boundary between the Earth and heaven."

"Where the hell is that?" Inez burst out, showing her growing anxiety at her son's fate being tied to these far-fetched legends.

"The boundary between heaven and earth could mean the Himalayas, the roof of the world," Chris suggested. "Assuming we're on the right track."

"I think we are Chris," JD answered, throwing a glance at Ezra. "I think this is what the Russians were after until they found out we were involved."

"It makes sense," Josiah agreed. "If you want to find this thing, who better to do it than a bunch of treasure hunters who do it for a living."

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "They probably came here for the artifact but saw our involvement and decided to go one better. It's smart. I'm sorry, Inez. Our being here is why they took Benny."

Inez wanted to be angry but she couldn't. She was logical enough to put the pieces together and suspected if Chris and his men were not here, they would have killed her and her son before taking what they wanted anyway. At least in this instance, Benny was still alive, and his chances of survival depended on the expertise of the seven.

"It is not your fault," she tried to give them a smile of absolution but could not manage it.

"Well," Ezra said after long last. "I can tell you that this is not jade or emerald, or any of the commonly known stones. It took me some time, but I believe I know what it is. Moldavite."

"What is it?" Nathan voiced their bewilderment.

"Moldavite," Ezra repeated and noted he had the floor now since JD was saying nothing to illuminate everyone's confusion. "It is a tektite, a type of glass formed by the detritus of meteorites. Moldavite was thought to have appeared on Earth some 15 million years ago following a meteorite collision in Bohemia. The highest concentrations of it seemed to be in Czechoslovakia, around the České Budějovice Basin. Its value comes from its rarity. Very little of it has been found anywhere else."

"The Jewel is believed to be made of moldavite," JD reminded Chris.

"Well that makes sense," Alex, who had been treating Inez, spoke up for the first time. "If the story is to be believed, then the jewel really did come from the sky."

No one could argue with that observation.

"So then what's this necklace got to do with it?" Nathan gestured to the object Ezra was continuing to study with interest.

"Well, when it comes time for humanity to reach Triratna," JD resumed his explanations. "They're going to need the Jewel and the other the relics wherever they are. So the Jewel will need to be found in Shambhala. I think this artifact is the way to do that, but we've got to find the sacred temple where the artifacts were kept before the plunder. The real experts are the Roerichs. They did the real study on the Jewel."

Inez froze and stood up suddenly.

"Did you say Roerichs?"

All eyes turned to her, but it was Chris who spoke. "Is that name familiar?"

Inez nodded, feeling the air in her lungs dwindling, leaving her breathless by a sudden burst of understanding. She composed herself, mining her thoughts for the particular memory, suspecting even though it was minor, it held the answer to how Bernado had become ensnared in the mystery that cost him life. Hugging herself as if it was icy cold in the room, Inez remembered how Bernado spoke of his days in university, how he enjoyed being educated abroad.

"Before Bernado came home to join Cristeros, he studied in Paris. One of the friends he met was George Roerich. When he left for Prague, he told me it was one of his old friends from school who offered him the job."

"If it was Roerich then it all fits," Chris stated. "George's dad is Nicholas Roerich, he's a famous Russian painter, archaeologist and theologist, who did the first serious studies on the Jewel. Between 1925 and 1929, he and his family made a cross-country trek across Central Asia to find it."

"WHere is this fella now?" Buck asked, knowing that if they were going to retrieve this artifact and get Benny back, they would need to know what wild goose chase George set Bernado on.

"I shall be able to locate him," Ezra volunteered. "If he travels in academia, then I imagine it should not be any trouble finding us a place to start."

"I'm going with you."

Buck stared at Inez open-mouthed and answered before Chris could. "Darlin' no, it's dangerous. We have no idea what we're walking into!"

"I don't care! He's my son, and I am going with you." Turning to Chris, she added, "if it was your son, would you stay behind?"

Chris opened his mouth to answer until the truth forced him into silence. If it was Adam, there was no force on heaven or Earth capable of keeping Chris from joining any effort to rescue him. How could he ask her to do the same?"

"No," Chris conceded defeat. "I wouldn't."

"Chris..." Buck started to protest when Ezra cut him off.

"The lady has spoken Buck," Ezra said smoothly. While he understood Buck's sentiments and his concern for Roberto's lovely daughter, even Ezra knew it was never wise to get between a mother and her child. Turning to Inez, he said with a little smile. "Miss Inez, I suggest you start packing."

Chapter Eleven:
Destiny

Alexandra Styles loved Vin Tanner.

She really did. Their first meeting and every day since confirmed this truth beyond all shadow of a doubt. Alex, who used to believe there was no such thing as love at first sight, was surprised by how wrong she had been after meeting Vin. Their connection after their first encounter was undeniable. The months that followed gave Alex no reason to change her opinion. There was nothing she would not do for him because life without Vin was simply unimaginable.

But it was not only Vin she adored so much.

After the loss of her father, Alex resigned herself to being alone in the world. However, fate had other ideas since Vin came with six friends who filled the void left by William Styles. Becoming a part of their extended family had been a welcome surprise, and her relationships with these eclectic men took a life of its own. From her close friendship with Nathan Jackson, whose knowledge of the Great War made his expertise equal to any medical degree, to the common ground shared with Ezra Standish. Both loved opera and often accompanied each other to performances since Vin made it plain he would run for the hills if she made him go.

Life with Vin was as close to perfect as Alex could imagine - except for one thing.

She really hated his job.

Fuming in her seat on board the Darlin' Millie, Alex listened to the drone of its propellers. She stared out the window at the grey clouds and the night sky beyond wondering how she ended up here. It had been less than an hour since they left Albuquerque and while Alex had expected the seven to leave town in search of the Jewel on Cintamani, she did not anticipate going with them.

"Darlin', you can't stay here. These Commies have been watching us for Christ knows how long. If they kidnapped little Benny to blackmail us, they might come after you too."

Vin was right. How many times had the seven's enemies tried to use someone they cared for as a hostage? After her encounter with the Erran, Alex wasn't stupid enough to question Vin's desire to keep her safe but going with them meant time away from her hard-worn internship. While the administrators at the Sisters of Mercy Hospital accepted her leave of absence without complaint, it still galled Alex nonetheless.

"I'm sorry Alex," Inez took up the empty seat next to her after Vin tired of her annoyance and went to talk to Chris instead. "I didn't mean for you to be drawn into this."

Inez's apology doused the smouldering embers of her ire as it reminded Alex of the stakes involved. A woman whose child was abducted had no business offering her an apology, and it made Alex feel guilty for behaving so selfishly. The situation was what it was, Alex concded, and none of the people on board the Millie was to blame for it.

"I know," she exhaled her lingering resentment with a sigh. "I was just starting to hit my stride at the hospital. When you leave medical school, you think you've learned everything there is to know about medicine. Being an intern changes all that. You feel like it's the first day of school again and I've spent the last few months getting to a place where I think I got it all figured out and now I have to leave again."

Before Inez opened her mouth to offer another apology, Alex cut her off.

"....but I'll get over it and right now, the most important thing is for us to bring Benny home," Alex reached for Inez's hand and squeezed it tightly.

"We will," Inez nodded, refusing to believe anything else. "I also understand why you have no wish to join Vin on his adventures."

"Adventures?" Alex rolled her eyes in sarcasm. "The last time I was involved in these treasure hunts, I was almost drowned, chopped up by zombies, stung to death by scorpions and almost became the receptacle of an ancient Babylonian goddess! That sort of thing can make a girl a little anxious."

Inez laughed a little and Alex was glad to see her distracted from her troubles, enough so to admit another little bit of truth. "It's not just that Inez. My father died because of the Erran, and that whole situation reminds me of just how much he hid from me. He was carrying the truth about the cult for years, knowing his friends were being murdered because of these fanatics and one day, they would come after him too. I wish he had shared it with me, let me help carry the burden with him."

"I understand," Inez said quietly, empathising with Alex more than the young doctor knew. She eased back into her chair, thinking about the confluence of events leading to this moment in time and felt a surge of anger at the truth Bernardo hid from her.

The shadow falling over her face was so obvious Alex felt a pang of sympathy for the woman. She understood where her ruminations led Inez and Alex cursed herself for her childish snit. "My father did what he did because he was trying to protect me, I'm sure Bernado did the same because he wanted to keep you and little Benny safe."

"But we are not safe," Inez shook her head, not about to forgive him his sins just yet. "His silence cost him his life and made me ignorant of the dangers waiting out there. He should have told me! I am so angry with him for that? What was he thinking when he left us to get involved with such men?"

Alex could offer no insight into Bernardo's reasoning, but her friend needed words of comfort, so she tried to provide some. "Inez, whatever was in his mind, I'm certain he never intended to pay for his mistake with his life or risk you and Benny's."

"But he has made us pay," Inez countered. "They have Benny, and now I'm afraid that even if they get the Jewel, they won't give him back to me."

"You can't think that way," Alex stated firmly and then glanced past Inez to the furthest end of the aisle where Chris and Vin were seated side by side, their seats facing the aisle. "Chris would never let that happen. If nothing else, I believe in him."

Inez didn't look at the leader of the seven but could not deny Alex was right. Chris Larabee proved time and time again, he knew how to take care of his friends.

"That gives me hope," she smiled. "You know I wish Bernardo had friends like Chris and the others after the war was over. He just could not find a place for himself once life returned to normal. I think he spent so much time being a soldier, surrounded by danger, he might have needed it. Perhaps as much as he needed us."

"Some men are not made for an ordinary life," Alex lifted her chin and caught Vin's gaze. The couple exchanged a moment of affection before they returned to their respective conversations. "You can't tame them, Inez, you just have to be there to remind them of what's waiting at home, so they'll try twice as hard to come back to us."


"Alex still mad at you?"

Chris, who was in his customary seat at the rear of the plane, asked Vin. The sharpshooter had joined him, Nathan and Ezra after enduring the full brunt of female annoyance during the first hour of their journey. Having been married, Chris was perfectly aware of how potent the silence treatment could be when employed by the female of the species. He wondered how Vin was handling it. In all the time he'd seen the couple together, they had never even gotten into a fight which was downright unnatural as far as Chris was concerned.

"Nah," Vin shrugged, still warmed by the look of affection thrown his way from Alex a moment ago. "I'm too pretty for her to be mad at for long."

Ezra choked on his snifter of cognac. "Buck has been a terrible influence on you, young man."

During their journeys, Chris would be busy studying the research material he and JD gathered for their expedition before the flight. The trays separating their seats were covered with old books, scrolls and several newspaper clippings. Nathan, on the other hand, was engrossed reading a book with a most colourful title. The recently published 'Tortilla Flat' written by the promising new author John Steinbeck.

A light snoring from beneath the brim of his hat revealed how Josiah would spend much of the trip. The ex-mechanic had been hard at work preparing the Millie for flight, repairing the damage done to the craft during their Australian Adventure. Ezra couldn't blame him for finally taking some rest.

For himself, Ezra continued to deal himself another game of solitaire when Nathan spoke up after lowering his book.

"So what's the plan, Chris?"

They all knew they were in a race against time to reach England, with a quick stop on the East Coast to refuel. According to Ezra's contacts, George Roerich was about to leave London for Manchuria in a matter of days. Despite the urgency of the situation, nothing could dissuade the scholar from delaying the start of his latest expedition to the Orient. Furthermore, Roerich believed and rightly so, hid family involvement in the matter would only compromise their efforts to retrieve the Jewel. The Roerichs' connection to the Jewel was well known, and they were still under observation by Stalinist forces.

"Well thanks to Julia, we can meet the Roerichs in private, away from any Ruskie snoops."

Chris glanced at Ezra, who contacted Julia and with her help, arranged a meeting with George Roerich before he departed from England. While Chris hated involving British Intelligence in this business, he disliked the idea of the Russians watching their every move, even more.

Not wanting Inez to overhear what he was about to tell the others, Chris kept his voice low and noted Alex and Inez still engaged in deep conversation. Good, he thought silently. The lady was holding up well, and she had more strength than any of them suspected, but there were some aspects of this affair; she had no need to know. Bernardo's secrecy about the Jewel bothered her enough and as a widower himself, Chris did not want Inez's image of her husband to be further tarnished.

"From what I got from him on the phone, George met up with Bernardo in Mexico and hired him for the expedition to retrieve the amulet. He knew the Commies were watching him and his family but figured they wouldn't pay any attention to an ex-Cristeros if Bernardo crossed the border from Czechoslovakia into Russia."

"A grievous error," Ezra commented. While the country had been in turmoil since 1922, there was no doubting the ferocity of Stalin's secret police. Julia warned the OGPU were almost as brutal as Germany's SS.

"No kidding," Chris agreed and continued speaking. "It turns out George's dad went home to Moscow with a bunch of artifacts from Tibet after his expeditions in the Orient. This included a map leading to the whereabouts of the amulet. With the political unrest taking place between Stalin and Trotsky, Nicholas decided to take up a teaching position in America. By this time, the map was being kept at a university in Moscow, and there was no chance of removing it without the secret police asking questions."

"Which is why George needed Bernardo to sneak into Russia from the Czech border to get it," Vin commented.

"Exactly. The Commies would have no reason to suspect him, not until he took the map. Once he had it though, they were on him."

"All the way to the amulet."

"Yeah," Chris nodded, "He must have figured they were going to grab him, so he sent it to Inez to keep it out of their hands before it happened."

"Is there any chance he might still be alive?" Nathan whispered, not wanting Inez to hear.

All three men exchanged a quick glance that revealed their thoughts on the matter.

"No," Chris's voice matched Nathan's. "If Bernardo were alive, they wouldn't have waited three years to make their move or kidnap Benny. Inez would have given up the amulet straight away to get her husband back. They didn't have leverage until they took Benny. Hell, they wouldn't have known about it until Ezra went nosing around."

"Thank you for that reminder," Ezra shot Chris a look, still guilty at how he'd led these bastards to Inez and her son.

"Ain't your fault Ezra," Vin spoke up quickly. "We all agreed that you should investigate Bernardo's disappearance. Besides, it's best we found out now while all of us can help get Benny back."

Once again, Ezra tossed a look in Inez's direction before he answered Vin. "I must confess I am dubious whether our Soviet employers will honour their agreement and produce the child even if we do give them the Jewel."

"You think a double-cross?" Nathan blurted out until Chris gave him a warning glare to be discreet.

Fortunately, Inez did not react to Nathan's words, and Chris felt comfortable enough to answer. There was no doubt in his mind that when the time came to make the exchange, the Russians would renege on their promise to return Benny.

"I'm sure of it," Chris said grimly.


Fear not the darkest tunnel even when your blood slickens its jagged walls of black glass. Struggle borne of pain will spawn a new beginning.

- Anon

These words offered meagre comfort to Aisha, the last in the line of succession to Sassanid kings of old. Over the preceding six months, she moved through her life, trapped in a nightmare refusing to release its hold upon her. In the dark walls of this dream palace, she saw broken reflections of destiny, the fractured hopes of her people, shattered by a single bullet. It took from the Erran five thousand years of preparation and dismissed Tiamat into the afterlife where gods went to die.

It also took her brother.

Adashir Shar, leader of the Erran now lay buried beneath the desert sand, without even the honour of a burial fitting a Sassanid monarch. As it was, it infuriated Aisha that Dash's killer remained a mystery. Replaying the events of his death in her mind, Aisha knew it was not the infidels captured who delivered the killing stroke. Her brother's murderer had fired their fatal shot from a distance. She wondered if Larabee and his men knew who had done it. If she did not have more pressing matters to attend to, she would have gladly tortured every one of them to learn the truth.

At the moment, she needed to rebuild the fractured hopes of her people, because buried with her brother, was the promise of the new world Tiamat would have created for them. The Erran's plan to resurrect her lay in ruins because the hated infidels who opposed them, had destroyed the Tablet of Destiny to ensure its summoning powers would never be invoked again.

Although they still numbered in the thousands, spread across the globe, they were now an army without a cause. They looked to her for leadership, because even if she was a woman, she was sister to the Great Shah and a child of kings. Yet Aisha felt as if she was treading water. Without the Tablet of Destiny, there was no way for them to resurrect Tiamat and thus no way to hold the children of Erran together.

For months, she remained in seclusion at her brother's mansion in Mykonos. At her side was loyal Krestos. Like his family before him, he protected all members of the Sassanid royal house. He and his men ensured no usurper attempted to take her place as leader of the Erran. Such power plays were expected because some still found difficulty accepting the rule of a woman. Aisha knew the key to maintaining her place was to give them hope that their covenant with Tiamat was not irrevocably broken by the loss of the Tablet.

Searching the volumes of ancient books and texts collected by her family for centuries, she studied the yellowed pages and the endless scrolls, looking for an answer. Five thousand years of worship and devotion could not end with something as profane as a gunshot. There had to be a way to resurrect Tiamat without the Tablet!

Staring into the warmth of the Aegean, the crisp, blue waters beyond Mykonos called to her from the desk, where she was surrounded by volumes of open books and unfurled scrolls. None of them had given her enlightenment, and as she rubbed the bridge of her nose, she wondered if perhaps the sensible thing to do would be to give up. It seemed unkind to yoke her people to a dream that would never come to pass.

"Amira."

Krestos stood before her desk like a carved statue of ebony. The man was a behemoth, yet he entered her private study like the most artful of thieves. He had been her friend since childhood, her most loyal servant and protector. As always, he stood before her supplicant, his eyes never meeting hers because he considered himself her lesser.

"Krestos," she left behind the welcoming waters of the Aegean and met his gaze. "What is it?"

"I am sorry to intrude your studies Amira, but I have received a report from one of the believers in Moscow."

"Moscow?" Aisha stood up and stared. Of course, over the centuries, the Erran had cultivated followers in every corner of the globe. While the concentration of the faithful was in Arabia, there were believers in such faraway places as Russia.

"Yes," Krestos nodded. "One of your brother's converts, I believe. A man named Milosevic."

"And what does he have to report?" Aisha asked, remembering Dash believed it was wise to have connections everywhere and to a degree, he was right. It allowed them to keep track of rare artifacts connected to the Tablet as well as a way to keep an eye on their enemies.

"He claims that the Russians are seeking out an artifact called the Jewel of Cintamani."

Aisha stared at him for a moment, not speaking. She searched her memory for knowledge of the artifact and was vaguely aware of the name, but not the legends surrounding it. In truth, it was Dash who was the real expert in ancient myths. He understood all the texts, the rituals and traditions surrounding the Tablet, while Aisha with Krestos's aid, was his fearsome right hand. She carried out his bidding without question but never took the time to learn any of it. Since his death, she had been forced to become adept in understanding the Tablet, but other legends still eluded her.

"It is old Amira," Krestos explained. "Almost as old as the Tablet. The worshippers of Mother Indus believed it to be a gift from their gods, granting anyone who possessed it their greatest wishes."

"A wishing stone?" Aisha sat up immediately, the possibilities starting to form in her mind. "And the Russians are after it? "

"Yes," Krestos nodded. "They are so determined to find it they have forced Larabee and his men to help them."

Her eyes widened at the mention of the hated infidels. If the Russians had engaged Larabee to find the stone, there must be something to its power. A powerful wishing stone in her hands could change all their fates. It could undo all the tragedy of the last six months and restore Dash to her again. It was powerful enough, it could even rebuild the Tablet of Destiny...

Aisha stood up abruptly, her eyes bright with purpose and it was reflected in Kresto's own dark eyes. "Come Krestos, it seems we have a journey to make."

Chapter Twelve:
County Fair

PEMBERTON MANOR
CHESHUNT, HERTFORDSHIRE

"Now that's a house."

Buck Wilmington whistled in awe once he climbed out of the black Vauxhall Light Six. He turned around and offered a hand to Inez, helping her out of the vehicle, his attention shifting briefly from the austere mansion to the beautiful bartender. In stark contrast to her long skirts and peasant blouses, Inez wore a light blue floral dress with a modest top, puffed sleeves and a slender body cut that flared below the knee. With an angular white hat perched over her head and day gloves, she looked in his opinion, quite stunning.

"My goodness," Inez's eyes widened at the sight of the stately home in front of the car, "you are not wrong."

The Pemberton Manor home, located south of London was the home to the family of Julia Pemberton's mother. Nestled in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, it was surrounded by rows of elm and oak, carefully manicured lawns whose lush, verdant texture resembled something out of a picture book. Compared to the arid landscape of New Mexico, England's rolling green fields and massive trees with their outstretched branches didn't seem quite real.

The house itself was constructed in a baroque style of red brick, with white columns holding up the balcony on the front facade, elegantly painted white windows and towering turrets running along the roof. The estate itself lay some miles away from the town of Cheshunt, where they'd left Vin and the others since it didn't feel right for every one of the seven to be present for their meeting with Roerich.

"Will Julia be here?" Inez asked Ezra who had left the vehicle and made his way to the front door, looking dapper as always in a white suit and hat.

"Alas no," Ezra glanced over his shoulder, past Chris who wearing his customary black suit and hat. "Julia is presently abroad."

There was no need to explain to anyone present what that meant, although Ezra was a bit disappointed he wouldn't get the opportunity to see her. The chances for them to meet face-to-face were so rare, it was really a miracle they managed to conduct a relationship across such distance. Still, Julia's place in his heart was so secure he would have it no other way.

"Our meeting with Doctor Roerich has been facilitated by Julia's stepfather Sir Sean Bosley. I understand this home belonged to his wife's family, although Lady Bosley prefers to live in London with her husband. This is their country home."

"I wonder if Dr Roerich is here yet," Chris asked no one in particular as they made their way up the slate grey front walk.

As he said those words, the double front doors to the mansion parted with a man emerging from the shadows of the hallway beyond. He was a man in his sixties, a straight nose, dark hair turning grey and pronounced Gaelic features. Seated in a wheelchair, he glided forward, wearing a smile of welcome that was very much in keeping with Julia's description of the man. To Julia, Sean Bosley was more father to her than the deceased Donald Avery.

"Welcome to Pemberton Manor," he greeted, and his voice bore a hint of an Irish brogue.

"Thank you for receiving us," Ezra tilted his head in greeting. "Permit me to introduce my associates...."

"No need," Sir Sean grinned at Chris. "Your reputation precedes you, Mr Larabee, I am most pleased to meet you and your team."

"Thank you, Sir Sean," Chris proffered his hand at him, supposing he ought not to be surprised that the man would be familiar with who they were, considering he worked from British Intelligence.

"And you must be Mr Wilmington," Sir Sean looked past Chris at Buck and Inez who was approaching him a few steps behind.

"That's me," Buck tilted his hat at the man. "Pleased to meet you, Sir Sean."

"And you, my dear," He rolled up to Inez and extended his hand. "You must be Mrs Recillos."

"Yes," she nodded. "Thank you for helping us."

"It is my pleasure," he smiled at her kindly before retreating up the walk again so he could turn back to the doorway. "Now if you please join us inside, Doctor Roerich is waiting for us in the drawing-room. Our housekeeper, Mrs Brooks, had prepared us some lunch and we do have quite a bit to get through."


A whiff of hot butter wafting past Vin Tanner prompted him to take a deep breath.

The enveloping aroma filled his senses, suffocating all the other smells. Growing up in the rough and spending much of his life on ranches and in stables, Vin recognised the familiar acrid odour of manure, the gamey reek of livestock and the mustiness of damp hay. He raised his eyes above the crowds of people walking along the dirt corridor separating the rows of animal pens and stalls, seeking the source of that heavenly scent. His stomach tugged impatiently at him like a child wanting attention.

While Chris, Ezra, Buck and Inez took their meeting with George Roerich, Vin and the rest of the seven opted to remain in town. Cheshunt was hosting its annual fair, and it brought enough people in town to ensure a handful of Americans would go unnoticed. It reminded Vin of the county fairs at home, where locals came out to present their prized animals, produce and craftwork. The crowd was a sea of tweed, argyle fabrics, matching the brown of the dirt and the grey in the clouds above.

Voices, both human and animal, filled the air, depicting in Vin's opinion, the very best things in life. Community, happiness, the joy of being. Families were making a day of the event. Rambunctious children ran past adults in carefree abandon while others lingered at the fencing around the animals, delighting in the creatures waiting patiently for the judging to begin.

Something flying overhead made him look up, and Vin spied a majestic bird soaring through the air, a length of leather dangling from one ankle. It took him a second to determine it was a peregrine falcon and he followed its trajectory to the end of Cheshunt's main street and the park framing it. A large group was gathered there, applauding and whooping the performance taking place.

He didn't think English people knew how to whoop in excitement.

"What's going on there?" JD inquired as Vin looked around for Alex, careful not to lose her in the crowd. He relaxed when he sighted the doctor at a table, chatting with the woman behind a stall selling jams in jars sealed with checked fabric.

"The Falconers are putting on a show," Josiah explained, the interest in his face revealed he was about to go take a look at the avian performance.

"They still do that?" Nathan asked fascinated, imagining something like that would have gone out with chain mail and armour.

"It's a good way to control pests and hunt birds."

"Not as good as well-aimed bird gun," Vin quipped, drawing laughter from his friends.

"How long do you think Chris is going to be?" JD found nothing interesting in anything around him. In fact, too much of it reminded him of his youth and those memories he had no desire to revisit. He wished he had gone with Chris to Roerich's meeting but stepped aside because he knew Buck wanted to stay close to Inez.

"A few hours at least," Vin answered as he watched Josiah and Nathan moving through the crowds to watch the show being put on by the falconers. "Once he and Roerich are done, we can head up there."

"I suppose," JD kicked at a pebble that skittered across the damp ground, reminding Vin just how young he was despite his formidable intelligence. "All this," he glanced at the animals staring at him from their pens, their blank faces showing no expression as they retreated from the fences, frightened by the gawkers. "All this reminds me of that fancy estate I grew up in. Mr Astor had more money than God and didn't need to raise livestock to get fed, but they still had cows and chickens, just to show everyone they were like regular folk."

The bitterness in his voice surprised Vin. JD talked about his mother all the time, but rarely about the place he grew up. Vin almost asked JD about it, when he glanced at the stall, he'd last seen Alex and noticed she wasn't there. Giving the area a quick survey to catch sight of her, Vin's spine stiffened at her continued absence.

"Vin," JD asked, seeing the sharpshooter's tense expression. "What is it?"

"I don't see Alex," Vin started walking.

JD followed Vin through the crowd towards the last place Alex was seen. He weaved through the bodies around them, earning disapproving frowns from the people he had to push past. He too, began searching the crowds, although he wasn't convinced Alex was in trouble. With all the stalls and stands along the street, she probably wandered off without thinking.

That is until he saw a face at the far end of the street, trying to remain unseen, and recognised the man immediately.

"VIN!"


Alex hadn't meant to stray.

Mrs Bouquet, the elderly matron who was displaying her finest jams and preserves, was chatting animately about her recipe for lemon butter. To Alex's surprise, the doctor found she was interested in the making of it. Vin and the rest of the men were trying to kill time, surrounded by the fruits of rustic living, trying not to look inordinately bored. Alex didn't mind, she liked the country more than she cared to admit and it was hard not to get caught up in the festive atmosphere of the day.

She was listening to Mrs Bouquet tell her all about her lemon butter recipe, in between snippets of local gossip, including what Mr Williams the milkman was doing with Alicia Brown the postmistress when Alex happened to look up. The face appeared only a split second, but it was enough.

For a moment, Alex could do nothing but stare, wondering if she was mistaken. After all, the person resembled any other Englishwoman. Her hair was styled in a shoulder-length bob and she wore a dark blue dress and a tweed coat. The woman moved out of view, darting behind a tent where the judging for livestock was continuing. Alex knew she should have called out to Vin, but she wanted to be sure. She had to be sure!

Leaving Mrs Bouquet abruptly, Alex made her way through the crowds, her good sense demanding she thought she was doing with this pursuit. If she was right, she was walking into a perilous situation, and if wrong, she'd be embarrassing herself for behaving like a stalker. However, everything in her gut told Alex she was right.

Even though she never spoke to Vin about what happened during the ceremony to resurrect Tiamat, the goddess who created the Tablet of Destiny, she remembered a great deal of what happened. She knew she had been on the precipice of oblivion, where the black climbed up the walls of perdition and gripped her tightly for a brief time. She remembered being a prisoner in her own body, trapped with a monstrous creature intending to destroy everyone she loved.

She also remembered those responsible for making her their sacrificial lamb.

Adashir Shah, carrying on his family's twisted legacy, intended to use her as Tiamat's receptacle in this world. With the Tablet of Destiny in his hands, the plan almost succeeded until Julia Pemberton stepped in and ended his life, settling the account for her father's murder. While Alex was grateful to Julia for saving her, the doctor felt cheated because she wanted her pound of flesh.

She wanted to kill the Shah herself for taking William Styles.

She hadn't realised how much she wanted it until she saw Aisha's face in the crowd. The woman's brother was dead, but Alex remembered the part Aisha played in her near possession. She'd supported her brother's actions, had been his loyal follower and might have been present when her father was murdered. Whether Alex knew for sure or not, it didn't matter. Aisha was just as culpable for William's end as her brother. If Alex couldn't get her vengeance from one sibling, she would be just as satisfied to get it from the other.

Alex rounded the tent's corner and noted the rear of it faced an empty field used as a parking lot. Small trucks and cars turned what was once lush, green lawn into a muddy track, crisscrossed by tyre marks. A few people on the way home were trudging across the soft ground towards their vehicles. There was no sign of Aisha, but Alex was convinced she saw the Erran cultist come this way.


If Aisha had learned one thing about the Erran's previous encounters with Chris Larabee and his men, it was the wisdom of approaching them cautiously. On every occasion where they confronted the treasure hunters, the Erran failed miserably in their efforts to achieve their goals. Thus when news reached her the Darlin' Millie had landed on English soil, Aisha opted to observe the group's movements instead of a direct attack.

Following Larabee and his entourage to Cheshunt, the Erran kept out of sight by discarding their usual red robes and adopting contemporary English fashions. Krestos was challenging to disguise at the best of times, but he knew how to remain discreet while she watched their quarry. Any search to retrieve the Jewel would require getting their hands on George Roerich.

They had not been able to intercept the anthropologist before making his meeting with Larabee, but there was plenty of time to catch up to him. In the meantime, she waited in town while some of her men watched the Pemberton Estate. The minute Roerich departed the place, they would have him. What was especially delicious was that with Roerich leaving the country, no one would know he was missing for months. It was a good plan.

At least it was until Alexandra Styles caught sight of her.

How the former receptacle of Tiamat recognised her in her current state of dress was beyond her understanding, but remember Aisha she did. Nor did she make any effort to hide the fact she intended to catch up to the Amira. Of course, the woman was a fool who knew nothing about approaching anyone covertly, and Aisha was not about to let Alexandra Styles reveal her presence to anyone.

Drawing her curved jambiya from her coat, she darted behind some crates and allowed the doctor to pass by her before closing in on the American from behind, intending to drive the dagger deep into her back.

Whether it was the sound of her boot squelching into the mud or some other foresight she did not know Alex Styles possessed, the doctor spun around, and both women locked eyes on each other. With speed Aisha did not expect, Alex swung out her purse, the patent leather case slapping the hand holding the dagger hard enough for Aisha to lose her grip of the weapon and sent it flying. The Amira was half conscious of the weapon's sharp point driven into a hay bale.

Whatever Aisha expected to happen by unveiling herself, what happened next was something she did not see coming.

Alex had been uncertain of what she would do when she found herself face to face with Aisha, but the rage that gripped Alex was unlike anything the normally passive doctor ever experience in her life. After swatting away the cruel-looking dagger, Alex leapt at her in a full-body tackle that sent them both sprawling against the mud. Beneath her, Aisha uttered an indignant cry, outraged and surprised by the violent display. Why not? The last time they saw each other, Alex was bound and gagged, surrounded by the Erran.

So stunned was Aisha by this hellion's attack, she had no time to mount an assault of her own and realised the fists pummeling her into the mud was not a doctor filled with reason, but someone enraged beyond all measure. She tried to dislodge the woman above her by twisting hard, but when she felt nails sink into her hair and then her scalp, the action only succeeded in tearing flesh.

"You and your bastard brother killed my father!".

"AMIRA!"

The booming voice behind her made Alex look over her shoulder. The hulking form of Krestos, dressed like a country farmer, snapped Alex out of her enraged stupor to realise the cost of her impulsive attack. At the same time, Aisha took advantage of her distraction and twisted hard, throwing Alex off her body. Rolling across the mud, Alex saw Aisha covered with dirt, trying to get to her feet.

"KILL HER!"

If the order was meant to engender fear, it did nothing of the sort because coming out of nowhere was Vin Tanner. Followed closely by JD who had pulled out a revolver from his jacket, Vin moved across the damp ground and bounced off the same crate Aisha used to hide, landing on Kresto's back. The sharpshooter caught Kresto's thick neck in a powerful armlock before the Erran could reach Alex.

Seeing help was at hand, emboldened Alex and the doctor scrambled to her hand and knees, crawling across the ground to grip Aisha's ankle and yank hard. Aisha landed face-first in the mud, splattering Alex with globs of dirt. The Amira spun around in the earth, kicking out her foot and connecting with Alex's jaw. The doctor fell backwards.

"Move and I'll kill you!" JD fairly roared, cocking his gun at Aisha. The last time they had met, the lady had just about disembowelled him in the ancient city of Ur. Turning to Krestos who was still attempting to dislodge Vin, JD barked just as sharply. "You too!"

However, what advantage he had was brief because their fight drew the attention of the other Erran. Gunfire erupted from the direction of the parked cars. JD ducked as a bullet rushed past his ear, and Aisha took the opportunity to make good her escape. She shoved JD as she rushed past him, causing the younger man to slip. Krestos swung his body hard and managed to fling Vin into the tent hiding their altercation from the rest of Cheshunt.

Vin's landing was hard, colliding against the tent pole holding up the canvas where the sheep judging was taking place. A loud crack brought down the entire structure, creating pandemonium as the locals within were trapped under the dull, grey canvas. Animals brayed in confusion, as frightened sheep emerging from the tent and scattered.

Meanwhile, JD crawled across the wet ground to reach Alex, squeezing off a few rounds to protect the doctor while Vin collected himself.

"You okay?" JD asked her when he reached Alex.

"Yeah," Alex nodded, oblivious to everything except the vanishing form of Aisha in the distance. Her "But I'm going to kill that woman. One way or another, I am going to end her."

Chapter Thirteen:
Shrine

Entirely oblivious to the chaos occurring at the county fair, Chris Larabee examined the interior of the Pemberton house and wondered how a place resembling a museum could ever feel homely.

Whether it was his military upbringing or the plain fact he was American, he took in the manor and stiffened at how rigid it felt to him. With portraits adorning the walls plated with oiled wood panels and upholstery and ancestral suit of armour standing guard in the hallway, Chris couldn't imagine hearing the laughter of children running down these corridors or sliding down the ornate banister framing the sweeping staircases.

Glancing over his shoulder, he noted Inez and Buck gawked at the surroundings with the awe of tourists as Sir Sean led them to the study where George Roerich awaited. They strolled past the cabinets containing priceless family heirlooms, watched by the painted ancestors with their stern expression. On the other hand, Ezra was studying everything, and Chris guessed the procurer's interest was likely due to his connection with Julia.

"Professor Roerich is eager to get away," Sir Sean explained as he rolled forward. "Since his family left Russia, he's been aware of the OGPU's scrutiny. He and his father hoped travelling through Asia might convince the authorities they have no pro-Trotsky sympathies."

"Do they have such inclinations?" Ezra asked from behind Chris.

"Absolutely not," Sir Sean scoffed. "The Roerichs have spent most of their lives engaged in the study of Tibetan mysticism. They're academics, nothing more. Unfortunately, being a member of academia in countries that are discarding free-thinking en masse makes it extremely difficult to conduct any impartial scientific study without someone taking offence."

A woman in a dark dress with a pilgrim collar stepped through the doorway to the dining room. She was in her late fifties, with dark hair drawn back into a severe bun, wearing an intense expression. She regarded the visitors with no reaction but nodded slightly in polite greeting.

"Sir Sean, lunch will be served in about thirty minutes."

"Thank you, Millicent," Sir Sean nodded before he turned the wheel of his chair to a door further along the corridor.

Before he could reach it, Chris hastened his pace to get there first and opened the door for the older man. Sir Sean gave him a smile of thanks, and Chris noted the approval from Millicent. Clearly, she cared a great deal for the master of the house and appreciated any consideration shown to him, especially from guests.

"Thank you," Sir Sean nodded and led them through the doorway once Chris stepped aside.

The study reminded Chris very much of Professor Travis's own bastion at the university in Albuquerque. A built-in bookshelf of dark wood occupied one wall of the room, while the other wall held a window presenting a panoramic view of the manicured gardens and the woods beyond. An oak desk held court in the centre of the room, with two wing chairs and a sofa of leather next to the unlit fireplace. Like the rest of the house, the wall space was covered with fabrics and portraits.

Occupying one of the chairs was George Roerich.

It amazed Chris how young he was. Like the rest of his friends, Chris expected Roerich to be young, but the man before him was Ezra's age, with sharp angular features and light blond hair. He stood up at their appearance, smoothing down his dark suit and eyeing them with a curious stare as they entered the room.

"George, this is Mr Chris Larabee and his associates, Mr Ezra Standish, Mr Buck Wilmington and Mrs Inez Recillos," Sir Sean introduced them. "I take it Professor Roerich needs no introductions."

"No," Inez stepped forward, not about to stand on ceremony when this was the man who most likely sent Bernardo to his death. "I need no introductions. Tell me what crazy mission you gave my husband that ended up with him being killed?"

There was no mercy in her statement, and every man in the room could see the words struck Roerich like a physical blow. His face turned white, and he swallowed, his intense expression softening to one of dismay and genuine regret.

"Inez...." Buck spoke up, recognising the burden of Bernardo's death in Roerich's eyes. "Take it easy darlin'."

"Take it easy!" She snapped at him, just as angrily. "Because of this man, my husband left his family and vanished. I don't even know where his body is!"

That declaration prompted a response from Roerich.

"It is alright," he looked at the men present. "Mrs Recillos has every right to be angry. May I call you Inez?"

The genuine sorrow in his voice defused Inez's anger slightly, and she nodded, retreating a step back and was almost grateful when she felt Buck behind her. Without thinking, she reached for his hand, clasping it because she suddenly felt drained.

Facing her, Roerich resumed speaking. "You are as beautiful as Ben said. He spoke of you and your son very often and missed you both greatly while he was away."

Inez blinked, squeezing Buck's hand harder as the loss of her first love surfaced inside her so strongly, she could hardly breathe.

Seeing Inez's distress, Sir Sean broke in. "Perhaps we should sit down. I'll ring for some tea."

"Sounds like a good idea," Chris agreed and guided everyone to the seats next to the fireplace.

The group sat down. Both Ezra and Buck took up position on either side of Inez on the sofa as if they needed to protect the lady from whatever painful truths Roerich was about to reveal. Chris didn't blame them for their concern. After her initial outburst, Inez now appeared deflated and fragile, a far cry from the feisty woman they had all come to know. He could understand what she was going through, however. The answers to all her questions about her husband's death were finally in reach. Yet despite the satisfaction that came from knowing, was the demise of any remaining hope of his survival.

If Chris were in her place, he would feel the same way.

"Professor, we ought to get started. We need to know everything you do about the Jewel and Bernardo's involvement in it. Benny's life is at stake." Chris stated, reminding everyone in the room this was more than just about an artifact, but the life of a little boy.

"Yes, of course," Roerich nodded before eyeing Inez again. "It will be to my everlasting regret the part I played in his death. When I sent him on the mission to retrieve the amulet, I swear to you that I did not imagine his life would be in danger. The amulet was nothing more than a curiosity at that point, not even on display at the museum. It had been boxed up with the rest of the items from my father's Eastern expeditions. Aside from its archaeological value, I had no reason to believe the OGPU would take an interest."

"But you must have been aware of some danger if you did not go yourself," Ezra pointed out.

"We didn't go ourselves because we feared we would not be allowed to leave Russia. My father is one of Russia's greatest minds. The Party is trying to build a new Russia, strong and modern, but they also do not permit the intelligentsia much freedom. We fled before they prevented us from ever leaving."

"I can confirm this," Sir Sean spoke up. "There is still an internal war taking place in Russia, with Stalin consolidating his power. The restrictions for the Russian people are mounting the tighter his grip becomes."

"My father had written some papers on the Jewel," Roerich continued. "Its history and symbolism in Eastern shamanism. He focused on the spiritual power of the object, especially in Tibetan culture. Under no circumstances, did anyone in academia believe the Jewel could work as a wishing stone. I certainly never thought the Party would be interested. The Soviet state has no use for religion or mysticism."

"Well they certainly want it now," Buck pointed out on Inez's behalf.

"Out of necessity," Sir Sean suggested. "From your own encounters with the Nazis, you know Hitler is fanatical about collecting mystical artifacts. Stalin might be similarly motivated to keep up."

"He's hedging his bets," Chris agreed. "He thinks if Hitler believes it, there might be something to it. He might want the Jewel just in case, all the artifacts in HItler's possession might actually work."

"But it's....." Roerich started to protest.

"Professor," Chris cut him off. "With all due respect, we've seen some things that might make any man a believer."

"There are more things on heaven and earth than are known in your philosophy, Horatio." Sir Sean smiled. "In any case, the Russians want the amulet, and they've abducted a child to get their hands on it."

Inez uttered a choked sob.

"It will be okay, Inez," Buck said comforting her, "we'll get him back."

"I will do whatever I can to help," Roerich added before leaning over the armrest of his chair to retrieve a tube-shaped leather case resting against it. Removing the cover, he extracted a rolled up length of yellowed parchment, weathered and worn by time. "This page is what remains of the Irk Bitig, a 10th-century manuscript found in Dunhuang."

As Roerich rolled the parchment across the coffee table, everyone leaned in for a look. The writing was barely visible, the ink almost entirely vanished into the paper. Chris spied illustrations of a green dragon, its wings spanning across the page as it sat on a perch of flat stone. It bothered him his knowledge of Eastern cultures was lacking and knew he would correct this when he got home.

"What is it?" Inez broke the silence, staring at the ancient page, failing to see any clue to the Jewel's current whereabouts.

"This," Roerich explained, "is one of the few remaining texts explaining the culture of pre-Buddist Mongolia, when its people still followed the mythology of the Turkic race from which modern Mongolians are descended. It speaks of an ovoo, what locals call a shrine. This ovoo, called Udan, is shaped like a great dragon, located in the middle of the Altai Ranges. The ovoo was supposedly constructed from a single piece of moldavite, and if even one piece of it was broken, the power of the place will be lost until it is returned. My father believed the amulet was constructed from a broken piece of the shrine. Only when it is returned, will the dragon awaken and reveal the path to the Jewel."

Ezra groaned visibly, suddenly envisioning a trek across a most inhospitable terrain. His contacts were many, and even as Roerich spoke, Ezra was trying to think of whom he could reach when they made their inevitable journey to that harsh country. "How do we find this Udan?"

"The Altay Mountains are quite vast," Sir Sean pointed out. "There are numerous peaks along its ranges."

"My father is certain that the shrine's resting place is in the Sutai Mountains," Roerich's finger traced a particular line of faded script. "You must make contact with the local Sutai, in particular those who still believe in Shamanism. They will be able to guide you to the ovoo."

"Damn Chris," Buck frowned, straightening up and looking away from the map. "That's a hell of a trip to make. I hope we're right about this."

"If that's what it takes to retrieve the Jewel, that's where we're going." Chris stared at Inez, reassuring her with a glance, that no matter how deep this rabbit hole went they were going down it to retrieve her son.

"Oh, I didn't mean we shouldn't," Buck quickly looked at Inez to clarify. "I mean I don't know anything about this mystical stuff, but my geography is pretty good. We'd have to fly the Millie to Altai, which is the only town that might be close enough to those ranges and then make the rest of the trip on land."

"I can tell you now," Roerich added. "You will need horses for the Sutai. I have travelled through the area with my father, it's one of the most arduous terrains on the planet."

"I have some contacts in the region," Sir Sean spoke up. "I can make them available to you if you wish Mr Standish."

"Thank you," Ezra bowed his head forward in gratitude. "And you, Mr Roerich, you are leaving England?"

"Yes," Roerich nodded. "My family is taking a journey across Asia. He wishes to visit Tibet and China before returning to New York permanently."

"This is as good a time as any to go," Sir Sean advised. "I suspect such expeditions are going to become more difficult the closer we approach the new decade."

Something in Sir Sean's statement made Chris shudder inwardly.


When the gunfire broke out, Josiah and Nathan immediately knew the cause.

As the commotion tore through the crowds watching the falconry display, the two men broke away from the spectators and hurried towards its source. Unlike America, England did not have a proliferation of firearms, so gunfire exploding within town limits caused immediate alarm. Rushing past the locals, they could hear the murmur of anxiety rise sharply, almost rivalling the burst of gunfire taking place on the other end of Cheshunt's main street.

People were scattering in both directions, some to escape the shooting, while others headed towards it for official reasons or simple curiosity. The gunfire continued, and even though neither Nathan nor Josiah had reached the scene, the firefight seemed one-sided.

"Are you packing?" Nathan asked. Chris hadn't anticipated danger when they left the plane, and since JD was armed, the healer hadn't seen the need to bring his Remington. After all, the Russians wanted them to find the Jewel, they wouldn't get in the way of their search for it.

"I am," Josiah produced his Smith and Wesson revolver, "I didn't think I was going to have to use it."

The shooting was coming from behind a tent. One section of it had collapsed, the cause being a loosened tent pole. The uneven distribution of weight from the heavy fabric tilted the others struggling to hold the tent's shape. It looked like one strong gust of wind would collapse the entire structure in a messy heap. As they closed in on the gunfight, the number of bystanders thinned, and in the distance, the low whine of a police car could be heard approaching.

"We better get out of here, or this is going to be very messy!"

"No kidding," Josiah agreed, closing in on the tent and noting the shreds in the still-standing tent where bullets ripped the canvas. Around them, the smell of manure and musk reminded the former seminary student this was where the livestock contest was being judged. Feathers joined the litter on the ground, as a few stray animals, including ducks and sheep, ran across the street, yet to be collected by their panicked owners.

"There's Vin!"

Nathan spotted the sharpshooter along with JD and Alex, their backs to the partially collapsed tent, crouching behind a large crate and bales of hay which afforded little protection from the gunfire originating from the field in front of them. It appeared the empty paddock had been designated a temporary parking lot and their unknown enemy was maintaining their fire from behind the open doors of cars.

"They can't stay there!" Nathan shouted, peering past the corner of a small newsstand whose owner had wisely vacated when the trouble started. "They're going to be cut to pieces."

Even as he said it, Vin flinched as a bullet ripped through the wood next to his shoulder, driving him to the floor. Alex and JD were on their bellies against the mud, unable to think of doing anything but keeping low to avoid being hit since the hay bales offered no protection at all. Vin reloaded his gun, but it was clear from the grim expression on his face, he was running out of ammunition. With at least three to four car doors splayed open, Nathan estimated he was dealing with at least four shooters. Vin couldn't hope to cover JD and Alex's retreat to safety on his own.

"They can't make a run for it," Josiah mirrored Nathan's thought as he drew out his gun and prepared to offer fire. However, he doubted how much help he could be from this distance and with no cover other than the tent, he couldn't provide Vin with an effective second front.

The whine of a police car continued to grow louder, and Nathan knew they had to get out of here before the cops arrived. The last thing they needed amid all this trouble was being arrested by the English constabulary. The healer scanned the street, trying to quickly think of a solution when he sighted something that gave him inspiration.

"Wait here!"

"Wait here?" Josiah looked at him sharply as a bullet pinged hard against the newstand wall, chipping the red paint. "What are you doing?"

Nathan didn't answer and simply darted off towards the street again.


"I'm almost out!"

"I don't have any more shells," JD burst out as he covered Alex with his body, trying to shield her as much as he could from the gunfire. He'd handed his gun to Vin after the shooting had started because Vin was the best marksman in their number and he'd make every bullet count. But it appeared the Erran was determined their Amira made good her escape because during the firefight, he caught a glimpse of a dark vehicle at the far end of the paddock, speeding away from the scene.

JD raised his chin, trying to see if there was any way to get to the tent, but with many of its flaps hanging open, and the number of rips through the fabric, he knew it would afford them little protection, even if they could make it without being cut down. Meanwhile, Alex had said nothing, and although Vin had yet to notice, JD was worried about the woman's state of mind. Alex was one of the kindest and least aggressive people he knew, but since Aisha escaped, she'd said little and seemed lost in her own world.

He was about to ask her if she was alright when the roar of engines suddenly filled the air. For a second JD thought the Erran was driving a car at them, but the sound came from behind. All three of them looked up at the rising rumble of a car, no not a vehicle, the roar was too loud for that, coming towards them.

The lorry smashed through the tent, sweeping it aside as it demolished the few remaining tent poles holding up the canvas. Wood cracked loudly in the collision before the crunching of pieces beneath two tonnes of steel. It came to a stop a few feet away from the three of them, the sudden application of brakes splattering them with mud.

"What are you waiting for!" Nathan shouted through the window.

JD saw Josiah running behind the truck, jumping into the back tray with the livestock it carried. The shooting seemed to pause a second, their enemy just as surprised as they were, prompting Vin to bark an order to move.

"Alex, honey come on!"

Vin took her by the arm when JD scrambled to his feet, heading towards the truck, the passenger door open in invitation. He looked over his shoulder at Vin, when a bullet struck a headlight, spitting glass everywhere and startling him into moving again.

"GO!" Vin ordered as he and Alex got to their feet and hurried after the young scholar, reaching the truck in a few seconds. Once behind the cover of the truck's door, he helped Alex up before he quickly hauled himself into the cabin and slammed it shut.

The instant the door slammed, the lorry roared to life again, reversing the way it had come, running over the ruined tent and everything in it as it back onto the street. No sooner than they were on the tar road, the shooting seemed to stop. The Erran seemed to realise any continued fight was futile. Besides, the police siren sounded very close, and as the truck sped through Cheshunt, Vin noticed Nathan was driving in the opposite direction.

"Everyone alright?" Nathan demanded even with his attention was focussed on the road.

"Yeah," Vin nodded, turning to Alex covered from head to toe in mud. "Alex, are you okay?

His words snapped Alex out of her fugue state, and she nodded quickly. "Yes, I'm fine. I'm sorry I shouldn't have lost my head back there. I just saw her and I..." she couldn't finish.

"It's okay," Vin brushed a dirty strand of hair from her cheek. "I get it."

"Saw who?" Nathan asked as they left the town limits of Cheshunt behind, driving through the winding narrow roads flanked by tall green hedges.

"The Amira," JD answered bitterly. "Adashir Shah's sister."

"What?" Nathan blinked, stunned by the revelation. "Why would she be here?"

"I don't know," Vin continued to stare at Alex, disturbed by the enigmatic look on her face he couldn't read. "But it can't be anything good."

Chapter Fourteen:
Resurrection

"Would you like some more tea, Miss?"

Millicent hovered over Alex, swathed in a robe as she sat by the fire in one of the wings chairs in the parlour, getting warm. Also in the room was Vin, JD, Chris, Josiah, Nathan and Inez along with Sir Sean. Under instructions from Chris, the two men had opted to escort George to the train, following the revelation of the Erran's presence in Cheshunt.

"Thank you," Alex raised her cup so Millicent could pour her a stream of piping hot Earl Grey from the ornate china teapot. "Will Mr Roerich be safe travelling to London on his own?"

She directed her question at Sir Sean.

The older man flashed a small smile. "He's hardly alone Miss Styles. I have had men keeping an eye on him since he left London. Rest assured, he will not be taking the train to the city alone. They know how to keep out of sight until their presence is required."

"I want to know what the Erran has got to do with this?" Vin demanded, glancing at Alex briefly. He didn't like the idea of the cult being anywhere near Alex, not after what they tried to do to her and Mary in Ur.

"We haven't heard anything from them since we destroyed the Tablet," Chris explained to Sir Sean. "I thought with it destroyed, that was the end of their religion."

"Oh they're in disarray no doubt," Sir Sean agreed. "But a cult that existed before Christianity may not be so easily disbanded, and while Aisha Shah still lives, they still have their link to the Sassanid Kings, she's their Amira."

"How do you know so much about them?" Inez asked, new to the subject of the Erran.

"I made it my business to keep abreast of the cult's business," he explained. "When I married Eleanor, I realized why she left America so abruptly with an infant, to say nothing of the threat she perceived to Julia after her husband's murder. After that, I learned all I could about them," he fell silent a moment, the affection he held for the unseen woman surfaced in his eyes, before he resumed speaking. "Julia's safety was of great importance to her mother and me. We needed to be prepared in case they made a move against her."

It was hard to imagine Julia being at a disadvantage for any reason. Chris remembered how the lady turned the tide of the battle during their final confrontation with the Erran. However, he supposed to Sir Sean, she would always be the little girl he raised as his own.

"Since her brother's death, Aisha assumed control of the Erran, what's left of them anyway. Intelligence tells me she's been sequestered in Greece, but something has drawn her out, and now we know what."

"The Jewel," Chris concluded. "She's after the Jewel."

"She probably followed you and your group here," Sir Sean confirmed. "The Erran's sources may have discovered the Russian interest, and I would have no doubt she would have some contacts keeping her apprised of your team's activities."

"Damn," Vins swore under his breath, angered by the realization he never considered the Erran being an ongoing threat.

"I don't understand," Inez spoke up, having heard the story of the Tablet from Alex before this. "Does she want the Jewel to bring back the Tablet? Use one mystical object to recreate another.?

"I don't think that's possible," JD spoke up, the real expert on the subject save William Styles and Professor Travis. "The Tablet was created by the goddess Tiamat, it's linked specifically to her power. We saw that" he paused and glanced at Alex, who immediately stiffened at the statement, "during the ritual to resurrect her. I don't think the Tablet can be recreated without her."

"Then what is she after?"

"Her brother," Alex answered in a soft voice. "She's trying to bring back her brother."

The room suddenly felt colder, and Chris noted Vin draping an arm around Alex's shoulder at the statement. In all their discussions about the Jewel and its part in Benny's abduction and the death of Bernardo Recillos, they never discussed its power as a wishing stone. In recent years, Chris had discovered the legends around some mystical artifacts were not fiction. The Tablet and the Aegis came to mind. What if the Jewel was the same?

Alex's statement brought to light the full scope of the Jewel's power if it actually worked. The ability to resurrect the dead. Even without looking around the room, he knew they were each thinking about the people they'd lost in their lives. Like Aisha, any of them could use the stone for the same purpose. The idea of getting back Sarah and Adam gripped him, and for a moment, the desire was so fierce, he had to fight like hell not to let it set in his mind.

No, it wasn't right. If there was one thing Chris learned after dealing with the Tablet and the Aegis, nature's laws could not be subverted. Not without cost. Sarah and Adam were dead. While Chris was by no means a religious man and his relationship with God was hardly the thing he wished to brag about, he had to believe his wife and son was in a better place. He would not rip them away from that, even if the Jewel made it possible, and turn them into revenants.

"It doesn't matter," Chris said firmly, using a tone of voice he seldom used but every member of the seven recognized as being absolute in its intensity. "We're getting it first, and we're using it to get Benny back. Whether it works or not, we are not going to use it to do anything else. Is that understood?"

Chris shot the two women a pointed stare because he hadn't missed the introspective look in their eyes. No doubt, both Alex and Inez were entertaining the possibility of resurrecting William Styles and Bernardo Recillos just as he had contemplated doing the same to Sarah and Adam. While he more than understood their sentiments in the matter, he would spare them the horror of finding out just how terrible such a choice could be.

"Hear, hear," Sir Sean agreed and made an attempt to change the subject. "I suggest you make haste and leave England immediately. Preferably without the Erran learning where you are headed next. I have no doubt Aisha has reached the same conclusion as the Soviets, that the best way to acquire the Jewel is to follow you."

"He's got a point there," Vin added, following the older man's lead to leave the uneasy subject of the Jewel's possible power behind and move on to more practical matters. "I say we leave under cover of darkness and head straight for the Millie. It will be tougher for them to follow us at night."

"Yeah, the safest place for us to be right now is in the air." Chris turned to Sir Sean. "We could use your flight clearance to leave tonight."

Chris knew from Julia's descriptions of her stepfather, the man wielded considerable influence as a high ranking member of British intelligence, and such a request was within his capabilities. If Sir Sean could gain them flight clearance before they arrived in London, they could get a head start on anyone attempting to pursue them out of the country. During their first encounter with the Erran, Chris was painfully aware of the cultists spread across Europe and the Middle East. He had no doubt those same forces would now be watching the airports.

"Yes, and if I may add, allow me the liberty of lodging a false flight plan as well," Sir Sean suggested. "While I'm confident you will be able to slip away unnoticed, it would be best to take no chances."

"Yeah, sending them on a wild goose chase at least for a day or two would help," Vin agreed with the Englishman..

"I'll get Buck to give you his real flight plan when he gets back," Chris added. "It's a long way to Mongolia, and we've got several stops to make in between, preferably off the beaten track."

Fortunately, Buck had been the team's pilot long enough to become familiar with every airport, hangar and airfield between Albuquerque ans Shanghai, no matter how obscure. If Buck wanted to keep the enemy guessing where they were headed, Chris had no doubt that was precisely what would happen.

"Excellent strategy," Sir Sean agreed. "Now I suggest you all get some rest and refreshment, it appears you have quite an evening ahead of you."


Benny Recillos was scared.

He didn't like being scared, not at all. Mister Ezra said scared was what you were, when you didn't have all the cards. Staring out the window of the room where he was trapped, Benny felt his cards were few. It had been many days since he'd seen his Mama and although he prayed to Jesus she was still trying to find him, a tiny part of him feared the bad men had hurt her when they kidnapped him. After they snatched him away from his home and spirited him through the window to the car outside, he heard gunfire. Had they shot his Mama?

What if she was dead?

The idea filled him with such stark terror, Benny fought to hold back the tears every time he thought of it. With his Abuela dead along with the father he barely remembered, his Mama was all Benny had left. No, he couldn't think of such things. Mister Ezra always said it was never wise to spe-cu-late until all cards were on the table. He would follow Mister Ezra's advice because Mister Ezra always told him true things. The well-dressed, polished gambler never lied to him, never treated him like a child. If he revealed something to Benny, the boy knew it to be the truth.

Besides, the bad men's leader, the big, tall man who looked like he was carved from white stone and the others called Oblonsky, would not tell him if his Mama was hurt. When they first arrived here, Benny had demanded to know his mother's fate, only to have Oblonsky threaten to leave him in the desert to be eaten by vultures if he did not behave. Somehow, Benny guessed Oblonsky was one of those mean people who would not hide the truth if Mama were dead.

With nothing to do but wait, with his jailors in the next room, appearing just long enough to feed him and make sure he was where they left him, Benny's thoughts turned inward. Could he escape? Could he get out of this room and find someone to help him. Outside the locked window, the afternoon sun's harsh glare bounced off the thin vegetation across the landscape. The flat plains surrounding the small, dying motel along Route 66 showed no signs of civilization for miles. If he didn't find anyone, he would be wandering the wilderness alone.

Still, he couldn't stay here. He didn't entirely understand why he was taken but guessed they needed him to make Mister Chris do something. He supposed kidnapping was the only way anyone could make Mr Chris do anything he did not wish to. While Mr Chris was friendly enough to him, Benny could not deny the leader of the seven could be a little scary. Perhaps it was how the man commanded the others without needing to raise his voice but pin them to the ground with his sharp glare.

It was hot, and the slow whoomp of the fan above provided little respite except to circulate the warm air in the room. A sheen of sweat covered his skin, and he wished he had fresh clothes. The men who took him hadn't bothered to bring any, and he was still wearing the same pajamas from several nights ago. It was starting to smell bad.

Returning to his bed, he climbed on the single hard mattress and considered how he would get out of here.

He thought of his Mama, his friends at Paloma's and warm afternoons sitting on the hood of the car, drinking a soda while he watched Mister Josiah work on Mama's chevy truck. Benny liked how Josiah would explain what he was doing when he worked on engines because Benny was curious about how things worked. Mister Josiah, whom Benny liked as much as Mr Ezra, often said you fixed a big problem by breaking it down into little ones and solving those each at a time.

It occurred to Benny, he had a big problem right now.

He was being kept by men who may have hurt his mother and what they would do to him after forcing Mister Chris to do what they wanted. Would they need him anymore? Once again, the strong desire to leave this place returned although the idea of escape seemed so monumental, how could someone little like him know how to overcome it? Then Benny remembered Josiah's word. He had to ignore the big problem of being captured by people who might do him harm, and think of all the small obstacles he needed to overcome. First, he had to get out of his room.

Lifting his chin off his knees, he looked up from the bed and considered his surroundings. When they took him away from Paloma's, they had put something on his face that smelled like gas and made him go to sleep. When he awoke, he found himself in this room. Strange, muffled voices greeted him, some on the other side of the door, others through walls farther away. Further investigation confirmed his imprisonment at an aging, forgotten hotel where few people stayed and the drone of cars came too infrequently for him to be near a town.

He had considered crying out but suspected if he did, then the men on the other side of the door would come in and silence him. He didn't want that. Oblonsky scared him, and Benny was smart enough to know the big man would have no trouble dealing with unruly little boys.

Outside were stretches of vast empty land and running into it would do no good. He would die of thirst, and if he didn't, they would find him easily in the flat open terrain. No, what Benny had to do was hide, hide and wait for a chance to get help. Being small meant he could find spaces to crawl into, wait them out, and maybe even make them believe he ran into the desert. The more he considered this scenario, the more Benny realized it was the best hand he had.

Of course, he did have an advantage the kidnappers did not know about.

When he screamed for Mama back at Paloma's, there was a moment of confusion when they had to deal with her coming up the stairs. The Russian was distracted just a moment, but it was enough. Benny snatched up the razor blade attached to his radio and slipped into the top pocket of his pyjama shirt. Upon regaining his senses after waking up, he checked the flannel pouch and realized it was still there. Maybe they didn't think he needed to because he was a little kid. Whatever the reason, Benny was grateful. It gave him a weapon.

He went to the window and ran his fingers along the wooden muntins holding the glass in place, taking note of the paint and glue securing the panes in place. An idea began to form in his mind. By the time he retreated to his bed to think it through, its shape had solidified. When it was night time, and they thought he was asleep, he would get to work.

As Mister Ezra always said, it was always wise to have an ace in the hole.


It was going to be a long trip to Mongolia.

In a private hangar of Croydon airport, the seven and their familiars were gathered around their car. As decided at Cheshunt, the seven had waited until nightfall before speeding back to London to avoid any pursuit by the Erran, should they be watching. Once here, Buck had a chance to map out the route they would take to reach the Altai Mountains in Mongolia and while Chris suspected it would be an arduous trip to make, hearing Buck's flight plan brought home just how much of a trek it would be.

Chris stared at the map splayed across the hood, unable to imagine a more roundabout way to reach Mongolia before begrudgingly admitting Buck was right. Mongolia was one of the most remote places on Earth and lying between them and the most direct route was a whole lot of Russia. They would have to land and refuel inevitably, and Chris had no desire to be in Soviet territory.

"Hell, that's going to be a long trip," Vin, who wasn't the best flier, grumbled.

"Considering its location on the globe, I doubted it would be any other way, Mr Tanner." Ezra pointed out.

"I don't care how difficult it is," Inez burst out, becoming more fearful for her son the longer it took for them to acquire the Jewel. "But will these men wait? They did not sound patient. What if they ...."

"Inez that's not going to happen," Alex spoke up quickly. After her momentary lapse seeing Aisha, Alex resigned herself to the fact she was going on this adventure with Vin, no matter how dangerous it was. Aside from her personal desire to avenge herself on the Erran, she wanted to help Inez because the lady was her friend, and it was a way to make herself useful during this journey. "They need to keep Benny safe if they want the Jewel, right?" Alex shot Chris a look because Inez really needed to hear him agree.

"Right," Chris stated, giving Alex a look of thanks for nursing Inez through her anxieties. "If Buck says this is the way we're going, then that's all there is to it."

"Thanks, Chris," Buck regarded his friend warmly for the endorsement. "Look it ain't the fastest trip I'll admit, but if we want to stay ahead of these Commies and Erran, then it's the best one I can come up with. First of all, it will keep us out of Russian territory which for obvious reasons, I ain't too thrilled about entering right now."

"But they want us to get the Jewel," JD said a little puzzled. "They wouldn't stop us from getting to where we're going, would they?"

"No, they wouldn't," Chris conceded. "But there's nothing to stop them from taking more hostages if we get in their crosshairs."

Instinctively, the men's eyes shifted to Alex and Inez.

"That ain't gonna happen," Vin said shortly. "Okay, so take us through it again. We're heading in the south?"

"Yeah," Buck saw through Vin's question and answered quickly. "We have to cross Europe, there's no avoiding that but I've mapped out our route, so we avoid the major airports. I know a bunch of smaller airfields we can land and refuel without being spotted."

"And Sir Sean was kind enough to clear the way for us to land at some military airfields along the way," Ezra added.

"Guess you've met with your future father-in-law's approval," Nathan couldn't help teasing. The tension was broken momentarily by the shudder in Ezra's composed mask, revealing his thoughts on marriage. A small ripple of laughter followed as Ezra glared at Nathan.

"Okay, okay," Chris gestured for their return to the subject at hand. It spared Ezra from going into palpitations at the possibility of being in a marital state sometime in the future. "Buck, go on.'

"We'll cross the Mediterannean and take up Sir Sean's offer to stop at military bases across the Middle East. I figure if the Erran are keeping an eye out for us, it will be when we're trying to reach India."

"We could carry extra fuel," Josiah suggested. "I know the weight will affect the Millie, but then we can put down anywhere with a flat strip of land and refuel without coming in contact with anyone."

"That's a plan," Buck glanced at Chris to show his approval. "Especially while we're crossing the Middle East."

"It's prime Erran territory," Chris agreed. "Alright, we'll strip down the Millie, leave behind anything we don't need to carry, try and lighten the load."

"Ladies," Ezra spoke up, hesitant to bring up the subject, but deciding now was as good a time as any. "I suppose it would be foolish to think either of you would consider remaining behind. Sir Sean has promised to protect you, and I have a great deal of faith in his ability to ensure you come to no harm. This journey will be taxing..."

"NO."

The pointed statement stunned everyone because it was neither Inez nor Alex who spoke. While both women wore indignant and stormy expressions, it was Chris who made the declaration.

"We stick together."

Under any other circumstances, Chris would be the first to insist the two women stay behind but Inez was here for her son. He imagined just how terrible it would be if he were told to do the same if it were Adam in such a position. He would spare her that agony. On the other hand, if someone killed Sarah and Adam, Chris would chase them to the edge of Perdition and back again. While he had no intention of running into the Erran for the remainder of this hunt, if they did find themselves face to face with the Amira, Chris wasn't about to deny Alex her pound of flesh.

He would demand no less.

Chapter Fifteen:
The Sutai

This, this is my native land,

The lovely country " My Mongolia.

The finest mountains-the cradles where our ancestors lie,

Where we grew up and flourished,

The land where five kinds of animals wander in the plains,

And the land saturated with the soul generations of Mongols;

This, this is my native land,

The lovely country " My Mongolia.

Land where all is covered with snow and ice in winter,

And the grasses twinkle like glass and crystal,

Land where all is a carpet of flowers in summer,

And full of songbirds from the distant lands of the South;

This, this is my native land,

The lovely country " My Mongolia.

The rich land between the Altai and Khingan mountains,

The land where my father and mother lived and blessed for us in their passing,

The land peacefully growing under the golden Sun,

And sparkling forever under the silver Moon;

This, this is my native land,

The lovely country " My Mongolia.

The mother tongue we learn from childhood is a legacy we cannot forget.

The homeland we live eternally is a place we cannot depart from,

The name Mongol has glory in world history

The heart of all Mongols beats with our homeland Mongolia.

This is my native land.

Mongolia the beautiful.

- Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj

Ezra described Mongolia as harsh and bleak. Chris observed from astride a grey stocky, leopard-spotted horse with a long mane and thick coat, a land of unbelievable beauty and extremes. In the distance, the roof of Mongolia, the Altai Mountains, held up an azure sky hosting blooms of white trailing clouds. The sunlight bouncing off the snow-capped peaks made Chris squint from the glare, but once his eyes adjusted, it was easy to become enraptured by the magnificence of them.

The river they would have to cross on route to the mountains lay perfectly still, mirroring the sky above with crystal clarity and flanked by large rolling hills covered with deep green carpets of knee-length grass. Its loveliness reminded Chris of the beauty in the wilds of Wyoming or Oregon. One could easily feel out of time looking at all this as if they hadn't stepped out of a plane only a few days ago. At this moment, Chris imagined if he waited in this spot long enough, he might see hordes of Mongol warriors riding over the hill, with Genghis Khan leading the charge to take over the known world.

The Millie landed in Altai City or, as their guide hired on their behalf by Sir Sean, called it Yesönbulag sum. 'City' might have been generous because the population was less than ten thousand and what passed for the airport was a single strip of a runway on one of the few flat plains that existed in the area. There was only one private hangar with overpriced leasing fees that Ezra complained bitterly about accepting. However, Buck was unwilling to leave the aircraft in plain sight with the Erran on the hunt, and it was a sentiment Chris shared.

Their guide was a man in his thirties who spent so much time outdoors, his skin was like tanned leather. Though small in stature, his traditional Mongolian clothing could not hide the compact muscles of one used to living in rough country. A son of the famed Kazakh Eagle Hunters, Naranbaatar, who preferred to be called Naran, spoke fluent English, offering his services to foreign visitors.

They left the city at dawn, making the journey on horseback. Chris and the rest of his party were clad in dels, the traditional long coats worn by Mongolian nomads, in an assortment of columns from black to green, patterned with ornate geometric designs. Instead of leather, the belts around their waists, orange and yellow for men and blue for the women, were cloth. The need to blend in with the locals was necessary, with no one complaining when forced to complete the outfit with fur caps and rounded boots.

Ezra always objected to anything keeping him away from his expensive haberdashery but remembered they were travelling in this country incognito.

"Have you been to Udan Ovoo?" Alex asked from behind Vin, riding double, as they crossed the empty plains.

"I have not," Naran answered as he rode alongside Chris in front of the group. "But I know it. Of our ovoos, Udan is one of the more sacred and most feared."

"Feared?" Ezra did not like the sound of that. "Pray, tell why?"

Naran stiffened as if asked to relate some tale that left a bad taste in his mouth. "Many of our ovoos were built by the Mongolian peoples, from many tribes. The Durvud, Torgud, Bayad, Oirats or Uriankhai tribes have through time built their shrines to the gods. We do not know how Udan ovoo came to be. The elders said it just appeared one day as if Udan himself rose it out of the earth."

"Udan," JD nodded, having done his research about Mongolian mythology when they embarked on the expedition to retrieve the Jewel. "He's the creation deity, right?"

"JD," Josiah frowned at the kid's clinical description of Udan. To Naran, Udan might be God. "Mind your words."

JD stared at Josiah for a moment before catching on and cleared his throat before rephrasing. "You mean Udan, who separated the earth from heaven and then divided the earth into nine stories and nine rivers?"

"Yes, that is correct," Naran said with a little smile, having caught the little exchange and giving the young scholar credit for trying to be respectful. "Many of the tribes still believe in the old gods and worship them, which is why they built the ovoos. The Udan ovoo just appeared, and it is one of our greatest mysteries, perhaps one of the last left in the world."

Considering what Chris and the seven had seen over the last year, they had cause to contradict Naran but opted against it. Besides, Naran was right. It was a mystery. After the Tablet of Destiny to the Aegis of Zeus, none of them would ever be ready to discount any legend as fiction.

"You said only the worthy could see it. Who's considered worthy?" Chris asked, concerned that there might be some dangerous quest to undertake before they could access the shrine's secrets. It was taking long enough to get to the place, and he was not unmindful of what that delay might be doing to Inez's nerves.

The shrine is said to be guarded by one of Udan's servants, and it is she who determines who may enter and partake of his wisdom."

"She?" Buck asked automatically.

Everyone except Naran shot Buck a knowing look before turning to the guide again.

Naran, who was unaware of Buck's supposed animal magnetism, continued. "Zaarin. She is a beautiful pale lady, who rides the hills of the Sutai with a ferocious bull whose horns are so vast, they hold up the heavens. Her right hand holds the golden token of offering the worthy must give to Udan to gain his wisdom. In the right hand is the bell to summon her dragons to devour you."

"Has anyone gone to the Udan to ask for wisdom?" Nathan asked, keeping his scepticism hidden but supposed someone must have made the pilgrimage to tell the tale.

Naran's expression darkened. "There have been many, but none of them returned. We only know of their fate from our elders. The shamans can sometimes see things beyond themselves. They tell us Udan's wisdom is not sought lightly and not for purposes that are selfish and greedy."

"But you are taking us there, right?" Inez interjected. She didn't care if the legends were true or not. All she wanted to do was to find the Jewel. For that, she would storm the gates of heaven itself.

"Yes Lady," he bowed his head slightly. "I will take you to the mountain but I cannot go with you to the ovoo. I have no questions to ask of it and will be considered unworthy if I go there on another's cause."

"Then I have to go alone," Inez stated, staring at Chris.

"Like hell...!"

Chris shot Buck a look. "Inez, we won't let you go alone. We're your friends, and there's no way we're letting you walk into whatever is waiting for us once we get there."

"I can't ask you to risk your lives," Inez said, not just to Chris but to Buck and Ezra's whose fear for her was genuine.

"Madam, our lives are ours to gamble with, and if we choose to roll the dice on this quest, we will do so gladly," Ezra stated.

"Yeah, Inez," Buck met her gaze earnestly. "We know the risks."

"We're in this together," Chris stated finally for the benefit of everyone present. "No matter what."


After three days across the country, the golden knee-length grass covering the plains between themselves and the Sutai disappeared, replaced by short, scraggly growth that looked more grey than green. The temperature had dropped, and now the dels Naran advised them to wear when they set out from Altai City protected them from the harsh temperatures, the closer they reached the formidable mountain with its jagged frosted peaks.

The terrain surrounding the Sutai were vast plains of grass-covered hills. The vegetation became sparse with the descending temperature, and only the hardiest of creatures would survive in this brutal landscape. During the journey, scat and the decomposing carcasses of ibex, antelopes and argali sheep, with the carrion eaters perched on their blood-soaked horns revealed the existence of the grey wolves and bears that roamed the plains. The first feeding ground discovery prompted the expedition to ensure someone kept watch over their camp at night.

Occasional encounters with the numerous Kazakh tribes in the area broke up the trip. Most were semi-nomadic clusters of farmers who made their living driving herds of woolly goats and yaks to better grazing lands. It was a hard, meagre existence that made Chris wonder why they had not quit the area and headed towards the cities for better lives. Yet as he took in the vast plains around him, where the air still held the scent of a newborn world and golden eagles soared across the blue sky, the case to remain was compelling.

Nevertheless, even with their limited means, the Kazakh welcomed them kindly to their hearths, sharing a meal and warm cups of tea. Naran acted as translator, explaining their proud heritage as eagle hunters who shared an almost symbiotic relationship with their birds. Josiah was fascinated after witnessing the falconry display in Cheshunt, thinking the English kept their birds as accessories for a sport, while the Kazakh considered them a way of life.

Despite the friendly welcome, Chris agreed with Naran's advice to keep the reason for their journey to the Sutai a secret. The Kazakh were simple, practical folk who might not react well to learning a group of foreigners were making the journey to the sacred ovoo. Most of the tribes this far out, was as Roerich predicted, practitioners of shamanism with minor Buddhist influences. They were also deeply spiritual and might consider the expedition to the Udan to service Russian agents to be somewhat sacrilegious.

Better not to risk it.


It was difficult not to be a little intimidated by the Sutai when they finally saw it.

The mountain, one many along the Altai Ranges, was two miles high and, from a distance on a cloudless day, pierced the sky like rows of serrated teeth, capped with sheets of pristine white snow. Once they reached the base of it, the sensation of an ancient god glowering at them became more acute. In its hulking presence, Chris could appreciate why Naran declined to scale the heights with them.

After their arrival, Chris made the first order of business the setting up of camp. Dusk was rapidly approaching, and Chris wanted them sheltered before the temperatures plunged further. Above them, they could hear the winds blowing a gale, threatening to descend a curtain of icy chill with nightfall. While natives avoided the ovoo Udan, a few had crossed the mountain's shadow on their way to other destinations and passed on the best places to take refuge for the night.

Once at the Sutai, Naran led them to a narrow gap between two peaks. With high walls flanking the gravel-covered corridor, crumbled shelves of rock formed piles along the passage. It provided the expedition and their horses protection from the elements. However, it allowed sentries to see the approach of intruders, animal or human.

"If you still wish to climb the mountain," Naran stated as the party broke up and started setting up their shelters for the night, "it is best to start at dawn."

Chris couldn't disagree. They had been travelling all day, and the difficult trek up the mountain would require all their strength. Besides, there were decisions to be made before they set out.

"This is how we're going to do this," Chris spoke up, capturing everyone's attention and halting their efforts to unpack the horses. "Vin, you stay here with Ezra, Josiah and Alex. Naran will head back after he shows us the way up."

Superstition was a powerful thing, and no one faulted Naran's refusal to enter the shrine. Still, the idea of letting some of their number go up that mountain alone did not sit well with Vin Tanner. Inwardly Vin knew Chris was making the logical choice. There was no need for all of them to make the pilgrimage to the shrine, and while none of them would say it, such a trek might be too much for Josiah and Alex. Even if he were capable of making the trip, Ezra would bitch all the way up the mountain and force Chris to shoot him.

"Chris, you sure about this? We might be better off sticking together."

"Yeah, I'm sure," Chris returned Vin's gaze, aware that the younger man's unflappable expression was hiding a great deal more than he was letting on. "We may have shaken the Erran, but someone should be here to keep an eye on things if they should turn up. "

"I cannot say this displeases me," Ezra admitted, supporting Chris's direction. "My many talents do not extend to being a mountain goat."

"Nice," Josiah rolled his eyes, unsurprised by the gambler's reluctance. He was also astute enough to grasp Chris was sparing him the duty because it might have been too physically demanding. "We'll keep an eye out for the Erran and anyone else that might happen to come along."

Alex was grateful to be left behind because the last thing she wanted to be was a hindrance when the group needed to get to the shrine as quickly. She was no mountain climber and shared Ezra's feelings on trying to scale the Sutai. "I'll stay behind with the rest of the womenfolk."

"I beg your pardon...." Ezra started to protest, but the laughter from the others drowned out his outraged sputters.

"I will lead you to the path you must take to climb up the mountain," Naran explained. "It is marked. You will have no difficulty finding your way to the shrine."

"Thank you," Inez said before she looked up at the looming mountain above them. She tried not to be discouraged by its height and pulled her furs close to her body. She was no stranger to mountain treks. During the Cristeros War, as a Brigadas Feminanas, Inez made dangerous journeys to inhospitable places to deliver supplies and messages to her comrades. Admittedly the terrain was very different in the tropical jungle, but Inez was confident she had the stamina to keep up.

"Nathan, I want you with us in case anything goes wrong. It's a long way up that mountain if we get hurt...."

"I got ya," Nathan nodded, needing no further explanation from Chris. "I'll bring my medical bag and my snowshoes."

There was no need to ask if Buck was going. Usually, the pilot preferred to stay behind with the Millie, leaving the treasure hunting to his friends. However, Chris suspected on this occasion, Buck would want to stay close to Inez. It was not lost on his friends how close he had stuck to the lady's side since this all began. Furthermore, the absence of Buck's usual swagger in her presence revealed the depths of his feelings.

Secretly, Chris made a mental note to talk to Buck about keeping his distance for the time being. As a widower, Chris knew how difficult it was to let go of someone you loved after losing them. This entire expedition had no doubt awakened some painful memories in Inez about her husband. Christ, he remembered how hard he fought his feelings when Mary entered his life. While his relationship with the journalist was now in a good place, it never took much for memories of Sarah to the surface, and Chris imagined it was the same for Inez.

This quest to retrieve the Jewel was also about fulfilling Bernardo Recillos's legacy, and Chris didn't want Buck to get hurt if Inez wasn't ready to move on.


The next morning when they reached the passage to the shrine where Naran would go no further, Chris understood why.

Jagged walls flanked the path into the mountain on either side of its steep steps. Once inside the corridor, the high walls would keep what little sunlight there was from reaching them. Who had built it? Chris wondered as he studied its winding path disappearing into the Sutai. If Naran was right, it would lead them to the shrine and perhaps even to the summit. He couldn't imagine even the most determined Mongol warlord having the patience to waste so many resources constructing this walkway, so far away from civilisation.

"Jesus," Vin stared at the mouth of it and immediately shot Chris a look of concern. "Pard, I don't much like the idea of any of you going in there."

"I must agree with Mr Tanner," Ezra winced at the angle of the steps and knew scaling those heights would be arduous, not to mention dangerous if anyone were to fall. "Your way forward appears most treacherous."

"I can take you back," Naran offered, feeling concerned at leaving his charges to their fates, even if they did not expect him to follow." There is no shame in turning back. Many warriors through the ages have tried to reach the shrine. They did not return."

"We have to go." Inez blurted out before Chris could. She was daunted by what she saw but not enough to abandon the journey when Benny's life was at stake. "It's the only way to save my son."

"We'll be fine," Chris assured those remaining behind.

Alex glanced at Vin and felt her stomach twist with guilt, seeing him torn between his love for her and his loyalty to Chris. She cursed her presence here. If not for her, he would be at Chris's side. While she hated the thought of him going into that place, she also knew if anything happened to Chris during this trek, Vin would never forgive himself or her.

"Vin," Alex said quietly. "I'll be alright if you want to go with them."

For a second, Vin almost took her up on her offer, but Chris settled the matter.

"Vin, I need you here in case there's trouble," Chris stated firmly, and he met Vin's eyes to show the younger man this was the absolute truth. He wanted Vin down here, not just because of Alex but also because the last thing Chris wanted was to return from their pilgrimage into an ambush. "If anything happens to us up there, you're going to have to get us out of it."

"We'll be there if you need us," Josiah spoke up, seeing the conflict on Vin's face. "Right, Vin?"

Vin sucked in his breath and nodded. "Right."

"Okay then," Chris patted him on the shoulder and gestured at the others. "Let's get going."

Chapter Sixteen:
Realignment

After leaving the others behind and beginning the ascent along the seemingly endless flight of steps, Chris Larabee realized they were not alone.

Not that he could see anyone as they journeyed up the ominous flight of steps, where the shadows looming over them felt oppressive. Aside from their footsteps and voices, once the expedition left their comrades, the only sound they could hear was the rush of wind funnelled down the rock corridor from the summit. Yet every so often, Chris could feel a chill run down his spine that had little to do with the declining temperatures. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn it was someone's whispery breath against the back of his neck.

Behind him, footsteps paused abruptly.

Chris paused and looked over his shoulder to see Nathan standing still, a troubled expression on his face. It was part bewilderment and part suspicion as if he were wrestling with something he could not define.

"Nathan, what is it?"

Nathan shrugged in Chris's direction, embarrassment crossing his features. "It's stupid."

"In this place?" Buck swept a quick look at their surroundings, "stupid is a step up."

"It's crazy," Nathan insisted, feeling more foolish by the second. "I'm just letting myself get spooked, that's all."

"Tell us anyway," Chris urged, suspecting he might know what Nathan was talking about. Of all the seven, Nathan was perhaps the most pragmatic, even more so than Ezra, who could disconnect from reality where money and probability games were concerned. Nathan didn't put much stock in anything he couldn't see, touch or explain, for that matter.

"I feel like someone's following us," Nathan admitted finally. "Not just following, but moving among us. I thought I felt someone breathing on my skin."

"Oh boy," JD let out a sigh of relief, his taut expression slackening into wonder. "I thought it was just me."

Nathan's eyes widened. "You feel it too?"

"Yeah," Chris added his voice to the group. "I feel it."

"I don't." Buck replied wondering had he simply missed it or were his friends imagining all this. Still, he was then reminded of the Aegis and the never realm he and the others escaped during their flight from the labyrinth. After that, the existence of the supernatural was not something he would dismiss out of hand.

"Perhaps it is the pale lady," Inez stated, capturing their undivided attention. "This is her mountain. Perhaps she knows we are here."

Inez was a good Catholic, and her faith in God demanded her belief in things unseen, things that could not be explained by science. While she was by no means superstitious and or foolish enough to believe spirits and monsters lurked behind every corner, she could sense something about the Sutai. Since reaching the mountain the atmosphere of foreboding descended upon them like the thick, stifling humidity of equatorial heat. She could feel it pressing against her chest, forming beads of sweat beneath her coat, turning the air into cotton wool.

"Let's just keep moving," Chris broke the silence that followed. He had no desire to dismiss her statement, but they were not more than a few hours into their journey with no idea how far they would have to go. They needed to find the Jewel for Benny's sake, and each step forward reverberated with the pendulum swing on a clock.

"It's gonna be okay, Inez," Buck, who took point behind the lady, gestured her forward. "If she's here, we'll deal with it. Hell, we've run into some damn strange things since we started doing this."

Without commenting, Chris thought that was the understatement of the century.


When the flight of steps they ascended came to a halt on a semi-flattened alcove, apparently carved out by the original builders of the steps, Chris decided it was time for a break. The ancient Mongolian architects of the passage, whomever they had been, had used the alcove as a landing to continue the construction of the staircase in a different direction from the one they just left. Almost as winding, the new corridor continued within its deep groove against the mountain, slowly taking them to the top.

Even with the noonday sun in the sky, the light in the stony passage was dim, accentuating the reach of shadows over the irregular walls. The varying patterns reminded Chris of sharp spikes and subconsciously kept him in the middle of the path to avoid them even though it made no sense. The wind intensified, carrying flakes of snow from the peaks, the narrow path becoming a funnel. Everyone pulled their coats closer to their bodies, grateful for the fur lining that kept them from freezing.

Two hours after their last break, Chris, who was in the lead, spied something lying against the ancient steps, covered in snow and dust. Even without examining it closely, he recognized the curved shape of a rib. Chris raised arm in a silent gesture for the party to halt. Looking over his shoulder, he sought Nathan out and gestured the healer to approach when he made eye contact.

"What did you find, Chris?" Nathan pushed past Buck and Inez to join Chris.

He no more than took two steps forward before he spotted what Chris had. Exchanging a glance, Nathan closed the distance and dropped to one knee to make a more detailed examination. Leaning forward, the medic examined the corpse of what appeared to be an ancient Mongolian if the clothing was any indication. The cold temperature and snow had mummified the body, and empty eye sockets stared at him from a face covered in black and leathery skin.

"This has been here a long time. I can't say how long exactly, but the cold kept him from decomposing."

"Him?" JD asked as he, Buck and Inez approached Chris and Nathan.

"Yeah," Nathan ran his eyes over the body with its bones protruding through the skin, "definitely male, but I can't tell you what killed him. However, guessing by the look of him, he didn't go peacefully."

"Damn," Buck whispered, taking note of the expression on the corpse's face, with its mouth wide open in a silent scream, displaying a rictus of horror that branded itself on the mind. Suddenly he noted Inez had taken a step closer to him, wearing an expression of fear. She displayed bravery almost to a fault. She had to for her son, but these extraordinary circumstances were playing havoc with her nerves.

"You think he's one of those travellers that tried to reach the ovoo in the past?" JD asked, trying not to sound anxious or show the others the corpse's presence bothered him.

"Probably," Chris sighed and studied the body a little longer and then the passage they had to keep travelling. "We'll probably find more of them on the way up, even older."

"I like to know what killed him," Buck felt the need to reach for his gun, patting it reassuringly to tell himself if something terrible came at them, they weren't completely defenceless.

"Oh, I think we're gonna find out," Nathan stood up as Chris gave them a signal to start moving again.

"That's what I'm afraid of," Buck grumbled as he took Inez's hand and was surprised when she allowed him to do so. She raised her eyes to his, and Buck saw gratitude and affection, which blunted the solemnity of the occasion just a little.

"We shouldn't just leave him here," she said, passing the body.

"If we're in one piece when we come down," Chris looked over his shoulder to reveal his own dislike at merely leaving it where it was, "we'll take it down. The least we can do for him is give him a decent burial."

Unfortunately, the corpse was not alone. The further up the mountain the expedition travelled, more mummified remains began to appear, and not all were intact. Some seemed to be crushed, with the violence of broken bones and pulverized flesh clear for all to see. What caused such devastating injuries was a mystery, one Chris suspected they would be forced to confront soon. Those who came before them had died undertaking this leg of the journey, and there was no reason to assume they would be any more successful.

The sensation of something moving amongst the group returned, and this time, Chris thought he could almost see it through the increasing snowfall. The further they climbed, the harsher the winds became until they were squinting to see through the growing blizzard Through the swirls of powder-white flakes, he thought he saw a shape, vague but definitely recognizable as something out of the ordinary. Now the walls flanking them felt claustrophobic, with the light from the lanterns becoming overwhelmed by shadows.

"Chris!"

JD's voice made them all stop in their tracks, and when Chris turned, he saw JD had strayed to the right side of the wall, standing inches from the snowed covered rock. The young man brushed a gloved palm over the uneven surface, clearing away the flakes accumulated there. As he did so, Buck left Inez long enough to stand over his shoulder, in part to protect the kid from himself but also to see what JD had found.

"JD, watch what you touch!" Chris snapped, having gone through this with Mary Travis enough times to know touching anything man-made on the way to some ancient treasure was a sure way to get yourself killed.

JD's spine stiffened as if he remembered himself, snatching his hand back as if scalded and stuttered a response when Chris strode up to him. "I'm sorry, Chris, I wasn't thinking."

"Hey, look," Buck pointed, wanting to diffuse Chris's ire and direct it elsewhere.

Etched into the jagged rock walls on either side of their walkway were human masks. They stared at the travellers in nothing less than terror. Was a moment of terrible dawning captured forever in time to become an immortalized warning to interlopers? Even though JD had uncovered one mask, Chris could see the silhouettes of others and risked brushing off a few more.

"What are these?" Inez whispered, staring at the faces gripped in fear and agony.

"Death masks," Chris said simply.

"Of whom?" Buck was almost afraid to ask.

Nathan, who knew nothing about archaeology or anthropology, could guess. "The folk we saw on the way here."

Chris tended to agree. In fact, he more than agreed. He knew what these faces represented, and the realization told him they had better start moving fast. "Let's go!"

He continued ahead, guessing whatever had killed those people was about to find them. These masks weren't displayed here as warnings. They were trophies.

As if the entity shadowing them could read his mind, Chris heard the loud grinding of stone that came with a trap falling in place. The steps before him sank suddenly into the mountain, leaving a gaping maw barely an inch away from the tip of his boot. The abrupt tremors and quakes through the rock shook his balance, and Chris fought to keep from tipping forward, his feet tilting an inch past the edge.

"I got you!" Nathan gripped him by the coat and pulled him back hard away from the precipice. Chris stumbled beneath the shudder and quake of rock, colliding with Nathan and propelling them both backwards downed the sloped floor.

"Watch out!" JD shouted, throwing himself against the two men to halt their abrupt progress. All three became a curious comedy of collision that ended with them on the ground.

Chris was about to demand what the hell JD thought he was doing and realized the kid had just saved his and Nathan's life with his sudden tackle. A wall had slid out of the rock to sever the passage in half. If JD had not intervened, he and Nathan would have ended up in its path and become just as pulverized as the bodies they found on the way up the mountain.

The grinding of stone continued as whatever the mountain was doing to rearrange itself to distract or dispense with its intruders was far from done. Scrambling to his feet, Chris realized the passage they used to climb up the mountain was no more. The bizarre shifting of rock had turned it into one corridor that came to an abrupt stop a few feet behind them. Ahead, the passage to the summit continued, except for the drop Nathan kept him from tumbling into. It was at least a dozen feet wide, and with a running start, all three of them could jump across it.

All three...

"Buck!"

Chris shouted, realizing the passage's realignment had effectively cut them off from two members of their party. Buck and Inez. Separating them was a wall of rock at least thirty feet high, protruding across the width of the corridor, like the trapdoors inside an elaborate rat's maze.

"Buck!" JD called out next to him, the young man's concern for Buck evident in the edge of growing panic in his voice. Amidst his cry, they could hear the continuing slide of stone and the thunderclap of rock slamming against rock.

"Chris!"

Buck's reply, though muffled, sent an unspoken surge of relief through the three men. Like JD, Chris and Nathan shared the same terrible thought their friends may have been crushed by the mountain with its ability to shuffle rock like Ezra did with his favourite deck of cards.

"Buck, are you okay!" JD demanded, not waiting for Chris to speak.

"We're fine," Buck quickly replied. His voice sounded distant as if spoken through several feet of stone. "Crazy shit's happening though."

"The walls are moving!" Inez cried out, and what composure she managed to maintain until now was nowhere in her voice. She was scared.

She had good reason Chris decided. By now, there was no doubt in their minds how the poor souls they encountered on the way up the mountain had met their tragic end. Chris wouldn't even presume to imagine what forces were in play to make the mountain passage reshape itself. He had seen too many bizarre traps in the last two years to ever claim to understand the layers of reality in which the world seemed to exist. All he cared about was ensuring none of his friends was hurt or killed trying to navigate it.

"Buck, do you think you can get back down the mountain?"

Before he could answer, another loud boom of colliding stone was followed by silence.

"BUCK!"


Buck didn't answer because he and Inez were sinking.

The rocky ground on which both of them stood dropped. It happened so abruptly, neither had time to comprehend what was happening until it was too late to climb out. With a blink of an eye, they were descending into darkness, surrounded by walls and a tiny gleam of light overhead, becoming distant with every disconcerting note produced by the shuddering earth.

"Stay close to the ground" Buck dropped to his knees, pulling Inez to the stepped floor with him. He had no idea how any of this was happening, but he knew while there was ground beneath their feet, they might have some chance of surviving this crazy ride.

Shaking with fear, Inez did as told and instinctively clung to Buck as she stared at the surreal sight of the rock walls moving around them. It was like riding in an elevator with no walls, she thought to herself. The sound of rock grinding against rock made her wince, and she buried one ear against the crook of Buck's shoulder and covered the other with her palm to block it out.

Buck held onto Inez, able to feel her trembling as they disappeared into the mountain, trying to gauge how far they'd travelled. Above them, the pinprick of the sunshine was starting to vanish, and very soon, they would be shrouded in complete darkness. If anything unnerved him, it was the absence of blue sky. Buck was its creature, and being cut off from it so wholly in the bowels of the earth felt like a special kind of prison.

"How is this possible?" Inez managed to say through the rumble.

"I don't know!" Buck replied back and hated it that he had no answers to give her. This wasn't his area of expertise. In the structure of the team, he was the pilot. It was never necessary for him to learn all the lore that went with treasure hunting. Such tasks were better left to Chris and JD. He took the gang where they needed to go and got them back again. That was his job. Bring everyone home. Except now, he had no idea how to do that.

Then as quickly as Buck and Inez's journey began, the ground came to a sudden, deafening stop. Already on their knees, the abrupt halt almost dropped them face down against the steps. Both Buck and Inez kept themselves from this by their palms, feeling grit and sharp stones digging into their skin as gravity did its worst upon them. Dust settled around them, no longer swirling like the nebulous clouds of a London fog, coating them in a thin layer that made Inez cough.

Buck looked up again, and this time, there was no sunlight at all, and even though they should be enveloped in black, something was illuminating the space they now occupied, even if he saw no sight of its source. It reminded him of being inside Paloma's when the house lights were dimmed in readiness for an act to begin. The icy cold had also bled away, replaced by warmth, as if the mountain was hugging them.

It felt surreal.

"Are you alright?" He glanced down at Inez after he pushed himself upright again and saw that she was doing the same.

The lady was lowering the hood, revealing her dirt-covered face. She was licking her lips, her brown eyes cautious, but the panic had ceased somewhat, which made Buck feel a little better. Taking care of her would be how he managed his own fear. Buck was at his best when he had someone to protect.

"Yes," she nodded, her voice almost a whisper before her gaze shifted past him, and her eyes widened. "Buck, look."

Buck turned around to see what she found. In the aftermath of their wild ride, the steps they were standing on now led to a small opening at the base of the wall three and a half feet wide on all sides. It was a perfectly carved square doorway. Framing it were words he could not read, carved into the stone. They glowed in amber, and Buck realized they were what produced the light.

"We assumed the shrine was on the top of the mountain," Inez broke the silence. "What if it's not?"

Buck stared at the opening and realized she was right. "Yeah Darlin'," he nodded in agreement. "I think you got something there. We all figured it was up high. Maybe it never was."

Buck trolled his memory for everything he heard Chris and JD state about the shrine, as well as their guide Naran. Those who died went up the mountain and died, probably crushed by the crazy Erector set-shifting of walls and floor. It's no wonder what became of those who scaled the Sutai remained a mystery. If you didn't die up there, he glanced at the sunlight he could no longer see. You'd die down here. Whatever this was.

When Inez started towards the opening, Buck snapped out of his ruminations.

"Inez, what are you doing?" He demanded as he watched her drop down again, preparing to crawl into the small passage.

"Finding the shrine. If this is the way, then we have to take it. Otherwise, we'll die waiting here like all those others."

Damn it, she made sense. Even if this passage didn't lead to the ovoo, it was a way out. They couldn't stay here.

"Well, let me go in first," Buck relented, wishing Chris or even JD were here instead. At least they'd be able to read that crazy writing.

"No," she shook her head and continued moving, reaching the entrance before he had the chance to get on his hands and knees to follow her. As she readied herself to slip into its narrow confines, she paused long enough to explain herself. "This is my journey Buck, my quest. If Udan is going to give us the answers we need to save Benny, I have to be the one to ask the question. I'm his mother, and there's no cause more important in all the world than my right to save my child. Only I can convince this Udan of that."

And she's right, Buck thought to himself and without uttering another word of comment, followed her in.

Chapter Seventeen:
Avalanche

There was no time for Chris to ponder the implications of the silence that followed after Buck's voice faded from his hearing, not when the mountain was still moving around them. With the ground disappearing, jagged walls materialized out of nowhere, and the mountain's thunderous made him feel like the unpalatable meal of an angry god, trying to quell its upset stomach.

"Come on!"

Nathan barked sharply in his ear, snapping Chris out of his anguished frustration at Buck and Inez's absence. Returning him sharply to the moment, Chris realized whatever was happening wasn't done with them yet. Nathan, one of his most reliable friends, second to Vin, could always think quickly when it came to saving lives. Even if Nathan didn't know for sure Buck and Inez were lost, his first instinct would always be to protect whoever was left.

Dismissing the inner turmoil at the possibility he might have lost his oldest friend and one of his newest ones, Chris reacted swiftly. He grabbed JD by the arm and dragged the kid away from the wall that cut off their retreat down the mountain. Instead, he followed Nathan's lead as the tall man made a running start to leap over the maw barring their way forward. It was no easy feat since they were running uphill, and Chris almost shouted a warning of caution to Nathan when the healer propelled himself into the air.

Like a long-distance jumper, Nathan sailed across the space, not looking down because he didn't need to see the drop that would easily kill him. Instead, Nathan looked ahead at the steps he was sailing toward. He landed hard against the rock steps, rolling against the staircase and feeling bruises form on impact. A groan escaped him, but Nathan had no time to recover. He had to get out of the way because Chris and JD would soon follow.

Nathan looked up just in time to see Chris and JD nearing the edge to make the jump. He quickly scrambled out of the way, his back flattened against the uneven wall as he watched them clear the distance to land just over the edge. They met the steps just as hard as he did, and Nathan felt a surge of sympathy when he saw the pain radiate across their faces. No doubt, they would be just as bruised as he.

Then without warning, the quaking stopped.

All was still as the three men exchanged glances, wondering if the strange shift was over or was this simply the eye of the storm. For a few seconds, no one said anything until Nathan broke the silence.

"Everyone okay?"

"No," Chris grumbled, wincing at the dull ache across his back. "But we'll live."

"What about Buck and Inez?" JD demanded, not about to let anyone forget their number was far from whole after the perilous last few minutes. "Are they dead?"

"They're not dead." Chris shot him a look. His voice was sharper than usual. "They're somewhere in the Sutai." He stared down the passage at the wall that appeared out of nowhere to seal off their route. It was tall enough to prevent Chris from seeing over the top, even from their higher position. It didn't matter. Chris doubted Buck and Inez were there. Something had happened, something that swept the duo away to places unknown, if that distant voice was any indication.

"Then we gotta go find them!" JD leapt to his feet, dusting himself off.

"One thing at a time," Chris sighed wearily, empathizing with JD's desire to find Buck and Inez, but right now, they were surrounded by too many unknowns.

Standing up as well, Chris brushed the dirt off himself before he descended the steps to the edge of the drop and peered into it. When they were leaping over the gap, there was no time to look down but doing so now made his stomach lurch. The hole's plunging depth had no end as far as he could see. Chris removed a box of matches from his coat pocket and struck one of the heads to life. As the flame burned away, he dropped the match into the crevasse and watched its light disappear into the darkness.

The dark swallowed up the match after several seconds and told Chris without a shadow of a doubt, any fall would have killed them or brought them close to it.

"Damn," Nathan whistled, standing next to Chris, watching the flame's disappearance. "How far down do you think it goes?"

"I honestly don't want to find out," Chris replied but secretly feared Buck and Inez might have found out the hard way just how deep it went. Nothing else could explain their abrupt silence.

Don't think that! They're alive.

Shaking the grim thought out of his head to focus on their current situation, Chris turned away from the edge. His gaze shifted up the passage to where JD, who was continuing up the steps eager to find Buck and Inez. While he wished to do the same, a frightening thought filled his head.

"Alright, we survived this far, and I don't want to believe no one else did in the hundred of years before this. So the question I gotta ask is if they got past this, what stopped them from getting off the mountain."

"You think there's something worse up ahead?" Nathan spoke over the sound of the gale as he eyed the passage, now almost totally obscured by the intensifying snowfall.

Hurling winds lashed at them, driving the cold through their clothes until they could feel it in their bones. The light snow whipped into the frenzy of a blizzard, moving past them like the strong currents of a river. The jagged walls flanking them were fast becoming coated in frost, and the heat of each breath escaped them like visible gasps.

"I'd say so," Chris started walking before issuing a further warning. "Watch your step. It might start to get slippery. If we fall down these stairs, you know where we're going to end up. "

Both Nathan and JD instinctively turned their heads towards the gap they had just crossed, with the younger of the two gulping visibly. Their boots were made for harsh weather but navigating this steep path without snowshoes was exceedingly dangerous. They saw Chris pull his hood further down his face before he started climbing, bracing himself against the wall with one hand to give him better stability as he ascended. Within seconds, they all followed suit.

Their advance, taken with caution, seemed frustratingly slow, but there was nothing else for it. No one doubted this was the same obstacles followed by the travellers of the past, and none of them had survived to tell the tale. The dels protected them against the elements, but this weather felt almost supernatural. The miasma of foreboding returned this time swirling around them like the ever-tightening grip of a python's coils.

Through the ascent, Buck and Inez were never far from their thoughts, and Chris clung fast to the hope they were still alive, somewhere in the Sutai. The idea of losing Buck made his stomach clench with fear, and he had to stave off the feeling each time it surfaced. In his mind, warm days in Arizona appeared in his mind, reminding him of how deeply ingrained their friendship was in his life. They had been boys together and stood side by side when they enlisted in the war to become men.

Without Buck, Chris would never have survived the death of Sarah and Adam.

A sudden loud crack tore through his thoughts, and Chris's eyes flew upwards in time to see something moving ahead. It took him a second to realize a section of the mountain had just broken off as if someone had sliced it off with a knife. The shadow it cast as it tumbled towards them, slamming into the wall on the way down and breaking off more chunks of dangerous debris

"MOVE!"

Chris's bark carried over the sound, and the three men sprinted up the stairs, throwing caution to the winds while conscious of every step taken with no time to waste. The avalanche of rock and ice slammed against the ground behind them with seconds to spare, the impact making the ground quake. Behind him, Nathan lost his footing and almost slipped when Chris's arm snapped forward, grabbing the healer before he went tumbling down the steps, taking JD with him.

Gloved fingers dug into the wall, keeping a death grip against a particularly jagged piece of rock, giving Chris the purchase needed to keep them all from falling backwards into the gaping maw. Another explosion of stone and ice burst in front of him, a few steps ahead. The force of it travelled up the walls of the mountain, shaking loose more ice and stone. The sudden pile of debris didn't block off their path forward entirely, but it meant they would have to climb it.

JD being the youngest, reached it first. He glanced over his shoulder long enough to see Chris and Nathan helping each other along. The youngest of the seven didn't rush in recklessly. He'd been in enough of these situations to know that caution was always a good idea. The avalanche of snow and boulders continued to rain down around them, and JD suspected those who came before them had more likely ended their days buried alive in ice.

The thought made him shudder with a sensation that had nothing to do with the cold.

Finding a foothold, JD started climbing, searching the piles in front of him for the rocks stable enough to bear his weight. Slowly but surely, he reached the top, although he paused every few seconds to ensure his friends were still behind him. Chris and Nathan were carefully ascending the slope, even with chaos raining down on them. When he stared ahead, JD suddenly froze.

For a second, he thought it was just the swirling patterns of snow. Yet through the blizzard of white, a shape became visible, not just one but two. Suspended in mid-air, he saw the form of a great bull, its massive horns so wide each point seemed to dig into the flanking walls of the passage. Impossible as it might seem, the spectral bovine was responsible for the avalanche assailing them. It stamped its feet against the air, and each time it did, the snow broke free at its angry footsteps. JD stared mesmerized at the massive head, with its nostrils flaring with each breath he took.

Perched on its back, ghost-like, was a woman.

Her hair was piled on top of her head, but there were still long locks swaying around her. Her white face stared at him, and in the sockets where eyes should have been, JD saw the universe. Nebulous bursts of colour amidst stars, stared at him before she pulled her pale lips back into a smile, warm and inviting. Her hands extended outwards, the long sleeves of her dress swaying in the wind as she beckoned him forward.

"Come to me, young one. Come show me you are worthy."


How the hell did Chris do this all the time without going crazy?

On his hands and knees, trying to ignore the claustrophobia threatening to shred his composure, Buck crawled up the narrow tunnel, longing for the cockpit of the Millie where he usually waited out his friends' exploits with a flask of whiskey and a smoke. Being a tunnel rat was just not for him. For starters, he was just too damn tall. His head kept bumping against the roof, making him think he'd end up like a punch drunk fighter when this was all done. His back ached painfully, and the layers that protected them from the elements earlier now felt insufferable. Beads of sweat were rolling languidly down his damp skin.

It didn't help that this was no ordinary tunnel. Amber light glowed down its gullet, the source of which left Buck uneasy. Nothing about this entire situation felt right. The strange lettering that beckoned them now journeyed with them through the tunnel and Buck cursed JD's absence because the kid could probably translate all this in a second. Unlike the rough-hewn walls they encountered so far, smooth stone surrounded them. The ground was paved with slabs of dark stone.

Following Inez, he watched her rear moving in front of him and resisted the urge to make some crass remark that would get him kicked in the face. The lady seemed possessed and said nothing since they started crawling through this mysterious pathway. Buck didn't blame her. His mother was similarly blessed with a fearsome maternal instinct, and Buck thought with fondness how magnificent Emily had been when defending her little boy.

God, he still missed her.

"Inez," Buck finally spoke, unable to stand the silence. "Can you see what's up ahead?"

Inez paused as if she had forgotten he was there at all. Looking over her shoulder, he saw her profile through a tussle of dark hair.

"Nothing except the light but it's getting brighter."

Buck didn't know if this was a good thing or not. For all they knew, the light might take them right off the side of the mountain. Right now, he wasn't convinced this was a way out or even the way to find the oracle.

"I wish I knew what these words were saying," Buck continued to speak through his laboured breath, wincing again when he hit his head against the low ceiling.

"It doesn't matter," Inez resumed her journey. "It is where we need to go."

"How can you be so sure?" He tried not to be sceptical, but he was aching, hot and more than a little irritated. Buck's natural reaction to adverse conditions was to rail against it. While Chris had slid into this world, cool as a cucumber, glaring at the doc for ruining his day, Buck had emerged screaming his head off, and he intended to go out the same way.

"The amulet Buck," Inez didn't look at the pilot when she reached into the folds of her coat. Her fingertips brushed the amulet she had been wearing against her skin ever since she learned what it cost Bernardo to deliver it to her. "I can hear it in my ears, whispering its wish to return home."

Buck did not like the sound of this at all.

"What does that mean?"

"It means Roerich was right. The amulet was a part of the ovoo, remember? It was broken off from the shrine. Until it is returned to its place, the shrine is not whole. Perhaps that is why we have made it this far, and all the others died trying. It's because they didn't have the amulet. I think the shrine can sense the amulet is coming home."

It all sounded like a lot of hooey to him but considering where they were, it was hard to argue with her.

"Inez, I'm worried what it might do to you."

Once again, she paused, and when she spoke this time, she talked with the same vulnerability she displayed when they shared their thoughts of loss and grief. In those small hours of the night over a shared drink, Inez had revealed her need to expunge her pain with Buck was more than adept at hearing it. "I will be fine, Buck. For Benny, I can endure anything, but...."

Another pause followed.

"But I am glad you are here with me."

No longer was she convinced he was simply intent on bedding her. She knew false men, and Buck's empathy was genuine. She had no doubt he had feelings for her, and perhaps someday she may be able to reciprocate them, but right now, he was the strong shoulder she needed. Despite her dogged determination to see this through, to get Benny back at any cost, Inez was also grateful for Buck's friendship.

"I am too," Buck smiled, hiding just how much it meant to hear those words. There was a light at the end of the tunnel and it was just as precious as the one leading them to the shrine.


When Inez declared she saw an opening up ahead, more than half an hour had passed.

By now, the ache in his limbs evolved into the sharp, biting pain of muscles cramping up in protest of the abuse. He almost uttered a groan of relief but held back his discomfort from her hearing because she didn't seem to have any trouble making the journey. Then again, Inez was slender and more petite in size. She had the room to make the crawl easier. In any case, he kept quiet about it because men just didn't bitch about aches and pains, not in front of a woman they were trying to impress.

"What can you see?"

Inez didn't answer for a few seconds, but the light bathing the narrow space was considerable enough for Buck to believe they were indeed reaching an end. He heard the scuffle of feet against the slabbed floor before she vanished through a small opening the same size as the one they used to enter the tunnel. Through the mouth of it, he saw the open space beyond, and Buck was so eager to stand upright again he scrambled towards it without hesitation.

Buck imagined his bones creaking like rust hinges when he stood and brushed himself off. When he lifted his chin, he noted Inez was examining their new environment with a mixture of caution and fascination.

Overhead, the glare of white implied the presence of sunlight, but it was shining through the ice across the circular ceiling. The sun eyed them with muted intensity through the frosted water but still illuminated the rest of the room. The circle of the roof matched the floor covered with blue tiles, almost sapphire in its vibrance. Time had done nothing to fade its brilliance, and for a moment, Buck thought they were standing on the calm surface of an azure sea.

Ornate mosaics covered the walls, depicting images of dragons giving fealty to a man, or perhaps a god, with long dark hair and a similar moustache and beard, very much in keeping with Mongolian fashion. Even without JD's knowledge, Buck could see the images depicting the creation of the universe and the world, with the dragons standing ever watchful, guardians of the newborn earth. It was beautiful and mesmerizing, holding both their gazes as they took it in with awe. Once again, Buck wished JD was here so the kid could tell him what narration the strange words etched in the tile could provide.

A doorway with ornate designs stood at the opposite end of the room, and beside it was a lever. The handle was gilt gold, with intricate carvings along the length. Buck stared at it for a moment before Inez spoke.

"What is this room?"

"Beats me," Buck admitted. "I'm the wrong one to ask. Chris and JD would have it figured out in a second. But at least there's a door," he gestured to it.

Inez started moving across the tiles, eager to keep going. While this was something to look at, it was empty. Perhaps it was an ancient hall or something, she thought to herself. It was certainly large enough to host a hundred people with room to spare. As she walked across the tiles, she almost slipped and realized the floor was iced over from the cold. Like the rest of the seven, she thanked Naran for the traditional Mongolian cold-weather gear, especially the boots. They provided her just enough traction to keep from falling on her ass. No matter how padded she was, she would know about it if she landed on the hard tiles.

"Buck, watch out," she offered him a warning. "It's slippery."

"Yeah, I got that," Buck didn't look at her as he took ginger steps forward, trying to catch up. "Just take it slow and make for the door."

Inez nodded in agreement, treading carefully with each step she took. She was almost to the centre of the room when she stepped on something that cracked loudly. Dropping her gaze immediately to the floor, a section of tile had broken, spreading spidery tendrils where her foot pressed down.

"What was that?" Buck's eyes widened and then was silenced because the same shuddering that spirited away from their friends repeated.

This time the sound was thunderous, and when their eyes shot up., the ceiling began to fracture. The damage spread rapidly from one end to another, raining splinters of ice against the floor. The low rumble of something awakening filled their ears just as a large chunk of ice broke free and tumbled to the tiled floor, sending pieces in all directions. From the freshly created fissure, snow began to fill the room like a cascade.

No longer worried about slipping on the floor, Buck dashed forward and grabbed Inez's hand, sprinting towards the doorway before they were both buried alive.

Chapter Eighteen:
Sacrifice

Where the hell was JD?

While Chris and Nathan struggled up the slope of crumbled stone and ice, trying to avoid the dangerous hail of debris from above, JD disappeared from view once he reached the top of the peak and began descending. Despite his confidence in the younger man, Chris wanted them to stick together or at least keep each other within the line of sight. It was clear this cave-in was caused by forces beyond their understanding, which made it impossible to predict what came next.

"JD!" Chris shouted just before he lost his footing and slammed down hard on one knee, cursing a blue streak at the pain shooting up his bones from the impact. Nathan did not release his iron grip on his arm, ensuring he didn't go tumbling down the slope. After the war, Nathan had grown strong maintaining his hold on uncooperative patients enough to make sure they stay put when he insisted.

"Chris! You okay?" Nathan recognized the grimace and was more than accustomed to his former captain's efforts to hide his injuries.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Chris dismissed the pain through clenched teeth and was prompted upright when another piece of ice shattered a few feet behind them. "Can you see JD?"

Nathan looked up instinctively and frowned when he saw no trace of the younger man through the obscuring wall of falling snow. "No!"

Determined to find the kid, Chris started forward again, a slight limp in his step as he resumed the climb upward. It wasn't like JD to just forge ahead like that, not without letting them know where he'd gone. Reaching the top of the mound, they looked down to see the steps had come to an end at another landing, except this one didn't exist to give the builders a new direction to erect their stairway. Sunlight poured through it, illuminating the darkened space. It was an exit outside.

However, neither man paid any attention to it because they were transfixed by the sight of JD surrounded by his very own vortex of snow and wind.

"What the hell?"

Nathan's exclamation mirrored Chris's own astonishment. The kid stood in the eye of the bizarre storm, seemingly oblivious to everything else taking place around them. He seemed engrossed by something neither could see, which sent fresh fear through Chris at what might be happening to him.

Ignoring the pain in his knee, Chris quickly descended the mound, determined to reach JD. He didn't even notice when he broke free of Nathan's grip, although the healer wasn't far behind him. Both men hurried down the debris pile, no longer caring about the deadly barrage raining down on them. Yet when they stepped foot onto the platform, the chaos abruptly stopped. They exchanged glances, uncertain what to make of the sudden pause as one final piece of ice smashed against the ground. With its destruction, the tomb-like silence returned, and everything was back to normal, everything except what was happening to JD.

"JD!"

JD didn't hear him, but Chris wasn't about to wait for the kid to respond. Racing forward, he approached the mini-snow storm, determined to yank JD out of his reverie one way or another. Before he could even reach JD, something whip-like lashed out of the swirling currents, swatting Cris aside like he was an impudent child. It struck him like an ice burn given form, flinging him halfway across the landing, away from JD.

"CHRIS!

He barely heard Nathan's frantic cry through the explosion of pain radiating throughout his side. He'd broken ribs. Chris knew that much by the grinding sensation that almost made him gag. As it blinded him with its merciless intensity, Chris saw through a haze of agony Nathan was running towards him. It took him a moment to register that JD was still trapped in his prison of snow. Through gritted teeth, Chris cried out at Nathan's looming form.

"Nathan! Help JD!"

Nathan froze in his steps, momentarily conflicted. Chris was clearly hurt, but JD was gripped by something as equally perilous, if not to his physical body, then definitely to his mind. The healer struggled for a moment until he saw the Larabee glare reach across the space between them. Swearing under his breath, Nathan knew he would obey. He was too conditioned to following this man's orders in the Great War to ever refuse Chris Larabee anything.

Turning towards JD, Nathan hurried towards the young man wondering how the hell he could help when it was just as likely the force surrounding JD would expel him just as violently.


He never took her outstretched arms when she opened them to receive him.

JD wasn't that stupid. It was either an illusion or a supernatural entity in front of him and the encounter with Tiamat some months ago told him these things were real and deadly. Nevertheless, it didn't matter because she ensnared him anyway. Those long locks of hair encircled him like the slow, languid coils of a python and constricted when JD realized too late what was happening. In her clutches, unable to break free, she reeled him in like a fish. All the while staring at him with her enchanting eyes.

The thing was, you couldn't help but look back at them. JD was mesmerized by the infinity in them. Unable to turn away, once he was caught in her gaze, he was struck by the galaxy of stars he saw twinkling through vibrant gaseous clouds. Was she really the guardian of the mountain, whose mounted beast now stood still, expelling heated vapour through its snorts.

Are you worthy?

The words exploded in his head, not in his ears. It seemed to reach out from the centre of his mind, spreading out until it collided against the walls of his skull.

"Worthy of what?"

It was a valid question in JD's mind. These cryptic riddles constantly challenged you to claim yourself worthy, but without something to reach for, what was the point?

Worthy of Udan's wisdom.

JD considered his answer and suspected his survival might depend on it, not just his but those of Chris and Nathan. "I'm not here for Udan's wisdom. I'm here to help my friends."

There was a pause, and for a moment, JD saw the surprise on her ethereal face. Did supernatural entities get surprised? If so, how did they react to it?

The other threads.

Threads? It was now JD's turn to be surprised. What did she mean, threads?

"What threads?"

Laughter filled his ears, soft and pleasant like Casey's, he thought with a sudden rush of longing for the girl in the library.

You are a thread in a chord, a mystical binding of power. Tengku-Ko the Creator created the chords, dispersing them throughout many different realities. They are warriors against chaos. Your thread and those of your friends are part of one such chord. No matter what time, what life you live, your seven threads will always be intertwined.

"I don't understand...." JD shook his head, finding this too much for him.

Look and understand.

He did, and in the dark pools of her eyes, he saw images, some that were incomprehensible, others that were simple. He saw himself wearing a bowler hat (damn, it was ugly), riding on horseback with six other riders and then sitting behind a shiny panel in what looked like the set of a Flash Gordon serial. They were seven trudging through the tall grass of an unfamiliar jungle, dressed in combat gear beaten down by teaming rain. They were on the deck of a Roman trireme, wearing costumes straight out of a swords and sandals flick.

JD shook his head, dispelling the images, intriguing as they were. Did he believe in the kinship shared by the seven? Of course, he did. In his bones, he'd felt it the instant he met Chris Larabee. True, he'd been nervous as hell, but there was also this sense of familiarity that told JD no matter what this man, with his hard eyes and aloof features, would always have his back. He didn't need this supernatural entity to tell him that. JD already knew.

"Does that make us worthy?" He challenged her, wanting to be free of her grip because JD feared the longer he stayed in it, the less he'd wish to break free.

No. It makes you tasty.

And with that, she pulled back her lips and revealed what lay beneath them.

Fangs.


Long legs ensured Buck reached the door and the lever first.

The face of a dragon carved into the black stone of the door stared back at them. Behind them, more snow and chunks of ice tumbled through the broken ceiling. Any one of the large pieces could crush them easily, even as they were pelted with fist-sized balls of hail. Buck dragged Inez along with him once he caught up to her, shielding her as best as he could against the falling debris. He could feel the flaring of pain across his back before they reached the door. Without hesitation, Buck shoved her against it while he went to the lever, praying it was the fulcrum to open it

"Don't wait for me!" He barked over the almost deafening rumble.

She nodded wildly, her fear apparent as he reached for the ornate handle and pulled the handle back.

It gave a loud creak, and Buck imagined dust and grit breaking free from the unseen mechanism beneath the floor after years of disuse. It took most of his strength to pull it back, and for a moment, Buck thought he was lifting the door himself. The stone ascended, offering salvation with each widening inch as Inez prepared to sprint through. Buck pulled it back as far as he could, waiting to hear the click that told him the mechanism was locked in place.

Except there wasn't one.

The instant he released the handle, the door slid downwards again, almost colliding with the top of Inez's skull when she attempted to past. Only his fast reflexes prevented her head from being crushed by the rapidly descending stone. Buck withdrew the lever again, raising the stone slab once more. With a sinking feeling, he realized he would have to hold the lever to let her leave and there would be no one to do the same for him.

"What's happening?" Inez whirled around to him. "Why won't it stay?"

"It don't work like that, Inez," Buck replied. "Can you go through and see if there's another lever on the other side?"

Inez nodded quickly and entered the chamber beyond the door. It was identical to the one she just escaped with a notable difference. A tall moldavite statue stood in the centre of the room, carved in the image of an oriental-style dragon. This was Udan. This was where she had to go. On her chest, the amulet against her skin became warmer. Ignoring this for now because Buck was in trouble, Inez studied the doorway she had just used and felt her heart seize in horror.

There was no corresponding lever.

"Buck, there's nothing!" She stumbled back into the room to see the barrage intensifying.

Somehow Buck wasn't surprised.

"Inez, get outside! I'll hold the door until you get through."

For a second, it did not register what he was asking of her. When it did, the words escaped her like a gasp. "What about you?"

"The door won't stay open unless I hold on to this thing,"

Buck's expression was sombre, almost resigned, and it was that which made Inez's stomach twist further into knots. "You have to come with me! I won't leave you!"

"You have to! You have the amulet! Use it to save Benny. I'll be fine. I'll find a safe spot and ride this out."

Even as he said it, Inez could see there was no safe place for him. The room's collapse was imminent, and if she didn't leave soon, it wouldn't matter if the door was open. It would be buried just like the rest of the place. "Buck, you can't stay in here!" She implored, unable to believe it was coming down to this. That to save Benny, she would have to sacrifice him. Whatever feelings she might or might not have for him, that was a choice she could not make.

"GO!" Buck shouted loudly, almost as thunderously as the debris falling around him. "You need to go for your son!"

Inez uttered an anguished cry of frustration, feeling warm tears in her eyes. If she left Buck, she would be abandoning him to die, and she could not face that. Buck stood by her throughout all this and asked for nothing. While she guessed his feelings for her were more profound than he admitted, she was convinced the friendship he offered her was real.

"Buck, I can't...."

"Inez, you don't have time to fight me on this! You have to go!" The snow was growing steadily higher, and she would have to fight her way to reach the doorway. If she didn't go now, she might be stuck in there with him.

Uttering a wail of despair, Inez started towards the door, with only one glimmer of hope to cling to. Perhaps if she used the amulet, she could save him. As she was on the cusp of exiting the room, she paused and looked over her shoulder.

"Buck...." she started to say, but the words wouldn't come.

"I know," he said quietly, and even though the din about them made his words difficult to make out, he saw she understood. He watched her tears and took some comfort at that, even as he was buried to the waist. "Now GO!"

She disappeared out the doorway, and when she was through, Buck released the handle. The stone slab fell back into place, sealing him inside the disintegrating room.


The door slammed like the falling lid of a coffin.

The sound of it more than rung in her ears. It penetrated her skin like a thousand cruel cuts. She dropped to her knees, doubled over in despair and tears, her hands clutching her head as if trying to fight off her guilt. For a second, it was paralyzing, robbing her of the ability to draw breath or think straight. Inez was so far away from herself, gripped in anguish, she nearly gave up, wondering what more God would ask of her heart. It wasn't right that everything she loved or cared for would eventually be taken away from her.

Buck Wilmington wasn't her lover, but Inez had liked the possibility of what he could mean to her someday

Enough of this!

The resolve that carried her through war and personal loss surfaced with the violent force of volcanic ejecta. Buck was not dead, not yet. Neither was Benny. She had the amulet, and if there was a way to save them both, she would find it because she was not losing anyone else.

Inez stood up and then stomped over the statue in the middle of the room with a sudden sharp intake of breath. It towered over her, green splendour looking down at her indifferently. Roerich had said the temple would not be whole until she returned its missing piece. Even as she studied it, she saw the indentation against the almost jade-like surface that resembled the amulet. Once again, she felt the warmth of it on her skin, as if it was itching to be returned.

When Inez retrieved it from beneath her clothes, the statue before her came alive with an iridescent glow. For a moment, she thought its heart was beating. Correspondingly the stone resting in the middle of the amulet began to do the same. For a few seconds, Inez didn't react, staring thoughtfully at the artifact in her palm. Everything taking place around her was in reaction to the presence of the amulet in the Sutai. The way she and Buck were separated from the others then led to this antechamber and then divided again so she was alone.

She recalled the presence they felt swirling around them as they entered the staircase and was convinced something was watching them, something that manipulated the mountain to lead her to this place. It had given her no choice but to use the amulet to make itself whole, with no absolute guarantee Benny would be saved by its wisdom. Ezra Standish always stated an opponent would make a big bet to scare the others from realizing how weak a hand they really had.

Bluffing is a time-honoured tradition, my dear, but sometimes you just had to call.

"Listen to me, whoever you are! I know you're there!" She raised her arm, the amulet in her grip. "You've been with us every step of our journey, trying to kill us when you couldn't frighten us to death! We felt you! I don't care who you are, whether you are Udan or Tengri-Ko or some other god I don't know but listen well. You will stop everything that is happening to us. You will let Buck out of that room and cease whatever you're doing to the others!"

The statue continued to pulse indifferently, but Inez was not about to give up.

"You will do it now or so help me, I will smash this thing into a thousand pieces, and you will never be whole! You want the amulet just as much as I want my son, but I won't play your game! YOU WILL NOT FORCE ME TO CHOOSE WHO I SAVE! DO YOU HEAR ME! NOT EVEN FOR MY SON!"

The pulse quickened, the emerald glow blinking at her as if stunned by the threat. Around her, the floor began to quake, rumbling its fury at her temerity to make demands. Inez suppressed the terror inside her heart, telling herself she would bow before no one, not when the lives of those she cared for were at stake. Yes, she would do anything to get Benny back, but what would she teach her son by sacrificing others in the process?

What he would take into the world as a man would come from her, and she would not let him take this.

"You can bring the mountain down around me, and all that would do is bury the amulet with me. This time, no one will ever find it again. All those others you killed over the years have made sure no Mongolian will come here, and without the amulet, the rest of the world wouldn't care about this shrine. "

With that, she dropped her arm, almost smashing the artifact against the ground but held back at the last moment, keeping it poised over the hard, slabbed floor.

"I won't ask again."

Another loud rumble followed, sounding almost like a roar of indignation before it ceased abruptly. Then without warning, the door behind which Buck was trapped sprang open like it was attached to a spring. Inez swung around to see snow and debris tumbling through the opening. She almost got to her feet and went to investigate, but knew she had to see this through.

She had called Udan's bluff. Now it was calling hers.


JD saw the creature lunge at him, her widening jaws reminding him of an anaconda about to devour his prey. He couldn't break free of her serpentine hair, and amidst his terror, he heard Chris and JD shouting desperately at him. Her spectral form rushed forward, but before those terrible teeth sunk into his flesh, she started fading away and what washed over him was a gust of warm air and grey smoke.

All of a sudden, JD was falling. He hit the ground hard, his knees digging into the steps.

"JD!"

Nathan reached him first, bewildered by the vortex surrounding JD suddenly unravelling before it vanished entirely. Its dispersal was followed by the slamming of rock. When Nathan glanced over his shoulder, the healer saw the passage they had travelled, realigning itself again. The new walls had disappeared, leaving them a clear path up or down the mountain.

Mystified, JD looked up at Nathan once he stopped smarting all over. "What just happened?"


"Inez?" Buck Wilmington stumbled out of the chamber, the side of his head covered in blood from where a piece of debris had struck him. Traces of rock dust covered him, along with flakes of snow in his hair. He was panting hard as he emerged, the relief at escaping the crumbling trap behind him quickly diminishing and replaced with concern.

Inez spared him a glance, but that was enough. It conveyed to him the situation was still urgent and warned him to hold back for now. Facing front, she took a deep breath and pressed the amulet into the statue, long awaiting its return. The instant the moldavite stone made contact with the figure, a green mist suddenly flooded the room. It swirled to life around their ankles and threatened to swallow them whole.

Buck, who was all too familiar with what mustard gas could do to a person during the war, wasn't about to simply stand there and let it suffocate them. "Inez, come on!"

But where could they go? There was no way out of this chamber.

Inez didn't move because the green mist was already in her lungs. It smelled of fresh-cut grass, the woody scent of a vast forest and the faint traces of aromatic spice. She breathed it in, and its effects swept through her like a current of warmth. The turmoil of the last hours began to subside and while everything around her became intangible, a voice reached out to her.

Well done little mother. You are worthy.

Chapter Nineteen:
Mysteries

Mysteries.

Chris Larabee embraced them. Without mysteries, he would not enjoy the business of relic hunting as much as he did. Chris never saw himself as an archaeologist, but his love of history and ancient civilizations seemed to make it a natural fit. While he possessed no professional qualifications, Chris's meticulous study and research into any artifact he pursued made him an expert. Each artifact came wrapped in delicious impossibilities, riddles Chris simply loved to unravel. Even when they were deadly, the mystery around them was still tantalizing.

The present one, however, did not leave him challenged but somewhat bewildered.

While the wind whistled loudly as it should in their lofty position within the Sutai, with powerful gales rushing down the staircase, the flash blizzard was gone. Even though the rest of the passage had realigned itself to its original state, the opening remained in place. The walls that appeared without warning, the gaping hole in the ground and even the debris pile was no more. It was as if the clock had been turned back on the whole disturbance.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his ribs which ached painfully as he limped towards JD, who was being helped to his feet. The kid seemed dazed, probably still suffering the effects of the fugue state he recently found himself in. Chris wondered what JD had seen in the eye of that strange vortex.

"What just happened?" JD asked again.

"Damned if I know," Nathan shrugged just as confused, the healer's eyes scanning their surroundings as if needing visual confirmation their ordeal was over for now. "Chris?"

"Don't look at me," Chris winced, clutching his side before cursing inwardly because the reaction was going to make Nathan go all mother hen on him.

On cue, Nathan took a step towards him."Chris, you need to sit down for a bit. Let me take a look at you. JD, you okay?"

JD stretched, catching his breath as reality returned to him with the gust of cold wind across his cheek. "I'm fine, Nathan. I just need to clear my head."

"What happened to you," Chris asked as he found himself forced to sit down once Nathan reached him.

"It was strange," JD considered what he just experienced. The memories of what happened were fading away like the effects of a dream after waking. Some were so vivid you recalled every detail, but others, like this one, left only fragments behind when they vanished from the mind. He remembered a woman and her smile, the mention of threads and teeth. No. not teeth, but fangs like an animal. What remained the strongest was the overwhelming sense of danger that was now no more.

"It was strange, I can't remember much, but I know whatever happened was just in time. I think we were in a lot of trouble."

"And now we're not," Chris frowned, hissing when Nathan took an exploratory probe of his side. "It seems."

"Chris, these need taping up," Nathan pointed out, gesturing to the ugly purple spread across his exposed side. "There ain't no way you can keep going in this condition, and if you try, these ribs are going to end up causing more damage to your insides than you can afford."

"We have to find Buck and Inez," Chris grunted, refusing to admit defeat, but even Nathan's careful handling was sending jolts of pain through him.

Recovering quickly from his own ordeal, JD let his gaze drift to the sunlight pouring in to the landing. The sky he could see through the newly discovered opening prompted him forward to investigate. Cold wind and tiny flakes of snow swept over him the instant he stepped through the threshold, and despite the chill, the crisp air running through his lungs was the shock to the system he needed. The miasma of that strange creature's lingering presence in his mind was banished, and his head was clear.

Beyond the opening was the vast hill plains surrounding the Sutai with its stubble of short burnt grass. In the distance, he saw herds of wild antelopes bounding across the land, oblivious to his gaze. Overhead, the sun shone brightly, a reminder there was a world beyond the oppressive walls of the Sutai's innards. He took another deep breath before looking down and seeing a rough goat track to the ground. Judging by the dried spoor and trails, the natives used it to cross the range of which the Sutai was just one peak.

It was an easier way down than going back through the mountain again.

JD wanted to find Buck and Inez as much as Chris, even more, because of what Buck meant to him in particular, but Chris was hurt, no matter how obstinately he might protest otherwise. However, JD knew they would have a better chance of finding the duo if the rest of the seven were involved in the search. JD was confident if there was a way under the mountain between Vin and Naran, they'd find it because Buck and Inez had disappeared into the bowels of the Sutai.

"What do you see, JD?"

JD heard Nathan when he turned back to the landing and saw the healer helping Chris to button up his clothes because they needed a fire before Nathan could treat him. It was too cold to try otherwise.

"A better way down," JD said, returning to his friends. "We should get down this way. It will be faster and easier on you, Chris."

"I'm fine," Chris grumbled, hating to admit how much pain he was in and, worst yet, having to delay the search for Buck and Inez on his account. "We can keep looking."

"Chris..." Nathan opened his mouth to protest, but it was JD who cut him off.

"No, we can't, Chris," JD said firmly, uncertain where all this courage was coming from. "You're hurt, and you'll slow us down. We need to get back to camp so Nathan can fix you up, and Vin and the others can take over. We're all in this together, it's not all on you. We're....threads in a chord."

Chris blinked, about to argue the point, but there was something enigmatic in JD's face when he uttered those last words. Threads in a chord, he liked the sound of that, and JD was right, no matter how much he refused to admit it. His ribs were broken, not cracked, but broken. He felt it when he landed, and he knew Nathan feared their movement might cause further damage to his internal organs. If he pushed on, he'd cause grievous harm to himself and become an even greater hindrance to their missing friends.

"Okay," Chris conceded defeat. "We get back to camp."

"Hallelujah," Nathan muttered under his breath. "Miracles do happen."

Chris scowled. "Kiss my ass."


"Inez!"

Buck hollered into the swirls of green smoke enveloping them so wholly he could barely see in front of him, let alone find Inez in the oddly scented mist. Panicked at being unable to find her, especially when what was taking place around them seemed hardly normal, Buck took tentative steps forward, his arms outstretched like a blind man trying to feel his way through the dark.

Where was she?

Buck tried not to panic because the sense of loss had overcome him the instant she replaced the amulet against its nook in the statue. How long had the thing been separated from this place, hundreds, possibly thousands of years? Is that why all those other expeditions failed? They lacked the one component they needed to get this far? The missing piece of the statute? What a waste of life, he thought, imagining all those bodies he found and thinking they never stood a chance of getting Udan's blessing.

Yet now that Inez succeeded doing what they could not, he was doubly afraid for her.

His palm pressed against something hard and smooth. It wasn't a wall, he told himself immediately. It was the statue. He could feel the curves and grooves of its ornate design against his skin. With both hands, he navigated around it, still unable to see anything except green smoke. His eyes should have been watering, but the only discomfort he felt was the strain of trying to see past it. The scent reminded him of a visit he once made to an opium den in San Francisco out of curiosity. It didn't take long for Buck to realize that particular vice was not for him, but the green mist around him had the exact compelling grip.

"INEZ!"

He called again, and once more, only silence followed.


Distantly, Inez heard Buck's voice, but she could not answer.

She knew nothing about out of body experiences, and yet she knew she was having one. She felt so far away from herself. She couldn't deny feeling a little afraid she might not be able to return to it. While she knew she had not moved an inch from where she was standing, the place Inez found herself now felt thousand of miles and years away from the Sutai. It was a mind game, she told herself, a mind game.

Is it really, little mother? Or simply a realm you do not understand.

Before Inez was the Great Dragon Udan. No longer resembling a statue, the beast in front of her was alive, with nostrils flaring with green fire and eyes gleaming like emeralds catching the light. She saw its scales, and each time he moved or shifted, they rippled with iridescent beauty. Whiskers swirled around his face like strands of gossamer in the wind. He was beautiful even if he was terrifying.

They were in the same room where she found the statue, but it no longer looked old and forgotten. Instead, it gleamed with splendour. The walls were polished with light flushing the room to bring out the most of the reflected surface. She was bathed in emerald and gold light, standing on a floor of black stone so seamlessly paved it felt as if she were walking on twilight.

"I don't understand anything," Inez admitted. "I only know I need your help. I brought you your missing piece so I could ask for your wisdom."

I know what it is you seek. What you wish is a power onto itself, created by a god even older than Tengri-Ko. Do you really want it unleashed into the world?

"I have no choice," Inez replied, taking that warning seriously after what she had been told the Jewel could do. "I have to find it for my son."

Is your son's life worth the world?

Inez pondered the question and remembered her oath not to sacrifice anyone for Benny, no matter how much it broke her inside. Now she was faced with the question again. Except this time, however, she could answer without sentiment.

"My son's life is my world, but you must trust me that the Jewel is a means to an end. My friends and I cannot draw out those who wished to harm Benny without it. However, we also do not intend to give it to them. The Jewel is a lure, one we won't let them have."

Inez prayed Udan believed her even though she was not lying. She knew that while saving Benny was the expedition's goal, keeping the Jewel out of the Russians' hand was very much in all their minds.

The serpentine scales rippled again, and the beast snorted, this time in resignation.

You have come here for wisdom, and I will not deny you for giving us our heart but do not use the Jewel. A wishing stone may grant you your deepest desire, but such things do not come without cost.

"My friends and I have no wish to use it. We know the dangers ourselves. She thought of what Chris said about the Jewel, why the Erran were in pursuit of it. The idea of resurrecting the dead might seem tempting, but Inez knew she would not do it. If Bernardo had found peace with God, how could Inez rip him away from that by imposing mortality on him again? No, she would not bring him back to her, no matter how much she missed him.

Whether or not the dragon before her could read her thoughts, its massive head reared back before she saw it nod in approval.

Very well then, this is what you seek.

Across the domed ceiling of the room, light danced across the stones in a flurry of movement until they formed the image of a great temple, surrounded by lush green jungle. Like a flicker show, trees swayed with the breeze, and flocks of birds circled the striking monument that was fast being swallowed up by vines and time.

What you seek will be in the House of Bhadravarman, the first great King of the Cham. Find his resting place, and you will find the Jewel.

"But where is the House of Bhadravarman?" Inez asked and then told herself she had to commit Udan's words to memory because she suspected he would not answer her.

You have received my wisdom. It is your choice to make of it as you wish.

"But it could be anywhere!" She insisted, but already she could see the puffs of green smoke from the dragon's flaring nostrils become billowing clouds enveloped him quickly, and Inez suspected if she tried to reach out for him, he would not be there at all. Then, with a burst of finality, the cloud billowed outwards, rushing past her before vanishing completely when it touched the walls of the chamber.

"INEZ!"

Buck's voice became clear then, and she shook her head, trying to dispel the disorientation that swept over her when Udan made his abrupt departure. It was the shock to the system she needed, and when she blinked, she saw the tall pilot closing the distance to her. His worry showed, and despite the situation, Inez felt a surge of affection at his concern.

"Buck," she spoke and realized her voice escaped her in a breathy whisper.

He reached and drew her into a big hug as if he needed to hold her to convince himself she was there. It surprised Inez how comforting his arms felt around her shoulders.

"Are you alright?

"Yes," she nodded, meeting his gaze, struck by the emotions he displayed. "I saw Udan. I saw the dragon."

"You did?" Buck cast a glance at the statue standing in the middle of the room, appearing indifferent to their presence. Where Inez placed the amulet, there was nothing but smooth rock, giving no indication there was ever a piece missing. Buck supposed the legend was true. Replacing the artifact did make the statue indeed whole.

There was no doubt in his mind she had indeed met the great dragon embodied so majestically by the monument before them. With everything that happened to them since entering the Sutai, his ability to accept the fantastic was becoming more fluid by the second.

"I did. It told me where we have to go."

"Where?"

"I'm not sure, but I think what Udan told me might make more sense to Chris and JD. It has something to do with the House of Bhadravarman, the King of the Cham."

Buck frowned, unfamiliar with Bhadravarman or the Cham for that matter. However, like Inez, he was convinced Chris and JD would decipher the clues Inez received from Udan. If so, there was only one thing to do now. Get the hell out of here.

"Come on," he took her hand and surveyed the room, trying to find a way out other than the route they used to get this far. "We have to find the others."

"Do you think they're still alive?"

"Of course they are," he replied without pause, not looking at her as he continued his examination of the place. "Gonna take something tougher than a mountain to take out Chris and the others."

He remained optimistic, not only for her sake but for his. Buck refused to believe Chris, JD and Nathan were anything but perfectly fine.

Sensing his fierce need to believe in his friends' welfare, Inez did not argue. "How?"

Buck didn't know but decided if they couldn't go forward, they would go back. He led her to the chamber he had just escaped, even though at last sight, it was rapidly filling up with debris and would have buried him alive if the door had not opened suddenly. Entering the threshold, his suspicion was well met since the avalanche resulted in an enormous mound of snow, rock and debris that nearly reached the roof of the chamber. Still, the daylight pouring through the broken ceiling did give him an idea.

When the going got tough, the tough went up.


"Pard, I ain't listening to you."

Vin Tanner said sometime later, packing his gear and getting ready to move out. With him, Ezra, Josiah and JD were doing the same. When Chris, Nathan and JD hobbled back to camp looking like hell, relating how the mountain turned on them causing the loss of Buck and Inez from their party, there was only one thing to do in Vin's opinion. Go find them.

Naturally, Chris insisted on going with them, which wasn't happening as far as Vin was concerned.

The seven's leader was in considerable pain, and Vin, who could read him better than most, knew just how much. Besides, both Nathan and Alex had chucked at the suggestion of Chris joining the search party. Vin had been around both healers long enough to know it was never wise to get on their ornery side when it came to the welfare of a patient.

"I'll be fine!" Chris bit back petulantly, even as Alex examined his ribs, allowing Nathan to catch his breath. Helping Chris down the mountain in his condition had been no easy thing, and while Nathan wasn't hurt, he was exhausted.

"Sure you are," Alex muttered under her breath as she winced at the terrible discolouration on his skin and wondered how he was going to ride back to civilization with the injury. "You're not going anywhere until we take care of this. You'll end up with internal injuries I won't be able to treat here if you get any worse."

Chris opened his mouth to argue, but this time, Ezra interjected, seeing even Vin's considerable patience reaching the end of its tether. "Mr Larabee, while your presence will always be missed on any expedition, your current condition does make you something of a hindrance if Mr Jackson's exhaustion is any indication."

Glancing at Nathan, Chris bristled with annoyance because Ezra was right. It had been an arduous trek back, especially on Nathan, who helped him most of the way.

"Alright, alright," he conceded defeat. "Just be careful."

"Sure ma," Vin tossed him a grin over his shoulder and received dual barrels of Chris's formidable glare.

"I will stay here," Naran, who still refused to enter the mountain, spoke up. "I will keep watch."

"Much appreciated," Josiah tipped his hat at the guide, understanding his reluctance to enter the Sutai, even more so now that Naran learned what took place there and the fate of his ancestors.

Vin was about to speak when something made him go still. Eyes that were only moments ago, full of mischief, became still and hard, and his reaction rippled through the group, producing similar tension. His hand reached instinctively for his gun, slow and deliberate as his gaze fixed on the entrance to their campsite.

"What is it?"

"Someone's coming," Vin did not look at Chris.

Very soon, they all heard the slow trudging of footsteps approaching the entrance to the fissure, along with laboured breathing. When the shapes moved into view, they were confronted with two very familiar faces.

"Buck!" JD burst out, and the youth's exclamation of joy was followed by similar sighs of relief and a chorus of voices bursting with similar sentiments.

"So," Buck grinned as he and Inez joined the group. "You miss us?"

Chapter Twenty:
Escape

It was time to escape.

Of this, Benny Recillos was utterly convinced as his imprisonment of days stretched into weeks. His captors, the men with the strange accents Benny now knew to be Russian, were growing increasingly impatient by theIR extended role as his guardians. So far, they were not cruel to him, but the longer he remained in their company, the more likely their frustrations would mount. After all, Benny was not a little boy to them. He was just something to be used until he was no longer needed. When the time came, he did not doubt they would dispose of him the way one would wring the neck of a stray cat.

When he first came up with his escape plan, Benny held off thinking his mama might suffer because of it. He had no idea why he was abducted, and his captors made no effort to explain. The man in charge, Oblonsky, would only reveal that until his mother did as they asked, he would remain their prisoner. Benny did not know what they wanted with his mama, but if they needed to kidnap him to make her do it, then it had to be really bad, right?

What if his mama got killed doing whatever they wanted?

The thought filled him with such paralyzing terror, Benny could only bury his head in his pillow and will it away, the way he saw Mr Chris do when people spoke about his wife and son. When the fear passed, he did what Mr Ezra always said, maintain a poker face and never give away your hand. If he was going to escape this room and free his mother from whatever task they demanded of her, Benny would have to do just that.

To prove he wasn't planning thoughts of escape, Benny had asked the intimidating Oblonsky, who stood over him like a dark mountain, for a few things because he was bored trapped in the room. The lead Russian appreciated keeping a child locked in a room for an extended period would help no one's sanity and agreed to his request to keep him occupied. Benny's cell was now filled with completed colouring books, erector set models and balsa wood planes courtesy of Meglows. They even bought him funny books and toy cars.

Convinced they believed him, Benny observed the hotel he was staying, and though it was not terribly busy, he did notice one thing - aside from himself and his captors, all the other guests were just like Mr Nathan. Black. At first, Benny thought nothing of it, but the more and more he paid attention, the more he realized it to be true. It was not a bad thing, because Benny thought Mr Nathan to be kind and friendly, but he did know that people like Nathan, what he heard some people say coloured, weren't always welcomed.

This did not surprise Benny, he was Mexican, and Benny heard the nasty words sometimes said to him and mama, but it was nothing like the hate aimed at coloureds.

Observation aside, Benny knew this would affect his plans little. He had to escape, but he would not run into the desert like a fool. Benny intended to be smart about this. The desert was dangerous unless he could sneak into a car, and Benny suspected that would be the first place Mr Oblonsky would look when he escaped. No, he had to be clever and find a place to hide they would not expect.

In any case, tonight was the night.

Still managing to keep the razor hidden, he had saved some foods, mostly fruit and candy, water stored in an old milk bottle hiding it under his bed because when he found his hiding place, he would stay there for as long as he could. Benny had no intention of being forced out of it in searching for food and water. Who knows, maybe it would make Mr Oblonsky think he needed the supplies for a desert crossing.

Benny had tested the windows at night, trying to decide which was the best for his escape and discovered the bathroom window was the most suitable. After he turned the lights out to sleep, Benny arranged the pillows under the covers so they would think he was still in bed if they checked up and proceeded to the small bathroom. Locking the door behind him, he went to work on the plaster around the pane of glass in the small window above the bathtub wall.

The whole job took him nearly an hour, and Benny hissed in pain when he sustained a nick or two as he scraped free the plaster holding the glass in place. He wiped the blood on his clothes and bit his lip to stifle the pain that resulted from it. Finally, he was left with flakes of plaster and dust along the window sill and in the bathtub below. Placing his hands gently against the glass, Benny shifted it slightly and uttered a soft sigh of relief when it moved. With a little more manipulation with the help of the small tools provided by the balsa wood kits, he lifted the glass pane away from the window and set it down.

The window emptied into the darkness of the night. In the daylight, it was just an empty strip of threadbare grass barely staying alive against the desert heat. Facing the desert, Benny knew that no one would see him if he climbed out in this way. Benny put the pane on the floor, leaning it against the wall before he went to switch off the bathroom light. Shrouded in the twilight, he collected his stores gathered in a pillowcase before heading back to the window.

It was a tight squeeze through the gap, but seconds later, he landed on the soft grass, undiscovered.

He pressed his back against the wall and strained to hear every sound. The lights of the room occupied by his captors shone through the window because one of them was always awake to check on him. For the past three nights, Benny forced himself to stay awake to see how often they came to see if he was in his bed. They never entered, just creaking the door wide enough to see him lying under the covers. Once every two hours and tonight, Benny began his escape after their last check.

If his luck held, when they looked in on him, they would see the pillows under his covers and assume he was fast asleep.

When he was convinced no one was coming, Benny started to move, slinging his pillowcase over his shoulder like he was one of the Little Rascals, Benny started following the outside walls of the hotel until Benny got someplace he could hide.


The guitar wasn't his instrument, but it was easier to play in a lonely hotel room than a piano.

When he was on the road, stuck in a small room with nowhere to go until sunrise, learning to play the guitar alleviated his boredom. He'd cradle the Martin he'd picked up in that pawnshop in St. Louis and start to strum, soothed by the acoustics bouncing off the walls. It was nowhere as fulfilling as the sensation of ivory under his fingertips, but it was enough.

They say you couldn't teach an old dog new tricks, but Tennessee Eban intended to prove that this dog was still sharp.

After a little bit of instruction from none other than Charley Patton himself, Tennessee gained enough understanding to learn the rest. So that was why he was sitting by the open window of his room at the Desert Rose Hotel, trying to master the guitar by coaxing his fingers to play a tune as deftly as he would on a piano. The song was one of Charley's, the Spoonful Blues, and on a hot, dry night, where the wind sounded like Charley's own gravelly drawl, it seemed perfect.

In all a spoon', 'bout that spoon'

The women goin' crazy, every day in their life 'bout a...

It's all I want, in this creation is a...

I go home (wanna fight) 'bout a...

Doctor's dyin' (way in Hot Springs!) just 'bout a...

These women goin' crazy every day in their life 'bout a...

He didn't have Charley's voice, but since no one was pounding on the walls telling him to shut up, Tennessee figured he'd done some justice to the song. Not that there were too many people to complain. Folks who stopped here were on their way to somewhere else or plain didn't want to be found. Many coloured folks stayed at the Rose because it was well away from town, hidden away from white men who might take exception to their presence, even if they were just passing through.

Tennessee's parents were born slaves in Georgia, so he knew how the world worked and was smart enough to navigate it without finding himself hung from a tree. He arrived this evening, too tired to keep driving any further. His granddaughter, who lived in Albuquerque, worked at the Morgan Nite Club, and Tennessee planned on seeing her the following day. Lately, he'd questioned his limited presence in her life and this trip out west was a chance to change that.

Lord knows he'd been absent enough when she was a child. Her father, Tennessee's boy Samuel, died in the Great War, and Yahano, Samuel's wife, was Navajo. After that dreaded telegram had come, she and Rain returned to her people on the reservation. Tennessee, who was mainly on the road then, couldn't give her a reason not to. Still, he sent her money when he could and stopped whenever he was in the area and remained on the periphery of Rain's Life.

Now he was past seventy years old and starting to wonder whether it was time he paid a more significant part, before the end that is.

He was pondering these things, singing softly to himself, when he saw something rustling in the bushes further along the outside wall. Leaves shuddered under the moonlight, making Tennessee stop playing immediately. Instead, he leaned forward, squinting. An animal, perhaps? Racoons, squirrels and possums were native to the area. Alarm did not register in Tennessee's brain when he observed the movement through the bushes. In truth, he was mostly curious.

Tink-tink-tink.

Glass. Tennessee thought as the sound reached his ears. Whatever was crawling through the bushes was carrying glass. It wasn't a what he realized, but a who.

"Who's out there?"

The shuddering froze immediately, confirming he wasn't dealing with wildlife but someone who was moving stealthily across the ground, someone small. The bushes wouldn't hide an adult, even a petite one. That left him with only one conclusion. A child? There was a child out here in the dark.

"Come on now," Tennessee spoke up gently. "I know you're out there. MIght as well save us both some time before I call room service and get someone down here."

He heard more shifting in the shadows as if the mysterious lurker was trying to make up their mind what to do. After a moment, the slight figure stepped out of the bushes, covered in scratches and dirt, looking up at Tennessee with frightened eyes.

"What are you doing out there?" Tennessee asked incredulously of the poor child who could be no more than seven.

Benny stared at the old man, uncertain if his escape plans had been dashed by this discovery, but took a gamble nonetheless.

"Help me."


The trek back to Altai City was arduous, with Chris suffering the worst of it.

Both Alex and Nathan agreed that Chris hadn't just cracked a few ribs. He'd broken them. If those breaks were numerous enough, a severe injury could become a fatal one if he attempted to get into the saddle. There was no way to know for sure until they returned to civilization and a hospital. It was a risk Vin was unprepared to let Chris take no matter how much the leader of the seven complained.

Vin fashioned a Navajo travois, and though Chris balked at being pulled back to the city like luggage, Vin's refusal to let him do anything else finally convinced him to accept his fate. It took them a little longer to get back to Altai from the Sutai, but it was worth it when Chris's condition did not worsen. Once back at the Millie, there was little for him to do but rest up and let his bones knit.

In the meantime, JD got to work, researching the clue Inez received from Udan during her encounter with the great dragon in the mountain. Until they discovered its meaning, they possessed no other clue to finding the Jewel, and everyone was feeling the weight of time pressing against them. How long would it take before the Russians' impatience at their lack of progress resulted in Benny being harmed?

With Chris's help, JD poured over the volumes of texts and resource materials brought on board the Millie for the expedition. Two days after they returned to Altai, JD finally decided he had an answer on where they would go next.

"Okay, JD," Chris gestured at the younger man who was standing at the entrance to the cockpit of the Millie where he could address everyone. "Let's hear it."

JD nodded at the leader of the seven, presently occupying Josiah's favourite hammock as per doctor's orders, while everyone else was in their customary seats. After two days of waiting for his research to yield some results, the scholar could see the anticipation on the faces of those present. Of course, it was Inez who gave him the most concern. With Benny's life in the balance, she just looked plain worried.

"Okay," he slipped on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses. Glancing at his notes once, he lifted his chin to regard his friends. "According to my research, I think this House of Bhadravarman refers to Bhadravarman I, ruler of the Champa and part of the Pallavan dynasty. He ruled from 380 and 413 AD and was called the Great King of Law Bhadravarman."

"Clearly a most modest gentleman then," Ezra couldn't help remark after hearing that ostentatious title.

Chuckles rippled throughout the long aisle before Chris shot Ezra a look to hold back the commentary until JD finished. "Keep going, JD."

"Oh yeah," JD noted and resumed speaking. "He ruled the Cham Kingdom during this period in the first century and expanded their borders significantly by invading his neighbours. He had a reputation for building shrines and temples on the annexed territory. The Champa, as they were called, were pretty successful as a civilization. They lasted until the 1700s when they were absorbed by the other cultures in the region."

"So where are these Champa, or were?" Vin corrected himself when he remembered JD's explanation.

"Their kingdom was based in central Annam."

"Annam?" Buck returned immediately, recognizing the name and then recalling something else about it. Though he did not frequent aviator bars often, he did drop in for a drink now and then with his fellow pilots at the local dive near the airport. They always had good stories to tell and, on occasion, shared something worth remembering. "I don't think it's called that anymore, JD. I think they call it Viet Nam."

"So, where is it?" Inez stared at him, unfamiliar with either country. Her nerves were becoming more fraught the longer this expedition took. While everyone present was just as determined to retrieve Benny, Inez's frustration mounted because every new clue seemed to take her farther away from her son.

"South-east Asia," Buck said helpfully.

"It's still a big country, with a lot of jungle," Josiah remarked, familiar enough with the region to know that for the most part, South East Asia was vast tracts of equatorial rainforests and heat, not unlike those found in South America. "Any idea where?"

Like Buck, Josiah could see Inez's mounting frustration at the pace of this expedition. Every second they spent searching for the next clue was another second Benny remained in the company of men who might harm him. For a mother, it had to be maddening.

"I think so," JD reached for a map and tried to spread it out before him so everyone could see. A red circle marked a spot in between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator. "The Cham Kingdom was in central Annam...I mean Viet Nam. After Bhadravarman conquered all the lands he was going to, he shifted the capital to a new location and built a great temple in it. If the dragon is right and the Jewel is there, I'd bet that's where it is."

"And this new location?" Ezra asked, already flinching from Josiah's description of jungle, imagining mosquitoes, suffocating humidity and monsoonal rains. For once, why couldn't their escapades take them to someplace civilized, like Venice or Tahiti.

"Somewhere in the Quảng Nam province. He called it Indrapura."

"You sure, JD?" Vin asked, studying the map being held for them to see and coming to the conclusion they were in for another long trip.

"Yeah," JD glanced at Chris, who nodded in agreement with his findings. Chris had studied the same materials as he did, and if the older man had reached a different conclusion, he would have voiced it. "I managed to contact the French Embassy thanks to Ezra," he glanced at the gambler in acknowledgement. "They've confirmed there are the ruins of an ancient temple in Quảng Nam. It's in bad shape and doesn't even amount as a tourist spot, but it's there."

"I do not think the dragon lied to me," Inez stated with conviction. "If that is the House of Bhadravarman, then that is where we must go."

No one could disagree with her.


Even by his standards, Krestos found Altai City primitive.

He came from a culture with roots deep in the earliest days of civilization, where his ancestors built great monuments that stood today and would be remembered long after he turned to dust. From his perch on the walkway circling the single air control tower at the airport, he wondered how these Mongols could squander away their proud legacy with so very little to show for it. Their great leader, Genghis Khan, had swept across Asia and Europe with a ferocity unparalleled throughout history, and yet they built nothing to mark his grand past.

Calling Altai a city was being generous. It was a town occupied with nomadic tribes looking for a marketplace to trade and farmers who stunk of dung and horses. He couldn't wait to leave this country for good and wished their quarry would hurry up and get moving. The Amira's suggestion to watch the enemy instead of engaging them had borne fruit. So far, Chris Larabee and his men had no idea the Erran were watching them.

"Do you think this will work Amira," Krestos stood against the rail, watching the hangar in the distance. The Fokker had yet to depart, but judging by the activity of its passengers, Kristos did not suspect it would be long before the Darlin' Millie left this country for good. "Do you think they can lead us to the Jewel?"

"Yes, if we are patient," Aisha answered. "The Russians were wise to let Larabee find their prize instead of trying to locate it themselves. They are not experts in such matters and would most likely ensure the loss of the Jewel by their clumsy attempts to try. My brother exercised the same wisdom when he allowed Larabee to find the Tablet."

"But we failed to keep it," Krestos frowned, unable to forget the terrible moment when the tide had turned against them ending the dreams of four millennia in a single gunshot.

"We did not know the forces rallied against us at that point," Aisha spoke, trying not to let the emotion creep into her voice because, like Krestos, her nightmares were filled with Dash's murder. With the lofty height whipping her hair against her face and her flowing clothes billowing around her like a swirl of colour, she seemed preternatural. "This time, it will be different. We will watch, and we will wait. When they are giddy from their victory, and their guard is lowered, we will take the Jewel from them."

"And then what?"

"And then," she turned to him with eyes like pools of obsidian. "Then we will make those infidels suffer and the world with them."

Chapter Twenty-One:
Search

Alexandra Styles blinked as her senses tried to take in the almost unreal beauty of the landscape surrounding the Willy's jeep rumbling along the dirt track of rich, red earth. After the harsh terrain of Mongolia, Viet Nam was more than just a different country. It felt like an entirely new world.

They were travelling through the verdant valleys of Quảng Nam province after three days of travel to reach the southeast Asian country, one of three nations its French masters called French Indochina. They landed at Fai-Fo, the largest city in the province and the best place to get supplied for their journey to Indrapura. Since its establishment in the 10th century by Cham kings, the city facing the South China Sea was a thriving commercial port. A network of estuaries linked to freshwater rivers flowing inland brought traders from all over the region and beyond.

Aside from its commercial opportunities, the city remained perfectly preserved from its 10th-century origins. Japanese styled bridges connected its residents across its numerous waterways, and those who did not feel the need to walk along the paved boulevards could make the journey on sampans, a flat bottomed boat steered by oars. At dusk, the city lights turned the pagodas and temples into something magical, and Alex remembered fondly the walk she and Vin took along one of the courtyards.

In modern times, tourism had become a big part of Fai-Fo's identity, allowing the Millie to land at its somewhat modern airport. Although Chris possessed no academic credentials, he convinced the French authorities their journey to Viet Nam was purely scientific. The French did not seem concerned by the group of Americans, although they did issue a warning about straying outside the city. In recent years, there were incidents of political insurgency the authorities were not entirely convinced was quashed.

Now, as she sat in the backseat of the jeep, watching the sway of palm trees framing fields of tall green grass and the emerald mountains beyond, she was lost in a different kind of beauty. Being out here, she imagined this was how the world must have looked when the first humans emerged from the jungle, leaving behind their nomadic existence to begin the business of civilization. So far, there were no signs of the rebels they were warned against, although Alex thought how easy it was to hide in this thick jungle.

Even as she soaked in the splendour of the landscape, the remainder of this country's troubles surfaced the darker thoughts in her mind. Although she spoke nothing of it to Vin because he wouldn't understand, and to some degree, neither did she. Alex had her own mission to fulfil in joining them for this hunt. Unlike Mary, who enjoyed embarking on these adventures with the seven, Alex knew her limitations and how much of a hindrance she could be if things got dangerous. Despite her confidence, Alex had no intention of placing Vin in danger because she couldn't handle herself.

When he insisted she come with them on the hunt for the Jewel, Alex understood Vin's reasoning. He didn't want her alone if the Russians decided she could be used to blackmail them too. As much as she hated to admit it, she would be in no position to stop them if they tried to abduct her. So for that reason, she agreed and boarded the Millie. But it was different now.

It changed the moment the Children of Erran entered the picture.

When the seven hunted the Tablet of Destiny, Alex was still reeling from her father's secrecy about the artifact for so many years. Stalked by the Erran before being murdered, William and his friends save one were tortured for their cryptices. After the Tablet's destruction and her escape from becoming Tiamat's vessel, Alex had time to process the part the Erran played in her life.

When Alex saw Aisha in England, it became so clear what she needed to do, and while Inez was on a quest for her son, Alex's goals for this expedition were nowhere as lofty.

One way or another, the line of the Sassanid kings would end, and with it, the Erran. Alex intended to see it happen one way or another.

"A penny for your thoughts, Alexandra?"

Alex blinked out of her reverie and glanced sideways at Ezra, who was staring at her intently. Josiah was behind the wheel of one of the two jeeps Ezra managed to 'procure' them in Fai-Fo, following Chris who drove the other. Vin was always at Chris's side, which Alex did not mind because something inside her told Alex Vin always belonged to Chris first.

Next to Josiah in the front seat was Nathan while Alex shared the back seat with the gambler. She hadn't said much during their trip, and Ezra, who could never stop talking, probably noticed.

"A penny, I didn't think you worked that cheap?" She eyed him with a bit of a smile. He was wearing khaki casual wear for the outdoors, complete with a pith helmet, and she resisted the urge to call him 'Doctor Livingstone'.

"In this crowd, I tend to lower my standards," he joked, garnering a look from Nathan before the healer went back to the map he was reading. "However, you are deflecting."

"I'm not deflecting," Alex bit back, hating how defensive she sounded because Ezra was astute enough to notice it. "I'm thinking of my father."

Ezra nodded in understanding. "With the Erran making an unexpected return to the scene, I cannot fault you for that."

"I think about him all the time, Ezra," Alex continued. "He was such a big part of my life that it's taken Vin and all of you to fill the hole he left behind, and even now, I still feel incomplete."

"This may surprise you, my dear, but I feel the same way about my mother."

"Your mother? You never talk about her. I mean not much. I didn't think you were that close."

"On the contrary," he stared past her into the greenery beyond. "In my formative years, we were seldom away from each other's company. My mother played a large part in who I am now. I owe her a great deal."

"When was the last time you saw her?"

Ezra had to think. "Not for some years, but we keep in touch through the telephone and letters. It takes the place of being actively involved in each other's lives."

"It was the same for me," Alex shrugged. "My mother died when I was a child, so my father very much in my life. He taught me everything I know about medicine, even before I went away to college. If I hadn't met all of you after his death, I don't know how I would have coped."

"I believe I speak for all of us when I say your value to our lives is just as precious, not just to Mr Tanner but to me personally. Your friendship is something I greatly cherish."

"Thank you, Ezra," Alex leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "The feeling is mutual."

"Then what is troubling you?" He probed again, sensing there was more to her melancholy than simply missing her father.

Alex drew in a deep breath, remembering what he said about friendship and realizing counsel was what she might need right now. "I want the entire line of Sassanid kings wiped off the face of the planet. They took my father from me, and I can't rest until I have my pound of flesh for that. I know I'm supposed to forgive, but some things are beyond forgiveness. I want Aisha dead."

"Alexandra, revenge is hardly an answer...."

"It's not just revenge," Alex countered. "She will never stop trying to resurrect her brother or her family's legacy. Even if Aisha fails in getting her hands on the Jewel, it will be something else the next time. Whatever artifact or magic, if that's what you call it, is out there; she'll never stop trying to get her hands on it. As long as there is a chance to fulfil the Errans' destiny, she'll keep trying. The Erran still need someone to host Tiamat's spirit. If it's not me, it could be Julia or Mary."

The mention of Julia made Ezra's spine stiffen. At this time, Erran's followers did not know his lover Julia Pemberton was Donald Avery's child. Julia's mother kept her safe by keeping her identity anonymous. Eleanor Pemberton's deception was so complete the Erran never suspected Julia was watching them in secret. How would they react if they knew of her existence? Worse yet, what would they do if they learned it was Julia who fired the shot that killed Adashir Shah.

"Think about it," Alex's voice caught his attention again. "What if they find a way to carry out their ritual to resurrect Tiamat years from now? It may not be the three of us they come after, but our children. Our bloodline is just as connected to the ritual to resurrect Tiamat as the Tablet itself. It can't be substituted. I'm not going through what my father did, worrying whether my children may be in danger from these fanatics."

"I'm certain it will not come to that," Ezra countered, but even as he said the words, he thought about Julia. While their relationship was only just beginning, he did entertain vague notions of a future with the mysterious spy. If Alex was correct, then the Erran might turn their attention to his progeny to fulfil their plans of uncreation.

Unsettled, he stared at Alex again and was slightly startled by the destructive fire of rage in her eyes that could rival Tiamat herself.


The sharp knock on the door made Tennessee Eban jump.

He stared at it for a moment, fortifying his composure and reminding himself, this wasn't the first time he received an unexpected knock on the door. After all, he was a black musician whose career took him through the deep South and while he was wise enough to stay out of trouble, that didn't mean trouble didn't come knocking either.

Like it did now.

It was morning, and as he stood up from the chair, he glanced at the small trunk at the base of his bed, obscured by an old coat and his guitar, Tennessee tightened the sash around his midriff and approached the source of the harsh rapping against the wood before twisting the doorknob open.

Standing at the doorway was the tallest white man he'd ever seen and the kind of specimen no coloured man his age wished to face alone, even in broad daylight. Brutish and sphinx-like in stature, the man stared at him through cold blue eyes and looked like someone to fear, especially with his close-cropped hair and nondescript grey suit.

"It's mighty early to be waking up an old man," Tennessee drawled lazily, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "What can I do for you, Sir?"

"We are sorry to bother you," the man's tone was crisp, but Tennessee detected no signs of the familiar hatred. Then again, his thick accent told the old musician this fella wasn't from these parts. "We are looking for a young boy we are caring for while his mother is away, but he has run away."

"Well, you know children," Tennessee produced an understanding nod. "Little ones can't listen to reason when their mamas ain't around. Boys especially can be rash. Lord knows my Sam was a handful at his age."

"I'm sure," the stranger agreed. The two men standing behind him, who looked just as dangerous in their perfectly ordinary dress, showed no expression but continued to stare at Tennessee with hard eyes. "I take it you have not seen him?"

"No, I'm afraid not. I've been on the road for most of yesterday, so I was dog tired when I got here. I drove from St Louis to see my kin, but after 15 hours, the old truck got mighty uncomfortable. Fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed and saw no one until I heard you knocking on the door."

It was a lie, of course. Tennessee had watched them surreptitiously through the crack between the curtains hanging on his windows, scouring the hotel grounds in search of the boy all morning. No doubt they were reduced to checking rooms now, and there was just enough authority in their dress, not to mention pure menace in their manner to let the other guests in the hotel permit them access.

"I see," Oblonsky answered, debating whether or not searching this old man's room was necessary. The Russian suspected if given the opportunity, he would continue to prattle incessantly the way old men did when they found an audience. As of yet, he had yet to report to Fenulev the boy was gone, and so far, it didn't seem as if Bernardo's offspring had chosen to hide in the hotel, which led him to an unhappy conclusion.

If the child took his chances in the desert surrounding this out of the way hotel, then Oblonsky and his men would have to continue their search there. Civilization was almost a day away on foot for an adult. Oblonsky couldn't imagine what it would be like for a child to make such an attempt, but then again, Bernardo Recillos's son had proved to be quite resourceful.

Once they discovered his absence, it surprised Oblonsky the ingenuity, not to mention the patience the boy employed in making his escape. Still, Benny was a child, and if he were to encounter some mishap in the desert, their leverage over Larabee would be ended, which would not please Fenulev in the slightest.

"You can come in and have a look if you like," Tennessee stepped away from the door, parting it slightly to let the trio enter. "As I said, I was dog tired when I got in here. He might have snuck in without me knowing and hidden someplace."

"If you don't mind," Oblonsky, who prided himself in being thorough, would not waste the opportunity presenting itself. Leading the way, he entered the room and saw the unmade bed, the clothes draped along the back of one chair and the half-opened door to the bathroom. It was undoubtedly one of the cheaper rooms in the motel, not unlike the ones he and his men occupied during their stay at the Desert Rose.

"So, where are you boys from?" Tennessee asked, trailing behind them as they surveyed the room, trying to imagine where a small boy might hide. "I'm guessing by your accents; you're from Europe."

"You've been there?" Oblonsky glanced over his shoulder at the bathroom and stepped inside to examine the facilities. The tiled room revealed the water-stained ceramic toilet, bathtub and sink. A small window hung over the bathtub, too high for a child to reach.

"No, but I met a few Germans in St Louis..."

"We are not Germans." One of his men, Petrov, bit back sharply.

"I'm sorry, I was thinking Polish or something..."

"We are Soviet." Petrov stated with unmistakable pride.

"Comrade Petrov," Oblonsky gave his subordinate a warning glare. "I am sure no offence was intended."

While they had little to fear from this old American, there was no reason to arouse any suspicion either. They had selected the Desert Rose because of its remote location. Only later did they realize this establishment was one of the few who welcomed patronage by African Americans. It also explained why the occupants of the rooms they searched offered little protest when they made the request.

To Oblonsky, this cemented his view of American hypocrisy.

In the so-called 'Land of the Free', these people, brought through no will of their own, were considered outcasts, just like the moujiks or peasants that became the backbone of the great Soviet struggle. He wondered why these Negroes did not do the same, rise against their oppressors or leave this land altogether. Then again, just like the peasant stock from which Oblonsky had come, they too had been beaten into submission until Lenin awakened them.

He wondered if such a day would come for these people.

Meanwhile, Petrov continued searching the rest of the room and sighted almost immediately the trunk.

"What is in here?"

"Just everything I own I ain't prepared to leave in my truck outside," Tennessee stated, utterly unperturbed by the inquiry.

"Open it."

"Sure thing," Tennessee replied stepping forward. Without hesitation, he removed the objects piled on top of the old, weathered chest.

He started to bend, groaning a little when he reached for the latch, having removed his guitar and coat from the top when suddenly Oblonsky stopped him.

"Comrade, that will not be necessary."

There was a small lock on the latch, even though the key was still in the slot. There was no way the child could have slipped inside and locked it again. With an inward groan, the Russian realized the Benny had indeed escaped into the desert, which meant they had little time to waste. If he got too deep into the wilderness, the heat would kill him before they ever found him. While Oblonsky had no particular affection for their prisoner, Bernardo's son was valuable to their current goals.

"You sure?" Tennessee insisted. "I mean, I don't think he's in there, but you never know?"

"I'm sure he is not," Oblonsky gestured to his men, his readiness to leave. "We will continue our search. I'm sure we'll find him soon enough and return him to his mother."

"I hope so," the old musician nodded, following the three men as they made for the door. "Ain't right for a child to go astray. This is a big country and plenty of ways for a young'un to come to a bad end."

In a matter of seconds, the door closed again. Once their footsteps vanished down the hallway, Tennessee uttered a deep breath and turned back to the trunk.

He hoped he didn't regret not putting air holes in it.


A short time later, after Tennessee was sure the Russians would not be back, he faced his guest seated on the trunk munching on a sandwich. While the older man was grateful he hadn't been forced to open it, in truth Benny was so small, the clothes and books piled over him would have kept him hidden anyway. Nevertheless, Tennessee couldn't ignore the relief he felt at it not coming to that.

When little Benny turned up at his window the night before begging for help, Tennessee remembered what it felt like to be desperate and in need of health. Back in the South as a child, he and his parents had fled the hatred of those who could never see them as anything more than slaves, with few lifting a finger to help. Even after they settled in Nebraska, his parents were always cautious and taught him to be the same. Still, he never forgot what it was like to be afraid and alone, and this child's fear reached him enough to throw caution to the winds to help.

Besides, it was the right thing to do.

After Benny explained the situation, Tennessee had been tempted to take the boy and run. Still, it worried the musician his departure so soon after arriving might expose him to Benny's abductors. It seemed a better idea to stay behind, ] convince the kidnappers he had nothing to do with the child's flight and then leave when they weren't looking. He managed to remain alive for seven decades taking such precautions. It had yet to fail him.

"So what's going to happen now?" Benny lowered his sandwich to look at his saviour.

"Now we gotta get you out of here," Tenessee said, standing up from the bed and heading for his travelling clothes hanging off the chair. "You're gonna have to take another ride in my trunk until we get to the truck."

"Can you take me home?" Benny stared at him with hopeful eyes.

"No," he shook his head and saw Benny's disappointment. "It will be the first place they'd look once they figured out you ain't lost in the desert. Best we go somewhere else, and I send someone to fetch your people."

"Where?"

"We'll take a trip to town," Tennessee paused long enough to ruffle Benny's hair. "I think it's time I caught up with my granddaughter Rain."

Chapter Twenty-Two:
Jungle

Swallowed.

It was the first word coming to mind when Chris Larabee stared at the wall of trees in front of them.

The first time he stepped into the Amazon jungle, Chris understood the fear of the Conquistadors searching for El Dorado after becoming hopelessly lost. Most had died for their trouble, and the few who did emerge often wished they had. While he and his team had no dreams of gold in mind, there was no avoiding the similarities between their expedition and the Conquistadors' doomed quest.

The jungles surrounding Indrapura were half a world away from the Amazon but shared the same characteristics. While he was no botanist, just from standing beyond the treeline, he could identify the various species of native flora they would have to navigate to reach the ruined city. None of the group seemed eager to continue their trek once they reached the end of the dirt path serving as a roadway. Instead, they lingered around the jeeps, needing to brace themselves for the journey they needed to make.

Chris couldn't blame his friends for their hesitation. The jungle was more than dense. It was consuming.

Tall, deciduous trees stood at least a hundred and fifty feet high, with branches resembling open umbrellas. The giants with their leafy branches intersected each other, straining the sunlight through a thick canopy keeping the bush cool and dim. Ropey vines dangled off thick branches, while green moss claimed the bark of living and dead trees. At the foot of each of the hardwoods were thick buttress roots with vines thicker than rope. Like children clinging to their mother in comfort, the other species in attendance, man-sized banana and palm trees gathered beneath the giants.

The scent of rich, loamy soil wafted through the air, carried on the swirls of fog drifting languidly throughout the rainforest, offering them a further cautionary warning about entering the place. Beads of sweat rolled down Chris's skin from the thick, strangulating humidity of the tropical climate. Christ, he wished it would rain. At least the shower would save them from this insufferable heat.

"I suppose you would not consider letting me wait in the car," Ezra Standish asked after the party of relic hunters and their familiars climbed out of the jeeps..

Chris couldn't blame Ezra for his reluctance. It was not terrain he would like to cross himself, but in the heart of that jungle was the city of Indrapura and the Jewel. To save Benny, they would have to enter its ominous surroundings and find the ancient ruins, forgotten by time and its own people. Taking the jeeps in was impossible, not with the mud and the thick ground cover concealing the treacherous root system. If they were lucky, Vin might be able to find a trail through this vegetation to take on foot, but anything else was a fool's errand.

He felt some comfort knowing that Vin could find them a path through even in this terrain, if nothing else.

Still, Ezra was right, not every one of them had to enter the bush, and Chris couldn't imagine Alex would be up for such a crossing. The woman was resourceful but judging by her less than enthusiastic expression, she didn't look eager to enter the forest. Besides, some of them ought to remain behind just in case of trouble.

"Alright, Ezra, you can stay behind. Josiah, you and Nathan too. We need someone to keep an eye on the jeeps in case anyone else shows up."

"The Erran?" Vin shot him a look. The sharpshooter was going over their equipment, extracting a long-bladed machete from his pack and examining it when Chris's words drew his attention.

"They're like a bad penny," Buck grumbled. "They always show up when you think you've lost them."

"You think they'll find us here?" JD threw in dubiously, glancing up from the notebook he was thumbing through.

"If nothing else, the Erran have proved they are quite persistent. Mr Larabee is quite right to be concerned, and not for a second do I believe they have given up their pursuit. Even if it serves my purposes to remain behind, it is a wise precaution."

"Chris, you gonna be alright in there?" Nathan eyed with concern, not forgetting Chris's injury in Mongolia. "You're still mending."

"He ain't gonna be taking no stupid risks," Vin stated, returning to examining the woods ahead without giving the two men a second glance. "I'll see to it."

"Thanks, mom," Chris frowned and then turned to Alex. "Alex, I think you should stay behind."

This did draw Vin's attention, especially when remaining behind meant she could run into the Erran without his protection. "Chris, I don't think..."

"I'll be fine."

Her answer was so final, it surprised them both. For the first time, Chris noticed something in her eyes that was just as determined as Inez's desire to rescue her son but far more menacing.

"Are you sure?" Vin asked, and though they said nothing, Chris caught the look revealing something was wrong as well.

Perhaps realizing her response had drawn concern, Alex broke into a shrug. "I'll hold you up if I go, you know that. If you're going to get through that," she gestured to the jungle, "you'll have to move fast. I'll be fine, Vin."

Somehow, Vin didn't think so, and neither did Chris.


Two hours into the jungle, Vin was no longer concerned about Alex.

Something else caught his attention and maintained its hold the deeper they went into the dense bush. It wasn't immediately apparent when they first stepped beneath the evergreen canopy. Despite the dim light filtering through the leaves, there were numerous signs of life. Opportunistic hunters like reticulated pythons coiled around branches, watching for prey. The mud left plenty of tracks behind, belonging to both reptiles and mammals. In this habit, elephants, bears and many big cats were in residence, prompting Vin to warn Chris and their party to have their guns ready.

There was just too much jungle to avoid being surprised by anything with teeth.

As they crossed the bush, Vin led the way with his machete. Insects scurried into hiding as he slashed through the grass and branches. The winding trail he found through the equatorial forest did not prevent them from being hindered by the smaller trees along their route. Sweat soaked Vin's shirt as he cut through the foliage and a quick glance told him his companions, moving single file behind him, were just as miserable with the heat.

However, the sounds of the jungle soon dissipated and the silence that followed immediately put Vin on edge. Gone were the chirps of insects and birds, the soft shifting movements of lizards and snakes through branches and across muddy ground. The silence that fell over the place was just as pervading as the shadows created from the sunlight.

"How far to the ruins?" Inez wiped the sweat from her brow and thinking how much this was like the jungles of Central America.

"According to Mr Pascale at the ministry," Chris produced the folded up map he kept in his top pocket and spread it open as they walked, taking quick glances at the path ahead as he moved. "Another mile or so."

"Thank God," Buck paused a moment to catch his breath. The humidity made the air in his lungs heavier, and each breath was an effort. For once, he shared Ezra's desire to remain in the jeep. His boots and trouser legs were caked in mud while his shirt clung to his back like sheets of wet wool. "Now I know why I stay on the plane."

"Such a flyboy," Inez couldn't help but tease. "I grew up in a climate like this."

"Damn," Buck shook his head, unable to imagine it. JD, who was in the rear of the group, appeared just as uncomfortable as him, but the kid's eyes were studying everything, taking in the sight of everything with fascination. Buck admired him for that. No matter how adverse the conditions, JD always viewed their adventures with the wonder of youth and Buck's jaded self almost envied him for that ability.

"How you doing, Vin?" Chris asked the sharpshooter who had stopped in his tracks and appeared to be surveying the terrain around them with scrutiny.

Vin didn't answer, increasing Chris's own concern as he followed the younger man's gaze. Everything around them appeared unchanged. They were surrounded by thick jungle, slightly delivered from the heat by the canopy's shade and given a wide berth from the creatures that occupied this equatorial habitation. Vin's jaw was tight, and without saying a word, Chris knew there was danger, and for a second, he struggled to grasp from what until he realized it himself.

"It's quiet."

"What do you mean?" Buck reacted instantly, conducting his own suspicious survey of the area.

"Listen," Chris instructed, and those who had not noticed it before now fell silent to listen.

There was no sound from either insects, birds, reptiles or mammals. The constant chirping of animal life, the unseen movement through the foliage and the skittering noises of chitin hitting bark were absent. It resembled the quiet of a trap, waiting like a held breath to spring upon its helpless prey.

"Something ain't right."

"Like what?" Inez stared at Vin, wanting more explanation if their journey to find the jewel was halted. They were so close to retrieving the artifact she couldn't tolerate any further delays. This whole affair had taken weeks, and who knows what her son might be enduring as more and more time elapsed.

"I don't know," Vin shook his head. "But something ain't right. All the other critters have made themselves scarce. I want to know why."

"We gotta keep going, Vin," Chris insisted, realizing none of their company would move until he made the decision. He shared Vin's concern, but they simply could not stop now.

"Yeah, I know," he exhaled loudly but seemed to grip the machete even tighter until Chris could see the veins of his fist rippling beneath his damp skin. "Just keep your eyes open. I don't know what it is that made them run, but it's something we should be worried about."

Buck unsheathed the shotgun in his back, while JD took similar precautions with his own revolver. Chris kept his gun holstered, but he unbuttoned the flap in case he needed to draw. After a few seconds, they continued through the jungle again, this time more aware of their surroundings than before. Like Vin, Chris was convinced they were entering dangerous ground but could not imagine how it would manifest itself.

Not more than thirty minutes later, they didn't have to.

The danger presented itself two-fold when they reached a grove, strangely devoid of any other vegetation except one tree draped with vines from every branch.

"Jesus, Chris," Buck broke the silence after their shock faded, although the horror remained. Inez turned away and buried her face in his shoulder to avoid looking at the scene.

Lying before them, partially buried in mud and ravaged by the elements, were a killing field of bones. The skeletal collection was found at the foot of an enormous hardwood behemoth that stood as tall as the other trees in the jungle, except it was clearly dead, like the remnants of the creatures at its base. While Chris motioned the others to remain where they were, only Vin stepped forward and went to examine the muddied remains. The sharpshooter dropped to his haunches to make a closer examination, and for a few seconds, he did not speak.

"Vin?"

Vin looked up at Chris, his jaw taut. "It ain't just animal bones Chris, there are some human ones too."

He was right, Chris thought. Even as he surveyed the area, he could see the long bones of a human femur outlined in the mud and a crown poking through the soil and rotting foliage that could have been the top of a skull. Who it belonged to died here, with their remains joining the skeletal remains of jungle cats, boar and other native fauna. Something had murdered them all indiscriminately, and Chris had an alarming suspicion they would be next if they weren't careful.

"What did this?" Inez asked, finally removing herself from the crook of Buck's arm.

"I don't see any tracks leading away from here, although, on this ground, it ain't easy to tell," Vin confessed. There was so much rainforest; he was navigating it through the barest margin.

It was then Chris raised his eyes to the tree standing guard over the skeletons.

They had ignored the tree when they entered the grove, too distracted by the bone field in front of them. Now that he was paying attention, he noticed the ropes of vines dangling off its dead branches. Even in death, the tree appeared formidable. With ash-grey bark, its barren branches spread above their heads like webs.

Yet in death, it succoured another with the migrant climber taking up residence along the length of its five-foot-wide trunk. The plant was covered in dark follicles like the spiky hair of an insect. The vines hung in strands of five, each group protruding from a fleshy bulbous growth that clung to the thicker branches with clear amber resin. As if to offset its bizarre appearance, the surface of each bulb was adorned with small white flowers exuding a sickly sweet scent.

"What the hell kind of plant is this?" Buck demanded once the pilot realized what caught Chris's attention. He was grateful to be distracted from the bones and just as wary about what had left them behind.

"No idea," Chris admitted readily enough. Like the others, what he saw mesmerized and repulsed him, and its smell reached into his gut and churned the digestive juices within.

"It's some kind of Drosera," JD stepped forward, approaching the trunk a little closer. "If I didn't know better, I'd say it was some kind of Sundew, but a hell of a lot bigger. Otherwise, it doesn't resemble anything else in the botanical record."

"Sundew?"

"Yeah, it's a...." JD' words faded in his throat as an ugly truth revealed itself that left him turning sharply to the plant again, his expression worried.

"What?" Chris demanded, seeing the colour drain from JD's face.

JD gulped visibly. "It's a carnivorous plant."

"Carnivorous?"

That was all Chris needed to hear. "Everyone, back up the way we came. We'll find another way around." His voice was slow and deliberate as if he was mindful of provoking the plant.

Instinctively, Inez stepped back, and Buck took her hand before regarding JD. "Kid, back away."

"But they don't move," JD insisted, withdrawing, "I mean, they rely on their prey to land on them to hunt. It's not like they can just come out and gr....."

"JD!"

It was hard to determine if JD's cry was one of surprise or indignation at being proved wrong so abruptly. For a second, the sight of JD being swept off his feet and then hoisted over the ground left them stunned. As the vine shook him like a rag doll, JD's notebook, gun, and glasses landed on the muddy ground. The hard impact of the revolver against a rotted piece of log discharged the weapon, and its booming roar snapped everyone out of their temporary delirium..

Predictably, Buck rushed towards JD first, trying to grasp the hand of one of JD's failing arms as the kid was swung about haphazardly and with enough force to snap his spine if he wasn't released soon.

"Grab my hand!" Buck leapt up at JD when suddenly he realized the bulbs overhead had started to open up like the petals of a rosebud. Except what their open maws revealed was not delicate filaments but rather serrated rows of thorns that almost looked like teeth. As he made this discovery, the other vines or rather tendrils as he now came to realize were also moving like writhing snakes, and Buck was struck by the memory of the Medusa, encountered when they were hunting the Aegis.

"I can't!" JD shouted as he was yanked beyond Buck's reach as gripped by more tendrils.

All of a sudden, an explosion of sound that made even the creature above them pause ripped through the air as the rifle fired directly into the open mouth waiting to make JD its main meal. It uttered an unholy shriek as its petals sealed up, no doubt reeling from the pain as milky white blood oozed through the seams. Meanwhile, the tendrils had slackened enough for Buck to make another jump to catch JD hand.

"Hold on!"

However, the creature, though in pain, was far from done, nor was it alone. One of the tendrils coiled itself around his waist before Buck could react. It wrapped his body so quickly, and with such force, his ribs straining from the pressure constricting him within its coils with such power his ribs were almost on the verge of breaking. Grunting in pain, he refused to let go of JD's hands, not when he could see the terror in JD's eyes..

Another shot from a rifle followed, and Buck realized it was Vin who was doing the shooting. Another shriek was heard, this time when he severed a tendril from its bulb. White liquid splattered across the ground as he fumbled for the shotgun still sheathed in its holster across his back.

"Hang on, Buck!"

This time it was Inez who shouted. Following her anxious cry, Buck turned his head just in time to see her swinging her machete at the vine, attempting to tear him away from JD. She wielded it with the skill of one accustomed to moving through jungles like these, and when the blade struck the dirty green tentacle, it sank deep enough for the creature to feel it. Suddenly, Buck was let go, just as another bullet was fired over their heads and struck the bulbous growth once more.

Its tendrils flayed about in agony as JD, who was struggling to break free, dropped low enough for Buck to reach up and grab JD's other hand.

"Help me!"

Inez didn't need to be asked twice as she wrapped her arms around Buck's waist and held fast, determined he was not going to be waylaid again by another vine when suddenly all the bulbs overhead opened like a flower garden in bloom.

And with that, all the other vines in the grove came alive.

Chapter Twenty-Three:
Hydra

Under the Amira, the Erran learned patience.

If not for her, they would have already rushed in and made yet another unsuccessful attempt to retrieve the relic hunters who thwarted their grand destiny of uncreating the world. Instead, she ordered them to wait and watch. It was pure foolishness to interfere with the efforts to find the Jewel of Cintamani. It was a far wiser course to let the infidels do the hard work and then leave them in anguish when the Erran stole their prize from right out of their hands. Victory would taste so much sweeter.

While this was not how the Shah would have conducted these affairs, there was no denying this subtler method yielded results.

Thanks to the scores of Erran disciples scattered worldwide, keeping track of the seven proved to be no difficulty. A random sighting here and there permitted the Erran to follow the treasure hunters from England to Mongolia and from that desert country to the rich, lush rainforests of Annam. Always maintaining their distance, the Erran did not doubt the seven were aware of their pursuit, but restraint kept the infidel enemy blind to their presence.

Having extracted the same information from the French officials as Chris Larabee, the Erran knew the seven were headed for an ancient temple in Quảng Nam Province. Knowing where the infidels would be made it easier for the Erran to ambush them when the time came.

At first, the Amira planned to allow Larabee to find the Jewel, but the outbreak of gunfire shredding the peaceful jungle sounds provided an opportunity too good to ignore. Larabee had split his forces. Some of his comrades remained behind with their vehicles while the rest of his party retrieved the Jewel. When the shooting erupted, those left behind were understandably distracted by the alarming possibilities of an unseen firefight. They were not paying attention to what might lie waiting in the jungle, allowing the Erran the opportunity to pounce.

"Take them, Krestos," Aisha ordered quietly from astride her grey Hmong horse. To maintain their covert approach, the Erran used the jungle for cover, riding on the small horses native to this country. Descended from Mongolian breeds, the Hmongs were short, stockier animals with long manes that made them look a great deal shaggier. However, they were bred for this environment and navigated the jungle with ease.

"Yes, Amira," the tall, ebony carved statue of a man dismounted his horse, a larger than usual animal to accommodate his height before he nodded at his men to do the Amira's bidding.

Slowly, they dismounted their horses one after the other and quickly fell into single file formation, each holding machetes in hand to cut through the dense foliage lying between them and the prey they hoped to capture.

"Shall we kill them, Amira?" Krestos asked as he trudged through the waist-high vegetation to join his men.

"No," Aisha shook her head, her eyes narrowing with calculation. "My brother can decide their fate once the Jewel restores him to us."

Krestos said nothing, a sliver of discomfort rising from the pit of his gut and dismissed it immediately. While he shared Aisha's desire to reclaim their destiny of the Uncreation, he did not know if bringing back the Shah from the dead was a good thing. As a youth, he'd heard the tales of the Ekiminu, creatures existing beyond the grave. Would the Shah return to them whole, or as a parody of life?

For the Amira's sake, Krestos prayed it was the former instead of the latter.


"We gotta go after them!"

Under any other circumstances, Ezra would instantly agree with Nathan's demand but riding on the coattails of that knee jerk reaction were a few uncomfortable truths he could not ignore. Chris and the others had been gone for hours and those gunshots, though audible, were distant enough for Ezra to question whether reaching them in time as possible. Even if he, Nathan and Josiah were to start running now, the likelihood of arriving in time to save their friends from whatever calamity they faced was remote.

"No doubt," Ezra agreed, remaining the voice of reason but heavy with caveats. "The question, however, is whether we will reach them in time to be of any help to them."

"We're not staying put," Nathan insisted, his scowl telling Ezra he would tolerate no argument on the matter.

"Ezra didn't mean that," Josiah interjected before Nathan's fierce healer's instincts let him put his foot in his mouth. "He just means it might be over before we get to help."

"Exactly," Ezra glanced at Josiah in thanks before turning to the jeep to retrieve his gun. When the shooting started, they'd all jumped out of the vehicle, ready to run into the jungle until they took a moment to consider their situation. He had no difficulty trekking through vast tracts of equatorial rainforest, but none present were trackers and getting lost in that jungle would help no one.

"Let's get going anyway," Alex finally interjected, adjusting the straw hat on her head, showing all three men she was ready to get going. Vin was out there in trouble. That settled the matter as far as she was concerned.

All three men opened her mouth to speak until her expression made them fall silent immediately. Whether or not it was a wise decision for Alex to join them, there was no avoiding the fact she could not be left here alone while they went hiking into the jungle. More bursts of gunfire sounded distantly across the wilderness, reminding them they didn't have time to waste.

"She's right," Josiah nodded in her direction, telling her in his own way, there would be no protest to her presence. "We better get moving."

Josiah carried his FN M2HB machine gun in front of him with a revolver tucked in his belt. He didn't know what trouble Chris and the others had run into, but Josiah didn't intend to be short of weapons when he encountered it. Ezra and Nathan were similarly armed, and it startled Josiah mildly when he glimpsed Alex strapping something to her inner thigh beneath her long skirt. He averted his gaze quickly, embarrassed at having seen the tantalizing skin but then wondered what it was she had hidden away. Was it a knife?

The lady saw no signs of being caught once the skirt fell around her shins again and she reached for her rifle. At least Josiah didn't have to worry about whether or not she could use the weapon. According to Vin, William Styles' fears for her life prompted the doctor to ensure Alex could shoot. More recently, Vin had taken it upon himself to take her shooting at Chris's ranch to dust off those rusty skills.

Ezra didn't like the idea of Alex coming with them, but he resigned himself to the situation. "Alexandra, you will stay close to me and step where I step. I would rather not meet the business end of Vin's bowie knife if I allowed any misfortune to befall you."

"I understand."

Alex didn't mind their concern as Nathan led the way across the dirt road towards the barely visible path beyond its shoulder. As much as these men respected Alex, to them she was still a woman, and Vin meant too much to them to allow any harm to come to her.

They moved in single-file, with Alex between Ezra and Josiah, who picked up the rear. As they stepped through the long grass, she saw the footsteps left behind by Chris, Vin, Buck, JD and Inez in the mud. Ahead of them, the treeline waited, beckoning them to enter the way a fly would be mesmerized by the intricate patterns of a web just before being caught in it. Yet more than just the jungle preyed on her mind.

Without understanding how she knew, perhaps the way a mouse could sense when a cat was near, Alex was certain the Erran were here. She swept her gaze across the wall of trees on the other side of the road, past their jeep and felt something...

"You okay?" Josiah asked, catching sight of her gaze staring beyond the jeep.

"Of course," she gave him a faint smile.

"You see something?" Josiah searched the vegetation and frowned at it looking all the same to him. Too many trees, vines, tall grass, packed together. If anyone was hiding in all that greenery, he couldn't detect it. Then again, he wasn't Vin, and as the guns went silent as the trees suddenly surrounded them after Nathan led them into the woods, Josiah wished it were otherwise.

"No," she shook her head, facing forward again, her assessment of the terrain behind them, forgotten for now it appeared.

Yet Alex knew there was as much danger behind them as well as ahead of them. For once, however, she wasn't afraid.

This time, she would be ready for the Amira.


"Inez, look out!"

Buck could only shout helplessly when the carnivorous plant snaring them in its grip chose to unleash its entire arsenal. For a few seconds, the small grove crisscrossed with plant limbs shooting in every direction, trying to restrain all of them as it had with JD whom Buck was holding onto with all his might. With less than a split second to react to his warning, Inez ducked as one of the thick tendrils attempted to snatch her up.

Inez dropped to her knees and into a roll, glimpsing the tendril as it swung past her. She recovered her shock by swinging her machete above her before it moved out of reach. The tip of her blade caught the edge of it, shearing off a piece of green pulpish flesh before moving away entirely. Inez rolled onto her feet and saw another appendage return to do its job, reminding her of the anacondas she encountered during her jungle treks. This time, she did not try evading it and ran at the limbs, jabbing the machete forward like a fencing foil and impaling it in the thickest part of it. The long blade sliced straight through, halted only when the hilt allowed her to go no more.

It recoiled sharply, black resin oozing from the wound like blood. The sickly sweet stench assailing the travellers when they entered the grove intensified, becoming so thick in her lungs she winced in disgust. Stepping back, Inez swatted aside another tendril and headed back to Buck, who was maintaining his grip on JD, still caught in a tug of war. He was only keeping his grip because Vin was still firing. Inez glanced at the sharpshooter whose skills with a gun ensured every bullet met its mark, injuring the plant enough to keep it from reclaiming its grip on Buck.

She took a step towards him when suddenly, a wave of dizziness overcame her. Her limbs were heavy, and it felt as if she was trudging through ankle-deep mud. She looked down and saw her legs trailed by a rainbow of colours each time she moved. Pausing in midstep, Inez stared at Buck and saw the same myriad following him as he struggled to maintain his grip on JD. It was then her knees buckled, dropping Inez to her knees. A kaleidoscope of images suddenly swirled around her.

"INEZ!"

Buck watched her go down and realized Inez needed help, and she needed it right now. She fell flat on her face against the ground and did not move. No sooner than she was unconscious, a tendril coiled her ankle and began hauling her up above the bed of mud and damp leaves. Frantically, he turned to Vin, who was still firing at the bulbous growths above.

"VIN! Inez is in trouble!"

Vin's eyes immediately dropped to the lady and widened in reaction to her predicament. The plant reeled her in like a fish on a hook towards its bulbous mouths, snapping like turtles.

"SHOOT IT!"

Buck's loud bellow prompted another shot from Vin's gun.

The bullet struck the tendril clutching Inez inches away from her ankle. Writhing in pain, it released her, and Inez fell hard, splattering mud in all directions. There was no moment to savour any victor because the plant turned its attention to him this time. Another tendril lashed out at the sharpshooter, moving with such speed Vin thought it cracked like a whip, seconds before tossing him to the soft ground. He saw the thick serpent limbs moving over his head, crisscrossing the air above him as the plant unleashed its full arsenal upon its prey.

One of its limbs coiled around his wrist, quickly tightening its coils as if trying to force him to release his gun. Vin's reaction was swift. He pulled out his knife with his free hand and slashed at it, severing the tendril just a few inches above his skin. Whether or not the thing was capable of speech, the sudden withdrawal was proof enough of pain. Thick, black resin splattered over his skin, and that faint sweet scent that became overpowering a short time ago filled his senses once more.

Vin tried to get to his feet, vaguely aware he had freed himself of the vine around his wrist. However, he couldn't seem to focus. Around him, the world was a confusing swirl of green. Even the gunshots around him became dull and muted. What was happening to him? As he struggled to get up, he became conscious of something coiling around his waist, something thick and strong, constricting as soon as he was in its grip.

Jesus Christ, Buck realized as he saw both Vin and Inez succumbing to the scent in the air. Whatever it was, affected them like ether or chloroform. Venom, that's what the damn thing was. It was venom, and if he didn't do something soon, he was going to end up like them! Staring up at JD, whose face was contorted in pain because he was being pulled apart like a fly, Buck realized he was going to free the kid or die trying.

With strength he did not know he possessed, Buck mustered every ounce he had, braced his feet on the mud until he felt his boots sink past the soft earth to be greeted by hard, compact clay. Gritting his teeth, he clenched JD's wrists even tighter if such a thing was possible and put all his effort into one herculean feat. The strain made him cry out, like an angry bear roaring his claim to the jungle he roamed.

The fury behind the powerful tug was too much for the tendril, and it slackened, releasing its coils from around JD's waist and sending the young man tumbling forward. He landed on Buck, and for a few seconds, they were a rolling dervish of limbs and cuss words, falling across the jungle floor and coming to a halt with a thick splatter of mud. Not that either of them had time to rest because the predatory plant was not about to let them escape. Limbs snaked through the air towards them, and Buck jumped to his feet and staggered as he tried to regain his balance. The ground beneath his boots was so slick he almost slipped and landed on his face.

Inez was lifted high enough above the in the air, her hair was swaying in midair like a curtain of jet. Without looking back to see how JD was faring, Buck picked up the shotgun he'd dropped, half-buried in wet earth and rotting leaves. Taking careful aim not to harm the woman he was trying desperately to save, Buck pulled the trigger.

BOOM!

The sound was like a thunderclap that would send any wildlife in the area fleeing in fright. Not that there were many, Buck thought. They were gone or had been killed by this voracious plant, for God only knew how long. As he fired, severing the limb attempting to spirit Inez away in half, Buck skidded to the space beneath the disorientated bartender, catching her as it dropped her into freefall. She landed heavily in his arms, ensuring they both went down.

Another gunshot made him turn to discover JD emptying the entire contents of his revolver into the limbs, trying to spirit Vin aloft. That sweet smell was affecting him, but the booming noise of the shotgun had given him some clarity. The kid recovered from his ordeal and with the resilience of youth resilience, went to Vin's aid. Like Inez, the sharpshooter seemed disorientated, struggling to fight off two of the tendrils gripping an arm and a leg, determined to rip in half. JD forced one of the appendages back, allowing Vin to recover enough to escape the other.

"Inez!" Buck cradled her in his arms, "are you alright?"

There was mud on her face, and he wiped the smear of it off her cheeks, the heart in his chest pounding so hard from fear, he almost could not breathe.

"EVERYBODY! WE ARE LEAVING!"

That commanding tone sliced through all his fear and panic, and when Buck looked up, he saw Chris Larabee standing by the base of the dead tree, his handkerchief covering half his face so only the eyes were exposed. For a moment, Buck thought he looked like an outlaw. Like the rest of them, he was covered in mud and the way he seemed to favour his injured side told Buck he had probably spent the last few minutes avoiding those deadly limbs as well. However, his face was devoid of any fear, just typical Larabee irritation.

In his hand was a squat bottle of scotch. Dangling from its open mouth was a thin piece of flaming cloth burning steadily. No sooner than he barked his order, Chris hurled the bottle against the trunk of the tree, shattering it and splashing the amber fluid across the dry wood and the parasitic plant making its home there.

The fire caught on almost immediately, finding plenty to burn. Dry twigs and branches went up in flames, the angry tongues of fire licking the thick vines strangling the tree. As the heat moved along the tall trunk, spreading out across the branches, Buck thought of the mythological Lemean hydra. He supposed if Chris couldn't cut off the head of this predator, then the leader of the seven would follow the example of the ancient Greek hero Hercules and do the next thing.

Burn it to the ground.

Like any animal, the monster reacted to the fire with primal fear, its tendrils and limbs retreating into the air, trying to escape the rising smoke and the spreading flames. As the tree continued to burn, filling the grove with smoke, Buck remembered Chris's order and swept Inez off her feet. The lady uttered a soft moan at the action, and though she was moving in his grip, he did not like her sluggishness.

"Come on!" Chris waved his arms, catching their attention and gesturing in the direction he needed them to go.

Above them, the fire sent the plant into a panic with its deadly limbs flailing about like writhing snakes, trying to escape the doom of fire. Chris didn't think it would consume the tree because it was simply too big, but it would serve his purposes. A low whine that might have been a shriek filled the air, and Chris wondered if it was coming from the animals still in the area or the plant creature verbalizing its terror. The fear of fire was universal, and though setting any living thing alight preyed on his conscience, Chris could think of no other way to save their lives.

Beyond the flaming tree was the overgrown trail Vin was leading them towards before their encounter with the deadly parasite taking residence on it. The path would take them deeper into the jungle, but at this moment, Chris wanted nothing but to be away from this grove. There might be other dangers awaiting them before they reached Indrapura, but he'd deal with those when the time came.

Once Buck and JD understood his instructions, Chris backtracked, seeing JD trying to help Vin across the grove. As he crossed the distance towards them, he retrieved JD's backpack and the rest of their equipment. His encounter with the creature had left his bruised ribs burning with fresh pain but not enough to hinder him too greatly. Staring up, he could no longer see the bulbous plants intending to make a meal of them. The smoke had become too thick.

"Come on, Darlin," Chris heard Buck's voice as the big man carried the lady to safety. "We're getting out of here."

"Vin, come on, pard," Chris took his other arm when he reached the sharpshooter. "We gotta move."

"My gun..." Vin muttered, still dazed.

"I got it, Vin," JD reassured him, having retrieved the rifle when he'd first gotten free, along with JD's revolver.

Something wet touched Chris's fingers when he took Vin's arm and filled the leader of the seven with panic. Was Vin hurt? Upon closer inspection, as they raced across the grove, leaving a trail through the mud, rotting foliage and bones, Chris realized it wasn't blood on Vin's skin, but the dark resin oozed by the creature above.

As they finally reached the edge of the grove and disappeared into the jungle again, Chris prayed the disorientation Vin was experiencing wasn't a prelude to something worse.

Chapter Twenty-Four:
Temple

The smoke reached their lungs within ten minutes of leaving the jeep.

Despite leading the group through the dense foliage, Ezra noticed it first. Thanks to his 'delicate sensibilities,' Ezra possessed a keener sense of smell than most. Even if it were a slight whiff, it was enough for Ezra to recognize it for what it was. Very soon, Josiah, Nathan, and Alex also detected the unmistakable stench of smoke. Somewhere out there was a fire, and it came from the same direction as the gunshots.

The gunshots that now ceased.

While this should have lessened their concern, it had the opposite effect of intensifying their anxiety. Ezra couldn't blame his friends for their fears when he shared them. Would their attempts to reach Chris and the others prove futile when they were still an hour behind? Was the sudden cessation of gunfire the end of a fight or something more ominous? None of them knew, and it was the mystery more than anything else compelling them forward. Even Alex managed to maintain her pace, determined not to slow them down as they continued this race against time.

If there was any consolation to be had in their hazardous trek through these forests, it was the fact they were not giving chase blindly. Cutting a path through the overhanging vines, tall grass, and obstructing branches in his way, Ezra followed the trail left behind by Vin Tanner. The tracks left in the mud and the slashed vegetation trampled underfoot told Ezra where the rest of their party had gone and ensured Ezra they were going the right way.

"How far ahead do you think they are?" Nathan asked Ezra from the rear of their single-file formation. The healer stared up at the sky through the canopy of trees, trying to pinpoint the source of the fire, and frowned when nothing was visible. It was exasperating, Nathan thought, because the smoke was so clearly in the air. He could see it swirling past the trunks of trees and branches around them.

"I cannot say, Mr. Jackson," Ezra swatted away another dangling vine. "Judging by how distant those gunshots were, I would imagine we have some distance to travel before we reach its origin."

"Do you think Chris and the others started that fire?" Alex asked, still convinced the enemy was closer than any of them believed.

"Possibly." Ezra tried to downplay her apparent fear for Vin's life but knew she was anxious for other reasons as well. He did not lie to her, however. Alexandra was not the kind of woman who needed coddling, and Ezra suspected she wouldn't appreciate the gesture anyway.

"They'll be fine," Josiah assured her, his low rumbling voice providing comfort. "There aren't a lot of situations Chris, Vin, and Buck can't handle."

"Don't sell Inez and JD short either," Nathan added confidently. "If there's one thing we figured out during all this, there's a whole lot more to her than any of us suspected."

Ezra couldn't deny that. "She has proven to be most resourceful. Right now, I'm more concerned about who else might be taking the sights today."

Everyone stiffened, reminded of the Erran though the cult was never far from Alex's thoughts. She was convinced the fanatics were out here, lurking in the shadows, waiting for the opportunity to attack when they were most vulnerable.

"Yeah," Nathan's expression darkened at the reminder. "This is a big jungle, and we may not be the only ones out here."

"We're not," Alex stated without looking at any of them, her eyes fixed on Ezra's back as she brushed the wide leaf of a palm tree out of her face. "The Erran are here. They're following us."

The certainty in which she made the statement prompted all three men to look in her direction.

"Sadly, I think you are right," Ezra agreed.

His concern about the dark thoughts Alex harbored against the cult surfaced again. After their talk, Ezra wondered if Aisha bore any inkling of the beast she inadvertently awakened when she returned to the doctor's life. Ezra suspected Alex had been ready to let bygones be bygones until the fateful encounter in England surfaced the fury she felt at her father's death. With the Erran attempting to resurrect their dreams of Tiamat's return, Alex could no longer ignore the potential danger to herself and the future she dreamed of sharing with Vin.

"Those bastards are too crazy to quit," Nathan complained, remembering how determined they were to acquire the Tablet. The memory of the Erran swarming around them in the desert still haunted Nathan. Why should it be any different now? He cast a wary eye on the surrounding vegetation as he spoke, trying to see the enemy through the lush greenery, undoubtedly stalking them.

"Then we destroy them."

If her earlier announcement had been jarring, this statement sent chills through all of them.

"I can feel them," she explained, oblivious to the effect her tone was having on her friends. They've grown smarter since the last time we faced them. Aisha's in charge now, and it isn't a woman's way to rush in and try to win by numbers. She'll wait and watch because capturing us now gets the Erran nothing. Right now, we're of more use leading them to the Jewel. Aisha wants her brother back, and she won't risk losing him by tipping her hand."

As much as Ezra wanted to refute her words, he could not. In fact, none of them could. There was too muchin that dull monotone that rang unpleasantly true. After the previous experience with the Erran and the cult's fanatical quest to retrieve the Tablet of Destiny, their lack of action did feel suspicious. The Erran pursued them relentlessly across three continents during that affair, never more than a few steps behind. It still bothered Ezra how close they came to fulfilling their dark purpose. If not for Julia's unexpected intervention, the Erran might have very well succeeded in uncreating the world.

Now the stakes were almost as high with the Erran intending to fulfill their oath as well as returning Adashir Shah to the world. It was intolerable.

"Then we need to force her hand," Ezra announced, stopping in his tracks and lowering his machete. He turned around, his eyes surveying the jungle. The sense they were close was almost pervading now, and Alex's ominous declaration made it impossible to continue ignoring it. The Erran were either watching them in stealth or closing in. It didn't matter which. "We must attend to this."

"What about Chris and the others?" Nathan didn't like the idea of abandoning Chris and the rest of their friends to these wilderness, not when it was the reason the four of them left the jeep to begin with. Yet even as he asked the question, he knew Ezra was right.

"They'll be fine," Josiah reiterated his confidence in the rest of their number, "I trust they can take care of themselves. Besides, we better consider the consequences for going further. If we don't, we could lead them straight to the Jewel."

"We can't let that happen," Alex whispered, hating the fact this decision meant abandoning Vin, but a part of her knew as long as he was with Chris, he would be alright. She had faith in that, if nothing else.

"So what do we do, Ezra?" Nathan looked at his best friend.

Ezra didn't answer right away because he was coming up with a plan. This time, they would let the Erran come to them.


Even though Vin still remained somewhat disoriented from his encounter with the carnivorous plant that almost claimed all their lives, the sharpshooter had insisted they keep moving, ignoring Chris's concerns for him. Although JD had no medical background, the youngest of them believed the plant's blood contained the same poisonous toxin it probably used to immobilize its prey. Inez, who had also been affected, only breathed the substance in while Vin had come into direct contact when it splashed onto his skin.

Nevertheless, the only treatment Chris could administer until the duo returned to Alex and Nathan was the ingestion of the charcoal tablets the healers insisted they carried. While it did not provide an instantaneous cure, after another half hour of walking through the jungle, both started to feel a little better, if not entirely whole. With more wilderness before them and the sun reaching its zenith in the sky, Chris didn't want to waste any more time, not looking forward to making the return to the jeep through the darkness. Unfortunately, relying on Vin's ability to navigate through this dense forest when the sharpshooter still felt the effects of the toxin was dangerous.

And there was still the Erran to consider.

"We're here."

Chris's announcement was redundant when they could see the top of Indrapura's ruins through the columns of trees and clutches of shrubs before them. He lowered the machete in his hand, having cut a swathe through the thick undergrowth to emerge at a clearing where the ancient shrine had stood, forgotten for centuries.

"Now that is something," Buck whistled as they stepped out of the jungle into the temple's surroundings. Knee-high grass surrounded the structure, a monument built out of large, sandstone blocks, now veined with moss and lichens. Constructed in traditional Khmer architecture, the main building was an elongated pyramid comprising three stepped terraces. The triangular tower sat in the center of a cruciform walkway connecting it to four ornate statues of a dragon, a unicorn, a turtle, and a phoenix, sculpted in Oriental style. Surrounding the temple was a moat, but it had long since dried out, and the only evidence of its presence was the dry bed of hardened mud.

"Yeah," JD stared at the statues in fascination, writing furiously in his favorite notebook. "They're the Tun Linh, sacred creatures who represent universal power. Long the dragon, Lan the unicorn, Quy the turtle, and Phung the phoenix are embodiments of the main element, fire, water, earth, and air."

"They're beautiful," Inez remarked, not about to dismiss the icons of other religions despite her strict Roman Catholic upbringing. If nothing else, being in the company of these men had taught the bartender that the world was more than what she believed, and the unfolding mysteries while terrifying at times, could be profoundly beautiful.

"So, where's the glowing coming from?" Vin asked.

The question asked so innocently stopped everyone in their tracks.

Immediately, the group began looking around the temple compound, trying to see the glow for themselves. Instead, they found nothing but the reflection of afternoon sunlight. After a minute of careful searching of every nook and cranny in the temple construction and the surrounding jungle, they exchanged bewildered glances because none of them could see what Vin did.

"Vin, there's nothing there." Chris finally broke it to the sharpshooter. Perhaps the toxin was causing more than just disorientation in Vin. Had it affected his mind too?

It didn't take long for Vin to know the reason for everyone's puzzled stare in his direction was due to their inability to see what he could. His brow furrowed as he stared at the glow, like the beacon of a lighthouse directing ships to safe harbor. It radiated from the center of the sandstone plinth on which the dragon stood. He repeatedly blinked to ensure this wasn't just a case of the sun getting into his eyes, the way one saw spots when staring at something too bright. However, the glow remained, defying him to deny its existence.

"You can't see it?" He pointed to the statue of Long.

"No, we cannot," Inez shook her head, averting her gaze to the dragon towering over one walkway. While she still felt light-headed from the plant's toxin and her steps were taken gingerly, she was more or less recovered. Perhaps Vin wasn't?

"It's there," Vin broke away from them and started striding towards the statue, determined to prove he wasn't seeing things. Okay, so he still saw everything moving with rainbow-colored trails, but the glow that continued to lure him forward was no illusion. If nothing else, Vin could be sure of this. Not looking over his shoulder, he continued down the sandstone walkway overrun with creepers and dirt, heading straight for Long, expecting the others to follow.

"Chris...." Buck stared at his old friend, more interested in entering the structure than taking a detour now that they were here. "We gotta get into that temple."

"Yeah we do,." Chris agreed, "but we got time to give him the benefit of the doubt."

With that, Chris followed Vin's path towards the statue. Chris had done this too long to know that when it came to hunting relics, the world of reason sometimes took a back seat to forces far older than anyone could imagine. He had seen a Sumerian Goddess descend from the heavens to steal the body of a friend, killed a Gorgon in her lair, and set fire to a plant he was convinced no botanist would ever be able to classify. These things took place because reality wasn't as solid as they believed, that paper-thin walls were separating one realm from another. Sometimes things crossed over, and too many times, it was he and his men who unwittingly made the journey. Chris didn't know if Vin indeed saw something they could not, but he wasn't about to discount it either or refused to take advantage of it.

"I think Chris's right Buck," JD glanced at both Inez and Buck as he started walking. "These things don't always go the way we think. Sometimes, the most obvious way in isn't the one we can see."

Buck and Inez exchanged a quick look, and he recognized the indecision on her face, the conflict in her because her main priority was to save her son, and in her mind, the direct route saved time. However, Buck's own doubt gave way to the faith he had in his friends. If Vin said the statue was glowing, then that was all to it. Reaching for her hand, Buck hoped she understood his unspoken request for trust.

A slight nod on her part was all the answer he needed, and without speaking further, they turned and followed Vin towards the dragon.

The closer Vin Tanner approached the statue, the more convinced he became the glow was not an illusion. In fact, it had grown so bright, he needed to squint to protect his eyes. Its intensity pierced the daylight, convincing the Texan what drew him in was real, not a toxin-induced hallucination.

"I ain't crazy," he insisted when Chris caught up with him.

"Didn't say you were," Chris looked ahead at the statue, unable to see but trusting Vin could.

"It's there," Vin repeated. "I can't figure out why I can see it, but you know I ain't one to...."

"Vin stop, you don't have to explain. Look, I've been in remote places across the globe, where medicine men drink some strange stuff to see things they shouldn't be able to. The truth is, there's a lot about the world we don't know. Certain substances open the brain up, awakening senses we don't normally use. You're the only one of us who got dosed with that plant's toxin directly on the skin. Maybe that's what's happened here. Maybe it's allowing you to see something we can't. I don't know for sure, but I trust you. If you say there's something at that statue, I believe you."

Vin's Adam's apple bobbed up and down, and though he did not reply, Chris saw that Vin was touched by his confidence.

They continued the rest of the way in silence until arriving at the plinth upon which Long the Dragon stood watch over the temple. It was a square block of five feet with an exotic eastern design. Though it wasn't sandstone like the statues, the stone could still hold up the dragon image towering above them.

Vin's expression suddenly darkened. The look of determination shifted to puzzlement and dismay as his brow furrowed above his eyes and his jaw clenched as he glared at the rock before them.

"Vin, what is it?"

Vin let out a snort and threw a quick glance at Chris before returning his focus to the rock. "It's gone. The light is gone."

When it began to fade as they approached, Vin thought it was his eyes adjusting to the glow, but by the time they stood in front of the plinth, the light had diminished into nothingness. Its radiance soaked up by the cracks and grooves of the elaborate carving of two dragons flanking a lotus blossom. Had he imagined it? As he ran his fingers across the petal of a lotus, he wondered if the others were right. He had just been seeing things.

Yet even as the possibility surfaced, Vin forced it down again because he knew his mind and what he had seen.

"I'm not crazy," Vin stated defensively as JD, Buck, and Inez appeared over Chris's shoulder. Nevertheless, despite his belief in what he had seen, Vin still felt foolish at being unable to prove it. "It was here!" He burst out frustrated, jabbing his finger against the stone flower.

It went straight through the rock until halted by a knuckle.

Both men exchanged a furious glance as Vin pulled back his finger, causing the surrounding stone to crumble away to reveal a small hole. Realizing the discovery they just stumbled onto, Vin wasted no time throwing his fist against the same section of rock. This time, it cracked apart like an egg. Unlike the rest of the plinth, this section was constructed of porous stone and crumbled away when enough pressure was applied.

"What the hell?" Vin exclaimed with surprise when his fingers felt nothing but air after his fist penetrated the inside of the block. When he pulled back his hand, larger pieces began to break free to reveal the hollow innards of the plinth.

"JD! Get me the rock hammer!"

Chris's demand jump-started JD into action, with the young scholar immediately flipping the backpack across his shoulder in front of him to retrieve the tool needed.

"Here Chris," JD handed over the tool.

Chris took the hammer and turned to the block. Vin had cleared away more rock with his bare hands, widening the hole even further. If he was right, there was no need to enter the temple to find the Jewel. This was the path they had to take. Perhaps this was why the Jewel remained unclaimed for so long. It needed someone with a heightened state of awareness to follow the clues to reach it. From the remains in the grove, he suspected no one ever made it this far.

"Stand clear, Vin," Chris warned the sharpshooter who obeyed, taking a step back to join Buck and the others.

"What do you think is there?" Inez asked.

"Only one way to find out," Chris replied, not about to speculate.

Bringing down the hammerhead against the block, Chris struck the stone with enough force to shatter it with a satisfying crack. Large chunks broke free and tumbled into the darkness within the hollow space. His suspicions about what lay beyond this fragile section of the plinth kept Chris hammering away, and the sound made by the rubble told him there was something below them..

"Someone give me a flashlight," Chris ordered when the hole was large enough for him to slip through and take a look.

"Here, Chris," Buck handed him the flashlight.

"Thanks," Chris gave him a nod of gratitude before leaning forward.

Slipping his head thread through the newly created entrance, Chris aimed the beam of light at his surroundings and found what he expected to find. The inside of the plinth was hollow. He suspected the other walls of the block were constructed with sturdier material to hold up the statue. Dust tickled his nose, and Chris was forced to wipe it with his forearm to avoid sneezing.

"What's in there, pard?" Chris heard Vin behind him.

As Chris aimed the flashlight in the darkness below, a slow smile formed across his lips.

"The way in."

Chapter Twenty-Five:
Ambush Country

This country was made for an ambush.

Until forced to develop a plan to deal with the Erran pursuing them, Ezra didn't realize how ominous the dense jungle surrounding them could be. The spread of hardwood trees above them produced a canopy of leaves permitting streams of sunlight to reach the forest floor. The flourish of smaller plants and trees with broad leaves growing so close ensured ground cover was thick, providing much cover for predators stalking their prey. Rapid decomposition of the rotting foliage nourished a rich loamy soil, ideal for growing and planting booby traps.

Dusting dirt off his hands, Ezra stood up and stepped away from the thin wire easily concealed by the ground cover of dead leaves, grass, and exposed tree roots. Nathan had climbed up the buttress roots of a large thung tree, a giant tetrameles whose thick branches allowed the healer to keep watch over the area chosen for the site of their trap. So far, the Erran kept their distance, but the trail left by the seven meant the cult would have no difficulty finding them.

Ezra and Josiah went to work, determined the Erran would have an appropriate welcome when that happened.

Testing the thin wire attached to the pin of the MKII grenade Josiah had wisely carried in their equipment, Ezra was satisfied by the tension and backed away from the trap. He searched the space of tall grass and short palms to see Josiah carrying out the same task. The irony of their weapons master and former mechanic's calling as a preacher was not lost on Ezra. No matter what dangerous situation they wandered into, Josiah always ensured they had the weapons and armaments to get out of it.

He straightened up and caught Ezra's gaze before giving the gambler the thumbs-up signal. Josiah hadn't packed that many grenades because they were making the trek across the jungle on foot, but the former preacher was still resourceful. Ezra had no idea what kind of a clergyman Josiah would have made, but the man's ability to build was astonishing. With a handful of nails and bullets, Josiah planted cartridge mines in the soft soil of the jungle using the hollow of bamboo shoots, ensuring a deadly surprise when any Erran stepped on it.

The large thung tree which Ezra found along their route served as the perfect staging area for their assault. Aside from its thick branches and plumage of leaves, it provided them with the high ground they needed to see just how many Erran they were dealing with ahead of their final encounter. This ambush might not get all of them, but Ezra was confident it would cut down the enemy's numbers significantly.

Nathan shook his head after catching Ezra's eye from his perch, indicating the coast was clear. The Erran hadn't caught up with them yet because they did their best to hide their tracks. Furthermore if the Erran believed their prey was attempting to elude them, then they were less likely to suspect an ambush. Either way, the attempt worked in their favor. The longer it took the Erran to close in, the more time they had to set their trap.

Alright," Josiah walked across the vegetation carefully, mindful of where his traps were planted. "We're ready as we're going to be."

"I am sure your devilish constructs will be up to the task," Ezra complimented as the two men walked to the large tree, where Alex helped by setting up their ammunition for when the fighting started. "Thanks to this hellish country," he wiped the sweat from his brow with a silk handkerchief, very much out of place in this rustic surroundings, "they'll be well camouflage."

"Hellish?" Josiah swept his gaze across the rainforest. "I thought it was pretty."

"It is," Ezra couldn't deny that. The lush, green environment could almost overwhelm the senses. Still, the heat was brutal on those unaccustomed to it and the jungle dense enough to ensure any traveler could wander aimlessly for weeks without being discovered, if ever. "But this place is too much like the Amazon. Forget your way, and you may well be lost for a frighteningly long time. It is why I am gratified Mr. Tanner left us a trail when they set out on their trek."

"Can't argue with that. I hope the others are alright."

Josiah spoke in a quieter tone, out of Alex's earshot. The lady was visible from where they stood but still far enough to ensure their conversation went unheard. She was nursing many demons at the moment, the least of which was her fears for Vin.

"I believe they are fine. Mr. Jackson's sighting of the fire from his lofty position tells us the fire was well away from this area. The Erran would not have been able to get ahead of us to be the source of our comrades' troubles. "

Josiah studied Alex once more and felt something tickling at the back of his senses, something he could not put his finger on and left him decidedly uncomfortable. "You got the feeling she's got more in mind than the rest of us?"

Ezra knew that Alex intended on ending the Erran threat once and for all, but how she planned to do it was a mystery. Despite her rage, she was still a doctor who winced each time she saw any of them with a bruise. She was not capable of taking a life, no matter how vehement she was about the subject. Still...

"I do. I just hope the hand Alex is holding in this game of hers is as strong as she believes."

A loud cooing from above silenced him and captured their undivided attention.

Both Ezra and Josiah tensed, their eyes joining Alex's as their gazes shifted abruptly to the branch Nathan was using to keep watch of the surrounding jungle. The healer's cupped hands lowered, no longer needing to repeat the signal he had just given because he had their attention. Years ago, Vin taught them calls used by the Navajo while hunting, and it served the seven when they needed to alert each other covertly.

"They're here," Ezra stated to no one's surprise.

Alex slung a rifle over her shoulder and gripped the ropes Nathan had tied further up the trunk of the large tree. Without wasting any time, she planted a boot against the smooth bath and began climbing to the nearest tall branch. The higher she climbed, the safer she would be. Ezra and Josiah followed suit, wanting to be wholly concealed before the Erran entered the ambush area.

"I hope this works," Josiah grunted as he started climbing with Ezra waiting to follow.

"We will soon find out, one way or another."


A net of cobwebs broke apart when Chris lowered himself past the newly discovered entrance at the foot of Long the dragon's statue.

The air was heavy with the scent of damp soil, and as he lowered himself down the stone shaft, he noticed its walls inhabited by creepers and vines, not to mention the tiny insects skittering out of sight when Vin's flashlight lit up their darkened world. The passage down was narrow, and Chris suspected the original builders were probably the gracile Asians native to this land. While he fit with room to spare, he suspected Buck would find the shaft confining.

Rough-hewn rock handholds mounted against the wall provided the path down the shaft, their stone surface covered with moss. Despite this, they were sturdy enough to take his weight, and with the help of a flame torch dropped to the bottom, Chris was able to climb down without mishap. The glow of the fire allowed Chris to estimate he was facing a climb of almost fifty feet, making him take each step with caution. Above him, the beam from Vin's torch blinded him to the anxiety of the friends watching his journey.

Both Vin and JD had wanted to come down with him, but Chris wasn't about to risk anyone else until he knew what was down here.

"How are you doing, pard?"

To anyone else, Vin's drawl sounded typical of any relaxed Texan, but Chris knew better. The sharpshooter was worried about letting him go off alone. For some reason, Vin never liked being away from Chris's side and the leader of the seven smiled inwardly thinking how the tables had turned. Back in the war, when Vin was just a little boy lost in a battlefield, it was Chris who could not tolerate Vin being out of sight.

"I'm fine," Chris reassured him before pausing long enough to brace himself against the wall. A bead of sweat was threatening to sting his eyes with a spill of salt. "Almost there."

"I wish we knew what 'there' was." This complaint came from Buck.

"I'll tell you when I get there," Chris resumed moving again, having caught his breath. His body still ached from his recent wounds, but he was determined not to let it hinder him. Thank Christ Nathan wasn't here, Chris thought silently. The healer would pitch a fit if he saw Chris undertaking this arduous climb.

"That don't make us feel any better," Vin grumbled, his voice echoing down the shaft.

"Senor Larabee, please be careful," Inez pleaded, and the guilt in her voice that he was undertaking this dangerous thing because of her son was obvious.

"I'm okay," he repeated himself as he saw the ground beneath the dropped torch grow closer. A hairy huntsman spider ran past his ear along the wall, the tiny creature hurrying for cover behind a tangle of creepers.

Chris looked down to see the lines of a tiled floor, barely visible through the dirt. It hastened his determination to reach the bottom, and with a few feet left to his journey, he let go and dropped the rest of the way. He could hear the chatter of the others above, echoing from the top of the shaft. His boots landing on the floor silenced their voices immediately.

"Chris?"

Chris looked up to see the silhouette of Vin's head through the glow of the flashlight aiming down at him. "I'm fine."

"What do you see?"

That's a good question, Chris thought after hearing JD make the inquiry. He bent over and picked up the torch, still burning with enough intensity to tell Chris there was air flowing from somewhere. Amber light illuminated the area and revealed the shaft opened into a tunnel leading away from handholds. It was just high enough to keep his head from scraping the ceiling and covered with the same vegetation lining the walls of the passage he just descended. Taking a few steps ahead, the light revealed a corridor whose end he could not see.

"CHRIS!"

Vin's demand halted Chris from going any further, mindful of the sharpshooter's concerns for him even if Chris was accustomed to making such explorations alone. Staving back the impulse to keep going, Chris backtracked to the handholds and looked up the length of the wall to see Vin getting ready to climb down after him if Chris gave no answer.

"You might as well all come down here. There's a corridor down here. Looks safe enough."

In truth, Chris had no idea of this at all. If there was one thing he learned about hunting relics, the ancients who hid them away often took precautions to protect their treasures from grave robbers, looters, and thieves. From deadly booby traps to cryptic riddles with often fatal consequences, there could be unseen perils lurking in the seemingly benign corridor. If he could have his way, the others would remain above until he cleared the passage, but Chris suspected the probabilities of this was slight. None of his friends would tolerate him going ahead alone, so Chris didn't even bother to convince them.

Besides, there was something to the old adage of there being safety in numbers.

Vin was the first one to reach the ground, quickly followed by JD. Once again, Inez proved her physical prowess didn't limit itself to handling a shotgun or hacking her way through the jungle. The woman moved down the shaft wall like an expert, never more than a few paces behind JD. The last to set down was Buck, and as Chris suspected, his old friend's physique found the subterranean passage quite limiting.

A soft thunk against rock followed by a sharp curse told Chris Buck was definitely too tall for this leg of their journey.

"Damn, Chris," Buck grumbled, rubbing the top of his head after he bumped against the ceiling. "Why do these places always have to be built like gopher holes?"

"Part of the territory. Besides, I don't think they built this place for tall pilots with a whole lot of animal magnetism," Chris grinned, hearing Inez's soft laughter behind him.

"Very funny," Buck snorted, but his tone remained affable as ever.

Chris resumed walking with JD behind him. Vin had given up his spot to JD because the kid often helped Chris navigate such places. Thanks to JD's eidetic memory, his knowledge was often the edge they needed during life and death situations. Right now, JD was surveying the walls as they moved down the tunnel. The combined illumination of their flashlights revealed artwork beneath the years of moss and creepers growing over the stone.

The scholar brought his flashlight closer, his brow furrowing in intense concentration as he took in the fresco. Time had taken its toll on the paintings, now faded and dull. JD imagined that there was a time when they were vivid depictions of the Cham and their beliefs. It saddened him a little, knowing this was lost to the modern people of this land.

"Can you tell what it is, JD?" Inez asked, admiring the elaborate artwork when she paused beside him to observe. Despite Benny's abduction, Inez had to admit this expedition opened her mind up to the wonders of global culture. While nothing would shake her own beliefs, she couldn't help but be fascinated by the religions and mythologies of other nations. It comforted her to know that God wore the faces his people needed wherever in the world they resided.

"Yeah," JD, always happy to go on about some new discovery, answered her with a nod. "I think this is the story of how the Annam people came into being. I read up on their mythology while we were on the plane. I think," he pointed to what looked like a half man-half dragon creature, "is the Dragon King, Lac Long Quan. The story goes, he came to shore and met a fairy Au Co, who always happened to be the Goddess of the Mountain. They fell in love and had a hundred children...."

"Sort of like Buck," Vin couldn't help comment. "Except it's a hundred children with a hundred mothers across the planet."

"Hey!" Buck swatted Vin on the head, not wanting Inez to get ideas that he was some kind of horny goat.

At least not all the time.

"So what happened to them?" Inez probed, following the depictions of the Dragon King battling monstrous creatures. The artwork was mesmerizing, and she imagined what it must have looked like before time and dust muted its colors.

"Well, he's an ocean deity, so he had to go back to the sea eventually, but he and Au Co agreed to protect the land equally. So he took fifty of his sons with him, and she kept the other half. Eventually, they'd become the people of Annam."

"That's sad," she frowned, not liking the idea they were forever separated, just like her and Bernardo. For a moment, she lapsed into silence, thinking about the young man she fell in love with, the nights they spent under the darkness of the warm sky listening to the jungle as they stole a moment away from the camp. They were so young and idealistic, believing their cause could change the world when all they wanted was a place to grow old together.

Buck caught the faraway look in her eyes. "Maybe," he agreed. "But folks can live on a great love for a lifetime."

Inez swallowed away the lump in her throat and flashed him a soft smile of gratitude. "Yes, they can."

JD, oblivious to the undercurrents of emotions swirling around him, continued speaking as he studied the wall. "I wouldn't worry. They probably saw each other every so often. They're gods after all."

Meanwhile, Chris had gone ahead, mindful of keeping the others in the corner of his eye as he explored the tunnel further. Vin had left JD behind and caught up to him. They could still hear JD talking, telling more tales about the deities he was observing on the wall.

"You think the others are okay?"

Chris threw a glance over his shoulder at Vin and knew immediately the sharpshooter was worried about Alex. "Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan won't let anything happen to Alex."

"I know that, but the Erran haven't shown their faces since England, and that makes me nervous. The only reason they're so quiet is that they're following us."

The thought had occurred to Chris too, but there was nothing they could do about it until the Erran chose to show themselves, and Chris had a feeling they would do that when the seven finally unearthed the Jewel. "They won't make a move until we find the Jewel. The Shah's sister needs it to resurrect her brother, possibly even the spell of uncreation."

Vin's jaw tightened because that meant they would need Alex. When he convinced her to join him on this expedition, it was to keep her from falling into the hands of the Russians, in case the Commie bastards tried to take another hostage. However, in doing so, Vin had placed Alex in the crosshairs of the Erran, which was even worse. For their spell to work, they needed a vessel, and with Mary and Julia out of reach, Alex was the only candidate.

"It won't come to that," Chris assured him but also remembered making such assurances when the Tablet of Destiny had fallen into their hands. Back then, he'd left it too long and almost cost Alex her life, this time, he was not going to make the same mistake.

"I know...."

Vin's voice faded when the light of Chris's torch caught the surface of something that reflected the light back at them. It was powerful enough to make both men pause in their steps, squinting at the glare. They looked away, allowing the burst of color in front of their eyes to fade away before they resumed walking, albeit more gingerly now.

"Buck, hold position."

Chris's order ended the commentary about the wall and its imagery, with Buck taking a few steps forward until he remembered Chris's words. "What have you found?"

"Not sure yet," Chris continued moving forward with Vin flanking him now. "Just stay there until I give the all-clear."

Chris could hear Buck bristling from where he was, but the big man said nothing, more than accustomed to obeying his demands. Besides, JD and Inez were here, and his impatience to know what was happening could not stand up to his concern for their well-being. If Chris said to hold still, that's just what he intended to do.

The combined luminance of Chris and Vin's flashlights soon revealed what it was they were approaching. It was no wonder the beams of light were reflected back when the passage ended abruptly. Ahead of them was a set of double bronzed doors that stood from ceiling to floor. Each possessed a single bullring door knocker, crafted of cast iron. Words were carved along the edge, the message carried from one door to the other, in a language Chris could not read.

Etched into the bronze, two to each door were the images of the four elements. JD had named them Long the dragon, Lan the unicorn, Quy the turtle, and Phung the phoenix. They stared back at Chris and Vin, daring the new arrivals to enter, guardians of the chamber that lay beyond.

"JD! Get over here!" Chris called out, needing the kid's help when the words across the door made no sense to him.

"Coming, Chris!"

JD's hasty footsteps were followed by Buck and Inez, and very soon, the relic hunters were standing in a group, halted by the doors before them.

"Can you read it?" Vin asked as JD stepped forward, raising his flashlight so he could see the stylized text closer.

JD did not speak for a few minutes, ignoring the rising impatience of his friends as he studied the ancient script, not about to speculate until he was confident of what those words meant. He pulled out his notebook, looking at the alphabet sequence he'd transcribed for use during this journey, and raised his eyes to the carved words again.

"JD...." Chris spoke after a few more minutes, unable to stand the wait any longer.

"I got it," JD responded, putting away the notebook and looking up at them, wearing a slight scowl.

"What is it?" Inez asked, praying this wasn't some new obstacle they would have to overcome to reach the Jewel. "What does it say?"

"It says," JD replied, still feeling uncertain about what he translated, "Enter the Chamber of Desire to fulfill your greatest wish but only enlightenment will let you leave."


Chapter Twenty-Six:
The Parlor

"Will you walk into my parlor, said the spider to the fly."

When the doors swung open after a single hard push from both Buck and Vin, shaking loose years of gathered dust encrusted on the door jambs surrounding the brass construct, these words struck Chris Larabee. The air rushing out to greet them was stale and musty, with the unpleasant stench of things rotting in damp places. Yet when the door swung open and came to a rest on both sides of the corridor, what greeted them was no perilous contraption emerging through the darkness.

Instead, they were all bathed in glorious, iridescent light. It was as if the Aurora Borealis had chosen to descend from its customary place in the night sky to walk amongst its admirers. For a few seconds, they could only stand there, their mouths agape, mesmerized by what they were seeing. The room beyond was framed with massive statues that almost touched the thirty-foot high ceiling, and Chris recognized them immediately.

Vishnu clutched his sigils with his numerous arms, the mace, the discus, the lotus, and a conch beside the portly Ganesha. With his elephant face, Ganesha carried his own symbols, the axe, sweets, and rope. Completing the holy trinity of the Hindu pantheon was Shiva, the destroyer and creator of the universe. He stood by watching them differently. On the other side of the room were gods Chris could not identify except for one. Nagaraja, the half serpent-half man deity who was king of all the Nagini's.

At the head of the room was the great Buddha. He sat with his arms folded over his round stomach with his upturned palms cradling the Jewel of Cintamani. It was as described and yet more, a perfectly cut stone larger than a man's fist, its facets radiating the powerful strobe that was the source of the glow. It occurred to Chris all these deities had some part in the mythology of the Jewel and were responsible for its creation. Perhaps it was why they stood together, acting as its guardians.

He stared at the Jewel, lost for a moment in the strobe of its radiance, and felt its light flaring over all his senses until his mind could see nothing else. In the back of his mind, a small voice begged him to turn away, but he could not. The light was all-consuming, and in the last second, before it took him completely, he remembered the phrase running through his mind when he stepped inside this room.

"Will you walk into my parlor, said the spider to the fly."


"Chris, I love it!"

Chris froze. A wave of disorientation swept over him briefly, but all of it was sliced away by that familiar voice. He blinked and turned his head slowly, too frightened to breathe because what he heard could not be, and yet every fiber of his being wished it were so. As he moved, he saw the familiar fields and hills of the ranch, turned golden from the summer heat. He had never done anything with the place other than to let it grow wild. He glanced down at himself and stiffened once more. He was wearing his old uniform, the one that spent half a decade languishing in a trunk.

"Are you sure we can afford it?"

Chris finally raised his eyes to the voice, to her voice, and when Sarah Larabee materialized before him, he almost crumbled to the ground from the sheer joy of it. She was standing inches away from him, sunlight bouncing off her hair, her skin almost luminescent as she held Adam's hand, beaming at him with delight and at the house he bought her. The place she never saw because the fire took them both before he could reveal it to her.

Tears welled up in his eyes because he'd forgotten just how beautiful she was, how making her happy was all he wanted in the world. His heart pounded in his chest from sheer emotion, and all he wanted to do right now was to hold her and never let her go. Sarah was the love of his life. No matter who came along after, deep in the core of him, this was the truth. Time would let him love again, but it would never burn as bright or hard as when he was with her.

Before Chris knew what he was doing, he'd wrapped his arms around Sarah in a powerful embrace. He broke into a sob at her warm breath against his cheek. Her fingers stroked his back, the way she did when he had trouble sleeping during those first few days at home, after the war.

"Chris, what's the matter?"

She was puzzled, and Chris couldn't blame her, but he couldn't tell her the truth either. How to tell her she was dead, she and Adam had died in a fire? His grief almost drove him to the edge of oblivion, and it had only taken the friendships made during the war to save his sanity.

"Daddy?"

Fresh tears ran down his cheeks as he pulled away from Sarah to pick up his son. Those small chubby arms wrapped around his neck, and Chris's heart ached once more, remembering how much he missed that embrace, so full of unconditional love and adoration. He held Adam close, ignoring, for now, the painful memories of the child's loss, the regret he felt at all the things Adam would never experience because the fire took away his future.

"I'm fine," Chris whispered, meeting Sarah's gaze as he clung to them both, basking in how real it felt. They were here, and everything was just perfect.

Except...

Flashes appeared in his eyes, images shuffling through his mind like the slow reel of a flicker show. Unable to shut out the visions, spreading through him like poison, taining an otherwise beautiful moment.

"Clean this up nigger."

Nathan Jackson was on his knees on the floor of a grey corridor, lit up by harsh light bulbs encased in wire mesh spaced across the ceiling. He was glaring at a tall man with a crew cut and a white uniform, whose sneer Chris knew all too well and no doubt Nathan lived with all his life. The bucket in front of Nathan was tipped over. Its filthy water spilled across what appeared to be a freshly mopped floor. The mop lay sprawled across the tiles, the wooden handle soaked in fetid water.

Nathan was wearing the uniform of a janitor, and in a second, Chris realized if he hadn't found the healer and enlisted him to join his first expedition, this would still be Nathan's fate. Mopping floors and cleaning up after lesser men who would never see him as anything but colored.

"Unless you're too good for this, medic."

The word was spat not spoken but Nathan simply accepted the abuse. It ached for Chris to see the dignity in his friend's eyes die just a little more. In the war, Nathan had put them back together, had held the hands of the dying, and soothed their fears and suffering to make the journey to the next world easier. He deserved better than this.

The scene shifted and now an alley appeared, its innards lit up by a strobe of the lamp post just beyond its mouth.

Chris saw shadows of four men. One pinned against the wall by two others, the fourth standing in front of the trapped man. The victim against the wall wore a suit while the other three were in work clothes. Chris didn't need the light to see the rivulets of blood running down his face and lips to know right away it was none other than Ezra Standish at the mercy of these thugs.

"Gentlemen," Ezra stuttered his words, and Chris saw flecks of bloody spittle flying out of his mouth as he tried to speak through a broken jaw. "I assure you, I won our game fairly."

Shit, Chris thought to himself and winced when the man in front of Ezra threw another punch, landing squarely in the gambler's gut. Ezra almost doubled over but was prevented from doing so by the powerful grip around his wrists.

"Hold his hand out," the man who threw the punch ordered, and one of them flattened Ezra's palm against the grimy brick.

Chris saw Ezra's eyes widened in horror, and with that understanding came raw panic. He struggled even more vehemently, trying to break away, but the men holding him allowed no escape. In the darkness of the alley, the long-bladed knife produced became all the light in the world, and Chris could only watch as the blade lowered to one of Ezra's fingers...

He turned away before the scream reached his ears.

But the scream did not stop, and its pitch changed, and as Chris blinked and looked again, he saw Josiah standing in a corridor, not that different from the one Nathan had been in. Josiah was staring through the small window on the door, his expression nothing less than anguished. Like an unseen specter, Chris followed his gaze and looked through the glass to see what despaired his friend so.

In the corner of the room, her hair in ropey tangles while wearing an expression of detachment, was a woman. Bruises covered her exposed skin while the rest of her was bound in the straightjacket. As she crouched in her padded room, she banged her head against the wall, oblivious to everything except the madness skewing her perception of the world.

Hannah. This was Josiah's sister Hannah.

It was a stark contrast from the woman he'd seen once before. On that occasion, she occupied a sunlit room, painting watercolors, looking content even if she existed in a reality that permitted no visitors. She was beautiful and elegant with greying blond hair and patrician features, unlike her older brother, who could never be considered the same. Chris knew as soon as their expeditions started paying good money, Josiah moved Hannah to a private sanitarium with doctors who ensured she never devolved into this pitiful creature in a straight jacket.

How had she come to this?

Against his will, he knew perfectly well how and the revelation broke him half because it was entirely his fault.

As if to drive the dagger deeper into his heart, he saw JD sweeping floors at a hardware store, his face a mask of broken will. For a moment, Chris couldn't understand why he was pushing a broom in the middle of the day. The kid should have been at college, surrounded by books, learning his languages, and preparing to be an archaeologist and linguist. Then he remembered what had brought JD to the team.

JD had lost his scholarship due to the machinations of a rich bully and his family. He hadn't been kicked out of school, but there was no way he could afford the tuition without the scholarship, and with his mother gone and times the way they were, his college education vanished before his eyes. Joining Chris was how JD remained in school, and without them, he had no choice but to follow the millions on the breadlines.

JD often declared how lucky he was to be one of the seven, but in truth, it was they who were fortunate to have him.

JD reminded his friends of how it felt to be young when every experience was something to be cherished. Seeing the world through his eyes where the world was still an oyster to be opened made Chris and the others feel a little less jaded. It became their secret pact to ensure the wonder never faded from JD's eyes. A similar compact forged their friendship when a ten-year-old Vin Tanner wandered into their lives in the trenches of France.

"Chris, I love you so much for this. It's going to be perfect for the new baby."

Sarah's voice interrupted the unpleasant glimpses of his friend's lives, and when Chris looked at her, he felt his resolve to never let her or Adam go strengthened. Maintaining his embrace, he ignored the images tugging at the edge of his consciousness, demanding an audience. Chris didn't want to witness the price exacted for his family's return.

Even if he was damned for it.


She was standing in the middle of a street in Val Verde.

For a moment, disorientation kept Inez from being wholly aware of her surroundings. The last thing she remembered was stepping into the chamber beyond the doors, where a pantheon of statues flanked the Buddha holding the Jewel of Cintamani in his hands. With the object of her search so close, Inez crossed the tiled floor of sandstone, wanting to snatch it up before it slipped out of reach again. This emerald Jewel was the key to saving her son, and she ignored the sacrilege she was committing by taking it from its resting place.

Yet as she neared it, the unearthly glow radiating throughout the room drew her to it like a moth to the flame. Mesmerized against her will, Inez could do nothing but be swept away by it...

The sound of raucous laughter and mariachi music snapped her back to clarity. Before Inez was a building she knew well. It was a bar called Sabores Antiguos.

In Val Verde.

For a moment, she couldn't understand what was happening, or she had come to be here of all places. After the war, Inez returned home with Bernardo to find some did not see the Cristeros as heroes but rather rebels who escaped accountability as terrorists. Work had been scarce and after a brief time cleaning homes to make ends meet, Inez had taken a job as a waitress at the bar. Miguel, a Cristeros sympathizer, allowed her to play her guitar when the crowd was in the mood. Still, for the most part, Inez spent her shifts wiping down tables, sweeping floors, and serving customers who were often too rowdy for their own good.

Why on earth did she see this place?

Then as if the universe itself was answering her questions, the bar's familiar batwing doors, with their peeling red paint, swung open to reveal Bernardo.

"Bernardo!"

The joy of seeing him again blinded her to how much the man had changed. All she knew was he was here, alive, and without thinking, she rushed towards him, wrapping her arms around him in a powerful embrace, her lips planting his face with soft kisses of joy.

At the core of her, she knew this was the Jewel's doing but seeing him again made the doubt in the back of her mind fade away. Until now, she refused to entertain thoughts that the Jewel could resurrect him. It was a sin to circumvent God's will, but seeing Bernando ago made that trespass seem less.

"Inez, what are you doing here?"

The voice he used was so cold it shocked her more than him pushing her away.

Staring at him puzzled, she noted the hard gleam in his eyes. If she didn't know better, she might have thought it was animosity.

"Bernardo, I am just happy to see you," she stuttered, confused

They stood alone in the street because at this hour of the night, most of Val Verde had turned in for the evening. Shops were boarded up, and only drunks were staggering home on the sidewalks. Only the patrons of the bar were awake, descending into their hedonistic pleasures, amidst the sound of music and clinking mugs.

"That is a change," he snorted and pushed past her, heading in the direction of their small home now far from here.

As he walked by, Inez began to really see him. His lean gait was now paunchy while his features were marred by the sallow jowls of a drunkard. His untucked shirt and uneven steps told Inez how he spent his evening.

"A change?" Inez caught up with him quickly and flinched when she breathed in the scent of stale liquor. She'd been so happy to see him, she hadn't noticed his condition, but now it was impossible to ignore. How could this be? Bernardo was never a drinker. Like all men, he shared spirits with his friends but not in quantities that would reduce him to this wretch.

"You're usually nagging about how late I am, how little money I make, which girl you think I went behind your back. Always something.. You and your mother, always quick to remind me what a failure I am."

"Failure?" Now Inez was genuinely astonished. She was only ever proud of him. He was Cristeros, fearless and dedicated. "I could never think that."

"Don't lie to my face!" He spun on his heels and spat at her, so drunk he almost lost his steps doing it. The hatred in his eyes bore into her flesh like fire with loathing just as deep. It made her stop in her steps, stunned by the venom in his voice until she understood his burning resentment was not for her but for himself.

Then she remembered all the difficulties before his disappearance. It's funny how time and absence gave one a rosier view of how things used to be instead of how they were. Before Benny was born and she could no longer work, it was up to Bernardo to earn their living because Paloma's wage alone could not support them. Bernardo tried to make money but what work was offered was not fit for someone with the stature of a Cristeros. Not many were anxious to employ an ex-rebel soldier, and by the end, he was reduced to considering cleaning stables and digging in the fields to provide for his family.

Isn't that why he chose to go to Europe in the first place? Finding an ancient relic for George Roerich promised money in a job suited to his talents and intelligence. She agreed to let him go because she wanted him to regain his pride, but what if she hadn't? What if forcing him to stay was what made him the man standing before now? The one staring at her with such contempt?

A part of Inez knew this was an illusion, a fantasy created by the Jewel to teach her that fate would not be denied. Bernardo was meant to die at the hands of the Russians, and she was to go on without him. Yet, no matter how ruined he seemed right now, no matter how much he might her, choosing to end this reality would be condemning him to death again. How could anyone expect her to make such a choice?

How could she do that to him?


Vin Tanner had no idea where the hell he was.

One minute he was entering the chamber with the others, the glow of the Jewel surrounding him, and the next, he was standing on a sidewalk, with the sun blazing over his head. The terrain in the distance was flat, covered with cacti and clusters of spiky agave bushes, while the mesa and canyons stood impressively against the horizon. At the sight of them, it dawned on Vin where he was.

From the row of shops flanking the main road to the turn of the street at the corner, this was the place he fled after his mother died. This was Tascosa.

"Remember, keep your eyes down," a woman advised, and as Vin turned to face her, he noticed he was standing amongst a crowd gathered on along the sidewalk. However, that observation was forgotten once he realised who had spoken to him.

It was Adelaide Tanner, his mother.

An absurd thought struck him as he tried to process how this could be. She appeared so different when he was the one who had to look down at her. After all, he had only known her as a small child. Now she looked petite and slender, not to mention so terribly fragile.

"Momma?" he whispered, feeling his heart clench once he gave in to the belief it was really her. She was older, with creases under her eyes and grey in her hair, but there was no doubt in his mind, this was her, his mother. Adelaide, who died when he was five, leaving him all alone in the world.

As he took in the sight of her, other things reached his notice. She was dressed in a shift that looked decided eastern in origin, like those worn in Arabia. It wasn't just her though, all the women were dressed this way, in fabrics drab and devoid of any color. His own clothes were different too. He and the men around him were wearing white shirts and pants. For a moment, he thought he looked like one of those Mexican peasants in every western he ever saw.

"What's going on?"

"Quiet," Adelaide shushed him, her expression growing urgent as she forced him to drop his gaze to the ground. "We don't want to draw any attention, especially today."

Vin needed answers. The first and foremost was how she had come to be here, even though he could not deny wishing for this as long as he could remember. Lately, he'd been thinking about Adelaide a lot, regretting how she never got to meet the friends who were such a big part of his life, not to mention Alex. However, his confused thoughts were interrupted by the loud blare of a trumpet nearby.

When he turned instinctively in its direction, he froze, and suddenly everything became terrifyingly clear.

If something was too good to be true, it usually was. Vin learned this lesson early on in life and understood Adelaide's presence here had come with a price, a rather devastating one. Not just for him, but the entire world, perhaps even all of creation.

Marching down the street, the Erran held formation like a French column. In their distinct red robes, they stomped down the road as if they owned it, and judging by the fear on the faces of the crowd, Vin realized just might. However, his shock was nothing compared to the horror when he saw the cultists ferrying someone on a golden litter.

Not someone. Alex.

She lay on her side, propped up on one elbow resembling one of those Roman ladies in a sword and sandals flick, her black hair piled high, her gown barely concealing her shapely figure. Her face was painted with bright colors, with her eyes accentuated by dark eyeliner. Yet they were not the eyes of the woman he loved or the doctor who would let nothing stand in her way when there was someone to heal. The eyes surveying the crowd belonged to a stranger.

They were the eyes of Tiamat.

Chapter Twenty-Seven:
Enlightenment

Completely unaware of the existential trials their comrades were undergoing, the rest of the seven and their familiars awaited the approach of an enemy who was very much steeped in reality.

Shortly after Nathan sounded the alarm, they climbed into position. The sky, what little of it they could see from under the canopy of thick rainforest leaves, vanished behind opaque grey clouds. If in the company of a native, they would have learned this was usual for the climate, and within a space of ten minutes, a hard, driving rain descended upon them. It was rain unlike anything they'd ever experienced before, and it battered on them so violently, Ezra worried it might have rendered their booby traps useless. Visibility worsened with the tropical rainfall turning the water into a light mist obscuring everything.

"Can you see anything?"

Nathan squinted the rain out of his eyes. Shapes approached, but he could not be sure of how many with the rain and dim light of the jungle. Looking down, he nodded in response to Ezra's quiet whisper. The rain was teeming down on them through the trees, making the bark slippery and compromising their positions, but they had no choice but to hold firm.

"Everything will be alright, Alexandra," Ezra assured Alex, who was clinging to the trunk of the tree from her perch.

Josiah looked over his shoulder at Ezra, and both men exchanged a glance indicating otherwise.

BOOM!

The loud explosion muted the shrill scream of pain and the shocked exclamations of those in the victim's company. The cacophony of panic gave away the enemy's position immediately, with leaves and branches shaking as panicked red-robed figures became visible through the green. Another explosion resulted from their fearful scattering. This time, one cultist was propelled into the air, visible to all, his arms flailing before he landed in the bushes. The terrible snapping of either branch or bone revealed he would not be getting up again.

The second blast sent the Erran into complete disarray even before an angry voice rose about the chaos to announce the obvious. "IT'S A TRAP!"

A woman's voice, harsh like a fishmonger's wife, prompting Ezra to avert his eyes towards Alex. The doctor's expression of fear a moment ago had withered away into menace. The gambler did not at all like the transformation. The voice could only belong to Aisha, and considering Alex's feelings towards the woman, Ezra wasn't entirely sure how her surprise unveiling would affect the doctor.

There was no time to debate the matter because the Erran were not only in panic, they were exposed.

When another grenade detonated, Ezra dropped his arm and gave the signal to fire. Both Josiah and Nathan were already poised to act when yet another grenade detonated. No sooner than the blast rocked the air, they opened fire, silencing the scream of death from the grenade's victim in the rat-tat-tat noise of gunfire. Although comprehending the depth of their predicament, the Erran had yet to take cover, allowing Josiah and Nathan to pick them off quickly.

Nathan's first bullet caught one of the Erran in the head, mainly because it was the part of him least obscured by the chest-high vegetation. The force of the shot snapped his head back as if it were on springs. Blood and brain matter sprayed in all directions before he dropped to the ground. Another cultist tried to retreat but the bullet that caught him in the arms sliced clearly through his bicep to keep going. It penetrated his ribs, and what it destroyed then ensured he would not be taking another step.

"ANZIL!"

Although it had been years since any of them had encountered the enemy combatants of the Ottoman Empire, the relic hunters remembered enough to comprehend the warning. A man with a loud booming voice bellowed with enough command to ensure obedience. Like the ripple of a red tide, Ezra sighed the Erran dropping to the ground, trying to avoid the gunfire cutting them down like flies. The gambler took aim, searching the area for the one in charge, suspecting that voice belonged to a dark behemoth who once nearly snapped his neck like kindling.

Krestos.

The name surfaced in Ezra's mind without a second thought. He remembered hearing it when the seven were kneeling on that plateau in Ur, watching helplessly as the Erran prepared Alex for sacrifice. Krestos was Adashir Shah's trusted lieutenant, and Ezra did not doubt he now played the part for Aisha.

Krestos wasn't difficult to find in the jungle. Despite the forest surrounding the titan Ezra and the others were using for cover, the other trees were nowhere comparable in size. The henchman's bulk remained visible despite his best efforts to take refuge behind one of them. Ezra raised his rifle, deciding if he could end the man, it might send the enemy ranks into further disarray.

A bullet impacting against the branch just above his head threw his shot when he turned away sharply to avoid the splinters flying in his direction. The rain rendered some of Josiah's traps inert, and the Erran, guessing the origin of the gunfire, assailed them with a barrage of bullets. Shrinking further down the thick branch, he saw Josiah and Nathan doing the same. Alex had climbed onto another branch, placing the tree's thick trunk between her and the shots. Disappearing from view, Ezra let out a sigh of relief she was sensible enough to get to safety without prompting.

Another flash of red gave away the position of an Erran firing at them, and in a blink of an eye, Ezra saw him tumbling into the tall grass, sent there by one of Josiah's bullets. It was the last shot the man fired before he shifted position, moving behind the trunk while still remaining aloft to protect himself from the incoming fire. Ezra lingered just a little longer, trying to reacquire Krestos as a target when he sighted the man circling their tree, no doubt trying to outflank them.

Ezra fired again, cutting down the grass as he discharged shot after shot, but Krestos was remarkably fast for a man of his size, avoiding injury. The attempt earned Ezra the concentrated fire of the Erran, and suddenly, branches and leaves were cut to shreds around him. Battered by splinters and fragments of foliage and wood, he had no choice but to retreat. He was crawling back towards the trunk when something caught him in the shoulder. His arm immediately went slack a split second before he slipped off the branch, unable to hold on.

"EZRA!"

Nathan's voice exploded in his ear as the world became a dizzying kaleidoscope of green and light before blinding white pain rushed through him with the hard stop of reality against the ground. The tall shrubs swallowed him, and the blast of a rifle startled him further into clarity when he saw his gun landing next to him, having gone off when it hit the dirt. Ezra took some small comfort in the cry following its discharge.

Rolling onto his back, waves of agony ran through his shoulder, and his left arm felt useless and limp. He couldn't even move it to sit up. The rain continued to batter him into the muddy ground, with revulsion running through Ezra when he felt soft, slimy things squirming beneath his back. Overhead, he saw leaves shook as bullets flew over his head, shredding the vegetation on its way past him.

"I'll get him!"

Hearing Alex's voice making that declaration was enough to snap Ezra back to his senses. He grunted as he rolled onto his belly, eyes widening with horror at her intention to come after him. It was too dangerous! If anything happened to her Vin would never forgive him, and Ezra wouldn't blame him one bit. Before he could order her to stop, she was already descending, moving swiftly for a woman wearing a long skirt. In a few seconds, she vanished behind the vegetation surrounding him.

The gunfire intensified with the Erran pressing their advantage now that the relic hunters were a number short. It was probably why Alex was coming for him. She knew as well as he did that they couldn't risk Josiah and Nathan moving from their positions to rescue him. With his injury, they were needed more than ever to keep the enemy at bay.

Not long after, she emerged through the grass, having crawled on her belly to reach him. Crouching low to the ground to avoid the gunfire exploding above her, she scrambled through the shrubs to reach him a few seconds later, her clothes covered in mud and damp and broken pieces of grass. A veil of worry fell over her face at the sight of him, her gaze resting on his shoulder.

Ezra hadn't bothered to inspect himself, but when he tilted his head towards his shoulder, he understood her concern. Blood soaked the fabric of his ruined shirt.

"Oh, Ezra," she got on her hands and knees, "let's get you out of here."

"Alex, you need to leave me. It is much too dangerous...."

"Ezra, I'm not listening to you," she hovered over him, inspecting the injury to determine if it was safe for him to move. "Now, let me look at you."

Ezra uttered a curse of exasperation. Alex didn't hear him over the gunfire, but he saw her jump when a bullet struck too close. So far, both Josiah and Nathan were holding their own, probably because the two men were accustomed to fighting in wet and miserable conditions, probably more than the Erran. The latter were, by nature, desert people. However, this impasse could not last indefinitely.

"My arm is numb," he volunteered as she probed his wound gently.

"Probably because the bullet damaged the brachial nerve," Alex explained and then took him by his useless arm and helped him to roll over. "At least it won't hurt while we get out of here."

"Oh, how comforting," Ezra grumbled and started moving slowly, pain lancing through him with each movement.

"Don't worry, Ezra," Alex said quietly, "if they catch up to us, I have in your words, an ace up my sleeve."

For some reason, that made Ezra feel worse.


We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.

- Buddha

What the hell was going on?

The unspoken question demanded in Buck's mind when he found himself surrounded by friends who seemed trapped in some fugue state. While the light show bathing the room was spectacular, Buck was not enamored by it. Not when he could see what else was in the chamber with them. Drawn to the beauty of the Jewel, the other did not see what lay strewn across the tiled floor even though Buck noticed immediately.

Skeletons. More specifically, human skeletons.

There were dozens of them lying across the floor and resting at the foot of the statues framing the room. What killed them was a mystery since their flesh had long ago turned to dust while their clothes were little more than tattered fabric. Those who carried weapons never appeared to have drawn them, with many of the sabers still sheathed in their scabbards, the ornate floral inlays barely visible through the dust.

What surprised Buck was that none of his friends noticed this. They simply stood in place, gripped by something only they could see.

"CHRIS!"

Buck went to his oldest friend first, deciding if he could snap Chris out of it, then the leader of the seven would be able to help him do the same to the others. He resisted the compulsion to go to Inez, aware that he couldn't be selfish at a time like this. It wasn't just her in danger. It was Vin and JD too. Grasping Chris's shoulder, Buck shook him vigorously until Chris's head lolled back and forth so violently, Buck thought it might snap right off. However, it did little good. Chris's eyes saw nothing, and he reacted to even less.

"Damn it, Chris! Snap out of it!"

Frustrated by his lack of success, Buck stomped over to Vin, sidestepping another skeleton as he did so, his face wrinkling in disgust. Just like Chris, Vin was out of it, and no amount of hollering Buck seemed to do could bring him back to reality. It struck Buck this was what became of the poor souls in the room. Had they been so lost in this state they were oblivious to the danger to their very ends? Is that why their weapons remained sheathed or their bodies unmarked by any violence? Had they simply stood here like statues until they starved to death?

Finally, Buck wanted to know what made him different. Why was he still in his right mind?

After a few more minutes of trying desperately to rouse his friends from their catatonic state, Buck surrendered to the situation and debated what to do next. Pilgrims coming to this chamber met their ends the same way, their failure left behind in the skeletons scattered throughout the room. He wasn't affected for reasons he could not explain, but he was determined not to let Chris, Vin, Inez, and JD join this macabre menagerie.

Buck did the only thing he could do under the circumstances. He went for the Jewel. It still rested in the curve of the Buddha's upturned palm waiting to be claimed. Chris should be doing this, Buck thought as he crossed the floor, tossing a glance behind him at the thought. The seven's leader still stood in place, with arms hanging limply and his icy colored gaze frozen. All of them, Buck sighed, were in some private prison he could not imagine, and the key to their freedom was the emerald gem before him.

Buck stood before the Buddha, feeling ridiculously intimidated not only by the looming statue but by all the stony deities surrounding him. The light radiating from the gem made him wince, and he shifted his gaze to avoid looking directly at it, focusing instead on the statues along each wall. Buck wondered if the gods were judging him as he stood there, weighing his life on some unseen scales. The Egyptians did that, didn't they? Anubis measured the sum of one's life after death, using the results to determine the afterlife deserved.

To hell with this, Buck grumbled and faced front again, squinting to avoid being blinded by its powerful radiance. No one, not god or man, could tell him whether or not he was worthy. That judgment was his and his alone. Procrastinating no further, Buck reached out, his eyes clamped shut, bracing for the worst as he became the first man in centuries to hold the Jewel of Cintamani.

Buck wasn't sure what he expected, but it surprised him how cool the smooth surface felt beneath his fingertips. With light pouring out of it, Buck expected heat, but instead, he felt the cool of marble that made you want to stretch out across it on a warm summer's day. Eyes still closed, he tightened his grip and drew it towards him when he heard a voice echoing in his mind.

What do you wish?

"Wish?" Buck asked, unaware he made the exclamation out loud. Not that it mattered, the others were beyond listening to him. The voice came with a local accent, with words enunciated for clarity. Cautiously, he answered, wondering how much of this was in his head and how much was real.

"Who are you?"

I am what you seek.

"What I seek?" Buck started to say when a flash of insight came to him, and as shocked as he was, it made perfect sense. Then again, he could now be just as trapped as the others. Still, he trusted his gut that he was right about his deduction. "The Jewel?"

I am one of four who descended from the sky, breathed to life by creators of the heavens. What do you wish?

"Why do you keep asking me that? I don't wish for anything except to know what's wrong with my friends."

They are each receiving enlightenment.

"Enlightenment? What does that mean?" Buck remembered the warning JD read across the door before entering the chamber, but that did not untangle the cryptic response.

All of existence is bound together by the threads of every being. If one is cut or changed, it affects all. Reality is a river. It flows in one direction. Throw a rock into its path, and that river will flow elsewhere.

Buck grasped the concept even if it was wrapped in some highfalutin words that made it sound more complicated than it really was. "They're getting what they wished, but it ain't working out the way they wanted, is it?"

No.

Buck opened his eyes, the Jewel still in his grip. He swung around and stared at his friends, understanding why no one left this place alive. Why would they wish to? The trap snaring them was a gilded cage, tempting them with illusions too irresistible for anyone to deny. Even as the thought crossed his mind, Buck guessed immediately where Chris would be. If Buck was right, there would be no way to get Chris to leave the illusion willingly. Buck wasn't sure about the others, but he suspected they too were trapped in their own fantasies, but it was a fantasy that also exacted a terrible price.

"Why am I not seeing anything?"

You have reached enlightenment. You are content. You have no place in your heart for things that have passed. You lived for the now and hope for the future."

It wasn't a lie.

If asked to quote anything spoken by the big fella at the front of the room, his carved face staring seemingly at the world, Buck would have drawn a blank. Yet, if he was a reader of the former Prince Siddhattha's words, he would have found much to like. Of the seven men who traveled the world searching for its mysteries, Buck knew himself the best. The past, by his reckoning, was immutable, and though it could be painful, the so-called 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune were the foundations of his life. The future was hope he looked forward to experiencing in the fullness of time.

What need did he have to wish for more?

Pondering what might have been seemed to Buck to be such a terrible waste of time. For every wound sustained in his life, there were also treasures. He never had a father, but General Marcus Larabee accepted him like a son. His mother was a whore in the eyes of the world, but she was the first woman who loved him unconditionally and made Buck proud to be her child. When she died, the loneliness he feared was supplanted by Chris, who became his family, just like the friends he made in those mud-filled trenches of the war.

Buck was a rich man without ever having a dime in his pocket because he didn't waste time with regret. Everything Buck wanted in life, he had. The sky, a family, and perhaps a woman he might one day share his life with. He did not concern himself with what might have been because what is right now was pretty damn special.

"I guess," he admitted reluctantly. "But they can't do what I did. You gotta help them. Please."

What do you wish?

Finally, he understood. So long as the Jewel was in his grasp, it would do as he wished, including answering all his questions. With this knowledge in mind, Buck grasped what needed to be done. "I wish for them to wake up."

They have not reached enlightenment. They may not wish it.

"I don't care! Wake them up. Wherever they are, they're being forced to make an impossible choice. I won't have them twist up in knots, sacrificing one thing for another. No one should have to do that."

As you wish.


*Anzil - Drop

Chapter Twenty-Eight:
Insurance

Mud splattered across dry, rotting vegetation as Ezra and Alex made their way to safety. Using the tall shrubs and grass to hide their escape, their goal was clear; repair Ezra's shoulder so he could help Nathan and Josiah. The gap in their defenses due to his absence was an advantage they could not allow the enemy to exploit. The Erran outnumbered them two, perhaps even three to one.

Despite Nathan and Josiah's formidable marksmanship, they could not make up for his loss.

The trade of bullets still continued with Ezra conscious of every shot, fearful even one good aim might have devastating consequences to his two friends. Still, Alex was not about to let him go, and as he moved along, he knew it was more than just his useless arm. The side of his body where he landed after a twelve-foot drop ached with each movement with a good chance he was severely bruised. Not that he needed to reveal this to Alex, she could tell from every wince and grimace across his face, he was hurt worse than he let one.

"Alexandra, you need to leave me," he grunted when they paused for a moment, the pain too much for him to tolerate. Despite himself, Ezra sank to his knees, clutching his limp arm as if squeezing hard enough would force the feeling back into it. "I am sadly spent."

"Ezra, I'm not leaving you," she too caught her breath, both hands on her hips as she leaned forward to regain her stamina. "I know it's more than just your shoulder you've hurt. You might have broken ribs like Chris."

"Please," Ezra snorted. "If I sustained injuries, they are far more exceptional than Mr. Larabee's."

Alex uttered a short laugh despite the situation. "Anything happens to you under my watch, Vin will never forgive me. You know he loves you as much as he loves Chris."

That did make Ezra blink in surprise. "Really?"

"Ezra," she placed a hand on his cheek, wondering what on Earth happened to this man to think he could be so undeserving of anyone's regard. "You know what Vin said to me once about you? You opened the world to him just by teaching him how to read and write his name."

A lump formed in his throat without warning, and Ezra thought of the nights around the campfire in the ruined fields of France. War and destruction transformed the pastoral landscape into graveyards of burnt tree stumps and trampled grass. Its beauty was supplanted by a vista of bleak desolation, but by the amber glow of their fire, hope lived in a young boy's eyes. Sitting at his side, Ezra would read the 'Labours of Hercules' to Vin. The boy would listen in rapt attention to every word he uttered and understood reading was a gift, a gift Ezra was only too happy to teach him.

Never one to show how he felt no matter how much her words touched him, Ezra cleared his throat to center himself. The pain receded just a little, and he wondered if the warm swell in his heart had anything to do with it.

"Alexandra, that may well be, but you still have to get out of here."

Gunfire continued to explode behind them. Each shot became the battle for dominance, language could no longer articulate. It was hard to say who was the victor, but Ezra knew the stalemate would not last for long. The Erran had the advantage despite the ambush attack. Then as if he courted fate by thinking this, the grasses parted before them, and stepping through was Krestos, accompanied by three men and Aisha.

"Alex, run!"

Even as he uttered the warning, the Erran contingent spread out to surround their position, their guns ensuring any attempt to escape would be futile. Barring their way, Krestos stood with his weapon brandished, a somewhat redundant gesture, Ezra thought, considering the man had more than enough strength and bulk to ensure neither he nor Alex would go anywhere unless he wished it.

"Stay where you are," Krestos spoke, his voice possessing the low, eastern cadence that conveyed his authority and his menace most effectively. "We do not need all of you alive."

Ezra swore under his breath, hating he was the cause of their plan falling into ruin. His injury left a gap in their defenses the enemy had exploited, and now Ezra's worst fears were realized. Alex had fallen into the Errans' hands again.

"If I could, would we be in this predicament," Ezra answered with his usual aplomb, not about to let the enemy have the last word, even if they had the upper hand.

"Clever, Mr. Standish. How nice to see you again." Aisha sneered and then nodded at Krestos, giving him permission to continue. "

"Alas, I cannot say the feeling is mutual."

Krestos broke away from the group, returning to the edge of the firefight before bellowing at the top of his lungs.

"WE HAVE YOUR FRIENDS!"

His booming voice rose above the sound of the bullets, and with a sinking feeling, Alex and Ezra could hear the shots sputtering to an end. Still, they did not entirely stop, prompting Krestos to make a second demand.

"STOP FIRING AND LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPONS! IF YOU DO NOT SURRENDER, WE WILL KILL STANDISH!"

After a few seconds, the shooting tapered off, and the silence stretched beyond the cessation of hostilities.

Aisha's attention turned to Alex. The triumph on her face was unmistakable, but then after the hostilities of their last encounter, Ezra supposed there was good reason for it. According to Vin, the two women had gone hand to hand, and such behavior from the fairer sex only appeared in extreme situations. The Amira marched up to Alex, who hadn't moved a muscle since their capture except to release her grip on Ezra's arm.

Without giving her any time to react, Aisha grabbed Alex by the hair and dragged her to her feet. The doctor uttered a soft cry of pain, prompting Ezra into action.

"Ezra, it's okay!" Alex assured him, still twisting in Aisha's grip. "Don't give them an excuse to shoot you."

"We are going to kill your friends anyway," Aisha hissed in Alex's ear, enjoying the power she had as she kept Alex's face inches from her. "Once my brother is restored to me, I will see to it you get to watch while we kill all of them," she shot Ezra a look of pure venom and then eyed Alex again, a sneer across her lips, "and your lover."

If Aisha expected a reaction from Alex, she would have been disappointed. Under the circumstances, the doctor was remarkably calm, almost sedate. After hearing her concerns about the Erran, Ezra found her indifference puzzling. The threat the Erran posed to her and her future children truly frightened her, yet she did not fight back as Aisha continued posturing.

"She was going to kill me," Aisha boasted gleefully to her minions, the glee in her voice raising Ezra's ire even more. She gripped Alex's hair even harder, forcing the doctor closer. "So much for your threats. I knew they were empty."

"Is this necessary?" Ezra snapped, feeling impotent at being able to do nothing to help Alex, not when the three cultists around them would kill him long before he could deliver her from this indignity. Yet once again, he was struck with uneasiness at Alex's resignation to her fate. Aisha was crowing her victory, completely exultant in her power over the situation, with Alex doing nothing to refute her.

"Of course it is," Aisha smirked, shifting her gaze from Alex to look at Ezra.

It was just a split-second distraction, but it was all the time in the world for Alex.

Like a mannequin given breath, Alex snapped back to life, revealing what she had concealed under her long skirt, retrieved when she let go of Ezra earlier. Before Aisha could register what was happening, it was Alex who dug her fingers into the woman's hair with one hand while the other stabbed the needle of the syringe deep into her neck. Aisha uttered a scream as the Erran ran to the aid of their mistress, forgetting all about Ezra. One of them had the presence of mind to call for help.

"KRESTOS!"

Meanwhile, Ezra scrambled for the rifle lying across the ground next to the brown leather satchel Alex used as her first aid kit. His arm still felt useless, but he was determined to make the weapon work one way or another.

The first Erran to reach Alex swatted her away from Aisha, who sank to her knees, the needle still planted in her neck. Alex hit the ground, the soft rotting leaves cushioning her fall. She clutched her cheek but still did not appear hurt or afraid. Instead, she seemed to expect everything that was taking place, even as two of the Erran raised their guns, preparing to shoot, while the third rushed to Aisha's side.

"Amira, are you alright?"

Ezra fumbled with his gun as the Amira struggled to respond, trying to shoot until something struck him from behind. The pain flared across his skull, making him see stars just a second before he landed face first in the muck, the gun falling from his feebled grip. Dazed, he was vaguely aware of the shadow moving over him. Kresto's large feet stomped past him towards Aisha, who didn't seem affected by the contents of the syringe lying across the ground. Not yet.

"Kill her!" Krestos shouted, panicked by what the infidel might have done to his Amira.

"Wait!" Aisha shouted, getting to her feet with the help of her men.

For the first time, Alex spoke. "Now that's the smartest thing you've done since this whole thing began."


"WE HAVE YOUR FRIENDS!"

At first, Josiah barely heard the warning over the roar of gunfire. He stopped firing to listen, but further exploding shells made it difficult to make out, and he prayed he was wrong about what he'd heard. Then again, he'd lost sight of both Alex and Ezra so he had to consider the possibility of their capture.

When Ezra took his tumble off the tree branch, Josiah intended to descend his sweet spot to help the gambler until he saw Alex climbing down instead. As much as he wanted to tell her to stay put, Josiah couldn't deny her actions would allow him to continue his part in the ambush of the Erran. As it was, losing Ezra created an opening in their defenses. The rain had already reduced their chances, rendering useless some of the traps he set for the enemy, and as lethal as the grenades had been, it had not cut down nearly enough of the cultists. If that gap allowed the Erran to slip past their defenses...

"STOP FIRING AND LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPONS! IF YOU DO NOT SURRENDER, WE WILL KILL STANDISH!"

This time, there was no mistaking the warning. Both Josiah and Nathan exchanged glances from their respective hiding places, trying to decide what to do. There was no doubt in Josiah's mind that surrendering would only prolong the inevitable. If the Erran captured them, they would be killed anyway. The Erran had use for only Alex. The rest of them were a nuisance, one the enemy would not keep alive to cause further mischief.

Even as he and Nathan debated what to do, they could see the rustle of shrubs surrounding them, the telltale signs of the Eran closing in on their position. Thanks to his height, they were able to see the turbaned head of Krestos ordering his men to hold fire to see what came next. Needing to discuss their situation, Nathan descended the branch, moving with agility from limb to limb until he joined Josiah. His words to Josiah mirrored the older man's thoughts perfectly.

"We can't surrender. If we do, the Erran will kill us anyway and still take Miss Alex."

"I know, but we're stuck between a rock and a hard place. Ezra's hurt. You saw that fall he took."

Nathan did see, and it had panicked him enough to almost go to his best friend's aid until he regained his senses long enough to see the peril of abandoning his position. "I did. I know he was shot, but he hit the ground hard and could have broken ribs. If he's in bad shape, he would have been in no fit state to protect Miss Alex when they came."

Josiah exhaled loudly, seeing the narrowing pool of their choices, and knew they had no alternative but to surrender, when suddenly another loud bellow filled the air, startling them both.

"KRESTOS!"

The raw panic in the voice drew the attention of the two warring parties, with Krestos forgetting all about the treasure hunters and racing in an altogether different direction, away from them. With him, a few of the other Erran did the same, their progress through the jungle easily charted by the noises of crunched grass and branches and leaves being swept aside as they ran.

"What the hell?" Nathan gaped at them in puzzlement.

"They look like they were in an awful hurry," Josiah craned his neck to see where they disappeared to. "I wonder what got them so riled up?"

"I don't know," Nathan shook his head. "But since they've forgotten all about us. I say we take the chance to help Ezra and Miss Alex."

"I like the way you think," Josiah grinned.


"Leave her alone!"

The hard butt of a rifle answered his demand, sending Ezra back into the mud as the rest of the Erran surrounded them after Krestos hauled Alex to her feet by the elbow. Aisha was clutching her neck, paying more attention to the broken fragments of glass that used to be a syringe. The woman's eyes were wide with anxiety, and if Ezra's suspicions about what Alex had done was right, she had good reason for her fear. The Erran were similarly panicked, aware of the possibly mortal blow delivered to the Amira.

"What did you do?" Krestos shook Alex hard as if it would loosen the answer from her.

Alex shrugged off the assault, expecting the reaction after her actions, and simply brushed her hair back when Krestos gave her leave to respond.

"You're not the only one who knows how to use potions," Alex eyed Aisha with satisfaction, ignoring the big man and addressing the Amira directly. "You and your Erran think you can tear my life and the lives of all my father's friends for your stupid, higgledy-piggledy two-penny excuse of a religion and not pay the price?"

Krestos raised his hand to strike her, but Alex stopped him with her following words, delivered with the same impact he intended with his fist. "You harm my friend or me," she glanced at Ezra, "and your Amira will not survive the next hour, let alone long enough to help you uncreate the world!"

"What have you done to me?" Aisha's hand remained on her neck, her fear palpable.

"I dosed you with one hundred milligrams of strychnine."

"Jesus," Ezra whispered, unable to conceal his shock. He had not believed Alex capable of such violence or be able to deliver it with such mercurial calculation.

Aisha's eyes widened in shock, perfectly aware of the drug and just how much time she had, which was not a great deal. "You bitch! You've killed me."

"No, I've taken out insurance," Alex cut her off coldly. "You have an hour, two at most, to get to a hospital to be treated. Unfortunately, since you chose to follow us all the way out here to the middle nowhere, you'll never reach one in time."

Aisha opened her mouth to protest, already starting to feel something in her system she couldn't be sure was the drug beginning to do its work. She knew the effects of the poison and was aware that it would become debilitating within fifteen minutes. Too soon for her to save herself unless she reached a hospital.

"You will fix her!" Krestos demanded, venting his fury on Alex by shaking her again. "You will fix her, or I will kill this one." he gestured at Ezra.

"Do nothing that they say, Alexandra!"

Alex winced as Ezra was subdued again with a gun butt, but refused to let it intimidate her. Instead, she glared at Krestos again, unwavering in her purpose. "You will kill him anyway, but do as I say, and you might save your Amira. Hurt Ezra, and it will be my pleasure to watch your mistress froth and twitch like a rabid dog before she dies!"

"And I do not have to kill you to make you suffer!" Krestos bit back, brandishing a cruel dagger in warning.

"Then you better do it fast!" Alex marveled at her courage until she remembered it came from the well of hatred borne out of her father's death. "You don't have a lot of time. I gave her a fatal dose, and unless I act within the next hour, she'll die, and the line of the Sassanid kings will end on the floor of this jungle!"

The threat had the desired effect.

Around him, Ezra noted the horror of such an outcome on the faces of these cultists. Fear of losing their Amira and the uncertainty of what came next if she were gone was evident as they stepped away from him as if scalded. Even Krestos seemed to pale while Aisha was beginning to pant. He turned in Ezra's direction and delivered the wordless order to Ezra's minders to retreat. After obeying, they quickly shifted their attention to their Amira, who sank to her knees once more.

"What do you want?" Aisha spoke through gritted teeth, now she accepted the situation and understood time was against her.

"I want you to let my friends walk out of here, unharmed. You have half an hour before any treatment becomes ineffective. Let them leave now, and I'll administer the cure. I have the supplies I need to do that."

"Alex, I won't let you sacrifice yourself!" Ezra protested, but this time the Erran didn't dare attack him, not when their leader's safety depended on this infidel's well-being.

"I'm not, Ezra," Alex didn't look at him as she spoke. "They can't kill me because I'm Tiamat's vessel. Sarah Connelly is dead. They have no idea where Donald Avery's daughter is, and if they go after Mary, she'll go to ground, and they'll never find her. I'm their best option for completing their ritual. Isn't that right?"

None of the cultists responded but judging by their silence, Aisha and Krestos included, Ezra saw Alex's statement was absolutely correct. She was the proven vessel of Tiamat, and any plan to resurrect the goddess required Alex's continued existence. He was also secretly grateful Alex kept Julia's identity a secret. The Erran did not know it was Julia who was responsible for Adashir Shah's death.

"Do we have an agreement?" Alex asked, her voice sharp enough to refocus his thoughts.

"Let him go!" Aisha spat, furious at having to submit to her conditions.

"Alexandra," Ezra started to protest when he saw Krestos gesturing to him to leave. "I will not go without you."

"Ezra, you have to, please?"

The tough facade wavered then, and Ezra wondered if this was more than just simply a ploy to save them when desperate measures were required. With the instincts he relied upon all his life, Ezra was convinced he was missing something. Was Alex engaged in a long con beyond even his understanding?

"I will go," he finally agreed and then added, "but we shall return for you. I promise."

"I know you will," she smiled faintly, but it didn't reach her eyes.

Chapter Twenty-Nine:
Responsibility

At the core of him, Chris Larabee knew none of this was real.

Carrying Adam in his arms, Chris toured the empty house with Sarah, listening to her describe with delight all the things she planned on doing to the place once they moved in. She stood in the middle of the living room, admiring the fireplace while deciding where the sofa would go. Wouldn't one of her grandmother's wing chairs look perfect in the corner? Adam, in the meantime, babbled about fireflies, prompting Chris's memories about Adam's preoccupation with them shortly before the fire.

"And we should leave one room empty for Buck when he comes to visit."

The mention of Buck made him pay attention, forcing Chris to remember that in another life, Buck was not some distant player in his life but a friend who stood by him at his very worst. A brother he was abandoning like all the others, Ezra, Vin, Nathan, Josiah, and JD.

Even as he basked in the company of his family, enjoying the day they never had together, guilt gnawed at his innards like a victim of medieval torture.

It isn't real, Chris, a voice whispered in the back of his mind.

Buck, Chris recognized it immediately. Since when did his conscience sound like his oldest friend? He supposed it didn't matter. Buck Wilmington's wisdom when it came to the heart was gold. He always seemed to know what his friends needed to hear. Chris most of all.

As Chris swept his eyes across the house that would never know Sarah's touch, he regarded the woman who stood across a crowded room filled with officers and their wives to capture his heart. A part of him would always see her as that young girl with the wistful smile, wishing she were anywhere else, even though she was the most stunning creature in the room. Losing her had broken him, and it took years to put the pieces back together again.

"Sarah..."

Her eyes touched his, and as if she could read what was in his mind, Sarah let out a heavy sigh and forgot about her plans for the house. She took slow steps towards him, wearing the expression that told Chris he had no secrets from her.

"It's okay, Chris," she reached him and touched his cheek. "It's time to do what you never had the chance to do."

Chris blinked, the anguish threatening to break him in half. With Adam still in his arms, he leaned forward and kissed her, savoring the silk of her lips for one last time. "I don't know if I can."

"Yes, you can," she said when she pulled away and took Adam from him. The child went reluctantly, but he too pouted with sadness. "It's time, Chris, long past it. You need to let us go."

Chris sucked in his breath, unaware a river of tears was flowing down his cheeks. "I love you, Sarah, I love you, Adam. I always will."

"And we love you," she smiled sadly.

"Bye, daddy," Adam strained in Sarah's grip to kiss his father on the cheek.

The action almost cratered his resolve, but Sarah knew it had to be this way, and she was always smarter than him. Planting a soft kiss on Adam's forehead, Chris retreated, wanting to keep them in his sights but knowing if he did, he would never leave. Stifling a sob, Chris stumbled towards the door, leaving the illusion before it trapped him for all time. But there was one thing left for him to do.

Pausing at the doorway, he avoided looking at them and whispered his final words because Sarah was right. They had to be uttered, even just once.

"Goodbye."


Of course, it made perfect sense.

The puzzle revealed itself like the tumblers of a lock shifting into place. In the scheme of things, Vin Tanner supposed it took the pull of only one thread to unravel the tapestry of cosmic design. Standing rooted to the spot in this world that should never have come to pass, he watched the Erran cart away their goddess further down the street to be adored by the rest of the crowd. As she passed him, Alex, no, not Alex, but Tiamat had looked him in the eye with no idea who he was.

When only the back of her head was visible, Vin understood how all this had come about. The enormity of it staggered him. He felt the warm hand of his mother on his shoulder and looked at her, elated and anguished at the same time. There hadn't been a day since Adelaide's death where he hadn't wished for this moment, where she survived her illness and raised him to manhood. Lately, the wish had become the sadness of her never knowing the person he was or the people who were most important to him.

This dream and Vin had no doubt it was anything else, showed him the price of wishful thinking.

If she lived, he would never have run away to the army, would never have met Chris Larabee and all the men whose influence made him who he was. He would never have met Alex, would never have fought tooth and nail to save her from the Erran. He never forgot the look of terror on Alex's eyes when the goddess Tiamat had come down to eat her soul. Chained and helpless, she told him later, his presence was the only thing keeping her from going completely insane with despair. How had it been for her without him? Had she faced her nightmare alone? The idea sickened him almost as much as the world Tiamat created for the Erran.

Vin returned his attention to his mother and took in the sight of her. Age had caught up with Adelaide Tanner, but she would always be beautiful to him. Still, the fault lines of this new reality ran across her skin. In every line and crease on her face, he saw worry. Not for herself. She never thought about herself, just him. How hard must her last days have been, burdened by the knowledge he would be alone once she was gone?

More than anything, he wished she could remain in his life, wished he could take her out of this fantasy into the real world, but she was no more solid than this nightmare realm. He had to leave to save himself, but before he went, he wanted to say the words to her he could never articulate as a child.

"Momma," he took her face in his hands, ignoring the dissipating crowd around them and the march of the Erran down the street. "I want you to know something I could never tell you before you passed."

Vin closed his eyes and collected his thoughts to say what he needed her to hear. He wanted to tell her about the friends who filled the void she left behind.

Chris and Ezra, who were barely in their twenties, caring for him in the middle of a battlefield to prevent him from just another casualty of the Great War. Thanks to Chris, Vin learned to ride a horse after Chris put him in the saddle for the first time. Meanwhile, Buck brought him contraband chocolates and toys because he wanted Vin to enjoy his childhood for as long as it lasted.

During the Oise-Aisne Offensive, after Vin found Ezra broken and bleeding on the battlefield, Nathan promised Vin Ezra would be okay even though Vin understood now there was no way he could make such a promise. It didn't matter to Nathan because it was what Vin needed to hear. Later on, when Vin sat outside the hospital tent weeping. Josiah found him. The older man had slid his arm around Vin's slight shoulders and explained it was okay to cry.

When they'd gone their separate ways in the years after the war, Vin realized how much these men prepared him for life. So many of their lessons shaped the person he became.

Adelaide stared at him quizzically, waiting for him to speak until she comprehended what he intended. At that, her gaze softened. "Tell me, honey?"

Vin smiled at being called that and was aware this illusion probably took the memory straight out of his head. "I want you to know I'm okay. You don't gotta worry about me. I'll be alright. You can rest easy."

"I can never stop worrying about my little boy," she squeezed his fingers. "You're my baby, the single brightest light of my life, but I knew you'd grow up fine without me, a Tanner through and through. I never doubted that."

"I found a family," Vin admitted, his too-soft voice lower than usual, "in the worst place you can ever imagine finding one, but I did, and I wish more than anything you could have met them."

Pleasure spread across her face as she received her absolution, and he saw then just how much the question plagued her in the last hours of her life. Even when the fever was burning him up, it was always him in her heart.

"I'm glad you met them, baby," she took both his hands in hers and lifted her eyes to him. "Now, you need to wake up and live. Go find that girl of yours, the one I can feel in your heart. Go on and live. For me."

And just as it was when he was a child, when there was nothing Adelaide could ask of him he would deny, Vin woke up.


There was no debate for Inez whether or not this fantasy realm was somewhere she wished to remain. Even if Bernardo wasn't presenting himself in the worst possible light, she would not have accepted this reality as anything but a trial to be experienced on the path to enlightenment. What had that warning across the door said before they stepped into the presence of the Jewel?

Enter the Chamber of Desire to fulfill your greatest wish, but only enlightenment will let you leave.

She wished for Bernardo to live, and here he was, alive and bitter at the road his life had taken. He stared at her, disdain and self-loathing on his face, hating her for all his unfulfilled dreams. Would Bernardo have turned into this creature if he'd stayed in Val Verde to live the life of a husband and father instead of becoming an adventurer?

Inez didn't think so. The future was an unpredictable thing, and while the probabilities of the now might lead one to believe he might become this drunken man, resenting her and their son, Inez had more faith in the man she loved.

This is the worst possible outcome, Inez told herself, revealed to her so she would understand wishing for what could have been would only taint what she had. Her husband was dead. Inez knew this for a fact because she felt it. As she stood here, seeing this facsimile of him, and a poor one at that, continuing down the street, his back facing her in contempt, she accepted he was not her Bernardo and never would be. Still...

"Bernardo!"

He turned around, wearing an expression of resignation, and once again, Inez's heart broke seeing him like this. To her, he would always be the proud resistance fighter, willing to die for the cause until their arrival into each other's lives gave them something else to fight for.

"What is it?"

She ignored his impatient demand and stared at him, though it was not really him she was seeing. "You are the love of my life, Bernardo. I will love you until the day I die, and though you are not with me, you left me with the gift of our son. Wherever you are now, Bernardo, be at peace."

The man before her opened his mouth to speak, the sneer on his face making her think his following words would be cruel. It occurred to her then that she did not need to hear them. This wasn't her Bernardo, and what he had to say to her didn't matter. So Inez turned her back to him and retreated the way she came towards the heart of Val Verde. Beneath her feet, the crushed glass in the concrete mix of the road sparkled. This dreary town came alive for her, glittering with the gleam of the streetlights flanking her.

Inez closed her eyes, feeling the balmy breeze against her skin, the scent of the dinners wafting through windows, and the rustle of trees overhead. Inez thought of her son and opened her mind to welcome the future.


"I spoke to her, Buck!"

Inez blinked to see Buck Wilmington standing over JD Dunne, who was on his hands and knees sobbing. The young man was kneeling against the tiled floor of the chamber, clearly distraught, while Buck stood hunched over him, trying to offer him comfort from whatever ordeal JDescaped. Inez ached for JD, suspecting he might have shared a similar experience to hers, perhaps with a less painful reality than the one she faced. Whatever it was, being ripped from it had obviously affected JD badly.

"JD, she ain't real. Just a memory."

Not even that, Inez thought bitterly.

"Inez, are you alright?"

The question came from Chris Larabee, whose red eyes told her much. She didn't need to ask him what enlightenment had cost him. The grief lingered on his face for it to appear at all, told Inez just how much it hurt. Instead, it was she who wondered if he was alright.

"Are you?"

Chris sucked in his breath and nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine."

But he was not, and what happened to him in this place would stay with Chris for some time. It was at this moment, he was grateful he wouldn't see Mary for another month. Chris cared for Mary, but he didn't wish to subject her to the sorrow in his heart. Right now, he felt as if he lost Sarah and Adam all over again, and it would take time for him to recover from that.

"Are you sure?" She placed a hand on his shoulder.

Chris squeezed her palm, admiring the softness of her skin and the warmth that overcame the cold, damp of this chamber. "No, but that's a discussion for another time. Vin?"

Vin lifted his eyes from the floor after studying the skeletal remains lying across the tiles. Like Chris, he was astonished at missing all this when they first entered the chamber and felt his stomach hollow at the possibility he could have ended up like all these folks. Had none of these poor souls possessed the power to break free of the spell over them?

"Yeah, Chris?"

"Are you okay?" Chris asked once more and noted JD was on his feet now, a little more composed. Buck's arm around JD's shoulder consoled the kid, but JD still appeared as if he'd been put through the emotional grinder like the rest of them.

"I'm just glad that's over," Vin shrugged uncomfortably and then noted the look in Chris's eyes and understood it might not have been that simple for Chris. He wanted to ask Chris more, but Vin knew him well enough to guess this wouldn't be a good idea.

"Yeah," Chris couldn't argue with the sharpshooter there and was grateful Vin opted not to press him on the issue. When they were well away from here, and Benny safely returned to his mother, Chris might talk about it armed with a tall bottle of whiskey. "Buck, JD?"

"He'll be fine," Buck assured them, still patting JD on the back. "Kid's a little shook up, that's all."

JD looked to his friends, revealing the redness of tears, and still seemed a little pale. "I'm okay, Chris," he swallowed thickly. "It was just so real seeing her again."

"No need to explain, JD," Vin sympathized. "I'm guessing we've all been through something today."

It was at this point, Vin noticed what Buck held in his other hand.

"Buck is that...?"

"Oh yeah," Buck regarded the gemstone in his hand, "this is it. The Jewel."

"How did you get it?" Inez gasped in shock, wondering how Buck managed to take the thing from its cradle when they were all trapped in their illusion. "Weren't you affected like the rest of us?"

"No," Buck shook his head, appearing a little sheepish about the whole thing. "I guess I've always been happy with what I have. Ain't got time for regret, not when I got the sky and my friends around me. Life right now is as close to heaven as it gets for me. Why wish for things you can't change?"

Chris cracked a smile, proud and grateful for Buck Wilmington. Buck was always quick to remind them of what was important, that life went on despite its tragedies. God only knew what would have happened to him if Buck hadn't been there to pick up the pieces after Sarah and Adam's death. Buck kept him alive, reminding him Sarah wouldn't have tolerated self-destruction. He was the undisputed heart of the seven, and today, he saved all of them.

"Did you help us?" Chris asked. "Was it you that made us find a way out?"

"I don't know," Buck answered sincerely. "It asked me what I wished, and I wished that you snapped out of it. Maybe it gave you enough presence of mind to let you wake up on your own, I don't know. I'm just glad you're back here. I didn't like the idea of having to carry you all out of here on my own if it didn't work."

And Chris knew he would have done just that to save them.

"Here," Buck started to hand him the Jewel, but Chris stepped back.

"No," Chris raised his hands to stop Buck as if afraid of the gem. "I think we're agreed that there's only one person in this room who should have anything to do with that thing, and that's you."

"That ain't right," Buck protested, thinking the Jewel belonged to Inez. This was, after all, her quest. "This should go to you, Inez." He looked at her. "We came here for Benny."

"Chris is right," Inez wholeheartedly agreed with Chris on this point. Buck didn't fall prey to the chamber's seductive promises. In her opinion, he saved their lives because he was a man content with himself. Buck had no ambitions for power or desire for riches. In the last few weeks, she understood his greatest joy was the people he cared about. Inez's heart swelled with affection at discovering this about him. "Buck, you keep it until we figure out how to use it to save my son."

"Are you sure?" Buck asked, not just Inez but everyone present. Truth be told, as he held it in his palm, Buck felt a little protective of the emerald bauble that seemed to have a mind of its own. If an object could have a soul, Buck was convinced the Jewel of Cintamani did. In the hands of the Russians or, worse yet, the Erran, its purity would be contaminated. Buck did not want that to happen. "I mean, I don't know anything about this."

"I don't think it matters. I think it knows you, and that's good enough."

This came from JD, who seemed to be a little more like himself again. When JD emerged from his fugue state, his disjointed words allowed Buck to guess JD's fondest wish was a reunion with his dead mother. Unlike the rest of them, whose family losses were years in the past, for JD, it was barely a year old. Time and experience had yet to erode the memories of Elizabeth Dunne in JD's mind, and Buck couldn't imagine how the boy would have felt being taken away from her again.

"Okay," Buck nodded, accepting the responsibility of the Jewel for now. "So," he looked at Chris. "What do we do now?"

Chris's jaw tightened. "We get the hell out of here and finish this."

Chapter Thirty:
Vengeance

The monsoonal rains slowed into a teeming shower when Ezra took his solitary walk into the jungle, leaving Alexandra and the Erran behind. Departing at gunpoint despite his protests, Ezra had little choice but to leave Alex, who was gambling his freedom might lead to her own escape. Leaving her railed against his chivalrous southern sensibilities, but beneath his veneer of gallantry was a pragmatist who knew she was right.

He walked toward the large thung tree, the only landmark in the confusing forest of green, hoping he would find Josiah and Nathan. After Alexandra plunged a hypodermic in their leader's neck, the Erran had forgotten the two opponents in the jungle. Even now, Ezra still reeled at the vicious calculation of the act, unable to wrap his mind around the idea of the doctor possessing such murderous intent.

Fool! The signs had been right in front of you! You just didn't want to see it.

Ezra could not refute this internal rebuke because Alexandra mentioned her concerns for a continued Erran threat, a threat beyond their present situation with the Jewel. She feared for the future of any children she and Vin might have. Even without the Tablet, Alexandra had no guarantee the Erran wouldn't try to resurrect their plan of uncreating the world. Such a goal would undoubtedly require the bloodline of William Styles.

It was a risk Alex was unprepared to tolerate.

A rustle of leaves in front of him made him fumble for the rifle, hanging uselessly against his shoulder by the strap. With one arm, he struggled to get it into position, unleashing a string of uncharacteristic expletives when he couldn't do it fast enough.

"You kiss your momma with that mouth?" Nathan appeared through the foliage, splitting apart the broad leaves of a banana tree to appear before him.

Ezra's shoulders relaxed, but he was in no mood for levity. "This is hardly the time for your brand of humor," he glanced over Nathan's shoulder to see Josiah. "We have to go retrieve Alexandra. The Erran have her."

Both men stiffened with worry, but it took only a second for Josiah to ask the obvious question. "They let you go?"

As much as he admired Ezra's resilience, Josiah doubted their procurer could have escaped on his own, given his current condition, and Ezra certainly would not leave Alex behind.

"Alexandra forced them to let me go," Ezra turned around, determined to go back the way he came when Nathan stopped him, concerned by the injury to his arm. "Somehow, during a close contact encounter with Aisha, Alexandra injected her with strychnine."

"What?" Nathan's jaw dropped in utter disbelief.

Ezra did not blame Nathan for his astonishment, but Ezra didn't intend to waste time either. He started retracing his steps even as he explained the situation. "You heard me. She injected their Amira with strychnine and told them that unless I were released, she would let Aisha die."

"Jesus," Josiah shook his head, sharing Nathan's disbelief and understanding the urgency in Ezra's retreat.

"She injected it, you say?" Nathan stared at him.

"Yes!" Ezra bit back impatiently. "They're likely to kill her as soon as she administers the cure."

"But...but there's no cure for strychnine poisoning."

Ezra froze in his steps and turned around to stare at the healer, who appeared genuinely bewildered by the information received. "What do you mean? Alexandra assured the Erran she had the cure in her medical kit and that they had an hour before the poison became irreversible."

"Ezra, I helped her pack that thing, and I can tell you, there ain't no miracle cure for strychnine poisoning in there. At the very best, the symptoms might be treated with phenobarbital and some kind of muscle relaxant to stop the convulsions, as well as a charcoal infusion to absorb the poison and that's if she ingested it. You said Alex injected it...."

His grave explanation silenced the need to finish that sentence.

"Why would she lie?" Josiah shook his head, wondering what Alex thought she was doing by this monstrous deception.

"She didn't lie," Ezra winced, feeling the need to move even faster now. "She was playing a bluff to save me."

"But she had to know that she wouldn't be able to save Aisha anyway," Nathan started following him. "I mean, they are going to call her on it."

"She probably just used the situation to help Ezra escape," Josiah guessed the truth that was heightening Ezra's anxiety. "Alex never had any intention of curing her."


The hour slid past Aisha damnably fast, with the doctor stubbornly refusing to administer the cure to save her life until Standish was safely away. However, the Amira could still make the infidel bitch suffer.

A surge of satisfaction rushed through Aisha at witnessing Alex being struck hard against the jaw. The power behind the blow produced a spurt of blood in the air as Alexandra Styles hit the ground hard. The woman landed on her side. Mud and water splattered across the earth and surrounding vegetation. Alex uttered no cry for her pains, merely appearing dazed as Krestos stood over her, waiting to strike her again for the vicious desecration of his mistress.

One of the Erran brought the leather satchel acting as the doctor's medicine bag and dropped it by her. William Styles' daughter did not see it at first, still dazed from the assault. She shook her head, her damp hair freed from its bun to hang over her shoulders in wet tangles. Her wide-brimmed hat was trampled into ruin by the cultists surrounding her.

"Heal her!"

Krestos roar sounded like God's own trumpet, serving the purpose of clearing Alex's dazed stupor with slicing clarity. She blinked once or twice and looked up at the man, the retreating grey clouds behind him, and felt her rational thought returning like the tide rushing into the shore.

"Or what?"

Her tone was cold and aloof, spoken through teeth stained with blood. The metallic taste repulsed her but added to the mental smelling salt sharpening her senses. Krestos raised his hand to strike her again, but this time Alex was ready for him.

"Go ahead. Knock me senseless. I'm sure that's going to help me administer the correct treatment to save this lunatic bitch!"

Krestos connected with her jaw again.

The pain was good. Now that Alex was prepared for it, she clung to it as it flared across her burning cheek, awakening the part of the brain that prepared the body for a fight. This time, she recovered faster and straightened up before spitting a mouthful of blood and spit on his boot.

"Did my father obey when you tortured him?"

Until now, the doctor had made no mention of her father. However, William Styles's entry into the conversation turned Aisha's insides to ice. For the first time, she understood what she saw in the doctor's eyes, the source of the woman's black rage at Aisha's complicity in that crime. All this time, Aisha assumed Alex's hatred stemmed from her near-sacrifice as Tiamat's vessel, but now Aisha realized the doctor held her totally accountable for an entirely different reason.

"He begged like a dog!"

Krestos was lying, and they all knew it. Alex Styles most of all.

"You tortured him for hours, didn't you? I saw the autopsy report. I know what you did to him. The bruises, broken bones, the burns, and the cuts. You tortured him for hours, trying to force him to surrender his piece of the Pillar, and still, he gave you nothing. In the end, killing him was all your bastard brother could do to salve his ego."

She uttered these words with clinical detachment, unafraid of their effect on her audience.

"You dare to speak of the Shah that way!"

Krestos lashed out at the doctor again, but this time Aisha didn't notice. Nausea gripped her powerfully, telling the Amira she was out of time. Perhaps she had always been.

Aisha's stomach lurched again, this time more forcefully, and she had no choice but to double over and vomit. Her palms and her knees dug into the dirt as she widened her jaws to empty the sick across the soft earth. It splattered disgustingly on the ground, leaving trails of saliva and bile along her chin.

It happened so quickly that her followers could only gape in shock as silence fell over the jungle with only the sound of her heaving to break it.

Only Krestos had the presence of mind to act. The behemoth shoved the satchel in the doctor's direction and screamed again. "HEAL HER NOW!"

Aisha did not hear Alex Styles's answer. Even if she had, it would not have surprised her in the least.

"No."

"We had a bargain!"

Too satisfied by the understanding in Aisha's eyes, Alex ignored Krestos. The man's rage erupted into a blaze as he descended upon her. She wasn't afraid to die at his hands and knew the possibility existed when she enacted this plan of vengeance. As he yanked her to her feet, she consoled herself by the sight of his precious Amira convulsing violently.

"HELP HER!" Krestos drew a cruel-looking jambiya and pressed it against her throat.

She felt it bite into her skin, and though she ought to be afraid, Alex thought of the father who died to protect her. He spent his whole life trying to circumvent the terrible curse on her and the daughters of his friends. He died broken and alone, leaving her in the dark about his sacrifice. The rage bubbled up inside her because she could caution it and manifested in Alex spitting in Krestos' face.

"You and your cult have been murdering innocent people for God only knows how long. You don't deserve mercy! Not after you took my father from me and murdered his friends! Did you think all that blood comes without consequences? You can make me suffer and kill me, but I'll die happy knowing she is stone-cold dead along with her brother!"

"Whore!"

The blade bit into her throat, and Alex closed her eyes shut, bracing herself for the pain. I'm sorry, Vin. It had to be this way.

However, before the knife could sink any further into her skin, a deafening boom shuddered through the air.

Alex uttered a cry when a thick mist of blood sprayed across her face, and as she recoiled in horror, the blade fell away from her throat. Krestos' massive arms dropped abruptly to his sides, releasing the dagger from his grip. The curved edge of the jambiya impaled the earth beneath it, its hilt standing up straight as it was driven into the ground. This was as much as anyone could register before more gunfire broke out, and everyone was running for cover.

Alex scrambled out of the way as the giant's body fell forward, his weight threatening to collapse on top of her. She dropped to the ground and saw the Erran had forgotten all about their Amira in all the chaos. By now, Aisha was convulsing violently, froth bubbling from her lips as the poison did its worst.

Alex forced herself to watch, unmoved by the woman's plight. Her rage burned too hot for that. If the penance for her act of murder was to have this scene branded into her mind, she could live with it. God knows it had plenty of company after seeing what they did to her father.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, Ezra burst through the bushes one arm in a sling and raced towards her.

"Alexandra! Come on!"

For a moment, Alex stared at him, seemingly bewildered that this was an escape. Ezra, who had watched what took place before Josiah took his shot, suspected she was still coming to grips with what she had done. Glancing over at Aisha, he noted the woman wasn't dead yet, but she soon would be. Her body was still jerking about like a marionette with broken strings, and her unseeing eyes faced the sky, reacting to none of the violence around her.

Suddenly a distinct voice shouted over the sound of the chaos, and Ezra's heart sank when the Erran regrouped enough to notice him. A few of the faithful had realized their Amira was beyond help, and her killer was still among them.

"Awqafahum!"

Ezra retained enough of his knowledge of Arabic to know they had to get moving. He managed to keep his grip on Alex as he pulled her forward, heading for the cover of the shrubs surrounding the clearing where the Erran leadership had fallen apart. Shooting broke out, this time not at Josiah and Nathan in the jungle but in their direction. One bullet whizzed past his ear, and Ezra spun around to see the shooter aiming again.

Before another shot could be fired, Ezra triggered the mechanism beneath the sleeve of his uninjured arm. The derringer slipped past his cuff to rest comfortably in his palm. He pulled the trigger, and the small compact weapon released its payload with a roar that would rival any of its larger brethren. The bullet caught the cultist in the neck. The man dropped his gun, both hands flew to his throat as he started to gag. Blood rolled down his chest in thick rivulets, and that was as much time as Ezra had before another Erran rushed him.

Ezra swung to face him without needing to think twice and pulled the trigger within inches of the cultist reaching him. The force of the bullet at such close range swept the Erran off his feet, the shell striking him dead center. He landed heavily on his back, splattering mud around him as he hit. The gambler didn't bother to see if he was dead. Ezra was painfully aware he was now empty and would be in no shape to give the enemy a fight if he and Alex were intercepted.

As if the enemy had read his mind, three Erran converged on them, one blocking the path of their retreat with two more outflanking them. This time their guns were aimed squarely at Ezra and Alex, a clear threat to what fate awaited them if they tried to run.

"Que! Aieatina al mar'a!"

"No," Ezra said defiantly. "You will not lay one hand on her."

Alex didn't need to understand Arabic to guess what Ezra refused. "Ezra, maybe you should consider it."

Ezra looked at her sharply, "we are not having this discussion, Alexandra."

The rest of the Erran continued to trade gunfire with Josiah and Nathan, ensuring no help from that quarter. They were on their own, Ezra thought gravely.

"They want their pound of flesh, Ezra. Maybe I deserve it, but you don't."

Alex's eyes were fixed on Aisha, who was still on the ground where she'd collapsed. She was lying on her side, her eyes seeming to stare at Alex in accusation. Froth crusted Aisha's mouth and chin, but the convulsions were no more. The Amira was dead.

Alex should have drawn some satisfaction from Aisha's end, but she only felt empty. Alex knew she'd lost something of herself in this act of vengeance, but it could be no other way.

The trio aimed their guns at Ezra and Alex, deciding to kill them since it was clear Ezra would not surrender Alex to them. Alex looked at him anguished, and Ezra understood it wasn't because she was frightened but because he was dying with her.

"I'm sorry...." she started to say when a fresh barrage of gunfire broke out, cutting the three men down savagely. However, the bullets were not coming from Josiah and Nathan but from an entirely different direction. The second front in the assault crumbled the Erran's defense once again.

Ezra reacted immediately, pulling Alex to the ground to avoid being hit by the crossfire. They hit the dirt, keeping their heads down as the bullets shredded the jungle around them. Leaves and splinters of bark filled the air with the noxious fumes of muzzle fire. Alex covered her head with her arms while Ezra tried to see who had come to their rescue, although he had a good idea already.

"YOU ERRAN, STOP SHOOTING!"

The gambler's brow furrowed in confusion because it was not Chris ordering them to stop but Buck Wilmington. If this wasn't startling enough, then what followed indeed was. The Erran lowered their weapons, one after the other, bewildered expressions on their faces. It seemed as if they couldn't understand why they agreed to this ceasefire, only that they were compelled to obey.

Ezra saw Buck emerging through the foliage with Chris, Vin, JD, and Inez as the gunfire died down. The tall man was clutching something in his hand, something that gleamed even through the smoke. Was that the Jewel? Ezra didn't speak, uncertain of what was happening, but it seemed clear Buck had the Erran in some kind of thrall, and he was reluctant to do anything that might break the spell. It seemed the rest of the seven shared the same thought, allowing Buck to command the stage. Chris gripped Vin's shoulder, ensuring the sharpshooter didn't hurry towards Alex before Buck finished what he had to do.

"It's over! You hear me? All you Erran are done! Forget the Tablet. Forget uncreating the world! Forget you ever heard of the Jewel! Get out of here and never think about this goddamn hooey religion again!"

At first, the Erran fanatics rumbled in dissent, balking at the audacity of the suggestion by this infidel. Some opened their mouths to respond to Buck's outrageous demand. Then, all at once, they stiffened as if struck down by a decree from heaven itself. Ezra watched it sweep over them, like the tide coming into the shore, and suddenly they were blinking furiously, like men who had suddenly woken up from a dream and had no idea who they were. They looked at each other, disoriented and uncomprehending, then they looked at the jungle and were even more perplexed by their presence in this savage place.

One by one, Ezra watched their weapons slide from their grasp like snow from a roof. Guns, daggers, and curved swords landed against the sodden dirt, with the Erran oblivious to it all. So lost in their stupor, they didn't even react to Josiah and Nathan appearing through the bushes. The duo emerged from their hiding place in the jungle, puzzled by the sudden cessation of hostilities.

Without uttering a word to each other, the Erran began to disperse, wandering into the jungle-like dead spirits, leaving the aftermath of a battle. In a matter of minutes, they disappeared from the sight of the infidels they intended to kill, leaving behind the mania of a religion requiring blood and murder as prayers.

Perhaps for all time.

Very loosely translated via Google Translator

*Awqafahum - Stop them!

*Que! Aieatina al mar'a! Go! Leave us the woman!

Chapter Thirty-One:
Wishes

Buck Wilmington watched the Erran disappear into the surrounding jungle, still reeling from what the Jewel allowed him to do.

Was that it? All he had to do was utter a command, and it happened?

Most men would sell their souls to possess such power, but Buck was not one of them. It terrified him, not by what it could do but by how easily it could corrupt him. A man with no limits was liable to do anything if he believed himself invincible. Worse yet, he'd never be sure of anyone's friendship again. How could he be sure it was the Jewel that held their fealty and not him? Would that friendship become hatred when he denied them its power? These questions and many others like it fired through his brain after the Erran vanished from the scene.

If Buck bothered to ask the Jewel's opinion on the matter, he would have learned it was for precisely this reason Buck was the only person who could wield it.

"Everyone okay?" Buck turned his attention to the friends at the center of this ambush.

"Alex!" Vin finally broke free from Chris, slinging his rifle across his shoulder as he hurried to the lady who was sitting on the ground, visibly distressed after the events of the last hour.

"Vin!" Alex embraced him when he reached her, the dam of emotions bursting its banks. Without uttering a further word, she buried her face in his shoulder and started sobbing.

"Ezra got a little winged," Nathan explained as the group converged. "But we're okay."

"What happened here?" Chris studied the bodies of Krestos and Aisha lying across the ground, forgotten by the Erran when Buck sent them on their way. While it was apparent what had killed Krestos, the cause of Aisha's demise was not as clear, although the drying saliva around her mouth and on her chin indicated poison.

Josiah glanced at Alex and shook his head, signaling to Chris this was a conversation best held in private later. "It's a long story and one I think can wait."

Chris caught his meaning and nodded in understanding. "Sure, but not too long."

"Ezra," Inez approached her business partner. Concern filled her at the sight of his injury. "How bad are you hurt?"

"I shall live," Ezra dismissed her worries with usual nonchalance. "It is nothing a fine cognac will not cure in due course but pray tell how you manage to get rid of our fanatical friends? Does that rather magnificent Jewel in Buck's hand have something to do with it?"

"Yeah, it does," Buck raised the gem for Nathan and Josiah to see. "It really is a wishing stone. I mean, it sure worked on those Erran bastards."

"Now we have to get it back to America to free Benny," Inez stated, finally seeing an end to this nightmare.

"We ain't taking it back," Buck stated resolutely, drawing everyone's attention immediately.

"What do you mean, Buck?" JD burst out before Inez could, but it was Chris who responded.

"Just what he said," Chris answered for Buck. "We're not taking that thing out of the jungle, but I also don't think we need to take it back to save Benny. Do we, Buck?"

Eyeing his friends, Buck shook his head. "No, we don't. We can do what we have to for Benny here, and once that's done, I'm making sure no one gets their hands on the Jewel. No more clues, no secret chambers or breadcrumbs for someone else to follow further down the line. We're making sure this goes where no one will ever find it. It's too dangerous."

"But we must save Benny!"

Buck faced Inez, understanding her fears. Her want to believe in him was swimming upstream of a mother's fear for her child. Her fierce devotion reminded him so much of the first woman who loved him, the one who set the standard for all others who came later. Perhaps it was why Buck was so drawn to Inez.

"Inez, I swear to you, Benny will be safe, but we can't let this thing leave the jungle. No Commie or fanatic can get their hands on this. The Erran wanted to use the Jewel to reshape the world. It can do more than that. It can destroy it."

She swallowed thickly, forcing down her dread, and saw all eyes on her. Everyone present was leaving the decision to her, and Inez hated being the pivot to guide their thinking. Still, faith and courage brought her this far. It allowed her to face the great dragon in the mountain and discover the Jewel's location. She could not falter now.

"Alright, Buck," she surrendered at last and prayed it was a decision she would not live to regret. "Do what you must, but please bring my son home to me."

"I wouldn't do anything else," Buck leaned over and kissed her forehead, grateful for her trust. He would not fail her. Raising his eyes to the others, he nodded his readiness to begin at Chris.

"Go on, Buck," JD spoke with encouragement. "Save Benny."

Buck closed his eyes and made a wish.


In hindsight, Tennessee Eban realized his plan to rescue little Benny might have needed a little more thought.

After the Russian goons walked out the door, convinced Benny was not hiding somewhere in his room, Tennessee waited patiently before getting down to the business of whisking the boy away to safety. Through his window, he watched the Commies search the other rooms, scouring the grounds until concluding Benny ran off into the desert. One by one, their cars left the parking lot, heading towards the hot, arid terrain surrounding the hotel. Only after the last one of them vanished from sight did Tennessee dare to act.

Sneaking the boy out of his room and into his car, Tennessee checked out hastily from the hotel, giving its owner some half-baked excuse about a gig in California that needed him there fast. Fortunately, the man didn't give a hoot as long as Tennessee's bill was paid up. Once the Desert Rose Motel was in the rearview mirror of his truck, Benny finally climbed out of hiding.

It wouldn't take long for the Commies to figure out the kid they were hunting was a hell of a lot smarter than they gave him credit for and expanded their search. Yet as Tennesse drove Benny back to town, he was struck with a new dilemma. What to do next? The boy said his momma ran some kind of a roadhouse on the outskirts of Albuquerque, but if his kidnappers stole him from there, wouldn't it be the first place they would look?

Mr. Chris and his friends will help us.

Benny exclaimed with faith in the men who fought in the war and treated him and his momma like family. Benny was convinced they'd protect him. However, Tennessee still worried about leaving the boy to go searching for these men. The Russians saw him at the hotel. If he showed up at this roadhouse, they would guess the reason immediately and expose them both.

There was only one thing to do. Tennessee had to send someone else.

His granddaughter Rain sang at the Morgan Nite Club in the entertainment district of Albuquerque's bustling downtown. Although she sang sometimes, she spent most of her evenings waiting tables, noting the other white singers didn't have to do the same. Still, the job paid well enough for her to rent a small apartment a short walk from the place, enough to put up with the indignity. When her grandfather appeared on her doorstep, Rain was thrilled to see him but less enamored by the trouble he brought with him.

Nevertheless, a little boy needed help, and that silenced her misgivings about the situation. Besides, she knew Palomas and agreed with Tennessee that a young woman entering the place in the guise of seeking work would not look at all suspicious. There was no reason for anyone to think she had an ulterior motive, right?

It would have been if Rain hadn't driven Tennessee's truck to get there.

In truth, allowing Rain to drive the vehicle to Paloma's had worried him, but there was nothing for it. There were no buses out that way, and a taxi would cost a fortune neither of them had. The old musician convinced himself the Russians wouldn't recognize the vehicle when it pulled into the parking lot of the roadhouse since they hadn't seen him leave. It was a gamble.

Unfortunately, it did not pay off. Rain arrived at the premises to see a sign over the locked front door.

CLOSED FOR REPAIRS.

Rain circled the place, hoping to find someone, but the bar was locked up tight without a soul in sight, except for maybe the kidnappers spying on the area. When that plan got shot to hell, Tennessee considered reluctantly it might be time to get the police involved. He'd done all he could, and if he kept Benny with him, he'd endanger not only his life but that of Rain's. Except it was too late, the enemy had followed Rain right back to her apartment.

Staring into the street, he could see at least five men crossing the road to enter the strobe of the streetlights below. Three of them headed towards the main entrance to the buildings. The others were circling the back, no doubt intending to cut off the rear access in case their quarry tried to make a run for it. Tennessee quickly stepped away from the window, heart-pounding because he knew it wouldn't be long before they were banging on the door to this apartment.

"Here," he snatched the keys of his truck from the coffee table where Rain left it after her return from Paloma's and held them out to her. "You and Benny, go through the fire escape, head to my truck, and drive straight to the police."

Rain gaped at her grandfather, a tall, slender beauty with full brown eyes and a glorious mane of wild black hair. "What about you?"

"You don't worry about me," he dismissed the question as Benny emerged from the other room where he'd been listening to 'The Magic Island' on the radio. "It's Benny they want."

The boy was quick enough to guess the situation and his face melted into dismay as his eyes darted towards the door, expecting to hear the barging in at any second. "Are they here?"

"Not yet," Tennessee reached Benny in two steps before dropping his hands on the boy's slight shoulder, "but they soon will be. That's why you and Rain got to go."

He turned Benny towards the window where the fire escape awaited, gesturing Rain to follow. The fire stairs ran down the side of the building, not visible from the rear or the front, so Rain and Benny might be able to slip past the men coming for them. Peering through the glass when he neared it, he looked past the iron frame outside to see if it was safe. The moonlight and street lamps radiated enough of a glow for the old musician to know the path to his truck was clear. If Rain and Benny were to escape, they had to go now.

"Come on, Rain!"

"Grandpa, I'm not going anywhere without you," Rain refused to abandon the only family she had left in this world. "If they're as dangerous as they say, they'll kill you!"

"They'll kill all of us if you stay," he said, padding nothing because they needed a good dose of fear to get moving. "Hurry!"

His bark was sharp enough to prompt Rain into hastening her so far hesitant pace. The wood screeched as Tennesse pulled the window open, ushering Benny through onto the metal platform beyond. Rain followed him a second later, pausing long enough to be startled when someone started pounding on the door.

"Go!"

He kept his voice low to keep the men in the hall outside from guessing what he was doing. Rain opened her mouth to protest, but another loud bang against the door silenced her abruptly. Instead, she gave him an anguished look before turning to Benny, who just looked plain scared.

"Come on, kid," she took Benny's hand in hers before they started down the stairs.

Tennessee spared a moment to watch them disappear into the darkness before he heard the decidedly loud crack of wood splintering. Straightening up, he swung around to face the door, his own fear mounting as he saw the lock begin to loosen. It had been a long time since he heard strangers pounding on his door in the dead of night, and it was to his dismay, he was just as frightened now as he was back then.

At least these fools won't come in wearing white hoods over their faces.

The door burst open with a loud crash, and as expected, men poured into the room, led of course by the man Benny named Oblonsky. Tennessee recognized the others from the hotel and tried not to look anxious as they stepped inside brandishing guns he did not doubt they would use after extracting what they needed from him.

"You want to tell me why you busted down my door?"

Oblonsky's eyes narrowed as he came to a stop, inches from the old man, ignoring the facade of feigned outrage on display for his benefit. "I think you know Comrade."

With a slight nod, he signaled Petrov and the rest of his men to begin their search of the apartment, convinced the child this old man helped escape was still here.

Hiding just how frightened he was, Tennessee was painfully aware it wouldn't take them long to learn the boy wasn't here. The apartment wasn't that big. Still, it was precious time that Rain could use to get herself and Benny well away from here.

"Now see here, you ain't got no call coming in here like this!"

The punch to the gut came so suddenly Tennessee marveled at the speed of it. Oblonsky's giant fist flew out in a blur, and when it became solid again, an explosion of pain rushed through his stomach. It felt like a mule had kicked him. He doubled over, the force of the blow pushing the air out of his lungs, escaping him in a gasp. He doubled over, almost landing on his knees when another blow struck him, this time against the temple.

Tennessee dropped to his hands and knees, the seams of the floorboards going out of focus as he struggled to cope with the assault. Years ago, he might have been able to weather such a beating, but he was now an old man who felt horribly weak crumpled against the floor, staring at this son of a bitch's boots.

Clarity returned as the rest of the men joined Oblonsky with Petrov shaking his head to confirm the truth Tennessee was hiding. Benny wasn't here.

"Where is the boy?" Oblonsky bellowed.

"I don't know!" He glared at Oblonsky, scowling with anger and defiance. It wasn't the first time he had been beaten up by white men, and though he was out of practice, the old lessons returned quickly.

Keep your head up, no matter how many times they try to beat you down.

This time he saw the fist cock back, and when it struck him on the chin, the power of it sent Tennessee slamming against the floor. Blood filled his mouth, along with tiny grits of broken teeth. The taste made him gag, and he felt it spill over his lips and chin to splatter below him. The pain was dizzying, making the voices muted like he was hearing them underwater.

"WHERE IS THE....."

The sentence died in midspeech.

It wasn't just Oblonsky who fell silent but also the others. The chatter came to an abrupt halt, and for a second, Tennessee thought he might have blacked out. However, the room around him did not descend into darkness, and when he raised his eyes to the faces above him, he saw they were no longer glaring at him with anger and intimidation. They stood like statues, utterly oblivious to his presence or the violence they were inflicting on him.

Oblonsky blinked furiously, trying to shed the scales from his eyes, his expression one of confusion and bewilderment. It was mirrored on the faces of his men.

"Chto proiskhodit?"

"Chto my tut delayed?"

They were speaking Russian, Tennessee recognizing the language if not the words. He considered making a run for it while they were distracted, but there was something in their behavior that compelled him to stay. There was a mystery here, and despite himself, Tennessee was curious to learn what it was. He did, however, stand up shakily.

All of a sudden, Oblonsky remembered he was there and spoke.

"Where are we?"

Tennessee blinked, his turn to be surprised. "What do you mean, where are we?"

"I mean," Oblonsky's voice escaped him in a hushed tone. "What is this place? How did we get here?"

"You barged in here!" Tennessee snapped, not understanding what was going on and starting to think this was some kind of a trick. "Come in here and start beating on an old man who don't know nothing!"

"I do not remember..." Oblonsky stammered and then began searching his mind for his most immediate memories. There was nothing, just an impregnable wall that made him recoil when he drew too close to it. Without understanding how any of this was possible, a sense of dread filled him at the thought of breaching it. When Oblonsky raised his eyes to Petrov and the rest of his men, he saw the same distress on their faces.

"You don't remember?" Tennessee burst out. "You come in searching for a boy!"

"What boy?" Oblonsky's temper got the better of him, and he gripped Tennessee's shoulder to shake the answer out of him.

It occurred to Tennessee something extraordinary was happening, but one thing penetrated. None of these men appeared to remember Benny or why they had broken into the apartment. His rational mind told him this was a scam, that they were trying some new tactic to get him to talk, but another part of Tennessee did not believe these men were such compelling actors. What he saw on their faces was genuine bewilderment, and if that were the case, Tennessee saw no reason to illuminate the situation for them.

"I ain't got no clue! I ain't laid eyes on you or your posse here until you broke down my door, but since you don't know either? How about you get out and leave me be!"

Not knowing what else to do, Oblonksy released him as if scalded, more fearful by the wall in his mind than the old man's threats.

"Poydem!"

The bark sent the group of men heading towards the door, with Oblonsky still wearing confusion on his face. There was something in the back of his mind, something he was desperate to remember, but the more he grasped at it, the more ominous the feeling of dread grew inside of him. Oblonsky was almost out the door when he paused to look over his shoulder.

"This is wrong."

"No kidding," Tennessee wiped the blood from his mouth as he ambled to the nearby wing chair, his body aching.

Understanding there were no answers here, the Russian left allowing Tennessee to drop heavily into the chair. The groans of pain he managed to suppress until now escaped him. His head throbbed, and his mouth hurt. Pain radiated across his abdomen, and he wondered if he needed to go to a doctor to be seen to. He still didn't understand what had happened and wasn't entirely convinced they weren't trying to trick him. Still, they were gone for now, and that suited him fine.

It was almost ten minutes later when he heard the window slide open.

Tennessee sat up straight, having stayed put in the chair so he could recover from the assault, to see Rain climbing through the window, returning the way she had escaped. What was worse, it appeared she was alone.

"Rain! What are you doing back here? Where's Benny?"

"Grandpa!" Her expression became one of dismay when she saw the blood. "You're hurt!"

"Don't mind what I am! Where's Benny?"

"I don't know! We were in the truck, driving away from here. One minute he was next to me, and when I turned to see if anyone was following us, he disappeared."

"What do you mean disappeared? How could he just vanish out of a moving truck?"

"I don't know!" Rain shook her head, and it struck Tennessee at that moment she looked no different from Oblonsky and his men.

Bewildered.

*"Chto proiskhodit?" - What's happening?

"Chto my tut delayed?" - What are we doing here?

"Poydem" - Let's go!

Epilogue:
Alignment

I can't sleep at night

I can't eat a bite

'Cause the man I love

He don't treat me right

He makes me feel so blue

I don't know what to do

Sometime I sit and sigh

And then begin to cry

'Cause my best friend

Said his last goodbye

There's a change in the ocean

Change in the deep blue sea, my baby

I'll tell you folks, there ain't no change in me

My love for that man will always be

Sipping cognac from a well-cut snifter, Ezra Standish found the slow, haunting melody drifting across the stage the perfect accompaniment to the expensive liquor. He savored the pleasant burn down his throat while his eyes remained fixed on the songstress captivating everyone in the room. Long-limbed and slender with her wild mane of dark hair glittered with bejeweled clips, the newest addition to Paloma entertainment stable continued to sing to an enthralled audience.

Although Ezra thought, hiding a little smirk behind his glass, none was as enthralled as Nathan Jackson.

The healer was pretending to hide his interest as he admired the lovely Miss Rain Eban on the stage, accompanied by her grandfather Tennessee, the newest member of Paloma's band. However, Ezra knew his friend well enough to see the depth of his interest. Taking another sip of his drink as he enjoyed the music, the presence of the new arrivals at Paloma's was a fitting end to the curious quest to find the Jewel of Cintamani.

Upon returning to the United States, Inez, with Benny's help, tracked down Tennessee Eban to his granddaughter's apartment. The old musician deserved to know the boy whom he risked his life to protect was safe and sound. Tennessee was understandably confused at how Benny simply vanished from his truck. While Inez could not tell him everything, the lady did offer enough explanation for Tennessee to comprehend strange forces were at work here. Nothing but the supernatural could explain the Russians' sudden amnesia and equally abrupt departure.

In any case, Inez decided she liked Tennessee and his granddaughter very much, enough to offer both of them a place at Paloma's. While Tennessee wasn't convinced a permanent situation would suit him, Rain was delighted to work somewhere where she didn't have to wait tables and wash dishes when she wasn't singing. Besides, Paloma's generated enough revenue to offer the young siren a steady job, and Benny, most of all, was thrilled Tennessee and Rain would be regular fixtures in his life.

Ezra sighted Inez moving up and down the bar from the corner of his eye. Along with the regulars from Roberto's day, patrons now included a newer, younger crowd who came for the music and dancing. He smiled a little when he saw some were colored, glad Paloma's welcomed everyone. Inez was in her element, looking radiant in an off-the-shoulder crochet dress emblazoned with embroidered flowers. There was no denying the happiness in her eyes now that all was right with her world.

Of course, this was no surprise to anyone present to its alignment...


ANNAM

Buck closed his eyes and made a wish.

For a few seconds, uncertainty at what to expect filled him after he concluded his silent request of the Jewel. While he didn't think the Jewel punished its bearer for making wishes, The Monkey's Paw by WW Jacobs reminded Buck to be cautious of what he asked for.

Everyone around him held their breaths, just as anxious about what would come next when the jungle sounds surrounding them were interrupted with a single, delighted cry.

"Momma!"

Little Benny Recillos, for whom this entire quest had begun, stepped out from behind the shadow of a palm tree less than a dozen feet away. The boy, like the rest of them, appeared astonished by his presence here. However, his bewilderment was brief once he saw Inez. Sprinting forward in the way only a little boy desperate for his mother could do, his second cry for Inez was one of pure joy.

"Mamaíta!"

"Benny!"

Like her son, Inez's astonishment was brief. Breaking away from Buck, she ran in full strides to swoop Benny up in her arms. He buried his face in her shoulder and wrapped his legs around her waist like a toddler. Both mother and son wept openly with joy. It didn't matter how he had come to be in the middle of this jungle half a world away from where she'd last seen him. All that mattered was Benny was back in Inez's arms again.

The reunion affected all of them profoundly, Buck most of all.

They watched the scene unfold thinking all the struggle and danger was worth it just to witness this miracle. However, beneath the warmth at seeing mother and son reunited, there was also fear at the possibilities the Jewel could offer. Their bond with each other were cast-iron links, but there was also a kernel of doubt at how it would weather an assault by the Jewel's promises.

"Just like that?" JD finally broke the silence. "It brought him here just like that?"

"Just like that," Buck nodded.

"A miracle," Josiah commented, but there was no wonder in his voice, just grave concern.

"For us," Chris stated, and he sounded no less grim, especially after seeing what the Jewel could do. Closing his eyes, he remembered seeing Sarah and Adam alive but accepted that challenging fate was inviting disaster. No, Buck was right. The Jewel could not leave the jungle. "In someone else's hands, Christ knows what it could do."

"I've seen it," Vin spoke up quietly. "It showed me."

True, the Erran were gone. Buck had broken the back of their movement, but someone else could claim it, someone with similarly twisted ideas of how the world should be. They could shape reality into something as terrible as what he had seen when Tiamat took Alex's body and uncreated reality. Standing next to Alex, who was still shaken by what took place earlier, he couldn't imagine what worse might be, and never wished to find out.

"It does seem a waste," Ezra couldn't help but point out. "That Jewel could make us wealthy beyond measure. We could all be Midas...."

"Steady there," Nathan stopped him from going further. The healer knew perfectly well Ezra could lose all good sense when his nose for fabulous wealth picked up the scent. "Don't forget how Midas ended up."

"Could you allow me the moment to simply bask in the possibility?" Ezra scowled before uttering a sigh of resignation. "I suppose it is for the best. Asses ears would not suit me."

Meanwhile, Inez set Benny down and dried her damp eyes. She was still on the cusp of being overwhelmed by her emotions but held her composure for now. Once on the ground, Benny stayed close to her. The boy appeared reluctant to let Inez out of his sight now that he was miraculously with her again. Despite his intellect, his young mind couldn't understand how he had come to be in this place, and Inez wasn't sure she wanted to explain it to him either.

As Inez ran an appreciative eye across the faces before her, she lingered longest on Buck, not simply because it was he who delivered Benny to her with the Jewel's help, but throughout all this, Buck had been her rock. When her hope faltered, Buck assured her they would get Benny back Jewel or not. He had done this as her friend, and Inez was adept enough to recognize his sincerity.

Without uttering a word, the brief exchange between them allowed Inez to tell Buck she would not forget what he did for her.

"Everyone, I wish to thank all of you," she said, fighting the cascade of emotion threatening to overwhelm her. "I will never forget what each of you did to bring my son back to me. You placed your lives in terrible danger for Benny, and there are no words I can express to tell you how grateful I am."

"Inez," Chris stopped her from going any further. "You're family."

Inez forced down the lump in her throat. "Chris, you don't know how much that means to us."

Chris caught the look of affection from Buck at his words and felt a little uncomfortable at the breaking of his own stoic facade. Looking away from his old friend, he instead fixed his gaze on the little boy they had fought to save. "We're glad you're okay, Benny."

Benny appeared recovered from his sudden appearance in the jungle and looked up at Chris. The leader of the seven still intimidated him a little, but he managed a shy response because mama said it was rude not to answer when spoken to.

"Thank you, Mr. Chris. I knew you would come for me."

The child's faith in them touched each of the seven, and Chris, who wasn't prone to sentimental displays, managed a smile at that. "No doubt about that little man."

"I do not know about the rest of you," Ezra drawled before wincing at Nathan's continued attention on his injured shoulder, "but I am ready to leave this wretched place."

"Not yet," Josiah remarked, and though he didn't look at Alex for what he intended on saying next, the doctor's state of mind was very much in his thoughts. "We should do something about them. They may have been fanatics, but it ain't right to just leave them here without a burial at least."

He nodded at the bodies of Aisha and Krestos, still lying where they had died. Alex flinched at his words, prompting Vin to tighten his grip around her shoulders. While she didn't look at the corpses, Alex did respond to make light of her feelings on the matter.

"He's right. They deserve that much, at least."

The duo responsible for the murder of her father had gone to their afterlife. There was no need to use their bodies to further avenge him.

"Alright then, Josiah," Vin broke away from her once she made the decision. "Let's get it done."


PALOMA'S

When Buck sighted Inez giving her staff instructions behind the bar, he glanced at his watch and guessed Inez was taking a break to tuck Benny in for the night.

Since their return from the Far East, the woman had been understandably reluctant to let Benny out of her sight. Even though Chris assured her the danger had passed, Inez still felt anxious. Buck didn't blame her. Thanks to Bernardo Recillos' legacy, Benny had been stolen away and held captive for more than a month. The fact the child remained alive long enough for Buck to rescue him with the Jewel's help was nothing short of miraculous.

Right now, the kid was upstairs with Josiah, probably building a model Howitzer, and they would be at it all night if Inez didn't get up there.

Getting to his feet, he left their table and crossed the floor, moving past the bodies that included patrons and the waitressing staff. Paloma's doors were shut during the month away while repairs were conducted on the premises after their gunfight with the Russians the night of Benny's abduction. Fortunately, the time away did not prevent the customers from returning as soon as the front doors opened again.

Tonight they were all here. The regular barflies inhabited the small lounge at the far end of the floor to escape the music and crowds, the kids who came for dancing, and the grownups who just wanted a night out. Inez's hard work and Ezra's savvy turned the club into a success and gave the seven a place to gather.

Inez had just slipped out from behind the bar and headed towards the stairs when Buck caught up with her. They hadn't seen each other in a few days, and Buck couldn't deny the ache in his gut at the absence. Despite the so-far platonic nature of their relationship, it surprised Buck just how deep under his skin she'd gotten. Still, there were ghosts in her life she needed to bury, and he resolved himself to wait until she was ready for them to be more than the friends they were now.

"Time to tuck Benny in?"

Inez tossed a look over her shoulder and broke into a smile. "Yes, want to join me? I know he'd like to see you."

They made their way up the wooden stairs, the smell of fresh wood and varnish surrounding them as they ascended. The damage from bullets and shotguns had vanished, and Buck had to admit the carpenters who did the work were worth the money.

"Yeah, I will."

In the past, Benny had been a means to an end. Buck willingly admitted with some shame at believing the kid's favor was the surest way to win his mother's heart. However, after Benny's abduction, Inez's fears for Benny became his too. Watching her twist in anguish at the possibility of losing her child made Buck see how incredibly short-sighted he had been. Worse yet, he'd failed to see just how special the kid was.

"What are your plans for this evening, Senor Wilmington?"

Buck shot her a look of surprise before he broke into a grin. "What do you have in mind, Mrs. Recillos?" He waggled his brows with suggestion, a move that earned him a swat on the shoulder. "Ouch!"

"Nothing like what you have in mind!" Inez laughed, aware Buck could never resist the opportunity for sexual innuendo. "I thought after I put Benny to bed, we could have some dinner."

"Well," Buck sighed with mock disappointment. "I was hoping for something more interesting, but I suppose I could put up with your company downstairs."

"That's all you'll be putting up with Senor," she teased, "but we'll eat up here. I made fajitas."

Buck grinned at the idea of a quiet dinner with her away from the crowds. "Consider that an invitation accepted Mrs. Recillos."

"Oh, will Alex be coming tonight?"

"I think so. She needed to get back to work to get her head on straight again. I still think she's coming to grips with what she did in that jungle."

Inez nodded in agreement. "I cannot say I blame her. The Erran caused so much death. Not just to her father and Julia's, but who knows how many throughout their existence. They're fanatics, and the only way to stop fanatics is to end its leaders."

She knew if she could mete out the same punishment to the men who murdered Bernardo and kidnapped his son, she would not hesitate to do so either...


ANNAM

They were speeding away from the jungle, their business with the Erran and the Jewel now done. As the two Willys jeeps rumbled across the dirt road, the rain-slicked ground made the trip to the town smoother. With Buck driving and Inez, Benny, Nathan, and Ezra in one vehicle, the second jeep was occupied by Chris, Vin, Alex, Josiah, and JD. Returning grey clouds turned the day overcast once more, with rain threatening to come down again. With the entire group exhausted, injured, and drained, the relic hunters wanted nothing more than to get back to Fai-Fo city and the Millie.

"I had to do it," Alex broke the silence that followed once the journey began.

"No one's judging you, Alex," Vin insisted, holding her closer in the back seat of the jeep. Although every one of them looked bedraggled and worn, Alex seemed to have suffered the worst of it, except for Ezra. There were bruises on her face, and she winced visibly when she moved, indicating the battery inflicted by Krestos.

"They had it coming,"

This Chris Larabee believed above all else. The Erran hadn't just murdered William Styles and Donald Avery. They killed Hank Connelly too. After Sarah's death, Chris's relationship with the old bastard had been one of acrimony but it still angered him to learn Hank was a victim of the Erran. Nevertheless, Alex coming out here to kill Aisha surprised him. While there was no doubt of the premeditation in Alex's actions, he did wonder if she anticipated capture by the cult or had she intended to seek them out.

Such questions were better left unanswered.

"They would never have stopped coming after us. If it wasn't the Jewel, it would have been something else, some other ploy to recreate their grand destiny, and it would lead straight back to me, Julia or Mary. It wouldn't matter how long it took, and if any of us grew old and died, they would take our children instead."

Chris stiffened at the thought and exchanged a glance with Vin, who agreed with him. Alex was absolutely correct on this point. He also suspected this would be the only time she would ever speak to the matter, and he made a mental note to remind everyone to let it lie once they left this jungle.

"She isn't wrong," JD craned his neck from the front passenger seat where he was seated next to Josiah, who did the driving. After all the research he conducted on the Erran, not to mention his own experiences with the despicable Adashir Shah, supposed heir to the Sassanid Kings, he could confirm her statement. "Their cult was around when Christ was born. They would never have stopped."

"And if there's one thing they've proven," Josiah added, his eyes fixed on the road ahead, "they're persistent. I don't know if an eye for an eye was the best course, but it's done, and if you can live with it, so can we. "

Josiah's tone was gentle, and Chris wondered, not for the first time, what kind of preacher Josiah would have made if his life turned out differently. A good one, Chris suspected. In any case, Josiah's words were a perfect epithet to this whole affair and Chris was grateful for it.

"I don't know if I ever will," Alex admitted meeting Vin's gaze. "But if that's the price I have to pay for them being gone, I'll learn how to."

"I'll be right there with you, Darlin'," Vin leaned forward and kissed her hair. In truth, Vin wished he could have done the deed. It wasn't right for her hands to be stained with blood. After what Vin saw in that make-believe world conjured up by the Jewel, he would have gratefully ended the Erran himself. Not just to spare Alex but to save everyone from the nightmarish reality the Erran was hell-bent on creating.

Tiamat could never be allowed to rise again.


MOSCOW

Grigory Fedulev awoke in a cold sweat.

Perspiration ran down his back while the cool sheets of his bed clung to his skin. For a few seconds after reaching consciousness, he had no idea where he was. As the walls of his dream state melted away from his mind, replaced by the familiar furnishings of his apartment, he realized he had been dreaming. Closing his eyes to keep the fragments of dream stuff together for just a little longer, he tried to remember its details.

Something precious was lost, something they sought desperately? They? Who were they? The OGPU? Himself?

The more Fedulev grappled for an answer, the more elusive it seemed. His efforts to reach it soon became the very force chasing it further into the shadows. Faces appeared briefly in the dissipating fog in his mind, faces that almost had shape but not enough for recognition. There was a name, it remained poised on the edge of his tongue like a pregnant drop, but as clarity returned, it vanished.

After five minutes, Fedulev shook his head, deciding it was unimportant. If it meant anything at all, it would unfold in the fullness of time.

For now, it could live in his dreams.


PALOMA'S

"Where did Mr. Wimington disappear to?"

Chris tapped his watch in Ezra's direction, having seen Buck leave the table. Around this time of night, Inez typically took a break from her duties behind the bar to go upstairs and spend some time with her son before bed. She had more than enough staff to keep an eye on the place, and if she didn't, Ezra would do it if he happened to be in the house.

"Benny's bedtime."

"Ah," Ezra nodded and gestured to JD and his new girlfriend Casey, who were on the dancefloor, swaying to the slow ballad of Rain's song. "How did Nettie take the news of JD's new paramour?"

Chris had to stifle a grin, remembering the tirade he was subjected to on just this very point. "As well as can be expected. I think the word shotgun was used a couple of times."

"Oh, that's not fair," Nathan joined the conversation. "The boy ain't no tom cat like Buck."

Nathan, for one, knew JD was rather shy around women. He might be able to hold his own with the rest of them, but the kid was still a bit of a bookworm. JD spent too much time in libraries than with people.

"I'm not arguing with you, but she thinks JD will pick up Buck's habits since they're roommates."

"I am certain Mr. Dunne will prove himself to the formidable Mrs. Welles in due course," Ezra replied and then noted the sidelong glance Nathan threw at the stage again. "In the meantime, do you intend to talk to the talented Miss Rain or continue gawking at her?"

Nathan scowled. "I ain't gawking at her!"

"Sure you're not," Chris returned with a perfectly straight face, much to Nathan's chagrin.

"It's not a good idea for me to be sniffing around her when her grandpappy is close by. Tennessee looks to me like he does have a shotgun."

"I have a feeling he'd be perfectly fine with it. You're not Buck."

"Can we change the subject, please?" Nathan grumbled. He guarded his personal feelings almost as fiercely as Chris, preferring to hide a lifetime of hurt beneath sarcasm and his hobby of torturing Ezra Standish for the unfortunate sin of being his best friend. "Any word about the Russians?"

"Not one," Chris shook his head, draining his glass and gesturing to a passing waitress for another. The girl paused long enough to swoop up his glass before leaving the table again. "A friend of mine at the State Department said they left the country a day after we flew out Annam."

"You think they got hit by the same thing as the Erran?" Nathan asked, even though it was really a foregone conclusion. They'd been back in the States for more than a week now, and there was no sign of any continuing danger.

"Buck says so," Chris thought about the last time he saw the jewel in his best friend's hands. "I trust him on that."


ANNAM

There was nothing left to do.

Aisha and Krestos were under the dirt. The Erran were scattered into the jungle. If the Jewel fulfilled Buck's wish appropriately, they would be further dispersed across the globe with no idea of the Uncreation or anything to do with Tiamat. With Benny's miraculous return to them, Buck was assured the Russians had no idea what the Jewel of Cintamani was, or for that matter, why they had murdered Bernardo Recillos. It would exist as a riddle in their minds they would never solve, and if it drove them mad in the process, Buck Wilmington had no problem with that.

Telling Chris and the others to head back to the jeep, Buck waited until they left before he finished their business with the Jewel of Cintamani. For a few minutes, he held it in his hand, aware the power to right many wrongs and ease so much pain was within his grasp. Yet to do so would mean becoming far too familiar with the wishing stone than Buck would like. Despite all the good it had done in his hands, Buck wasn't immune to its seductive lure, and before his resolve was chipped away by good intentions, he needed to act.

Holding it tight in his fist, he waited to hear that soft, unearthly voice in his mind.

What do you seek?

Buck had the feeling it already knew, perhaps it always did. His chest swelled with pride, knowing this all-powerful wishing stone considered him someone worthy enough to wield it. For the Jewel's faith in him, he would not disappoint it.

"I want everyone, except my friends and me, to forget what you are. We need to remember just in case, but everyone else can't know you exist. If you have to disappear from books and statues, even temples, do it. I want all the breadcrumbs leading to you gone. Do you understand?"

I understand.

There was almost sadness in its voice, and Buck wondered how much of a soul the Jewel possessed. Was it a living thing? Had it been lonely, waiting for centuries for someone worthy enough to find it? He wondered if his link to the Jewel was due to its need for connection?

"When all that is done, I want you to disappear. Hell, go back to where you came from. If that's in heaven, then you've earned a ticket back. Just leave, so even if anyone remembers you, they'll never get their hands on you."

As you wish.

"One last thing," Buck said, uncertain why he was doing this when it was an object in his hand, not something alive. Yet even when the thought crossed his mind, he didn't believe it. In its own way, the Jewel of Cintamani lived. "Take care of yourself."

I will continue. As you and those in your heart will continue. You are eternal. You are of the seven, bound together by forces greater than you can possibly imagine.*

The Jewel uttered something else, but before Buck could question its significance, something changed. Blinking, he was still surrounded by the jungles of Annam, but the hand holding the Jewel was empty. Lifting his eyes to the sky, sunlight warmed his face even though heavy rain clouds drifted towards convergence again. The Jewel was gone, and Buck wondered wherein the heavens it was now.

It didn't matter. It was safe, beyond the reach of humankind, and that was enough for Buck. Letting out a breath, he started walking, wanting to catch up with his friends. A smile joined him on the journey, prompted by the Jewel's final words to him.

You are the Seven, and you shall always be.

THE END

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