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by Ernie Whiting
Sergeant Greene was directing his men and the witnesses, waving them around as though he were a traffic cop and they were a mass of grid locked cars in the middle of a congested intersection. "Come on, lets move it!" he shouted. "I want two lines here, right now! Come on, lets go!" The witnesses, forced at gunpoint, moved slowly to form the two lines he demanded. Torches were planted in the ground to illuminate the path that led from the house to where the stake was erected some fifteen yards away. It was surrounded by straw from the barn and the small number of books that had survived the gunfire earlier, and a small platform stood slightly above the kindling for Valerie to stand on. Warren thought it was a nice touch of irony that she should burn in the flames of her uncles heretical books.
The crowd stood uneasily, and people muttered to each other in subdued voices until their attention was suddenly diverted to the house as its front door opened. The first person out was Warren himself, ornately and intimidatingly adorned in his black uniform, black leather coat, and polished silver eagles upon his cap, collar, epaulets and lapels. He took pride in the fact that people recognized his uniform and the power it represented, and he knew that pride was supposed to be a sin; but he also knew in his heart that the Lord would forgive him for this minor infraction. He descended the steps with an air of casual arrogance--a despot among his subjects--flanked on both sides by his entourage, which was led by his personal aide, all a pace or so behind him and carrying their weapons ready for use.
And then Valerie and Keller came out, followed closely by Corporal Willis, who was pointing his rifle toward their backs. The shock on the faces of the crowd turned to anger and contempt for the soldiers, but the sounds of weapons being readied for fire kept the people back.
"Are we going to let this happen in America?" an unidentifiable voice shouted from the rear.
Half a dozen rifles swung toward that part of the crowd, and one of the soldiers challenged, "Anyone want to try and stop it?"
A few people moved threateningly toward the soldiers, but Valerie shouted, "No! Dont do it!" They froze and looked toward her, and in the sudden silence nothing could be heard except for the crackling of the burning torches as their flickering orange light highlighted the sheen of her dark hair and shined in her bright, horror-filled amber eyes. "Youll only wind up like the students at Kent State and Tiananmen Square! Please, people...friends...dont do it. Battles can be fought another day, when youre ready for them."
A child broke loose from the crowd and ran at Sergeant Greene, who was standing behind Valerie. "You leave her alone, you bastard!" Kelly screamed, flailing her small fists at him. "Leave her alone!"
Valerie cried out, "Kelly, no!"
Greene turned with a snarl and backhanded Kelly across the face. The blow struck her with a loud smack! and sent her sprawling to the ground with a scream.
"You son of a bitch!" Oscar shouted in outrage as his daughter cried out. He broke from the crowd and rushed at Greene. "Dont you touch my kid, you miserable fuck!"
Greene swung his M-16 up and across, and fired a short burst. Bullets ripped through Oscars chest, and blood spurted and spread from his wounds.
"Oscar!" Karen screamed. She, too, broke from the crowd and ran to where he lay, only a few feet from Greene, screaming hysterically. "God! Oh, God! Oscar!"
Greene didnt really believe he was about to be attacked barehanded by a woman, not with the protective firepower that was surrounding him, but he figured that self-defense would be a good enough excuse anyway--however unnecessary, as far as he was concerned--to swing his rifle toward her. He pulled the trigger twice. Two short bursts of white-hot lead tore through her and dropped her to the dry dust and grass and pine needles. Her fingers twitched for a moment, trying to reach her husbands, as her blood drained from her. A moment later, she was still as her eyes stared sightlessly at her husband.
It all happened so quickly and efficiently.
Kelly was the only civilian not stunned with shock. She ran to her parents as her shrill screams of terror pierced the night. "Mommy!!" She fell to her knees next to her mothers bullet-riddled body, screaming hysterically. Not knowing what to do, she began pulling at her mothers hand in an attempt to help her to her feet as she looked over to where her fathers corpse lay. "Daddy, help me!" she cried, her screams turning to sobs as tears of anguish spilled down her cheeks. "Mommy, get up! Oh, Mommy, please dont be dead...Mommy...Daddy..." Tears continued to pour down her anguish-twisted face as she tried to raise her dead mother from the ground, and she sobbed uncontrollably. "Please," she begged again, pleading to whatever invisible powers that might be. "Please, dont be dead..."
"Somebody grab that little bitch before I kill her, too!" Greene ordered. Maggie went to get her, and Kelly buried her face against Maggies shoulder. She screamed and sobbed horribly, with far too much pain for a child to endure, and all Maggie could do was hold her tightly and try in vain to comfort her.
"Oscar," Valerie said in a shocked whisper. "Dear Goddess, no, not Oscar..." Grief wrenched viciously at her emotions as her own eyes filled with tears. And then she was seized in a fist of guilt and anguish as a small voice in the back of her mind said, You brought this on them, Valerie. If you hadnt come here... She cast her eyes toward Colonel Warren, and saw him watching the scene before them with a total lack of concern. And suddenly another voice in her mind said, No, it was him! That son of a bitch did it! And her grief was suddenly converted into a cold, seething rage.
Keller strained against his manacles. He had never felt so completely helpless in all his life, and he hated the feeling with all his spirit. "Damn it, Dutch," he muttered under his breath, "where the hell are you?" He almost expected his friend to immediately appear with five hundred men, all armed to the teeth, but there was no sign of him. He finally gave in to the cold, hard reality of the situation. Shit, were goners.
Greene and Willis each grabbed one of Valeries arms and hustled her to the stake. They uncuffed her wrists for a moment, shoved her back against the thick wooden pole, then re-fastened them around the stake and behind her back. They stepped away as another soldier began pouring gasoline from one of several five-gallon cans to soak into the straw and paper. She tried to back away from the gasoline that splashed in front of her and near her feet, but the handcuffs kept her securely in place.
Please, dear Lady, she implored silently as tears of anguish fell down her cheeks. Please...dont let them...
And then that fleeting something flashed through her mind again. It was like some small speck of knowledge that had come and gone before she had a chance to grab it. It was something about... Damn, what was it?
Keller silently watched Valerie with tears forming in his own eyes. First they killed his sister, then they killed Jeff, and now they were going to kill Valerie. He grieved for the loss of his friends and for his own failure to prevent these losses, and it made his hatred of the FLM that much stronger. For all the good it would do him, he thought as Valerie looked back at him with terror in her amber eyes. "Im sorry, darlin," he said. "At least we gave it our best shot."
"Any last words, witch?" The words seemed to echo in her mind from more than five hundred years before. "This is your last chance to save your immortal soul, if not your earthly life." He grinned at her with ice-cold hatred as he folded his arms smugly against his chest. "So much for your curse, Señorita Carrera," he said under his breath. "Ive beaten you again." He laughed a cold, Inquisitors laugh.
Valerie turned her eyes to the night sky. Neither stars nor moon could be seen through the thick, cottony cloud cover, but she thought she saw a soft silver glow somewhere behind the gently rippling gray quilt. Her breathing began to grow rapid and her heart pounded more quickly in her chest. But it wasnt fear that caused it; it felt as though a mild electrical current was coursing through her, a current of Power. And what she had been struggling to remember a few moments ago suddenly hit her like a bucket of ice water.
According to ancient, pre-Christian belief, there is one night out of the year when the barriers between the worlds of the living and of the dead are at their thinnest; when it is possible, some believed, to communicate with the dead. It is at the time some called the Witches New Year, when the Earth itself was entering its darkest interval--the halfway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. Tonight was the final night of October, known to some Witches as Samhain...and Valerie could remember thinking a few nights ago that it looked as though there would be a full moon on Halloween...
She closed her eyes and shut off all extraneous thoughts, and forced her mind to focus. Mother Goddess, she invoked as she reached out with her mind and spirit. Mother Goddess, and Mom and Uncle Vince, and the spirits of all fallen allies, I beg you to help us in our hour of need... The prayer went through her mind again and again, faster and faster, until it became an unending, arrhythmic chant.
And then she felt their presence all around her in a swirling vortex of energy. She opened her eyes and fixed them on Warrens as her terror suddenly drained out of her and disappeared, just as it had that day when the soldier stood over her in her house with his M-16. "You fucking lose, Priest," she growled.
Warren smiled again in malignant triumph, and in a casual, underhanded toss, he personally threw in the fist torch.
Keller squeezed his eyes shut, unable to watch.
The torch flew and landed in the gasoline-soaked straw near her feet. It lay there for a few moments, flickering and crackling and sizzling...and then its flames disappeared in a small puff of white smoke.
Damn, Warren thought in annoyance. Then he grinned embarrassedly at his soldiers and shrugged. "Well, if at first you dont succeed," he said, and his men chuckled in amusement at their commanders uncharacteristic display of attempted humor. They didnt care, by demonstration of their insolent and arrogant attitudes, that the villagers were shocked and disgusted beyond description. He took another torch and threw it in, and this one landed directly under the platform on which Valerie was standing. This second torch also lay in the straw for several long moments, and then its flames dwindled and died.
Something was going wrong, Warren thought, and suddenly he felt very uneasy. "Whats going on here? Did some idiot fill those cans with water by mistake?"
"No sir, it was gasoline, all right. Theres no mistaking the smell of it."
Kellers eyes opened at this exchange. He looked up at Valerie and saw, even in this uncertain, flickering torch light, that there was a cold, knowing smile growing across her lips. An uncertain yet hopeful one began to spread to his own, although he wasnt quite sure of why.
A gentle breeze began to pluck at the straw, dust and leaves that were scattered on the ground.
Warren picked up one of the gasoline cans and sniffed at the spout. It was gasoline, sure enough, but why the hell wasnt it burning? He carried the can to the would-be burning pyre and poured its contents all over a large section of straw and paper. Then he took another torch from a soldier who stood nearby, and he plunged its flaming head into the gas.
It went out.
The breeze picked up, and became a steady, moderate wind.
Warren stared at the straw that refused to burn, and terror began to claw its way up his spine to his scalp. Dear Lord, he thought, whats going on here? Then he slowly looked up at Valerie again, and saw that she was watching him. Her voice echoed through his mind from more than five hundred years ago: "We will meet again, you and I. In another life and time, we will meet again...only next time it will not be me who burns!"
The wind grew even stronger. It blew dust and debris everywhere, and snapped at fatigues and civilian clothing alike. It reminded Valerie of that day in the living room, when the two soldiers had invaded her home. A sudden strong gust blew Warrens cap from his head, and a moment later he felt as though he were about to be blown away with it; the last time he had felt a wind this strong was when he had been standing near the spinning blades of a helicopter as it lifted away. Soldiers and civilians fell to their hands and knees, crouching close to the ground, to avoid being blown off their feet.
And the wind shredded the gray clouds and blew them away, revealing a sharply starry night and the brilliant, full and silver moon. It bathed the clearing, the house, and the surrounding woods in an eerie glow, and sparkled and danced from Valeries pentacle and the silver ornaments on her headband. There was another gale-force gust of wind that pushed away the final tattered remains of the blanket of clouds, and then suddenly all was still and quiet. People slowly rose from their protective semi-crouches and looked around in bewilderment. One soldier could be heard asking in the background, "What the hell was that?"
Colonel Warren took two steps toward the mound of straw, and looked up at Valerie. "Whats happening here?" he shouted at her in rage and growing terror. "God damn you, witch, I demand to know!"
"No more, Priest!"
He stopped in the short silence, and stared at her with hate-filled eyes.
"Even before the first days of the Inquisition, your kind has hunted down and executed those who would not follow your ways. In the name of your Jesus, you killed Witches and non-Witches alike; you killed Jews and Muslims, and gays and even some of your own Christians because there were those who wouldnt be your sheep; because they dared to question authority and think for themselves! Your solution to freedom and diversity has always been the stake and the rack. In Salem it was the noose and the pressing stones, and in Washington it was the House Un-American Activities Committee that ruined peoples lives because of what they dared to think and write. And then along came the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and your own Foundation for Law and Morality--and their attendant religious intolerance! Your kind has gone from hunting witches to Communists to drug users; and now that youve run out of enemies to create, youre back to witches again. Your kind will do anything to keep people under your domination.
"But tonight your time is through, and the cycle ends here and now." She took a deep breath. "No more, God damn you!" she roared, and her eyes blazed to new life with bright yellow fire. "You hear me, you bastard? NO FUCKING MORE!!!"
A blinding, massive fork of brilliant lightning shattered the clear night sky into a thousand shards, and exploded overhead with the fulminating thunder of a nuclear warhead. For a moment, it seemed as though the entire forest was suddenly illuminated to full daylight before it was plunged once more into almost total darkness.
"No!" Warren roared, with his heart pounding in terror. "The Lord will win!" He clenched a fist and struck at the air with it. "I will win!" He turned to a pair of soldiers and pointed at her. "Shoot that bitch!" he ordered them. "KILL HER!"
Another blast of thunder exploded in the sky as the two Holy Guardians raised their automatic rifles. Lightning flashed as they took aim at Valeries chest, and the bolt of energy split into two jagged arcs that struck the rifles. Electricity shot through the weapons and into the soldiers, and they danced a macabre, jumping and jiggling dance as their systems were overloaded with energy. The rifles ammunition exploded inside their magazines, and by the time the soldiers fell to the ground they were a pair of charred, smoldering corpses.
Kellers eyes widened with horrified awe. Jesus Godamighty!
Warren stared at the remains in mute terror. He backed away on rubbery legs, and his jaw worked silently as he tried to scream. He stumbled backward as the smell of burning flesh reached his nostrils. No! Not even she can do this! he thought as another bolt of lightning flashed. It struck another soldier in the chest and blew him to bloody pieces, leaving only the lower half of his body intact. The crowd of witnesses screamed and scattered, running for cover along with most of the soldiers, as the rifle fell to the ground. Most of them headed for the house, not caring if it was haunted or not; they figured their chances were better in there than they were if they remained outside. They hadnt grasped the significant fact that the lightning had struck only soldiers, and had come nowhere near them. But it was the soldiers who had the guns, and they forced the civilians at gunpoint to stay outside as they commandeered the safety of the house for themselves.
One person did not run for the house. She ran to where the last soldier had fallen, and picked up his rifle. She didnt know how to use it, but she had seen her father use a different one once, and all she had seen Oscar do was squeeze the trigger. Kelly Corey carried the rifle to where Keller was crouching on one knee. "Want me to try and shoot the cuffs off?" she asked him.
"Jesus no, girl," he replied. "Youll blow my hands off!"
Kelly looked offended. "No I wont."
"Lets not chance it, okay, honey?"
Thunder crackled and boomed again, and lightning flashed. Another bolt struck the ground in front of a fleeing soldier who had dropped his rifle and was now running for the woods. The ground before him suddenly erupted in a flash of light and an explosion of dirt clods and dust, and he stopped short. Turning around to change direction, Sergeant Greenes eyes suddenly fell on Keller, who was standing with a small girl who held an M-16. He recognized the daughter of the man and woman he had killed just a short time ago, and at the same moment Keller and Kelly recognized him as he turned to face them. Controlling his surprise, Keller said, "Theres no way youre going to win, man. So why dont you just give it up and throw us the keys to these cuffs?"
Greene sneered at them. "You gotta be shitting me," he said contemptuously. "You think that little bitchll blow me away?" He could see her right hand on the pistol grip, and the left had its fingers underneath the carrying handle. His sneer turned into a look of cold hatred. He started forward, approaching them quickly, and to Kelly he said, "You give me that rifle, you little shit, right now!" He made a quick grab for it.
(...mommy...daddy...please, dont be dead...)
(...get that little bitch before I kill her too...)
As lightning and thunder exploded again, and with terror in her young eyes, Kelly brought the M-16's muzzle up and jerked the trigger. A short but deadly spray of bullets stitched a line of bloody holes from Greenes chest to his face as the recoil caused the barrel to rise. To an adult, the recoil of an M-16 isnt that great, but to a child Kellys size it was unmanageable. She fell backward and dropped the rifle. Over the continuing thunder, no one had heard the gunfire.
"My God," Keller said in a shocked whisper. He had seen a lot of things in his life, but this was the first time he had ever seen a seven-year-old girl deliberately shoot someone to death.
Kelly got up and took the keys from Greenes belt, and then she looked into the surprised, dead eyes of the man who had killed her parents. She stared at him for several seconds, with her young face completely empty of emotion. She felt cold inside. There were no more curses in her heart for him; there was just a cold, grim feeling of satisfaction. He was dead, and that was enough.
She went to Keller and helped him to free his wrists, and then she gave him the rifle. "Youre really something, you know that?" he told the girl. He took her hand and together they ran for the house. The living room looked as though it was full of soldiers, all peering out at the front yard, so they headed around to the back door and into the empty kitchen. He looked around for a hiding place for her, then guided her toward the dining table. He went to one knee. "Stay under here, okay?" he said as he guided her gently under the table. "Ill be back as soon as I can." He quickly kissed her forehead, then pulled the white tablecloth back down to hide her, and went back outside.
The lightning and thunder had ceased, and the civilians and the few remaining soldiers outside slowly rose to their feet with terrified thoughts and questions running through their minds. It was so quiet now that it almost seemed as though nothing had happened...except for the fact that there were three charred soldiers lying on the ground, and there were disorganized people everywhere.
Keller headed into a small group of people and kept himself concealed as he gradually made his way over to Valerie. A couple of people noticed him, and they unobtrusively side-stepped to hide him from the view of the few soldiers still outside. Keeping the M-16 low, he edged his way toward the stake.
Then there was the sound of an approaching helicopter. Oh, shit, Keller thought as a Vietnam War-era Huey 204 came into the clearing and settled to hover a few feet above the ground. Now what? One of its .50 caliber machine guns opened fire, and two soldiers fell. Keller looked more closely at the helicopter, and then at its pilot. He grinned. "I knew youd make it, Dutch!" The side door slid the rest of the way open and seven people jumped out of the cargo bay; six men and an Asian woman, who was dressed in a black ninja outfit minus the mask, and had her long black hair tied into a single thick braid. And in one hand was her only weapon: a sword. He stopped for a moment and watched her, not even realizing that another ten Rebels were coming from the woods.
Gunfire and shouts broke out as the woman ran off at an angle, separating from the rest of her group, and leapt high to kick a soldier twice in the face and once in the chest before her sneakered feet touched the ground again. Keller stood immobile for a moment as he watched her while listening to the rapid fire of an AK-47 and an M-16, and the slower but more powerful fire of a .50 caliber M-60. The Rebels thought they had it made as three more soldiers fell before they realized what was happening and began to return fire. While Keller used the cover fire to run to Valerie, a corner of his mind wondered if the Rebels gunfire was going to be any more effective against the soldiers bullet-proof Kevlar vests than was the womans sword. He kept in a crouch until he reached her with a set of keys. "Hi there!" he said brightly as he went to work on the cuffs. "Happy to see me?"
"You bet your ass I am!"
He noted with some apprehension that several soldiers, which had fallen under Rebel bullets, were getting to their feet again. "Im sorry Harrison Ford and his whip couldnt make it," he said as he began unlocking the handcuffs. "I hope youre not too disappointed."
She turned as far as she could, and gave him a puzzled look over her shoulder just before her wrists came free. "Who?"
"Harris--" A shot rang out, and a bullet smacked into the stake to splinter its head. He flinched violently and glared at it in shock. "Never mind," he said nervously, and they jumped together from the platform and ran for the Huey.
And that was when she saw Jasmine. In front of her was a soldier with his side-handled baton raised high. Her sword was lying on the ground, having been struck from her hand. He swung repeatedly at her, and each time she effortlessly ducked and sidestepped. "Come on, weasel dick!" she taunted. "You can do better than that!"
Enraged, the soldier shouted, "Hold still, you little heathen bitch!" He swung furiously with the baton, letting his anger control him.
Jasmine ducked and sidestepped again with a fluid grace as she held her hands tucked behind her back. "Weasel dick!" she called him again.
He swung again, and missed again.
"Weasel dick! Nyah, nyah!" She ducked and spun, and failed to notice the approach of a second soldier as he swiftly came up from behind her. "Weasel dick! Weasel dick!"
The first soldier held off for a moment as he waited for his back-up to come up behind Jasmine and grab her, and then he could beat her to death. She was caught completely by surprise as a pair of powerful arms wrapped themselves around her.
"Now Ive got you, bitch!"
She struggled against the second soldier, twisting and turning and trying to break free, and his arms around her tightened like the coils of a python.
The soldier in front raised the baton and waited for a moment, giving the other Guard a chance to steady her. Then Jasmine rammed her right heel against her captors instep and brought from him an instinctive howl of pain and a violent flinch that loosened his grip slightly. Her head snapped backward and slammed into his nose, smashing skin and bone and cartilage into a flat, bloody rose. Again, he roared with pain. His grip around her loosened even more, just enough so she could slide out of his grasp and drop into a crouch. The first soldier, wanting to hit her before she got loose, swung the baton--and it slammed into the left temple of the second soldiers head, crushing the side of his skull with a sickening crunch.
The first soldier froze. Oh, fuck! he thought, momentarily stunned by what he had just done. And that wasted moment was all Jasmine needed: she sprang up, grabbed his arm before he could backhand her, and bent his club-hand inward against his forearm, breaking his wrist. Bones popped and ligaments tore with a satisfactory crunch, and she quickly relieved the baton from his useless hand. She slammed her elbow twice into his face with all her might, and then with a vicious snarl she backhanded him across the face with his own baton. Then she turned her back to him and threw him over her shoulder. He landed on the ground with a thud and a grunt, and her heel smashed into his face.
A third soldier came at her. She let him approach until he was almost on top of her. He raised his baton high with one hand, and Jasmine raised hers, one end in each hand. She blocked the blow, then lashed out with her foot and kicked him twice in the groin. She spun around as he fell, lashed out with her leg, and slammed her heel into his temple in a reverse roundhouse kick--and unlike with the customer from the bar so long ago, this time she was dead-on target. Then she slammed her baton into the groin and across the face of another Guard who was coming up behind her.
Valerie had no idea that Jasmine could fight like this! She heard her once mention that her father had taught her to fight, but she didnt tell her about this. She was about to shout a greeting to her when she suddenly saw another soldier leveling his M-16 at her. Her surprise turned to terror and desperation. "Jasmine! Look out!"
She turned in the direction of Valeries voice, and grinned and waved. And then she noticed what had happened to her, and she thought, Dear Goddess, what did those bastards do to you?
She never saw the soldier who shot her. She spun and fell with a cry of pain as her hand flew to clutch at her wound. She tried to get to her feet, but she fell again.
Valerie ran to her as Keller went for the soldier, whose rifle was now jammed with a faulty cartridge stuck in the chamber. He was working madly at the charging handle, and then at the forward assist in an effort to clear the chamber, when Keller hit him with a full body block.
Jasmines hand was clutching at a small hole above her breast. Valerie knelt next to her and saw the blood that was spreading and oozing between her fingers. "Ive been shot," she said, more surprised than anything else. "Holy shit, Ive been shot!" She looked up at Valerie, and her face began to pale as the surprise in her eyes turned to fear and shock. She coughed once, and flecks of blood appeared on her lips. "Oh, dear Goddess, no..."
"Easy, babe," Valerie said with a voice that trembled in fear. "Youll be okay. Well get you out of here."
A wave of dizziness washed over her as darkness drew around the edge of her vision. "I dont think so," she whispered.
Tears spilled down Valeries face. "No, Jasmine!" she said, her voice quavering. "Please, babe, dont die..."
Keller was suddenly there, after having dispatched the soldier. Jasmines eyes closed slowly, and her body went limp. He pressed two fingers against her carotid artery, and he could barely feel the faint pulse that beat in her neck. He gently lifted her and saw that there was no exit wound in her back--the damned bullet was till in there. A .223 caliber round was a vicious little bastard that tumbled once it hit its target, and would chew up tissue like a tiny buzz saw. "Jesus," he whispered, noticing how much blood she had already lost. "Come on," he told Valerie as he lifted Jasmines limp form. "Were getting the fuck out of here."
Four other Rebels had fallen so far, struck by more rifle fire from the soldiers who were still outside. But now more soldiers were emerging from the house, and they used the civilians as human shields as they fired at the Rebels. Not being able to fire back, and being too far from the woods to take shelter, more Rebels fell to Guardian gunfire. Both sides were running low on ammunition now, and much of the fighting was converting to hand-to-hand--and the remaining soldiers were winning.
Jostling her as little as possible as they ran, Valerie and Keller managed to get Jasmine to the helicopter. "Shes hurt bad, man!" he shouted to Dutch over the roaring whine of the choppers engine and the steady, rapid beating of its blades as he eased her into the cargo bay. Then he noticed the white sling in which his arm was supported. "What happened to you?"
"Some of those fuckers can shoot straight after all!" he shouted in reply. The chopper was sitting on the ground now, ready to take off again at a moments notice. "That lady right there"--he indicated Jasmine--"is the one who patched me up!"
"Get her to Doc Bennet, quick!" Then he turned to Valerie. "Get in!"
Valerie didnt hear him. She was looking back over her shoulder, staring at Jasmines katana lying on the ground. She suddenly bolted and ran to get it.
Keller couldnt decide whether to go after her and bring her back or not, at first, and then he motioned for Dutch to take off. The engine roared even louder and the wind from the blades grew to nearly gale force, and the huge machine lifted gracefully away from the ground, turned, and headed off to the southwest.
Gunfire was tapering off even more as both sides ran lower on ammunition. Some of the unarmed civilians crouched near the house, under the armed threat of perhaps half a dozen soldiers, and others lay flat on the ground, hoping to avoid getting shot as two more Rebels fell dead. Only three remained, and as they exhausted the last rounds from their weapons and began to use them as clubs they wondered what the hell had gone wrong. Faulty intelligence; only a small squad had been seen by the recon chopper when it had flown over not long ago, but obviously reinforcements--the party in search of witnesses for Valeries execution--had been on the way, somehow unobserved by the over flight.
A few soldiers, after having dispatched the last of those who threatened them, moved in with their comrades to join in on the beatings. The remaining Rebels tried to surrender, but the Holy Guardians were in a blood frenzy, like a group of sharks tearing at a helpless, bleeding victim, and with savage delight they beat the men to death.
Valerie reached Jasmines katana. She picked it up and swung it awkwardly, lashing at the soldier who was coming at her. She threw herself off balance with the strength that she put into the wide arcs she swung, and missed twice as the soldier stepped back again and again, waiting for his chance to move in and strike with the baton. Valerie kept rushing forward and clumsily swinging at him, blinded by tears of rage and pain. Damn you! her mind screamed at him. Damn you, damn you, DAMN YOU! And she missed again and again as the soldier stepped clear of her. She stopped, turned, and faced him again--
--and a pulse of psychic energy came from the sword, and ran up her arm to engulf her.
It reminded her of the day of the concert, and the guitar and all of its owners. She had never played a note in all her life; but all she had to do was just let the combined energy of all those previous owners and other guitarists flow into her. Go with the flow, a voice had been whispering inside her mind that day, just relax and go with the flow.
And now that voice was back. Go with the flow, it whispered again--only this time the voice was Jasmines.
She could feel not only the Asian womans presence inside of her, but also the presence of all of her ancestors; the skill and knowledge of generations of Samurai warriors and martial arts experts suddenly washed over and through her in a roaring tide that entered through her hands and spread throughout her entire body. It surged through her like a drug; only instead of slowing and numbing her, it had the reverse effect--her fear and fatigue were suddenly gone, and the pain from her wounds washed out of her as new strength flowed through her. Voices echoed in her mind, voices that spoke in Japanese, and even though she had never heard this language spoken before, she understood exactly what those voices were telling her.
Her other hand came up by itself, and its fingers curled around the hilt of the sword. The sword itself came up, vertically with the point slightly forward, and she stepped back with one foot and bent her knees slightly to distribute her weight more evenly. Her muscles rippled under the soft, tanned skin of her forearms as she tightened her grip on the katanas hilt.
The soldier circled around her warily, waiting for the right moment to strike. Valerie turned slowly, facing him, sliding her feet slowly across the ground rather than lifting them and stepping, always maintaining her balance. The baton suddenly came up and forward, and so did the sword; it sliced through the air with a sharp hiss, and the soldier screamed. The baton--with his hand still gripping it--went flying, and the soldier stared in wide-eyed shock at the blood that was now spurting from the stump at the end of his arm. Then the sword flashed around in a circle and swept downward with another hiss, and slashed through the side of the soldiers lower leg. It struck the bone with a jarring thunk!, and the soldier screamed again as he fell, clutching with his remaining hand at his calf as blood pulsed from the wound. The sword came around again; bloodstained steel sliced through his throat, almost taking off his head, and his jugular veins spurted warm, red blood in twin jets across her face and chest. She spun with the sword and it sliced through the top of another soldiers vest as he came up behind her; the vest fell away from his chest and flopped against his lap, and she thrust the blade into his abdomen. She planted her foot against his chest and pushed him away, and pulled the sword free. She turned again, and the katana spun slowly in her hands, like a single, slow moving blade of a propeller. She saw another soldier thirty feet away who was leveling his M-16 at her; there was the sound of a gunshot, and he spun and fell. She turned in the direction from where the shot had come, and saw Keller standing fifty feet away with a soldiers Beretta in both hands. A wisp of smoke was swirling from its barrel as he watched her, clearly impressed by the fighting skills she was displaying.
"Not bad!" he said under his breath. "For a woman..."
Valerie wryly smiled back at him and softly said, "Oink!"
More soldiers were coming from the house to surround her by the time Keller reached her. He stood with his back to hers as he pressed the clip release on the empty handgun and let the clip fall to the ground. He reached into a pocket for another, then checked another pocket. Oh, shit, he thought as he patted one empty pocket after another. Valerie handed him the baton she had picked up as he let the useless gun fall. It wasnt much, but it was all there was.
They watched silently as the circle of some twenty or so soldiers moved around them. They could hear rifle actions being drawn back, and slides on handguns clicked and snapped in the deathly silence that had fallen. The circle of soldiers moved in slowly as Valerie watched them with the bloodstained sword ready to strike. She glanced quickly at the people near the house, her eyes pleading for their help, but there was nothing they could do; armed soldiers held them at bay, ready to fire at the slightest movement. As more rifle and pistol barrels were aimed at the last two combatants--well out of reach of sword and baton and ready to spray death--Valerie thought resignedly, Oh hell.
The low, eerie howl of a single wolf, somewhere to the north, broke the silence.
One of the soldiers turned to see where the sound had come from, but nothing could be seen beyond the night-shrouded woods. He turned his attention back to Valerie and Keller, and the wolf howled again.
But this howl seemed to come from the south.
And from much closer.
The soldiers paused for another moment, and suddenly they didnt feel quite so confident. The only time any of them had ever heard a wolf howl was in those Foundation-produced anti-nature specials on TV with lurid titles like "Predators From Hell." But now they were out here in the middle of the woods, at night and low on ammunition, and the two howls sounded as though they had come from a source that was uncomfortably close.
A third howl came from the west.
The soldiers were growing more nervous by the moment. They looked into the impenetrable darkness, and then at each other as they hoped to find some signs of desperately needed encouragement. Instead, all they saw was the edge of the clearing as it was bathed in the surreal blue-white lunar glow, the stars that sparkled in the cold night sky, and they saw the ominous black woods that now seemed to be closing in around them. And what frightened them the most was what they suddenly discovered in the even blacker shadows of those woods: pairs of glowing chips of bright, clear amber that didnt quite sparkle like the stationary stars overhead.
They blinked, and moved.
And the soldiers saw their own growing terror reflected in each others eyes.
At first it sounded like an earthquake. It was low and deep, and the ground itself seemed to vibrate with it, but rather than moving outward from one central point it circled around the clearing in a wave that grew louder and louder, layer upon layer, moving ever inward. A moment later it was recognized not as a temblor, but as the deep-chested growling of something vicious and hungry. It moved in closer and grew stronger--the very air vibrated with the sound--and as it permeated through the bodies of the soldiers a single wolf could be seen as it silently emerged from the pitch-darkness. It came from the northern edge, a hundred feet away, and even in this dim light Valerie could tell that it had the tattered remains of a bandage on one front leg. It came forward, moving stealthily, and then stopped. It lowered its head and flattened its ears against its skull, and its black lips peeled back in a blood-chilling snarl that revealed bright pink gums and three sharp, white fangs.
One of the soldiers turned to face it. He raised his M-16, aimed carefully, and fired a long burst. He expected to tear the animal to bloody shreds, but the bullets thudded into the ground and kicked up a spray of dry dirt and pine needles that pelted the wolfs front legs and chest. The animal never even flinched.
Another ominous snarl came from the south.
A soldier spun to face it, and found himself staring at three more huge, gray wolves. They were standing several feet apart with their heads lowered, ears back, and lips peeled back to reveal yellow pointed fangs that dripped glistening, silvery strands of saliva. They were standing much closer to the ring of soldiers than the first wolf; no more than ten feet away and ready to spring. No one had seen them approach, nor had anyone heard them; they had simply appeared there, as if by magic.
The blazing chips of amber moved out of the darkness of the shadowed woods and into the lunar glow of the clearing, and around them materialized lupine forms; some were gray and tan, some were white, some were as black as the shadows from which they emerged. They appeared and slowly closed in with growing boldness as the confidence of the soldiers suddenly drained away, trickling like warm urine down the leg of someone who has just now discovered the true meaning of pure, absolute terror.
"Dear Lord Jesus Christ," said the soft, quavering voice of a horror-stricken soldier. "Dear Lord Jesus Christ, how many of them are there?"
The surrounding ring of soldiers, which had been so bold only a few moments ago, now found themselves surrounded by over a hundred wolves.
They attacked en masse, rushing from the forests edge in a gray tidal wave of fanged death. They swarmed across the open ground, ignoring the civilians that crouched near the house and leaping over the bodies of dead Rebels, to go after the men in the black fatigues and bullet-proof vests. Gunfire began again, but the wolves moved much too quickly for the terrified soldiers to take proper aim. Some of them began to believe that the animals truly were demons, impervious to the flying lead--but the soldiers had the Lord on their side, and He wouldnt let them down. The Lord would make their aim true.
The wolves came and they came, snarling and growling, and slashing with wet, gleaming fangs. The Kevlar vests, which had saved most of the soldiers from Rebel gunfire, were absolutely worthless as the wolves went for exposed legs, arms, groins and throats. Gutierrez, Warrens aide, was the first to go down as he was hit by three wolves; one came from behind and knocked his legs from under him, the second came from the front and slammed into his chest, and the third came from one side and sank its teeth into his throat, tearing muscle and skin and cartilage. Blood flowed warm and red and delicious through its teeth to stain the gray fur on its chest.
The rest of the soldiers tried to run for the house, leaving Valerie and Keller to the mercy of the wolves. The two slowly straightened from their crouch, but they never lowered their weapons. Keller started and instinctively raised his baton again, ready to defend himself as well as he could, as another wolf lunged past him to attack one of the retreating soldiers.
Valerie was nearly as amazed as Keller was. She laid a hand on his arm, and in a voice that was filled with both relief and fascination she said, "Easy, Garrett, theyre allies; theyre on our side."
Colonel Warren had been ahead of most of the civilians in an attempt to find cover when the shooting had first broken out, and now he was standing inside the large double doors of the barn, holding one open just a crack, and peering outside in horror as he watched the rest of the soldiers fall under the onslaught of the wolves. Dear God, what had gone wrong? How could this be happening? He was here to do the Lords work; the Lord had personally sent him. He was the Lords right arm, and the Lord had sent him here to capture the witch and execute her. He had even had her in his grasp, right there in his fist! So why was it that he was now watching his men die out there--being wiped out by the witch and her unholy allies, all aided by Satan himself? True, the Devil was powerful in this land of drug-deranged hippies and other Communist terrorists, but Satan was not stronger than Jesus. Was it possible that the Lord was putting him to another test?
Of course! That had to be it! It was another test of faith, as He had done with Job. The Lord wanted to make certain that Elias Warren was worthy of Him. "I am worthy of you, Jesus," he whispered nervously. "I have faith in you. Only in you!" But his voice now seemed to be tinged around the edges with the first traces of doubt. He strenuously suppressed it, and he wiped nervous sweat from his face and brow with a trembling hand. "Anything for you, Lord," he said softly. "Anything!"
Five of his men were standing nearby, nervously awaiting their orders. There were only two horses in the barn, so escape for all of them was out of the question. Four could leave, but that would leave two men behind. Who would be the unlucky ones?
He turned from the doors to address his soldiers. "You men," he said with a commanding voice, "get out there and help your brothers."
That wasnt the order theyd been waiting for.
"You heard me!" he shouted as he took note of their less than immediate response to his order. "The Lord commands it! Get out there and help your brothers! Thats an order!"
"Fuck you!" one of the soldiers shot back.
The others turned to stare at him in shock and disbelief.
"Well all get killed! I say we draw straws to see who gets out on horseback!"
"Dont you dare be against me!" Warren roared with spittle flying from his lips. He stood hunched over slightly, clenching his fists tightly against his thighs; his entire body was quivering from fear, and his face was red and contorted with rage. One arm shot forward with his finger pointing at the rebellious soldier. "When I give you an order, the Lord is giving you an order!" he shouted like a petulant child. "You do as we say!"
"No!" the soldier shot back. "If you want to stay here and get killed, you go right ahead--but Im getting the fuck out of here!" He turned toward one of the horses.
His mind reeled with disbelief as he stared at him. He didnt know how to cope with it; no one had ever dared to commit such an act of insubordination before. One of his own men was turning his back on the Lord!
He fumbled with his holster and drew his sidearm. Holding the weapon in both hands, he shouted, "Stop! The Lord commands it!"
The soldier ignored him. He didnt realize there was a pistol pointed at his back as he tossed the reins around the horses neck. "Fuck you--and your lord! Im outta here!" And then he heard the gunshots as five hollow-point slugs slammed into his back. Their impact threw him violently against the horse, and he turned slowly as he smeared his blood on the horses hide. He slowly slid to the ground with a very surprised look on his face.
Shrieking wildly in sudden panic, the horse reared on its hind legs, turned, and struck at the rest of the men with its front hooves. "Shit!" a soldier screamed. "Fuck!" "Outta my way, asshole!" They rushed for the double doors, shoving each other aside and not even thinking about the wolves that were still out there. Staying inside with the panic-stricken horse, they believed, was almost a sure death. When they abandoned Warren and bolted through the doors, they glanced quickly around and realized that with all of the noise they had been making they had just attracted the attention of a dozen wolves. The soldiers turned together and ran in a group for the woods, hoping that maybe, just maybe, they could make it to the river and across it, where they would be safe.
They didnt make it.
Keller looked up as he heard the sound of another chopper. Anxiously, he watched it as it came down with a roaring whine and beating of blades, and then was relieved to see Dutch at the stick. A man in the cargo bay slid open the hatch, and Keller and Valerie ran for it. He scooped her into his arms and tossed her inside.
"I dont know," Dutch replied. "But shes in good hands, and theyre doing the best they can!"
"You stay here!" Keller told her, shouting once again over the roar of the engine. "Im going to get Kelly, and then were out of here!" He ran quickly for the house.
"Hey!" she began irately. "Who the hell--" She stopped when she realized he was paying her no attention. Who the hell did he think he was, tossing her in here like a sack of potatoes? For a moment, she was nearly incoherent with indignation. "Goddamn male sexist macho pig sonofab--!" The thought abruptly broke off as she spotted another running figure. It was making its way from the barn to the house.
Her eyes narrowed like a hawks. "Not again, you bastard," she growled. She called over her shoulder to Dutch. "Ill be right back!" She jumped to the ground and ran after him.
"Damn kids," Dutch muttered to himself, wanting very much to just get the hell out of here. "Always runnin around and getting into trouble..."
Keller ran across the front porch and crashed the door open with his shoulder, knocking one of the three soldiers there aside and sending his rifle flying from his hands in the process. The other two spun away from their prisoners to see what had happened, and they were suddenly overpowered and beaten to the floor by their captives. Their weapons were quickly taken from them, and their hands were cuffed behind their backs. Keller glanced around the living room, ignoring the commotion his entrance had caused, and spied a fallen M-16. He snatched it up and started for the kitchen. I hope Kellys still safe in there, he thought.
Warren saw that there was no way he could get into the house through the front door, so he headed for the kitchen. A couple of women had tried to follow him in, but he had slammed the door shut in their faces and locked it as a trio of wolves ran toward them. They pounded at the door, screaming and pleading to be let in, and Warren refused. Let the wolves have them, the heathen bitches, he thought as he listened to their piteous screams. The two women turned, and from the porch they saw the wolves with bloody muzzles heading straight for them, and they screamed even more. The wolves rushed up close and slammed themselves against the door, and tore at it with their nails as they snarled viciously. They paced back and forth, sniffing around its edges and smearing fresh streaks of blood on the bare wood, as the two women cowered and watched in terror. Finding no way in here, they ran off again to search for another, and the two women crouched motionlessly and clutched at each other with their eyes wide with terror and bewilderment.
Warren stepped back from the door and bumped against the heavy kitchen table. A childs whimper came from under it, and he lifted the cotton tablecloth and looked underneath to find Kelly Corey hiding there. "Come out from under there, you little shit!" he snarled, grabbing her painfully by the hair and eliciting a scream from her. "Youre going to be my ticket onto that chopper!"
Valerie came around the corner of the house and saw the two women crouching at the door, blocking it. Locked, she thought. Otherwise, theyd be inside by now. She cast a quick look toward the windows and saw Warren moving about inside the kitchen...and then she saw that he had Kelly. She backed up a few feet, then ran and leapt head first through the window, crashing through wood and glass and the torn lace curtain. She went into a shoulder roll across the floor and came up on her feet. Blood was trickling from a diagonal gash across one eyebrow, a cut from the broken glass. "Let her go, Warren!"
"No! Shes coming with me!"
"The hell she is!" She started to lunge for him.
Warren pointed his Beretta at the childs head, and Valerie froze. "I said shes coming with me!"
Valerie stood immobile, uncertain of what to do.
The connecting door from the kitchen to the living room burst open, and Keller dropped into a crouch with an M-16 in his hands. "Freeze, motherfucker!"
Warren spun around to face him. "Stay back! Stay back or Ill kill her! I swear, Ill kill her!"
Keller immediately eased the rifle to the floor. "You would, wouldnt you?" he growled with unbridled hatred. "You murdering piece of shit."
"Is this one of your fine examples of Christian ethics, Priest?" Valerie asked contemptuously. "To threaten a child to save your own worthless ass?"
Warren smiled that cold Inquisitors smile again. "We Christians arent perfect," he said, "just forgiven. Now tell your demon to get away from that door."
Keller watched him coldly, words failing him. He could not articulate just how much he despised this... Christ, this guy really is fucking nuts, he finally thought. He had never been in the presence of someone who was this severely unbalanced, and it chilled him.
"Do it! Now!"
Keller moved away slowly, and Warren--still clutching the child before him like a shield--edged his way toward the door. When they got there, Kelly did something that surprised them all: she grabbed his gun-hand while his attention was on the adults, and sank her teeth into his hand, just below the base of his thumb, biting him hard enough to draw blood. Warren roared in pain, yanked his hand away, and dropped the gun. He slapped her hard with his other hand and sent her spinning against Keller, and ran out the door.
Valerie ran to them, and knelt before Kelly. "Are you okay, honey?" she asked.
"Yeah," they both answered.
In spite of herself, she regarded Keller for a moment with a wry grin before returning her attention to Kelly. "Youre really one brave girl, yknow that?"
Kelly smiled bashfully.
"Take her to the chopper, Garrett. Im going after Warren."
There were too many people in here, Warren thought as he burst through the door and into the living room. Too many people and nowhere to hide. And they were almost all civilians, too; the only exceptions were the three Guards who were sitting with their hands cuffed behind their backs, and were being carefully watched by a man and two women, all holding the soldiers confiscated weapons on them. The rest of the people were looking out through the windows as the wolves continued to lope back and forth, tugging with their teeth at dead soldiers. No one had noticed Warrens entrance; after all the gunfire, the thunder and lightning, and the wind and all that screaming out there, the slamming of a door hardly warranted even the slightest bit of attention.
He frantically scanned the room. Where to go? He wondered, and then he saw the stairs. Maybe there was another way out up there. He charged up the stairs at full speed, taking three at a time.
Valerie burst into the living room. She could hear footsteps rushing up the stairs, and a door up there banged shut. Son of a bitch, she thought, hes gone up to Moms temple room.
She took off after him.
Keller took Kelly into the living room. Holding aside a tattered lace curtain with one finger and peering through the shattered window, he could see the helicopter as it sat with its blades still spinning, ready to take off. "Come on, honey," he said, "were going for a helicopter ride." He picked her up and held her in one arm while the other continued to hold the M-16. He started for the door.
"Hey!" said Scott Preston. "Youre not really going out there, are you?"
"Sure I am. Why not?"
"The wolves are still out there!"
Keller opened the door a crack and looked outside. "Yeah, I know," he said. "But theyre on our side." I hope, he added silently. As he headed off toward the chopper he thought, Valerie, if youre wrong and I get eaten, Im never speaking to you again. He was pretty sure she was right; but coming out here with a seven-year-old child in tow was not the best way to find out. But what other choice did he have? It was the only way to get her out of here and away from all of this insanity.
Besides, he still had the M-16.
Just in case.
He hoisted her into the open hatch next to the pilots seat. "That big guy there at the controls is a good friend of mine!" he told her. "You stay with ol Dutch here, and youll be just fine! Dutch, Im going back to get Valerie, and then were out of here!"
He gave him a nod. "You got it!"
Keller shut the hatch and latched it, then started back for the house as he cast an occasional glance from one dead soldier to another. Some of the wolves were slowly dispersing, evidently feeling that their job here was done. "Wait a second," he said to himself as he scowled first at one black-clad body and then at another. None of the faces were the one that he hoped to see, and those that had only bloody red flesh for faces were the wrong size and body shape. "Where is he?" he wondered out loud. Where the hell is he? He looked quickly around, searching the grounds before him.
There was a movement next to the house. Coming from under the house, through one of the cellar windows. A lone figure, dressed in black, crawled slowly like a shadow from the window and stood on his feet, looking carefully around. Seeing no wolves, he started for the woods. Keller raised the M-16 and sighted down the barrel, and shouted, "Willis!"
Corporal Willis, hearing the familiar tone, thought for a brief moment that it was Colonel Warren calling for him. He stopped and turned, and saw Keller aiming at him.
"Die, motherfucker!" He squeezed the trigger.
Keller looked at the rifle as though it had just insulted his entire family. He pulled back on the charging handle and looked into the chamber, and then it dawned on him that all this time he had been running around and carrying this weapon with him, and the fucker was empty! He tossed it away and began to run. He saw that the big soldier was also running, escaping into the forest. He would have made it, too, and Keller would never have seen him again if it had not been for the sudden appearance of that limping wolf. It bared its fangs and crouched, ready to spring at the soldier.
Willis skidded to an abrupt stop, his heart pounding and his eyes wide in terror, as he stood frozen to the spot, gazing into the face of Death.
And then, with a surprised grunt, he suddenly went down under a full body slam. The two men went down, rolling in the dust and leaves, thrashing and punching at each other. Keller scrambled to his feet, took a step back, and, when Willis struggled to his knees, kicked the soldier hard in the face. Willis flew backward, twisted to one side, and got to his feet. From this much closer range, Keller realized just how big Willis really was. "Come on, asshole, lets see what youve got!"
"This is what Ive got," Willis replied as he took out his side-handled baton, "you fucking commie rat-bastard son of a bitch!" He took a lumbering step toward Keller and swung, missing his target by a foot. Keller ducked under the swing and sent a hard right into the corporals side. Willis staggered slightly from the blow and turned to face him again as he raised the baton. He swung a second time, missed, and Keller stepped in and slammed his elbow into the soldiers kidney. Willis grunted in pain, and his hand opened reflexively, losing the baton. He turned and lashed out with his fist to catch Keller across the side of his head. Keller saw stars and thought a bomb went off somewhere nearby, and the corporal lashed out again and punched him in the face. The blow sent him spinning to the ground, and he lay there momentarily stunned. His vision cleared barely in time to see Willis coming toward him, carrying the baton he had dropped. The soldier stood directly over him and stared down at him. Oh, shit, the smuggler thought, trying to move. His arms felt sluggish and unresponsive. Willis raised the baton with a contemptuous sneer on his lips, and suddenly Kellers foot came up and his heel slammed into the soldiers groin. Williss bellow of pain echoed through the woods as he fell to his knees. Keller rolled quickly out of the way as the soldier thudded to the ground with both hands clasping his testicles, and the baton fell to the ground again. One of his hands slowly began to grope for it, and Keller quickly snatched the club away and held it tightly. He rolled to his feet and kicked Willis hard in the ribs. Willis rolled with it and staggered to his feet, breathing in ragged gasps. "Im going to kill you," he half-growled and half-groaned.
"Before you do," Keller responded, also panting heavily, "maybe you can explain to me how you get all that semen out of your moustache every night."
A new raging fire leapt into the corporals eyes. This Godless commie piece of shit dared to call him a...a...
With a maniacal roar, he charged at Keller with the lumbering speed and grace of an enraged rhinoceros. Keller stood his ground, crouching and twitching the baton in his right hand. "Come on, fucker!" he yelled at him, and then dodged to one side and slammed the baton across his stomach. A strangled grunt came from the soldier as he doubled over, and Keller hit him again, across the base of his neck. Willis fell to the ground again, and Keller kicked him across the face. The impact of the blow flipped him over, and he fell on his back. Keller stepped in again, and a foot came up and caught him across the ribs, sending him flying. He landed on his side and scrambled to his feet. Willis was up again, and his breath was coming in harsh gasps. God, Keller thought exhaustedly, whats it going to take to finish this monster?
"Youre dead shit, fucker," Willis said as a horrible smile crept across his bloodied lips. "And after I wipe you out of my ass and flush you down the toilet, Im going to get that witch-whore of yours and Im gonna fuck her ass and her mouth, and that tight little cunt of hers, and then Im gonna strangle her with her own guts!" He rushed at him again.
With a cold and determined smile, Keller let him get just close enough. He summoned every last gram of strength, channeled it into his right arm, and let his fist fly. It smashed Willis dead center in the face, crunching the bone, and Willis froze. He stood there for an agonizingly long moment, very still, with unfocused eyes that stared somewhere around Keller. And then he collapsed like a sack of week-old laundry. Keller dropped to one knee, grabbed the corporal by the collar, and began smashing at his face. Willis raised one weak arm in a feeble attempt to fend off the blows, but he just didnt have the strength. Keller grabbed him by the throat and squeezed, and slammed his head repeatedly against the hard forest floor. "Come on, fucker!" he shouted. "Come on, goddamn it, fight me! Fight me! Come on!" His teeth were clenched to the point of cracking as he continued to bash away at Willis with one hand, grunting with exertion with each punch, and with the steel-like fingers of his other hand he crushed his windpipe.
But Willis didnt care anymore.
Keller stopped for a moment as he looked into the soldiers glazed eyes. "No!" he shouted. "No! You bastard! You chickenshit bastard, Im not through with you yet!" He continued bashing away at Willis, wanting to bash at him for what he was going to do to Valerie and what his cohorts had done to his sister and too many friends, but the corporal had taken the easy way out.
And then sanity returned to him as he suddenly realized that this could not go on forever... He most certainly was through with him.
He relaxed his grip on Williss throat and slowly got to his feet as he stared down at the big corpse. And then he fell and lay on his back, breathing heavily in harsh, strained gasps. "Gotcha," he panted. "Gotcha, you sumbitch." He lay still for a few moments, gasping for breath.
The bandaged wolf slowly approached him. He could see the animal coming toward him, but he was too exhausted to move. "If youre going to kill me, at least make it quick--I aint got all night."
The wolf stood over him and stared at him for a long moment. Its jaws parted slightly, and its head came down toward him with its hot, rank breath wafting in his face...and then it licked his face a couple of times.
Keller rose slowly and painfully to a sitting position as he placed a throbbing hand gently against his painful ribs, and stared in surprise at the wolf. And then he decided to take a chance as he slowly reached forward with his other hand, and gently scratched the wolf behind one ear. "I guess...Valerie wasnt kidding," he groaned with an exhausted voice between dry, harsh gasps. "We really are allies."
Valerie turned the knob, put her shoulder to the door, and crashed it in.
Warren spun away from the window where he had been looking for an escape route. Realizing there was none, he turned to face Valerie. The two stared at each other for a long moment; Valeries eyes were cold and hard, and Warrens were filled with hatred and fear.
"All right, Priest," she said as she locked the door behind her. "Its just you and me now."
Colonel Warren regarded her silently, trapped with the woman he had burned to death over five hundred years before. After all this time, and with everything falling apart around him, all of the old doubts that he had been suppressing for all these years suddenly came roiling to the surface. Was it possible that he had been wrong? Had he always been lying to himself? Oh, dear God--they had lived before! He had always known, in the back of his mind, that this was true; but he had always fought against this by claiming that the Devil had been planting those doubts in his brain.
"I was doing the Lords work back in Spain, as I had done in Bavaria," he blurted out. "And, by God, I shall do it again! Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!"
"Whatever happened to Thou shalt not kill, Priest? Isnt that in your Bible, too?"
He bristled with new outrage. "Dont you fucking dare quote Scriptures to me, you fucking Devils whore!!"
Valerie took a menacing step forward. "I am getting sick and goddamn tired of you calling me that," she growled.
"Even the Devil can quote Scriptures!" he shouted as he took a step back. "You cannot trick me!"
"You people always say that whenever youre trapped with your own words."
"The Sixth Commandment says, Thou shalt not commit murder."
She folded her arms. "How very convenient it is for you to interpret it that way. And I suppose what you and your kind did to me and hundreds of thousands of other innocent people wasnt murder? What your anti-abortion snipers did to doctors and clinic workers wasnt murder? As long as you re-label murder with execution, you get to sleep at night with a clean conscience, dont you? You can get away with murder just so long as you dont call it murder."
"No!" The shout sounded uncertain even to him. "It wasnt murder! God commands that a witch must die!"
"Shit," she said derisively. "God commands." Then her voice lowered. "You son of a bitch, why the hell wont you drop your pretense? Theres no one else around here; its just you and me. You dont even believe in a God, do you? All you believe in is your fucking Bible."
Warren watched her suspiciously. "What do you mean by that?" he asked, puzzled and wary. What is she talking about? The Bible is the word of God, he told himself, so therefore it had to have come from God. Right? "Whats the difference?"
"Precisely my point," she said. "You believe in the Bible, which is a mere book written by men." She took another step toward him and leaned forward on the desk that separated them, and her eyes impaled him with twin daggers of ice. "Your Bible is your God."
Warren was silent as his mind raced. "Nonsense," he said at last. "The Bible says--" He stopped, and thought furiously. "I mean, God tells us...in...in the Bi...ble..." His voice trailed off, and then his eyes re-focused on her. There was a growing uncertainty in them that quickly turned to fear. And then realization hit him like a baseball bat right between the eyes--he couldnt say anything about his idea of God without referring to the Bible...
She was right. God damn her, she was right. He knew this now...yet still he tried to turn away from it. No, he thought, dont think about what shes saying. Push it away. Push it away, and dont think. Its not important anyway; dont think about it, dont think... Once again, he averted his eyes from the truth and lost himself in the soft, warm, sweet embrace of the comfortable lie.
"So what was it that put you onto me this time, Priest? I mean, I know it was inevitable that wed meet again--hell, I saw to that--but just to satisfy my curiosity, I would still like to know just how you found me."
Eager to think of something else, he blurted out, "The Tarot cards." And then he immediately wished he had kept his mouth shut.
"Tarot cards?" Shed had a feeling that they had something to do with it, but...
The wanted posters. She had seen them almost everywhere she had stopped, and she had wondered how her picture had been obtained. She could see one of them in her mind now, and this time she studied it carefully. The background had been fuzzy and out of focus, but the expression on her face had been crystal clear. Her expression...the look she had given George at the bookstore when he charged her fifteen dollars for something he was going to burn...
"That sneaky little bastard," she said. "That little geek at the bookstore...he took my picture, didnt he? I shouldve known--your people showed up at my house that same night!" Then she looked puzzled. "But why the hell did he take my picture? He didnt know me."
"George always lets me know when--" and again he wished he could keep his big mouth shut. My God, he thought, why dont I just give her a...signed confession?
And in that short moment of silence, Valerie understood. "When someone buys something that the government doesnt like," she finished for him. "Is that it? No wonder theres never a cop around when you need one--theyre all hanging out at bookstores! Waiting to bust someone for...what do you call it, buying subversive literature?" She shook her head in disgust. "Are you people really that afraid of different ideas?"
"Too many different ideas cause disunity," Warren replied, parroting what his instructors had taught him back in his training days; even now he could hear their voices echoing through his mind. "The country must be kept safe and strong, and uniformity is strength. We must always be on our guard against the Satanic forces of Communist atheism! The nation must be united, and it must be united through law and order. Without law and order our nation cannot survive!"
George always lets him know when people buy something that the Foundation condemns. Did he take pictures of all of his customers? Did he keep his own little secret files on everyone who came into his store and bought what he considered to be "questionable" materials? And why did he keep such materials around in the first place? Unless it was to...to deliberately entrap people? Oh, dear Goddess, she groaned inside, with a sudden and dreadful realization. How many lives have these people ruined? What had been the fate of all of those people who questioned authority and dared to think for themselves? Of those who dared to dissent?
Who dared to be free?
Was this the ultimate price for "national unity," and "law and order?"
She felt cold and disgusted inside. "You..." she said, the rage in her voice barely controlled. "You goose-stepping, Bible-thumping, fascist son of a bitch!" A thousand curses and questions were swirling through her mind in a tempest of rage, and it took another long moment before she finally controlled herself well enough to force the words out. "But why me, damn you?" she asked. "Why did you choose to hunt me through all these lives and centuries? Why me?"
"Because youre a rebellious Witch, God damn your soul!" Warren shouted back. "Because youve always been a dissenter and a Witch, ever since the first time we met! And because you and your kind defies our Holy Word and our sacred cause; and because the common people have always preferred to follow people like you instead of our Church!" He paused for a moment to get his breath back. "You and your talk of Nature and Freedom..." He spoke the last two words as though they left a vile, fecal taste in his mouth. "Living under a properly structured society was never good enough for people like you; you always had to live your own ways... You and your talk of defying authority... You and people like you have always had a way of making others listen to you, and of making them think for themselves...and it was always people like you who led them down the path of resistance against their ordained masters." He paused for another long moment. "Why did I choose to hunt you? Because you represent the very spirit of resistance and rebellion, Valerie Ryan! And because you represent the spirit of independence and freedom, you are the enemy of the ruling class--and we will destroy you for it! Otherwise people will always resist to being kept in their proper place by their masters in government." His voice suddenly cracked, and tears began to stream down his reddening face as it suddenly twisted in anguish. "The Lord wants us to be victorious!" he declared with a sudden, sobbing wail, and Valerie watched him with a new kind of horror in her eyes. Elias Warren was melting down.
And then, with new-found determination--and with glistening mucus running from his nose to his lip, and spittle flying from his mouth--he shouted angrily: "And, by God, we will be! This is our world, not yours! God gave it to us, not to you! It is our manifest destiny to win in the name of the Lord!"
She started to move around the desk, and Warren retreated a step. She really didnt know what to say to him at this point. "You want to know something?" she finally asked him. "Ill bet youre not going to believe this, but just now Ive decided to remove my curse from you, Priest. Do you know why?"
He watched her with dread and suspicion.
"Because you are one sick son of a bitch. If you were responsible for yourself, I think I might waste you, right here and now; but I dont want to take the chance of having to come back in another life and dealing with you again--I just want to be rid of you, once and for all." She straightened as she prepared to leave. "So fuck off, Warren. Just fuck off, and leave me alone." She turned her back on him and started for the door.
No one turns their back on me and the Lord! Warren thought. We cannot let her escape! We must not!
He scrambled around the desk and grabbed her by the shoulder to spin her around with a raised fist. Valerie blocked the punch and threw one of her own, hitting him squarely in the face and staggering him back several steps. Her knee came up high and her foot snapped out and caught him in the chest, and sent him flying backward into some bookshelves across the room with a loud crashing of glass and splintering of wood. A burning oil lamp that rested on the top of the shelves fell to the floor and shattered, and sent a pool of burning oil to spread across the floor. He scrambled to his feet and leapt again, and this time he landed on her and dragged her to the floor. Pinning her down, he raised a fist to smash into her face. She dodged her head to one side and Warrens fist missed her by a centimeter to slam into the hardwood floor. As he roared with pain, Valerie used the opportunity to grab at his throat to choke him. Warren used his good hand to try to break her hold, shifting his weight slightly, and Valerie brought her knee up into his ribs. The blow was not hard enough to cause him any damage, but it did dislodge him from her. She pushed him off and rolled to her feet.
The burning oil spread to the heavy drapes that hung on a nearby window. Bright flames quickly began to climb them to the ceiling. Holy shit, she thought, Ive got to get out of here! But Warren wasnt going to let her leave. He tried to grab her again, and she rammed a fist into his solar plexus. She hit him again, doubling him over, and then brought both hands down, clenched together, on the back of his head. Warren went down and stayed there.
The flames were spreading rapidly. Valerie checked the door, saw that she still had time to get out, and ran for it. She grabbed the knob and twisted, but it refused to turn. What the FUCK? she thought, fighting with the knob with both hands now as panic rose in her. And then she remembered she had locked it to prevent Warren from leaving; now it was costing her precious time in getting out. She twisted the lock open with one hand as the flames roared closer to her, turned the knob with the other, and yanked the door open with both. As she went through the door she ran into another dark figure; she lashed out with a clenched fist and her blow was blocked, and the man raised a hand to ward off another one. "Cut it out, goddamn it!" he shouted. "Its me!"
She grabbed Keller by his jacket as she rushed past him. "Lets get the fuck out of here!" she shouted. "The whole place is going up!"
"In there!" she replied over the roaring flames, indicating the attic with a jerk of her thumb over her shoulder.
"Good! Let im stay there!"
That made a part of her feel cold-hearted, leaving a man behind like that. But on the other hand, Karma or not, she sure as hell wasnt about to go back in there and get him. After all, wasnt it the fate to which he had once condemned her?
No one noticed just when the gunfire had finally stopped. The only soldiers left alive were now prisoners being held at gunpoint by civilians, and they were being escorted quickly out of the burning house. A group of wolves circled menacingly around them, perhaps hoping that the soldiers would try to break free and escape; they were still hungry. Even the civilians thought that they, too, might be in some danger from them; but still they kept most of the guns trained on the soldiers. Had any of them stopped to think about it, they would have noticed that no one had yet seen a wolf attack a civilian. But old beliefs ran deep, and they remained wary.
Dutch was still sitting in the pilots seat. He was resting his Reuger in his lap and watching the front of the house.
"They are going to come back, arent they?" Kelly shouted anxiously.
Dutch was worried himself, but he didnt want Kelly to know it. "If I know Keller--and Ive known him for a lot of years--they should be coming out pretty soon...there!" He pointed, and Kelly looked out through the windshield. "There they are!" She smiled hopefully as Valerie and Keller came running out, and her smile changed to an expression of horror as a pair of wolves ran toward them. One of them circled around behind her and came up on her left, and the other took the right, and together they escorted her to the waiting helicopter. Keller was looking a little nervous himself, but Valerie just grinned at them. The wolves trotted alongside, glancing from side to side as these lupine bodyguards made certain that no unauthorized personnel came near her.
Kelly scrambled into the cargo bay and slid the hatch open, and as soon as Valerie was inside she threw her arms around her neck. She hugged her tightly, fiercely, thankful that she was safe. She didnt know what she would have done if Valerie had died along with her parents.
"Hi, sweetheart... Are you okay?"
"Yeah!" Kelly replied. "How about you guys?"
"Were okay!" Valerie replied.
"Yeah, just a walk in the park," Keller said, mostly to himself, as he somewhat nervously continued to watch the wolves that were now sitting near the helicopter, with their eyes narrowed and their coats and ears flattened against the downbeat of the choppers blades. He wasnt about to invite them in.
Valerie looked down at them, and she wondered if she should invite them on board. They watched her for a moment, almost as if they were considering her silent half-offer, and then they turned and headed off for the woods at an easy lope.
"Valerie!" Dutch said. "Ive got something for you!" He reached under the seat and withdrew something. "I think youll be wanting to hold onto this!"
Valerie reached forward to accept it, and found that it was the Book of Shadows he had risked his life to retrieve. "Since you stuck your neck out for this in the first place, I figured it must be pretty important!"
"Oh, Dutch! Youre a sweetheart!" She hugged his neck with one arm and kissed his bristly cheek. "I cant thank you enough for this! You have no idea what this means to me!"
Dutchs face turned a bright crimson as he smiled sheepishly, and said nothing.
Keller had never seen him blush before. He turned to look at Valerie and said, "Hey, what about me? I kind of helped a little, too, yknow!"
She thought of the soldier he had beaten to death in the cellar. It had chilled her at first, but now--after what she had been through--she understood his rage. She didnt condone or condemn it; instead, she understood and accepted it as a part of who he was. And then she thought that maybe the cards werent totally wrong after all; they had shown that there would be a man, a woman, and a child embarking on a journey. Across a river in a boat or across the sky in a helicopter, the same meaning was still there.
"Oh, of course you get a kiss!" She pressed herself against him and kissed him, long and deep. She felt a twinge of guilt about it, though, because a part of her was still thinking about Jasmine.
When they broke off, he grinned at her, slightly shaken. "Zowie!"
Dead soldiers lay scattered across the land like bloody rag dolls, and occasionally a wolf would take a bite at one of them to make certain he was dead. Slowly, one and two at a time, the wolves began to leave. Valerie spotted the wolf with the bandaged leg, and it stopped for a moment to look back at her over its shoulder. She watched him, waved to him and smiled, and his lips parted as he panted slightly. Even his eyes softened as he appeared to smile back at her. For a moment he had that same Golden Retriever-like expression in his eyes that he had worn while lying near the hearth the other day, and it made her stop and think for a moment. Had the wolf been repaying her for her kindness in releasing him from the trap, and for treating his leg? Or could it be...
"Gus?" Tears suddenly welled in her eyes, and her voice choked with emotion. "Is that really you?"
And what about the other wolves? Had they been guided by her magic? Or had they been temporarily possessed by the spirits of her familys fallen allies from ten years before? Regretfully, she concluded that she would never really know as this wolf, too, turned once more and disappeared into the forest.
The civilians outside had split into two groups. One kept watch over the prisoners--and wondered what the hell they were going to do with them, since they had nowhere to incarcerate them--while the other went to the bodies and began collecting weapons and ammunition. After all, these new resistance fighters were going to need them, no matter how distasteful it might be to pick over dead bodies.
"I dont know about you," Keller said, "but I could use a beer! You think its about time we finally got out of here?"
And go where? Valerie thought as she stared at her home, which was now ablaze all along the top floor. She could hear Colonel Warren screaming at the window. "Help me! Jesus, God! Help me!"
"...only next time it will not be me who burns!" The words echoed in her mind from over five hundred years ago.
She forced herself to be hard and cold. Its your own goddamn fault, Priest, she thought. Now you know what you put me through, you son of a bitch. What goes around comes around, and youre getting exactly what you earned. How do you like it?
"Lets go, Dutch!" Keller shouted.
The chopper started to lift away from the ground, and then she suddenly started for the open hatch. Keller grabbed her by the arm. "Where the hell are you going?" he asked, and he had a sudden and bad feeling that he already knew the answer.
"Im going back to help Warren!"
Dutch heard the commotion in back, and he stopped the choppers ascent.
Keller stared at her with wide, disbelieving eyes. "Are you fuckin crazy?!" he demanded. "That son of a bitch was going to burn you alive!"
"I know it!" she countered as she twisted out of his grasp. She lunged for the hatch and jumped to the ground.
Dutch brought the chopper back down, and Valerie turned and faced Keller. "But I cant leave him there! Dont you get it? Maybe, just maybe if I help him, I can break this damned Karmic cycle that keeps bringing us back for this ongoing nightmare! And maybe Ill finally be rid of him, once and for all! I have to at least try!"
"Fuck it! Were getting the hell out of here!" He lunged for her.
"The hell I will!" She dodged his lunge and ran for the house.
"Valerie! Goddamn it, come back here!" Even as he shouted he knew she wasnt paying any attention to him. He slammed his fist against the choppers sliding hatch. "Shit!"
Smoke had already filled the living room and tried to choke her, and the heat and flames were still sucking the oxygen upstairs and consuming it. She ran for the staircase and bounded up the steps. She reached the top landing and tried to see through the haze.
"Help!" the Colonel screamed again, his voice weaker and harsher this time.
Valerie stopped at the door as the flames leapt at her to lick at her face. It all seemed so familiar to her; the heat of the flames, the harsh, asphyxiating smoke...all that was missing was the rope around her wrists and the stake at her back. She backed up hastily, and looked around for a moment... She ran down to the second floor and into her bedroom, where she whipped a heavy blanket from the foot of her bed, then ran back to the attic. "Warren!"
"Over here!" A strangled cry.
She threw the blanket around herself and covered her head, then took a deep breath and plunged inside.
Flames were roaring everywhere. She squinted, trying to see through the fire and smoke. "Warren!" she shouted again, and choked on smoke. "Where are you?"
"Here!" came a weak reply.
She saw him, lying on the floor some fifteen feet away. A wall of flame seemed to shift to one side for a moment, and she ran forward. She got to him, then hooked her hands under his armpits and hauled him to his feet with a loud groan of exertion as the flames continued to rob her of oxygen. She slung one of his arms across her shoulders and tossed the blanket over him and herself, and then slung her other arm around his waist and grabbed onto his gun belt. "Were going to run for the door, on three. Ready?"
He gasped and nodded.
"Right. One...two...three!" And then they were making their way toward the door. Warren, weakened from smoke inhalation, stumbled several times, and it was up to Valerie to drag him. She had second thoughts about being here; was it really worth it? Should she have risked her own life in a possibly vain effort to save his?
Another sheet of flame leapt up in front of her, momentarily barring her way. Well, it didnt really matter anymore, since she was already here. Now she had to do her best, not only for his survival but also for her own.
The flames before her retreated, and she seized the opportunity to drag him through the doorway. A huge wooden beam, covered in flames, fell with a horrendous thud just inches from them, and then an instant later the entire roof of the attic collapsed with a thundering crash that created a massive, almost oceanic spray of burning embers as another wave of flames rushed at them.
And then there was someone else there; Keller met them at the top of the stairs. He grabbed Warrens coat and slung him over his shoulder in a firemans carry, and then grabbed at Valeries arm as she began to fall to the floor. He pulled her to her feet, dragged her stumbling along, and they headed down the stairs and out of the house.
They came through the front door in a billow of black smoke, coughing and choking and gasping, and stained with soot. But they were out in the fresh air, and Keller thought he had never smelled anything so good in all his life. He inhaled deeply and coughed forcefully, and Valerie fell to her hands and knees in an uncontrollable fit of coughing and gasping. Keller carried Warren a few more steps, and then dropped him like a duffel bag to the ground. He went over to kneel next to Valerie, placed a hand on her shoulder, and forced her to look up at him. "Are you okay?" he gasped.
She gasped, coughed, and nodded as she circled her thumb and forefinger in an okay sign, and then her hands fell to the ground once more to support her.
"Yeah, right," he said with another gasp.
Valerie finally rolled and sat as her throat cleared, and she gasped for more air. "What about him?" she asked, her voice raw.
Keller glanced at him. "Who fuckin cares?" he groaned. He looked at Valerie again and said, "Now can we get out of here?"
Valerie gasped more air into her lungs and went to kneel over Warren. There were blisters on his face, and his hair and uniform were singed. She felt for the carotid artery in the side of his neck and found a strong pulse. A moment later, Warrens eyes fluttered open to see a bright, full moon.
"Alive," he croaked. "Alive, alive!" He took a deep, harsh breath and sobbed in gratitude. "Thank you, Jesus!" he shouted, his faith reaffirmed. "Thank you for delivering me from--" He stopped suddenly, and his eyes widened in shock when they fell on Valeries bruised and blood-caked, sweating and soot-stained face as it hovered above him. "You!" he cried. "But--"
"Yeah, Keller and I pulled you out."
"But...but I thought Jesus..." A wave of confusion swept across his face as he struggled to rise. "This cannot be! You saved me? But why?"
She sighed exhaustedly, and shook her head. "Beats the hell out of me," she lied, preferring to avoid a lengthy discussion on the merits of reincarnation versus right-wing fundamentalist Christianity. Right now, she just didnt have the strength for it.
"But Jesus...didnt He..?"
He looked at Keller.
"Dont even ask, you fucking maggot," he growled threateningly. He moved to lunge at the colonel, but Valerie moved between them.
He looked back at the Witch, his eyes uncomprehending and filled with fear. "But Jesus wouldnt send you to save...me..." His mind was racing frantically, trying to make sense of it. "You saved me...after I... Then it was Satan who must have..." He sat up slowly, rapidly blinking baffled eyes, and suddenly he realized he didnt know what to believe anymore. All of his previously held convictions were suddenly shattered like a storefront window beneath the impact of a looters brick, and he could feel his mind caving in. "Somebody," his voice cracked. "Please, someone... Tell me what to believe..." He slowly drew his knees up and hugged them tightly to his chest. Tears began to stream down his face, and he began to moan.
"What the hells goin on?" Valerie wondered. She began to slowly and cautiously step away from him, as though he were a bomb that might go off at any sudden movement.
Warrens eyes widened, and as he clenched and ground his teeth together he didnt even realize that he was chewing at the insides of his cheeks and turning them into a bloody pulp. Red foam bubbled from his lips. His moan grew louder and louder, until it became a sobbing scream. He inhaled a deep breath and screamed again as he finally tipped over the edge, and fell into the deep, dark abyss of insanity. He drew another deep breath and screamed again.
To Be Continued
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