There was no wind to speak of, except the gentle touch of air as she moved about. There was dampness to it; however that seemed to chill her, bypassing her flesh and boring straight to the bones.
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and suppressed a shiver. Her dreams had been like this more and more as the year had passed. Still, the foreboding surroundings did not frighten her as they had in the beginning. She knew what to expect.
"Xena!" She called through the echoing mist about her. Not so much mist as tendrils of shrouded existence. The entire universe seemed to be made of these pale blue shimmering ghosts, fluttering like ragged curtains suspended in eternity. She could hear her voice echo in that endless void. Still, something about this was definitely wrong. Even at the longest, it would only take Xena a few minutes to join her. On this instance, she had been in the place for what might be counted several hours, with no sign of her best friend. Her eyes scanned her surroundings and she suppressed another shiver. No, there was something distinctly different about it this time. An air of quiet dread seemed to permeate her surroundings.
"Gabrielle," A voice seemed to call from a great distance.
Gabrielle froze. Her head turned as she attempted to get a bearing on the voice. It echoed weakly all around her.
"I'm here!" she called in return. "Where are you?"
"Keep coming," Xena's voice responded, sounding distant and unlike herself.
"What's the matter?" Gabrielle shouted as she resumed walking. "I can barely hear you!"
She followed a rough path meandering through the curtains of mist until she entered a small open space.
"I'm here, Gabrielle," Xena's voice said, more clearly but still very weak.
Gabrielle turned in a complete circle, but she still did not see her friend.
"I can't see you!" she called.
"I'm here," Xena replied, and Gabrielle could see her, barely, as if she were merely flickering in and out of reality. Gabrielle frowned. This had never happened before. Usually, when they met in the Dreamscape, it was as if she were alive and real again.
"What's happening?" Gabrielle asked.
"Very weak," Xena said. "Listen Gabrielle, there's not much time. I need you to do something for me?"
"Of course," Gabrielle replied instantly.
"This could be very dangerous," Xena continued.
Gabrielle smiled knowingly. "Since when isn't it dangerous?"
"I'm serious!" Xena said, and her anxiety fed some of the energy allowing her to flicker into more definite view for a few seconds.
"Something big is about to happen, and I need your help to stop it!"
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena frowned, as if the effort to communicate was causing her pain.
"I need you to find the Chronos Stone," Xena said. Her voice was tight from exertion.
"Isn't that the stone that Autolocus found all those years ago?" Gabrielle asked. "I thought it was safely tucked away in a vault somewhere?"
"Just listen!" Xena hissed. "I don't have much time here. The Stone is gone. It must be returned. I need you to find it and bring it back to this time."
"This time?" Gabrielle frowned. "Xena, I don't understand?"
"Go to the Stygian Witches," Xena said, almost pleading now. "But be careful! They're old, but they're also very dangerous!"
Xena's voice was fading and her already faint form dissolving like mist.
"Xena!" Gabrielle felt a cold lump of horror forming in her throat. "Xena! I can't hear you!"
"The Stygian Witches!" Xena's voice came again. "They can help you get to where you need to go! Just be careful! They'll try and…."
Xena's voice and form faded into nothing and Gabrielle was alone. Something like panic seized the young bard's heart.
"Xena!" she cried, suddenly afraid for the first time in her life. "Xena!"
Laughter seemed to echo all about her, a cruel and wicked laugh, filled with malevolence and hate. Then the universe seemed to blur into a brilliant white flash.
Gabrielle sat up as if someone had struck her. She rolled over onto her belly and looked about. The first rays of the sun were just beginning to glow behind the eastern hills. Her own little campfire had died to only a few glowing embers. The wind whistled chill through the thick branches of the trees and brush surrounding her little campsite.
She shivered with the sudden chill and gazed about her, the words from the dream still fresh in her mind.
"Go to the Stygian Witches," Gabrielle repeated to herself. "Well, I guess I better get going."
Eight days later, she stood at the base of a craggy hill, looking up at the barely recognizable ruins of an ancient temple. She stared at the dizzying height and sighed.
"You never said anything about this," she muttered. She shrugged her pack off and let it fall to the ground. Then, gazing up at the white craggy wall before her, she began her long, slow ascent.
The climb was complex and treacherous. More than once, she lost her footing and nearly fell to her death, hanging by one hand like a dangling spider as she scrabbled to reestablish her hold. By the time she reached the summit, her muscles burned with exertion and her body glistened with a sheen of perspiration. This was one time where she didn't miss her long hair. She clawed her way the last few yards and lay back on a long smooth slab of stone, breathing hard. The warm sunlight helped dry the sweat from her skin and kept her burning muscles from cramping. She took a long drink from her water skin and sat up, gazing out at the vast, desolate expanse of earth beneath her. The stone hills seemed more like broken teeth, glistening pale white or tan in the bright sun. Old brambles and the remains of ancient trees clawed up from between rocks, grasping for whatever sunlight and moisture they could absorb.
A rough path led up from her place, meandering between the dried out ruins of some ancient orchard towards a gaping maw that may have once been a decorative entry for the temple. The brilliance of the daylight seemed to stop at the threshold, making the place look like a hole in the world, dark and treacherous.
"She said I should be careful," Gabrielle muttered. "Somehow, I don't think she meant the climb."
She reached down and drew her sais from her boots, feeling more comfortable with her weapons in her hands. She stopped at the entrance, looking up at the ruined arch and it's long faded engravings. She could barely make out characters in the soft stone that might have once been words, but after only a few moments, she realized that they were indecipherable.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward and plunged into an unnatural blackness.
She had to pause once she was within the structure, the dark was so complete that she thought she had been struck truly blind. She turned back and couldn't even see the entrance, though she had progressed only a few cautious steps. Her hand reached out and touched the stone wall, cool and slimy. The substances sizzled and tingled at her touch, though it didn't burn. Instantly she withdrew her fingers.
Voices drifted through the darkness to her ears.
"What is that?" One dusty female voice said.
"Is someone here?" A second, high pitched, whiny voice asked.
"Who has the Eye?" the dusty voice asked again.
"I do!" A hoarse voice croaked harshly.
"What do you see?" the whiny voice asked.
"Yes, tell me sister, what do you see?" the dusty voice also pleaded.
The hoarse voice dropped a note in pitch and chuckled as it spoke. "A woman," it said.
"Let me see!" The dusty voice barked and the sound of rustling was heard for a moment. "Yes, a young woman."
"Is she plump?" asked the whiny voice.
"Not plump," Dusty Voice said cheerily. "But well put together."
"Give it to me!" Whiny Voice said forcefully, and the rustling sound was heard again, then Whiny Voice wheedled.
"Come in, my dear," she said. "Don't hang about the door. It's rude."
Gabrielle blinked and began to discern shapes in the feeble light. She could see several torches flickering in the room. The light was barely enough to illuminate the walls. The main source of light was the greenish blue fire burning beneath a slowly boiling cauldron of massive proportions. Behind it, Gabrielle could make out the shapes of three, bone thin old women with matted stringy hair and wide toothless mouths leering in her general direction. She winced in disgust when she realized that there was only wrinkled skin where the eyes should have been. One of them, the tallest of the three stood holding a crystal orb to her forehead. She stared at Gabrielle through the strange device.
"My, what a lovely young lady," she wheedled.
"You've had it long enough," Dusty Voice said. She reached blindly and wrested the crystal orb from her sister.
"Ah," she said in approval. "Yes, quite lovely."
Gabrielle looked about the chamber and tried to keep from breathing through her nose. The stench of decay was rancid about the place. Scattered about the floor in various heaps and piles were bones, most, she noted with growing unease, were human, decayed and gleaming in the shallow light. Small feet could be heard scurrying about beneath or around them, and occasionally one of the skulls would shift and clunk with an ominous hollow thump.
"Uh," Gabrielle started warily. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I was sent here on an errand - an important errand."
"Disturb?" The hoarse one said. "Oh, please, my dear, you are not disturbing us."
"So few people come to visit these days," The whiny one wheedled.
"It seems that time has all but forgotten us," dusty voice said dismally.
"If you wish to speak with us," hoarse voice said suddenly. "Then you must come a bit closer. My sisters and I are a bit deaf, you see?"
Gabrielle smiled nervously. "I'm fine, right here," she said loudly. "I'll just talk louder, okay?"
"She's shy," Whiny voice wheedled. "How sweet."
"Perhaps we should go to her," Hoarse voice suggested.
The two blind sisters placed an arm on Dusty Voice's moldering robes, and the three hags began shambling closer to Gabrielle. They reached half way across the room, when the two blind ones released their hold on the sleeves and began wandering further apart. It didn't take a military genius to see that they were attempting to flank her.
"That's close enough!" Gabrielle barked, edging back to the entrance. She started when she backed against cold, slimy, unyielding stone.
The three hags paused and focused their eyeless faces on the sound.
Dusty Voice stared at Gabrielle through the crystal orb; her smile was more akin to a slavering dog than a genteel old woman. A hiss escaped her lips.
"She's armed," Dusty Voice said. She had obviously seen Gabrielle's sais.
"Ooo," Hoarse Voice croaked. "Does she have a sword, like the young fellow that was here two hundred years ago?"
Whiny Voice cackled in delight. "Or perhaps a spear, like that last Amazon woman?"
Dusty Voice spat. "They look like salad forks to me. You aren't a vegetarian, are you girl?"
As each of them spoke, they shuffled a few steps closer. Gabrielle could smell the rotting stench of their breath.
"Not another step!" she ordered.
The three hags froze.
"As you wish," Hoarse Voice said. Then the three of them launched themselves right at her.
Gabrielle dove clear, rolling through some thick viscous substance that she dare not consider. She came up, her weapons ready. The three hags cackled like ancient bats as they floated above the ground, circling. Dusty Voice saw her through the crystal and dove in.
An idea hit Gabrielle almost at the same time as the witch's attack, and she dove out of the way again. She swung with one of her weapons, heard a shriek of pain and then a soft clink as something landed amidst a pile of nearby bones.
Rolling over quickly, she grabbed the crystal orb and then retreated to a nearby corner.
"Where is it?" Dusty Voice wailed.
"The Eye! I've lost the Eye!"
Then all three of the hags were on their hands and knees, feeling through the piles of refuse, bones and the Gods knew what else. Fragments of once living creatures flew in all directions as they wailed and cursed one another in voices that set the stone roof trembling.
Gabrielle stared down at the clear crystal orb curiously. She let the three witches wail and gesticulate for a few more minutes, enjoying their angst, and then she tossed the orb into the air and caught it with a loud slap.
"Looking for something?" she asked.
Hoarse Voice turned to face her, her lips in an expression of terror mixed with rage.
"Do you have it?" she demanded.
"What if I do?" Gabrielle countered.
"Give it back to us!" Dusty Voice screamed.
"First thing's first," Gabrielle said evenly. "I need your advice."
"Anything! Anything!" Whiny Voice cried. "Just don't hurt the Eye!"
"Good." Gabrielle nodded, edging back towards the entrance. "Now, then. I was sent here to seek advice about the Chronos Stone?"
At those words, the three hags fell silent. They stood perfectly still, as if frozen in awe at her statement.
"What do you know of the stone?" Dusty Voice asked in a hush.
"Only that a friend of mine used it to move through time a long time ago," Gabrielle said. "And that another friend of mine asked me to find it."
"And your friend?" Hoarse Voice asked. "The one who requested that you find it?"
"Her name was Xena," Gabrielle replied, suddenly feeling that familiar twinge of sadness.
"Ah," Whiny Voice said, a single bony finger rising. "The mighty warrior."
"Isn't she dead?" Dusty Voice said coldly, and she chuckled in her throat.
"Long dead," Hoarse voice cackled.
"Hey!" Gabrielle shot, suddenly feeling wrath burn within her.
"Oh, my," Dusty Voice said. "I take it she was dear to you?"
"The stone?" Gabrielle pressed, forcing the three hags back on track.
"What of it?" Dusty Voice asked.
"Do you know where it is?" Gabrielle asked.
At that question, the three of them chuckled softly.
"It isn't so much a question of where," Whiny Voice said.
"But when," Hoarse Voice finished. "The Chronos Stone is not bound by the familiar. It transcends time itself."
"I don't understand," Gabrielle said.
"Of course you don't! How could you?" Dusty voice shot back vehemently. "It is beyond your feeble intellect to understand!"
"The stone follows the currents of Time itself." Whiny Voice said in a reverent tone.
"Then how do I find it and return it?' Gabrielle asked.
"You have to follow it," Hoarse Voice replied as if she were instructing a small child. "In order to do that, you must transcend time yourself."
"And that isn't easy," Whiny Voice said with a sick grin.
Gabrielle tossed the Eye back into the air and caught it again with an even louder slap. All three witches started in fright and stayed perfectly still.
"More answer," Gabrielle said darkly. "Less art."
"In order to find the stone," Dusty Voice said quickly. She held her hand out in a staying gesture. "You must follow it through time. It is drawn to the supreme moment. The Joining of the Heavens calls to it. You must travel to the time when it shall be needed next and claim it for your own."
"Into the future," Hoarse Voice said.
"The distant future," Whiny Voice finished. "To a far off land where even the Gods have been forgotten or mostly abandoned."
"And where we no longer exist," Hoarse Voice added.
"And how do I do that?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly feeling like the task before her was impossible.
"The Eye," Hoarse Voice said earnestly. "Just as it has the power to transcend our blindness, so, to can it send you on your journey."
"All you must do is gaze into the Eye and it will show you where to go," Dusty Voice added. "It will send your soul to that place, and your body will follow."
"Once there, you will have until the full moon to discover the stone, or remain trapped in that time for the rest of your life."
"Though you may not like the results if you fail," Whiny Voice said, her grin reasserting itself."
"Simply press the Eye to your forehead, as we do, and you shall see the place. You will see all you need to know." Dusty Voice said her nervousness building. "Then all you need do is step through the doorway behind you."
"Seek the Valkyrie," Hoarse Voice said in a suddenly subdued, almost melodic tone. "It carries the sword of the dispossessed one. He shall be your ally."
"More than an ally," Whiny Voice added with a sly grin.
"He will be the closed circle," Dusty voice finished.
"Come," Hoarse Voice said, stretching out her claw like hand. "We've answered your question. Indeed, we've given you more than we should!"
"Give us back the Eye!" Whiny Voice screamed at her.
"In a minute!" Gabrielle said sharply. She stared down at the orb and gazed into its smoky interior. The tiny clouds and fractures within seemed to move like clouds.
With a quick glance up at the three witches, she drew the Eye up against her forehead and closed her eyes.
The image flashed in her mind of a place, surrounded by tall trees, covered in leaves that were the color of gold or fiery orange. Others were the color of deep red at sunset. The shapes of the leaves and the trees were unknown to her, as was the terrain.
Then the image flashed before her again, showing the silhouette of a man, staring at her. She couldn't see the features of his face, only the deep thoughtful look in his dark brown eyes, as if he were staring right through her. She felt an indescribable thrill in that gaze for only a moment, and then the image faded and was replaced by another, familiar and more evil.
It was a woman, dressed in the animal skins of a shaman, with thin features and wild, dark eyes that burned with a mad light. She grinned at her like a hungry cat.
"You set your feeble will against mine, child?" she asked in a mocking tone.
"Alti," Gabrielle gasped. Then the vision was gone. She drew the orb from her forehead and blinked. The previously hidden exit was now plain to see, off to her left, as was another doorway directly behind her.
The three hags had stayed perfectly still.
"There," Dusty Voice said with finality. "You have seen your object, your ally, and your enemy. We can do no more for you."
"The Eye!" Whiny Voice screamed again in desperation.
Gabrielle smiled. There was no way she was about to walk over and hand it to them. She looked down at the ground.
"Here," she said, and she rolled the crystal towards them on the mucky stone floor. "Thanks for everything."
Gabrielle turned and fled through the entrance, the howls of the three hags hot on her heels. Suddenly the screams and curses faded away and she felt herself being propelled ahead, faster than anything she had ever experienced before. It felt as though she were falling sideways through an open tunnel. Her feet left the ground and she was hurled out of the void into the cool night air. She saw the ground rush past beneath her and then she struck, rolling through the thick blanket of dead leaves, sending them scattering into the air. There was a sharp pain in her head and she remembered no more.
Shilah sat back from the small collapsible table and stared at the cards before her from a distance, as if the whole of the images might give her more than the individual cards themselves. She was a short, round woman with thick long dark hair and deep, happy dark eyes. She smiled as she pressed one finger against her mouth, pursing her lips in thought.
"Well?" her client said with a mild air of impatience. Shilah looked up at him and gave him a knowing look. The man only brushed his long dark hair out of his eyes and smiled back somewhat mischievously.
He was tall, and solidly built. The build of an athlete, Shilah had often thought to herself. Lithe and powerful, but not bound.
"I'm thinking," Shilah said in a soft, firm voice.
"Yeah," he client responded smoothly. "But I though the closer we got to Samhain, the easier this was?"
"David," Shilah chided him. "You of all people know that reading for friends is particularly difficult. Preconceptions can easily become misconceptions."
David shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "Even for my High Priestess?"
"Only when reading for her favorite High Priest," Shilah replied. "Now be quiet and let me think."
This particular night, she sat across from him, the cards laid out in a circle. One by one, her delicate fingers turned the cards over.
"Something is coming," she said quietly. She studied the circular spread closely for several more minutes and sighed.
"Coming to you, David." She finished. She turned several more cards over in the spread and frowned as she read them.
The Fool, The Nine of Pentacles, The Ace of Pentacles, the Ace of Swords, the Six of Pentacles, The Two of Cups, The Sun, and Justice all encircled The Knave of Wands.
David leaned over the table, staring down at the cards, hoping he might glean more detailed information from them. He knew that to read for one self was not the wisest thing to do. Reading cards, or any other form of divination for that matter, is best when done for another. There should always be a reader and a subject, preferably a reader who is unfamiliar with his or her subject. Very few masters, like Shilah, are able to do readings for close friends and associates while remaining completely neutral. David's attempt at levity was not helping the situation either. She noticed his prying eyes and frowned.
Shilah reached across the table and gently slapped his hand. He sat back quickly, looking up at her as she stared across the table into his eyes. She smiled and waggled her finger.
"No peeking," she chided.
He sat back more comfortably, accepting the rebuke and waited.
"You will find success and happiness in your past?" she finished as if asking a question. "No, that's not right." Then she turned several more cards and placed them on the wheel.
The Lovers, The Chariot, The High Priestess, The Ten of Cups, and Death.
Shilah stared at these as well, gleaning information for several long moments, and then she sat back and stared at David kindly.
"Your future happiness will be found when you explore the past." She shrugged. She stood up and went to the small stove where a kettle had just begun to sing. Quickly and neatly, she prepared two steaming cups of strong tea and presented him with one of them.
He took the cup and looked at her skeptically.
"Even for you," he said. "That's pretty freaking cryptic."
Shilah only shrugged. "That's what it says, David. I don't know what it is. I only know what they say. You understand that." She looked at the cards again. "It is part of what is to come." She glanced back down at the spread and continued. "Maybe a major part of it? We know a lot is going to happen to the world in the next year, and the coming Harmonic Convergence is going to be a big part of it." She studied David for a long time.
"I think it will affect you more than anyone else I know." She smiled. "In any event, the ritual is set for that night. I just need to find the exact time."
David smiled. "What, you don't know when to hold the ritual yet? We only have ten days left." He couldn't resist teasing her just a little bit. "Your spirit guides holding out on us, or what?"
Shilah rose and stepped over to the altar in a swirl of black cloth. The silver thread inlaid in the fabric twinkled like minute stars. She lit a couple more sticks of incense and gave a shrug.
"Sometimes they talk and sometimes they don't." she said. "I'll know when the time is right for me to know." She settled back into her chair and began shuffling the cards back into the deck.
"What about you, David?" she asked. "How are you doing?"
The big man shrugged. "I still feel like the whole world is trying to get into my body. I'm feeling the energy of everything out there." He realized that his explanation was woefully inadequate. Leaning forward, he tried desperately to put what he felt into something more concrete.
"It's like, I don't know, like a battery sitting on a charger. The energy gets stored up and up until it's full. I feel like I'm being, overcharged, or something." He sighed, still not a very good analogy. Someone sympathetic to the vibrations of the world and all its energies can become overwhelmed by it if they don't attempt to maintain some control. The effort to suppress or block all that input can become quite a strain during certain peak moments in the year. At this particular time, one of those moments was rapidly approaching, and he felt it in every fiber of his being.
"And the headaches?" Shilah asked in motherly fashion.
"If I ground myself a couple of times a day, they don't get too bad." He admitted.
"Are you still meditating?" Shilah continued.
"Every night." David answered. "It's also getting much easier for me to float." He smiled. "I must admit, I enjoy it. I never know where I'll go, or what I'll see."
"That's good." Shilah smiled. "I think we've finally moved beyond that little plateau you've been stuck at this last year."
She studied him for a moment and her eyebrows rose in that ever so wonderful expression that told him she knew he was holding something back. "Is there something else?" she asked.
"I'm starting to see auras," He said after a long pause. "Nothing definite, but there's a haze around people and objects that I can perceive. I was never able to do that before."
"When did this start?" Shilah asked, trying to contain her excitement.
"Just in the last few weeks. I didn't mention it at the time, because I wasn't sure what it really was at first."
"That's wonderful," Shilah exclaimed. "You keep advancing like this and I'll have to start getting ready to give you the test for Third Degree."
"I don't know if I want that," David said. "After that it's High Priest, and I'm not ready for that yet."
Shilah smiled. "David, you can't stay the Coven Thug forever."
David chuckled quietly. The title was a result of a mix of words during one of the covens many gatherings over the last ten years.
His ability to harness and move energy had been one of his gifts. It had taken the better part of the last decade for Shilah to help him learn how to control that energy. During one of the rituals in the past, she had jokingly called David their Coven Thug because he had a tendency to wield the energy like an untrained brute might wield a club. After a good laugh among the entire inner circle, the title had stuck.
The two of them stayed up long into the night, talking about the coming darkness and trading theories on how it would affect the world. Those debates were the bread and butter of David's' classes. They were more like conversations intermingled with wisdom and forgotten knowledge. At times, he would gain more insight from those random conversations than from any structured lesson she might have planned, and he suspected that Shilah realized this as much as he did.
When the evening was done, Shilah embraced David fondly and sent him on his way.
Where Shilah lived in a suburban area, David's home was more rural, with long winding country roads, and an address posted as a Rural Route instead of being associated with any particular township. It felt like a place completely removed from the world.
David had inherited the property from his family and had taken three years to restore the old cabin for permanent residence. A new addition to the home for three bedrooms and a basement, as well as the plumbing, so that the bathroom would not be confined to a dinky shed out thirty feet from the structure.
The inheritance had also set him up well for the rest of his life. If he chose, he would never have to work again.
He had taken the last four years off, trying to determine if that was what he wanted to do. In that time, he had gone back to school, full time, and earned a degree in Philosophy as well as the classical education that he was quite proud of. He learned how to speak Latin, French and Greek reasonably well and had traveled to Europe as an upperclassman, seeing the ancient cities and the monuments from long ago.
David let the cool night air flow over him as his motorcycle rumbled down the expressway, heading back towards his own home. He made one diversion and stopped at a local bar to share a few drinks with friends. After several hours of socializing. The group of eight motorcycles thundered out of the parking lot and wound their way down the dark country roads. The headlights shone like brilliant beacons, illuminating the asphalt before them, or bouncing off the branches of trees, many of them still heavy with the colored leaves of a late autumn. Currents of wind caused by the passing machines sent leaves tumbling through the air only to flutter back down to the earth as the rumbling rolled on. At some point, one of the riders, a skinny young man called Dusty, reached over and slapped David on the shoulder.
"Tag!" he shouted, and his bike shot off into the darkness. David grinned and twisted the throttle in pursuit. The six others also increased speed, hoping to see the outcome of the usual competition.
The two motorcycles vied for position as David tried to get next to his friend and tag him back. A quick glance at the speedometer showed he was doing nearly seventy miles an hour. The big V-Twin roared with delight as he slid up next to Dusty and tagged him back before dropping down a gear and shooting away.
"Oh, I don't think so!" Dusty shouted after him. There was no way he was losing now. He matched David's maneuver and stayed on his tail, waiting for the right opportunity to strike, his mouth open wide in a determined grin.
"Come on, Hotshot!" David taunted over the rushing wind. "Whatcha got!"
Suddenly a silver gray blur shot up next to them and a hand reached out and slapped David in the back of the head.
David looked to the right and saw another friend, Derek coasting alongside on his low slung Hyabusa.
"Are you two whacked, or what?" his voice pierced the night. "Knock that shit out!"
At the same time, Dusty pulled up and tagged David again.
"Gotcha!" Dusty shouted triumphantly.
Derek's dark olive skin was all but invisible in the confines of his silver helmet, only his eyes shone in the faint light, dark with annoyance.
Gabrielle slowly rolled over, feeling the leaves crunch beneath her. The rough edges tickled and jabbed into the flesh of her back. The air was cool and dry, too cool for the clothing she had on. It felt downright cold compared to the heat of the cliff she had recently finished climbing. It was also filled with a deep woody scent. She put a hand to her head and felt the slight bump on the left side, just above her ear.
"Nice," she admonished herself. "Real graceful landing." She slowly rolled back over and got to her feet, surveying the surroundings. It was the same as the vision she had seen through the Eye. Tall trees with multicolored leaves stood silently over her, their limbs intertwining and creaking in the gentle wind. She looked down at the two sais in her hands and mentally admonished herself for not putting them back before her dash through the doorway. She was lucky she hadn't landed on one and killed herself.
After a few moments of consideration, she chose a direction and began picking her way through the trees. She walked for a good ten minutes before she could see the signs of a path or road ahead. The cold began to bite into her flesh and she shivered slightly as she rubbed her shoulders, trying to keep the blood flowing. She needed to find shelter soon, or the cold might be a problem. She had no gear, no food and no supplies. Those were all lying at the base of a cliff, the Gods knew where. At least her purse was still tightly tied to her belt. Once she found shelter, she would be able to pay for a room and re-supply for the next portion of her journey. She scrambled up the small embankment and stopped when she reached the road.
It was paved with a material she had never seen before. She knelt down and brushed some of the leaves away, staring down at the tightly packed gray mass of small pebbles, held in place by a substance that she could not identify. She ran her hand over the rough surface her brows furrowing in confusion.
Something within the surface began to tremble slightly and she could hear a deep rumbling sound off in the distance. It was like thunder, but unlike it at the same time, and it changed pitch in a way that had nothing to do with the wind. It seemed more alive than natural. Gazing off in the direction of the sounds, she saw several glowing points of light, careening wildly down a distant part of the strange road towards her. They were moving fast. Faster than anything she had ever seen before in her life. There was no time to get into cover. She rose and drew her sais out, ready to meet the strange new threat head on.
The nearby hilltop began to glow with the approaching sound, and suddenly, with a deafening roar, three blinding sets of light burst into view, heading straight for her! The thunderous sound cut off suddenly and the three strange lights scattered to avoid her. The only thing she remembered hearing was a distinctly human voice shouting "Whoaaaaaaaaaah!" and a sharp screeching sound on the pavement beneath her feet. Then the three things were past her. She turned to face them as they came to a halt. She saw each creature was not a creature, but some type of two wheeled conveyance. They were each similar, but also distinctly different in appearance and color. And they each carried a human passenger.
The three figures were looking down at their conveyances, as if checking to see if they were damaged, then three pairs of eyes turned towards her, dark with anger.
At the same time, five more of the things crested the hill behind her and also came to a quick halt.
One of the riders in the group behind her said something in a strange language. It was answered by an annoyed voice in front of her as a single figure removed a silver helmet. He was a stocky man, with dark skin and eyes. He said something in a quick excited tongue and then looked at his other companions.
Gabrielle stood her ground. If she had to fight, the three before her would offer less resistance. Then she could break out and run.
One man, of average height, with a lean slender build, dismounted his vehicle the same way she would dismount a horse. He took a few steps towards her, and stopped when he saw the sais in her hand. He said something, then repeated it, then shrugged and looked at the other two.
The one in the middle simply leaned forward, his arms resting on a pair of silver bars, his head lowered slightly, and his dark eyes staring at her in a mixture of curiosity and surprise.
The olive skinned man reached into a thick leather shirt or coat and drew out a small dark, L shaped object. He pointed it at her.
This provoked a response from the central figure. It turned its shaggy head and said something to the olive skinned man. The man replied but did not lower the object pointed at her.
"This is not good," Gabrielle whispered to herself, her eyes darting between the trio before her, and the five more behind her, all of them with eyes fixed on her, waiting for her to make a move.
The tall figure said something else to the olive skinned man and then stepped from his conveyance, interposing himself between his companion and Gabrielle. He held his hands up in a gesture of calm surrender and spoke to her. The words were unfamiliar. She couldn't understand what he was saying, try as she might. She thought she could catch various syllables of words she knew, but they sounded completely alien.
The man before her was dressed much like the others, with a black jacket of hide, dark blue pants, and sturdy black boots. He was moving slowly and inexorably closer to her, his hands now moving slowly up and down. He was gesturing for her to lower her weapons. She stared at him with fierce green eyes and shook her head defiantly.
The man fixed his dark eyes on hers, and she saw, for the first time, that same gaze she had beheld in the vision. Those dark, thoughtful eyes! He continued to approach. It would soon be at the point where she would either have to attack or surrender. She didn't understand what he was saying, didn't know what to make of this entire situation, and didn't know what to think. It was all overwhelming her in one moment.
"Don't come any closer!" She finally blurted out in a mixture of determination and panic.
The man stopped and stared at her in wonder.
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