Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2007.
In a nondescript laboratory at a university outside of Rome, a senior archeologist nodded a greeting to a junior fellow who was examining the skeletal remains of a couple locked in an embrace. Consulting a reference book, he said, "The in situ femur and hip measurements confirm that they are a man and a woman."
Working around the slab of earth removed intact from a Neolithic burial site near Mantua, Italy, the junior archeologist said, "So they are Romeo and Juliet. I wonder what kind of tragedy brought them to death together."
Picking up a brush, the senior fellow joined the other, gently and carefully moving soil away from the remains. "Perhaps the answer still lies within."
Brushing sand from a small object, the junior researcher thought it very briefly flashed. "What was that?"
Brushing the remaining grains away, the junior member pointed to the object, a small crystal. "I thought this caught some light or something."
He moved around the slab for a closer look. "It looks well polished."
"It seemed a little brighter than that."
"I can't believe you talked me into this," Daria Morgendorffer told her father as the music faded and they ended their dance.
"Ah, Kiddo, you wouldn't deny the father of the bride a last dance, would you?" Jake Morgendorffer replied.
Smoothing the fine lace sleeve of her wedding gown, Daria smiled and shook her head. "I guess not, just like I couldn't refuse to let you walk me down the aisle."
"I've never so proud of my beautiful daughter."
"Until Quinn gets married," Daria joked.
"That will be her day. Today is yours."
Reaching to put her arm around Tom Sloane, Daria said, "Ours." She turned and kissed him. "Partner." Eyes closed, she thought back to the day they met again.
Two Years Ago:
"Tom? Tom Sloane?" Daria asked, seeing her high school boyfriend in the institutional government waiting room, obviously also there for a job interview. Oddly self-conscious, she checked her knee length black skirt and dark green business coat.
Looking up, the young man in a dark gray suit and tie said, "Daria? What a surprise."
"Yeah," she said with a bit of bitterness in her voice. "Don't tell me that you have family connections here, too."
He sighed. "Daria, I'm sorry you didn't get into Bromwell, but that was years ago. And no, my family's tendrils don't reach into here. The CIA is still free of our corrupting influence."
"So then, what brings you here? Trying to extend the family influence?"
"Actually, I'm trying to get out from under it, at least for a little while. I want to do something different. What about you? A little more Melody Powers in you than we thought?"
"Maybe, a little. Jane was right; I was boring in college. I guess you could say I'm looking for a little adventure."
Tom chuckled. "So, how's Jane these days?"
"Starving artist. Well, not exactly starving. You know how she can always manage to find something to eat, but she's certainly not as successful as she'd like."
"I take it your writing hasn't sold well."
"Let's say it's a good thing I actually majored in forensic science."
Tom cocked his head. "That's something I hadn't expected."
"I like to look at details and find the truth. With my people skills, I could never be a reporter and you really need to get some credentials as a reporter before anyone would let you write a column. I tried editing and didn't like it. Therefore, I looked for a major outside of writing.'
"I seem to remember Jane once joked about a career test that pegged you for a mortician."
"That required too much contact with the public."
"That, I can see. So forensics is what got you in the door here?"
"Yes. What about you?"
"Huh? That sounds more like Jane."
"Actually, she first piqued my interest, and then you added to it. I specialized in the forensic aspect: understanding and detecting forgeries. The same techniques are good on a wide variety of documents and artifacts, which is why I assume I'm here."
"Meaning, they must've found a bunch of dead terrorists. They want me to figure out what killed them and you to figure out if their papers were real."
"Not exactly," a man's voice said from hidden speaker. "Ms. Morgendorffer, Mr. Sloane, welcome. Both of you have impressive resumes."
Tom said, "Has the interview started?"
"Yes," the voice replied.
Daria asked, "Isn't it a little unorthodox to have both candidates for a position in the room at the same time?"
"Ms. Morgendorffer, you and Mr. Sloane are not interviewing for the same opening."
"Oh," she said, taken aback.
"We are familiar with your backgrounds and believe that you will be effective partners. Providing, of course, both of you are hired."
Suspicious, Tom asked, "How familiar?"
"We've contacted all of your references and several additional persons at Bromwell University. The same with Ms. Morgendorffer and some of the faculty at Raft College."
"That level of investigation is unsettling," Daria said.
"Understandable. However, we are interested in you for one of our highest security divisions. Therefore, we are permitted more extensive than usual background checks on applicants. Our invitation for an interview means that you qualify for Top Secret clearance. Which also means that anything said after this time is considered Top Secret and you are not at liberty to discuss it with anybody. If you do not feel comfortable with that, you may leave now."
Daria and Tom looked at each other for several seconds before looking back in the perceived direction of the speaker.
The interviewer said, "I see you wish to stay; excellent. How do you feel about working with very highly unusual subjects or situations?"
"What kind of unusual situations?" Daria said.
"What many would consider paranormal."
"Are we on Sick, Sad World?"
"I assure you, this is very serious."
Daria sighed. "Paranormal? Are you really expecting us to take you seriously?"
"From time to time, we receive intelligence on unusual threats. While on the surface, they may seem bizarre, they still must be investigated. Some prove to be without merit, others are found to have a real threat hidden under the surface. We need intelligent, skeptical investigators for these cases, people who can weed out the fact from superstition."
"Okay, so this division investigates nutcases that believe in weird things that can lead them to commit real acts that are a threat," Daria said. "But, why is this so secret?"
"Because in very rare cases, the threat isn't under the surface."
Tom said, "Are you saying that there have been real paranormal threats to the United States?"
"Yes. Though what we often consider paranormal is what we later learn to be normal, just operating on principles we haven't understood, or sometimes, haven't even previously considered."
Daria said, "Good. I was afraid you'd make a comment about the Ark of the Covenant or something."
"Don't worry, that movie was a complete work of fiction," the interviewer replied. "We would never have contracted out such an important mission to an amateur."
"If you don't mind, how long has your division been in operation?" Tom asked.
"We were created by executive order of President McKinley in 1898."
"Then, you predate the CIA," Daria said.
"Yes. We were originally an independent organization, but were consolidated with the OSS during WWII."
Daria narrowed her eyes. "You were created in response to the Maine explosion?"
"Exactly. There were...many...alternative suggestions made about the loss of the USS Maine. We were created to investigate some of the more creative ones. Including what proved to be the real cause of the event."
Tom said, "Which I'm sure you won't tell us unless we agree to work with you."
"Tom," Daria slowly said, "We're asking the questions. This interview isn't for them, it's for us."
"Very astute," the interviewer said. "Do you have any more questions?"
Tom looked at Daria, remembering her old wit and biting commentary. "Just one. How negotiable is the starting salary?"
"England, France, Italy," Jane said, arms folded and grinning at the newlyweds. "Nothing's too over the top for your honeymoon, is it?"
"Hey, you were always trying to get me to travel," Daria said to her maid of honor. "I just waited a little while longer than you did so I could have better accommodations."
"Hey, I had a lot of fun in those youth hostels."
"Jane, you remember that your and my definitions of fun don't always match."
"Heh, I suppose that they don't have the level of privacy you two want."
"After the dorm at Raft, I still consider single occupancy bathrooms a must-have amenity."
"But look at what you two might learn!"
"Jane, are you trying to corrupt my bride?" Tom asked, joining them and presenting a small platter with three Champagne glasses.
Jane grabbed one of the glasses. "Daria? Corrupt? Have you ever read some of her erotic fiction?"
After Daria took one glass, Tom set the platter on a nearby table and sipped from the third. "I thought that they were rather tasteful."
Jane laughed. "Oh, then she didn't show you the really good ones."
Tom raised an eyebrow at Daria, who blushed. She hurriedly said, "Hey, I didn't date much in college; I had to funnel that interest somewhere. Besides, it's not like I showed them to Jane. She peeked when I let her borrow my computer after hers went belly up."
"I stumbled onto them," Jane tried to innocently explain.
"They were in an archive file named 'Tax records 2001'."
"You always were a bit on the sneaky side. I guess that's how you ended up working for the CIA. I still can't figure out Tom, though."
Twenty Months Ago:
Placing her pistol on the forward rest and removing her ear protection, Daria pushed the button to retrieve her target from down range. After unclipping the sheet from the pulley wire, she checked the acceptable, but not great, cluster of hits on the target torso. She then stepped back and looked around the booth divider at Tom, who was examining his target. Seeing the wide-spaced pattern, Daria said, "Good thing most paranormal threats aren't affected by bullets."
"I think I'd do better with a backpack particle accelerator beam. Too bad we don't have any."
"Yeah, what's up with that? We're in a super-secret government agency that investigates the paranormal and we don't get any great toys. No particle beams, no neuralizers, no sonic screwdrivers, nothing. Hell, we even have to buy our own sunglasses, which kind of bites, since mine are prescription."
"Still can't wear contacts?"
"Jane teamed up with Quinn to talk me into it when I was a sophomore in college. They'd hoped that I would become interested in dating. Neither idea worked out."
"I didn't date much in college, either. It spawned some interesting rumors that I was a robot."
"There were some of those about me, too. I preferred them to some of the more salacious speculations. I can't really blame Jane for getting fed up with creeps asking her if I would join in on the action."
"If you don't mind me asking, why didn't you date much in college?"
"I wasn't interested and, I know that this sounds odd, it didn't feel right. What about you?"
"Almost exactly the same."
"You never did keep in contact like you said you would."
Tom looked away, downrange to the backstop. "It was harder to do than I thought. Daria...the K Street Theater shows Fellini films every Wednesday night. Would you like to catch some pizza for dinner and watch tonight's show?"
Daria looked downrange, also. "I think I'd like that."
Still as cute and attractive as ever, Quinn approached Daria, Tom and Jane. "Daria, only you would serve pizza at a wedding reception."
Daria squeezed Tom's hand. "It's symbolic."
"Thank you for the fat-free cheese pizza. I can't believe we didn't think of that in high school, with all that cheeseless pizza we ate."
"You and your friends ate," Jane corrected. "Daria and I stayed with the hard stuff."
"I'll never know how you keep your figure," Quinn said, referring to Jane's slender, muscular build.
Jane jogged in place. "Run 10K a day."
"Speaking of running," Daria said. "I think it's about time for Tom and me to make our escape."
"Oh, goody," Jane said, rubbing her hands together and grinning. "I better go get things ready."
After Jane left, Quinn asked, "Daria, do you really think it was a good idea to put her in charge of the rice?"
Daria replied, "I didn't think it was a good idea to leave her totally unoccupied and I figured rice carried the least risk."
Tom said, "I hope it's actually rice."
"Well, we're about to find out."
The wedding guests were lined up outside the hall along the carpet leading out to the limousine. Jane finished handing out small bags and rushed to the front to greet Daria and Tom.
Seeing her, Daria said, "Okay, now I'm worried. Maybe we should've given her...no, anything would be terrifying."
Walking between the two lines, Daria and Tom were pelted by brightly colored rice that seemed to stick to their clothes with amazing tenacity. When they turned to wave, Jane took a photo of them, saying, "Yes! The static charge worked!"
Tom looked at Jane, and then at Daria. "We just became a piece of performance art."
Daria said, "Think we should get a cut of any sales?"
"I think we should hold out for some creative control."
"Too late, I already bought the rights from Helen." Jane hiked up her skirt slightly and gently kicked Tom. "Now get going you two, before I get the fried rice out."
After hearing a final round of well wishing, Daria and Tom ducked into the limo and closed the door. Silent, the driver started the car and drove away. The couple leaned against each other into a warm, relaxed embrace.
Tom kissed Daria's cheek and said, "Wow, we did it. And neither of us got cold feet."
She returned the kiss. "That's because each of us knows that the other is armed."
The heavily tinted window between them and the driver lowered and both looked up in annoyance. The driver passed a large, sealed envelope back to them, saying, "Since you're already going to be in Italy, the Director would like you to check into some odd occurrences."
After Tom took the package, the window rolled back up. "Yeah, they said that we could be called on at any time, but on our honeymoon?"
Daria broke the seal and opened the file. "Life never wants us to get too comfortable; I thought you knew that by now."
"So, what's the mission?"
"You remember those ancient remains that archeologists nicknamed 'Romeo and Juliet' that were uncovered a couple months ago?"
"Yes, one of those cutesy Valentine stories in the news."
"Well, it seems workers have reported strange lights, and six have developed amnesia lasting from several minutes to a couple hours."
"Odd's our job."
Eighteen Months Ago:
Leaving the training building, Daria said, "We don't get special weapons, but I have to admit that they have some nice forensic toys to play with."
"In miniature, too," Tom said. "Those are more along the lines of what I expected from the CIA."
"Microsamples, no-residue finger printing, compact digital microscopes. I could get used to this."
After rounding a corner, they entered the garage and went to the third parking level by the elevator, exiting and quickly finding a blue, nearly new, high-end sedan. Tom opened the door for Daria before going around the car to enter it himself. Daria looked at the headliner while Tom started the car. "This is a big improvement on that old Pinto."
Tom turned to her. "Sometimes, I miss that old car. It had a lot of good memories."
"And some not so good memories," Daria sternly replied.
"Or mixed memories," Tom said in defense. "I know it was wrong, but I can't forget the first time we kissed."
Daria turned her head to him and sighed. "Okay, mixed. I liked it, too."
Each leaned toward the other and gently embraced as they kissed. When they parted, Daria softly said, "Dammit."
"Now I remember what I've missed all these years."
"You went your way and I went mine, and yet, we arrived at the same place. All those reasons I gave you proved to be wrong."
Tom shook his head. "You were right back then. But sometimes, things change over time. Maybe that's what we needed."
Stepping into the afternoon sun shining through the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, Daria said, "I have to admit, the original is much better than Larry's, or Gary's."
"Now that I've seen the original, I think I like your smile better," Tom said.
Daria gave him a Mona Lisa-like smile. "Suck-up."
"Isn't that what I'm supposed to do on a honeymoon?"
"Among other things."
Tom gently laughed. "You're certainly more relaxed about certain things than you were before."
"I'm a 25-year old college graduate, not an insecure 18-year old high school student. Besides, I have a noose around your finger."
"So you were only after my body and not my family fortune."
"Who says I wasn't after both?"
"Now you're sounding like Jane."
"We lived together for three years; I suppose something had to rub off."
"Thank God you didn't have Quinn as a roommate."
Daria fluffed her hair and presented her face in profile to Tom. "Which is my better side?"
"Now you're scaring me."
They flagged down a taxi for a ride back to their hotel. As Daria paid the driver, he said, "Melody, Marcello, I have a package for you."
Tom accepted the envelope and the taxi moved away at a leisure pace.
Daria looked at the package, sighed and grumbled, "Couldn't they have waited until we were in Italy?"
Walking with Daria inside, Tom said, "Yeah, don't they have any sense of romance at all?"
Daria nudged him. "For some people, it takes a while, but they get there."
One Year Ago:
Moving with slow precision and care in the dark room, Daria completed packing her purse-like field kit and closed it. Scanning through the light intensifier goggles, she saw Tom completing his work. Quietly, she stayed low and crossed the room to the door to wait for him, watch and listen for any sign that they had been detected.
Tom returned the documents to their folders and placed them back in the filing cabinet before gently closing and locking it. Also crouching, he joined Daria. Using hand signals, he opened the door and Daria scanned the corridor. Seeing that it was clear, she moved out and headed for the stairwell. Once she signaled, Tom followed. Just as he reached the door, she opened it and he checked the stairs. Finding it safe, they followed the stairs down while alternating opening and checking each door and intersection.
At the outside exit, both stopped and took their goggles off, collapsing them into a compact unit, followed by fine, supple gloves. Daria placed hers in the field kit, folded the handles into hidden pockets and reattached a shoulder strap, completing its transformation to what looked like an innocent purse. Tom placed his goggles into the black leather briefcase he carried. Daria smoothed and adjusted her dark sweater and dress slacks. Tom made sure his dark gray dress shirt was neatly tucked in and free of wrinkles.
After a final check of everything they left the building, with Tom thoughtfully locking the door behind them while using a silk handkerchief to prevent prints. He then folded it neatly and placed it back in his shirt pocket before they walked away as a stylishly dressed couple out on the town.
A couple blocks away, they entered a rental car and Daria drove them away through the narrow streets of Athens. Tom asked, "We have a little time, do you mind making a side-trip?"
Daria gave him a side-glance. "A side trip?"
"Not too far."
Wary, Daria said, "Okay."
Following his directions, they found themselves at the foot of a hill, looking up at the Acropolis under the moonlight. Tom said, "Okay, this is the place."
"Tom, this really isn't a good time for sightseeing."
He opened the door and took a step away from the car. "Mind coming here for a minute?"
"Tom, we really shouldn't be doing this; we need to get those samples and analyses out of here."
"We still have a little time before we need to be at the airport. Humor me, please."
"Only if it will hurry this up." Daria got out of the car and stepped over to Tom, who knelt down on one knee.
"Tom, what the Hell are you doing?"
From a small, hidden pocket of his shirt, he took out a diamond ring with a bow made of thin, green ribbon in lieu of a box or other wrapping. "Will you marry me?"
"Will you marry me?"
"We're in the middle of a mission! Don't you think you could've found a better time?"
"When are we again going to be at the Acropolis under a full moon?"
Weakening, she said, "Where's your sense of priorities?"
"Right where it should be, with you at the top of the list."
Daria stared into his expectant eyes for several seconds before whispering, "Yes."
In heavily accented English, an Italian archeologist escorted Daria and Tom through the university's archeology research building. "I'm sorry that you've come all this way, but I'm afraid that the Mantua remains have been sealed away until we can determine the cause of the illnesses."
Daria asked, "Any speculation?"
"Leading hypothesis is some kind of chemical contamination of the soil, possibly chemical weapons tested by Mussolini."
"So, we can't even see the remains?" Tom said.
"No sir. The best place we have to safely store the remains does not have windows."
"Pity, we are only available for a couple of days. If there is any change, can you please let us know?" Daria gave their guide a card. "We're staying here, suite fifteen."
"Yes, Dr. Powers, Dr. Machiavelli. We'll be happy to let you know."
That night, outside the dark laboratory, Tom picked the lock of a side door while Daria watched for any sign of detection. She whispered, "Experimental chemical weapons from World War II, either Italian or Nazi made, that can cause amnesia in its target. I can see where the weapon development geeks would want a sample."
Tom whispered, "Yeah, no need to kill the enemy army, just make them forget what they're doing." After a soft click, he added, "I'm in."
They went inside and closed the door, grateful for the comparatively primitive security of the lab. Comfortably familiar with the layout after their detailed tour that afternoon, Tom and Daria went directly to the secure storage. This time, Daria opened the lock while Tom watched. Before opening the door, both donned goggled hoods and low profile breather masks attached to tiny, highly compressed air cylinders. Sealed away from possible contamination, they confidently entered and found the soil slab only a couple meters away.
"They look so peaceful," Daria said, briefly holding Tom's hand.
After a quick squeeze of her hand, Tom started to walk around the slab. "One thing I'm curious about is why did it take so long for the amnesia to develop? Why not during the original excavation?"
"Good question," Daria said, walking around the other side. "Maybe the chemical is fairly diffuse by now and didn't reach an effective dose until confined within a small space, like a lab."
"Must be it."
Daria prepared a plastic sample bag and started to lift a few grains of soil with a spatula.
Where it still lay next to the ancient woman's sternum, the single crystal flashed with a bright, white light and then faded to a black as solid as obsidian.
In a language not heard in over five thousand years, Tom's voice said, "Where are we?"
Five Thousand, Six Hundred Years Ago:
Seated on a simple stool outside of a waddle and daub, one room house, a young woman with curled, black hair swiftly moved a bone needle through the pale yellow woven linen of a shirt. Etraya's strong fingers pulled the thread to just the right tension and then she knotted it off, completing the final hem. She placed the precious needle into a bone tube and inserted a soft wooden stopper. She stood and held the shirt out at arms length, satisfied with all of her hard work of spinning, weaving, dyeing and finally sewing. "Cavius will be happy," she said, speaking of her new husband.
Etraya took the shirt inside the single-room house and neatly placed it on a fur covered reed mat used for sleeping. After a fast trip outside to retrieve the stool, she placed it before a loom resting against one wall and sat down. Although a luxury to have one in her home, it was also a necessity because of the unease the other women of the village felt around her when they gathered in the weaving house.
Threading the shuttle between warp threads and tapping the weft down with a thin board, she enjoyed the quiet and tried not to think of the occasional loneliness. Never unfriendly, the other women still kept her at a distance, unsure of her and always wary.
"Etraya?" a small girl's voice called from the door.
She turned. "Yes, Lysta?"
"My mother still isn't feeling well."
Etraya immediately rose and grabbed a leather bag from where it was hung on the wall next to the loom. "Has she been drinking the broth I showed her how to make?"
Following the girl, Etraya was worried. The herb broth should've worked quickly on the pregnant patient, relieving the weakness and nausea. And it was not only this case, many charms and potions seemed weaker or even ineffective. Etraya thought of her old mentor's warnings: magic was fading quickly. Within one or two generations, it may be gone.
Noticing unusually dark smoke rising, Cavius approached the neighboring village cautiously, with the same silent, careful movements used to stalk a deer. Several strange men holding spears stood on the edge of the village, watching something going on inside. After a couple minutes, a painfully gaunt figure strode toward them. Pale skin was stretched over a narrow skull, almost making it look bare. A hooded robe of dark fur covered most of the rest of the figure, except the hands and long fingers that looked almost as skeletal as the face. One of those hands held a short wooden staff with a long, flint knife fixed on one end, the kind of tool used to harvest grains and flax.
For several seconds, the apparition discussed something with one of the men. Suddenly angry, the figure swung the bladed shaft at the man. When it touched his skin, it was as if a dark shadow had fallen over the man. The victim slumped to the ground and the shadow was drawn up the dark figure's arm, to fade into the fur cloak. The remaining men stepped back and bowed their heads in deference.
Frightened, Cavius backed away as quickly as he dared. The figure looked up and turned his head as if sniffing the air. When the figure pointed the other men toward him, Cavius broke and ran.
Caressing the patient's brow reassuringly, Etraya said, "You must rest for the next few days."
"There is so much to do," the patient tried to explain.
"The other women can help with your chores. I had to give you a strong potion and if you don't rest, you'll lose the child."
The patient nodded. "I'll rest."
Going to the door, Etraya squatted and said to the little girl, "Lysta, go tell the other mothers that yours needs help for the next couple days. They'll know what to do."
"Will my mother be better?"
"I'm doing my best," Etraya said.
Etraya was alarmed to see Cavius at home and winded from a hard run. She hurried to him and grasped his arms. "What's the matter?"
"A reaper attacked the next village. He knows I saw him and sent his men after me. I'm afraid that they tracked me here."
Etraya exhaled in horror. Once of the few benefits of the magic failing was that such horrible, mystic creatures like the soul-eating reapers were fading. Now, she feared, not fast enough. Very rare, reapers were terrifying beings that subsisted entirely on the souls of their victims. Even the hint of a reaper would cause entire villages to flee. As a result, they often fed by surprise and gorged themselves on everyone they could, leaving a village as if it had been hit by a sudden plague.
Cavius continued, "We must warn the others and flee."
Etraya looked over her shoulder to the house she'd just left. "Lyuna is still sick and can't be moved."
"She can't be moved at all?"
"She and the baby will die."
Cavius dropped his head and looked back at the direction he'd fled. The villagers were intensely loyal to each other and if Lyuna couldn't be moved, the others would stay to protect her, even if it meant their own deaths. Not leaving one of their members behind was what made them different from the animals they hunted for food. "I'll gather the men, though I don't know what we can do; they say that mortal weapons can do nothing to a reaper."
"I may be able to help."
From the softly aged but reverently protected charm bag of her mentor, Etraya took a crystal pendant. Inside the perfectly clear hexagonal cylinder was a faint, exact copy of the larger crystal shape, a miniature buried deep within. She placed it around her neck so that it hung down onto her chest. Next, she reached behind her neck and untied the thong, adjusting the crystal so that it rested exactly over her heart. Satisfied, she retied the thong and walked outside to join the gathered men.
Armed with flint knives, spears and bows, the village men whispered among themselves and stared as she joined them. The chieftain said to Cavius, "Are you sure that she can do what she claims?"
"I'll be standing beside her," he replied. "That's how much I believe."
"We could send some more men with you."
Etraya said, "I can only protect one other. It has to be only us."
The chieftain nodded and turned, issuing orders to deploy the men around the village to protect the women gathered around the stricken woman's home. Each man stared briefly at the young couple walking alone to a nearby hilltop before looking away. Every one felt fear about the upcoming battle and respected the two for facing something even more terrifying. The life of a sorceress and her mate were lives set apart, it had always been that way. But for a few seconds, they wished they'd known the couple a little more.
On the hill, they held hands and exchanged a last, slow kiss. Hidden behind a stand of brambles, they looked out and saw the group of warriors around the reaper, confidently making their way toward the couple. Etraya felt a wave of disgust at seeing them. Motivated by fear and greed, and possibly controlled by the reaper, the warriors traveled with it to plunder as it fed. Etraya took a sprig of fresh, green leaves from her bag and tied them onto Cavius' spear. "Leaves of the rootless tree. Forever barred from the touch and comfort of earth, cursed to live on the limbs of other trees. Mistletoe, bane of all that would defy the circle of life and death. May it guide your spear true."
A pale green appeared around the flint point. The reaper's head jerked up to look at them. He sent most of the warriors toward the village and took four with him as he charged the couple. The accompanying men looked uncertain, but followed without visible question.
"Any touch from the reaper can take our souls," Etraya warned. She took Cavius' left hand, placed it over the crystal, and held it there. "Crystal and mirror, heart and shell. Souls to hold and souls to hide and souls to protect. Together, together, our lives and souls will remain safe together."
Both felt a disquieting sense of displacement as she finished the charm. She said, "Our souls are safe. But we need to stay close, or you will not be protected."
He set his spear down and freed his bow, nocking an arrow and targeting the closest running warrior. His shot went low, but still adequate, striking the warrior in the right hip. Shouts rose from the other three and they started running at a sprint toward the brambles.
Cavius nocked a second arrow and released, striking a second high in the chest, causing him to fall backward. His third, fast shot was wide and only struck the third man in the arm, drawing blood but only making him angry. Out of time, Cavius dropped the bow and retrieved his spear.
The brambles caused one warrior to stumble and twist as he was caught in the thorns. Two hard spear thrusts from Cavius pierced the man's chest. The remaining warrior, arm trailing blood from the arrow, dodged around the brambles and a nearby tree, cutting a sharp turn with his spear aimed at Etraya. She threw a black dust in his eyes, causing him to stop and try to blink away the irritant. Too late, he saw Cavius sweep his spear away and then cut back, slashing across the warriors neck.
"Cavius!" Etraya yelled as the reaper joined the fray, his flint blade lashing out at the young man, drawing a deep, red wound across his shoulders. When Cavius spun around, the reaper made a second attack, this one at Etraya. She dove to the side and avoided all but a glancing cut to her hand.
Cavius began to press his attack, using his larger bulk and greater strength to push the reaper back. Keeping a careful distance, Etraya followed while keeping an eye on the mistletoe and hoping the fighting didn't tear too much of it away.
The first warrior hit saw his master pushed back by the brash man and the slender woman. Fighting his pain, he raised his bow and let fly an arrow that struck home in the woman's side. Her cry of pain caused Cavius to turn, almost giving the reaper an opening to strike a real killing blow. Enraged at the pain on his beloved's face, he battered the magical monster back before plunging the spear through its chest.
The reaper fell to its knees and cried out it a loud, piercing scream before fading away into a foul smoke.
The warrior released another arrow, one that embedded itself in Cavius' lower chest. With a labored heave, the young man launched the spear at the warrior, piercing the attacker's abdomen.
Staggering and already feeling weak, Cavius dropped to his knees next to his wife. She barely opened her eyes and whispered, "I love you."
"I love you, always." He embraced his wife, who weakly managed to circle her arms around his chest before they both sunk down onto their sides.
That was how the villagers found their bodies. The reaper's last cry had terrified the attacking warriors and they'd fled after causing little harm to the village. The bodies of the enemy warriors had been carried away and unceremoniously dumped for scavengers to feast upon. The two young lovers were left where they lay and a barrow was raised above them. It was ringed with flowers and in the center there grew a small patch of mistletoe.
Years passed by and the events of that day fell from memory. The village grew and then also faded away, its people blending into the others of the countryside. The magic continued to fade and monsters like reapers became legends and nightmares, changed or unchanged with retelling. Magic also became the stuff of myth and mistaken lore, practiced more from habit than from utility. Some small magic remained, such as in plants that healed, though nowhere near as well as before. And here and there, some talismans and artifacts of magic remained, hidden away from human knowledge and use. Though sometimes, they are found.
Etraya's first sight was of soil and bones. She stepped back in surprise, hearing a strange voice say, "Where are we?"
The black figure with a misshapen face and strange eyes was like nothing her mentor had ever told of the worst daemons or other minions of the otherworld.
Cavius saw the strange shape back way and then saw the skeletons. He called out, "Etraya?"
Wary, she said, "I am she. Who are you?"
He stared for long moments, unable to believe his wife had changed so much. Her charm must've failed horribly. "It's me, Cavius."
Looking down at her hand, Etraya realized that she looked like him, and that they were wearing some strange garments. Carefully, she pulled and the layer came away from her hands. Encouraged, she freed both hands and then managed to take the strange masks from her face. Seeing what his wife was doing, Cavius did the same. They rushed together in joy, not yet understanding what had happened, but happy to be alive, together.
After a long kiss, Daria opened her eyes, and they flew wider in shock as she looked into Tom's face. They stepped apart and looked around, dumfounded and confused at their protective gear scattered on the floor. Suddenly, they burst into action. Daria quickly found the sample bag and scoop, took a sample, sealed it and tossed it into her tool case.
Tom collected the discarded gear and then said, "I don't know what that stuff is doing to us, but we're contaminated and we better get out of here."
Daria asked, "Do you remember how we ditched our equipment and ended up in a liplock?"
"I was afraid you'd say that."
Stopping before the door of a private bungalow in a quiet, northern Italian valley, Daria and Tom's CIA contact said, "It'll be easier to monitor any ill effects from your exposure at this safe house. We've already retrieved your luggage from the hotel and delivered it here."
Going inside, Daria muttered, "This is not going to look good on our evaluations."
Trying to find a good side, Tom said, "If the stuff is that insidious, maybe it won't go so bad for us."
Daria said, "The glass is half full again, I see."
The contact said, "We'll check on you in the morning," before closing the door and leaving.
Daria went to the bed and sat down. "Check in the morning, my ass. You know they have the place wired and the outside under surveillance. We're prisoners."
Starting to change clothes, Tom said, "Any way you look at it, we're stuck here for a while. We might as well try to get some sleep instead of worrying all night."
Daria nodded and stood to change. "Maybe we can think a little more clearly in the morning, and hope any residual effects of that chemical agent wear off."
An odd sound woke Etraya and she looked around the room in surprise and fright. It was much larger than her small home, but her vision was badly blurred beyond only a few feet, so she wasn't sure of its exact size. She was on a raised platform clearly made for sleeping, though far softer and more comfortable than any straw.
Etraya marveled at the finely-woven fabric covering her, not only for the tight weave, but the large size, enough to cover the entire platform. The loom it was woven on must've been incredibly wide. Also amazing was the deep black cloth of her garment. No dye she knew of could produce such an intense effect. From somewhere in her mind came the word "silk". It seemed a fit name for the soft, smooth fabric.
She smiled, thinking about how immodest it would appear to all the women of the village. Reaching up, she felt something hanging over her chest. Excited, she pulled out the necklace, hoping to see her familiar crystal attached to the smooth cord. The one there was more polished and clearer than hers, though the ghostly shape inside was a hint fainter. She sighed in disappointment.
A faint snore brought her attention to the man asleep beside her, the stranger that had spoken to her in Cavius' voice in that nightmare world. She wondered what that world was, and where she was now. Though different--she wondered how walls could be made so smooth--the dwelling was comfortable. Something like ice covered the window that let in the morning sunlight, but the air wasn't cold. She gently shook the man's shoulder. "Cavius? Please wake up."
Tom half-rolled and blinked his eyes, mumbling, "Did you say something, Daria?"
Etraya felt cold at the strange language. "Who are you?" she asked of the brown haired, green eyed stranger.
"Daria, you're not making any sense. I'll go make some coffee." Tom rolled off of the bedside and stood. Looking back, he noticed fear and distress in her eyes. "Daria?"
The voice seemed soothing and the man looked concerned, but that only partly allayed her fear of being alone with a strangely speaking man in a strange place. "Where are we? Where is Cavius?"
Tom sat back down on the bed and reached for her hand, only to be surprised by her retreat. "Daria, I can't understand what you're saying. Stay here, I'm going to call for help."
She realized that Daria was a name and the man thought of her as Daria. She held her hand in front and slowly said, "Etraya," while moving it back to her chest.
She shook her head and placed her hand on her chest. "Etraya."
He repeated, "Etraya."
She smiled at him enough to say that he was correct.
"Oh, jeez. I'm going to call for help. Stay right here, please?"
The man's reaction confused Etraya. He seemed worried for her, as if she were ill or something. She stayed on the bed, watching, while he rushed away.
Etraya. Tom rolled the name in his mind as he picked up the phone. Why does it seem familiar? When he placed the receiver to his ear, he heard nothing. "Argh," he muttered and went to a small table to pick up a cell phone. Opening it, the display showed that there was no signal to the unit. Tom looked at the door. "I presume someone is already on the way."
Daria looked around the room and at the empty bed. Scratching her head, she put her glasses on and walked out into the living area. When she saw Tom, she said, "What's up? You can usually wake the dead when you get out of bed in the morning. How did you sneak out so quietly today?"
Tom turned quickly. "Daria? How are you feeling?"
"I think I could've slept longer." Responding to Tom's obvious concern, she added, "Why?"
"You were hallucinating a couple minutes ago."
"I was what?"
"You were babbling nonsense, or almost nonsense. I almost felt like I could understand parts of it. And you said that your name was Etraya."
Daria stopped and cocked her head, thinking intently. "Cavius, that sounds very familiar."
"Daria...what did you just call me?"
"No, you didn't. You said Cavius, something you said when you were hallucinating."
"Something very odd is happening to us," Daria said.
The sound of a fist pounding on wood caused Cavius to a reach for his flint knife. Distressed at its absence, he was equally unsettled by the strange dwelling he stood inside. Nearby was the woman that spoke as Etraya in the dark nightmare. She wore an incomprehensible mask on her face that covered her brown eyes, but didn't hide them. Weaponless, he settled into a defensive crouch and placed himself between the woman and the sound. Threats had to be handled first, and then he could satisfy his curiosity.
Daria said, "Tom, are you going to get the door, or not? It's probably our handlers worried about our behavior."
"Stay back," he said. "I'll do everything I can."
Hearing the ancient language, Daria said, "That's not funny. Open the door." When he didn't, she snapped, "Fine," and marched around him, while realizing that she almost understood what he'd said.
Cavius started to stop the woman, but her confidence told him that she knew what she was doing. He relented and watched in fascination as part of the wall swung inward when she pulled on a small, attached globe.
Their contact stood outside, wearing a self-contained protective suit. "Our overnight tests found no sign of a chemical residue in the soil samples you collected."
Fists clenched, Cavius watched the misshapen, blue beast. The woman seemed more distressed by the strange words it said than by its appearance. He wondered what kind of afterlife he'd been assigned, and hoped his beloved was somewhere safe.
"We're taking the precaution of placing you under quarantine until we can discover what is causing your hallucinations."
"What if we the hallucinations cause us to become violent?"
"We have precautions in place and a team nearby to assist, if needed. I understand that this is still your honeymoon. Please let us know if there is anything we can deliver. Food, wine, whatever."
"Food, at least, would be good. Oh, and don't get upset when I disable the surveillance devices in the bedroom. We want a little privacy."
"I can't blame you for that. But please be careful. We are in unknown territory about the agent affecting you."
"We'll be careful."
"Outside of a general request for food, is there anything in particular you would like?"
"We're in Italy, so you should be able to find good pizza."
"Pizza, got it."
After he left, Daria closed the door and turned back to Tom. "Well, doesn't that just suck?"
"Will I be able to see Etraya again? Or, can you at least tell her that I love her?" Cavius asked.
"Dammit, Tom. There's no need to..." Daria stopped in mid-rebuke. She understood what he had said. Willing her mind to relax, she could sense, somewhere inside, knowledge of that ancient language. A few moments later, she sensed where the knowledge came from. She said in the old tongue, "You just told her. She's here, with me."
Either that, or I'm totally losing my mind.
Deactivating the last of the listening devices placed in the bedroom, Daria said to Tom, who was removing a video camera, "I think we're going to need to spend a little while getting our guests up to date."
"I used to always have these little conversations in my head," Tom said. "Often when I was trying to figure out what to say to someone, or to think my way through a situation. But it's really eerie to have a conversation in my head...with someone else."
"I have a bad feeling about letting them obviously show themselves outside of this room. I hope we can convince them to, um, let us do the talking."
"Our handlers have to know that something's up."
"Hopefully, they'll take that little public display as one of our hallucinations. You know, part of me keeps thinking that I must be in a coma somewhere and this is all a chemically-induced hallucination."
"Except that we both seem to be having the same hallucination."
"Or, you're just part of mine and the real you is off in your own hallucination or watching me in worry."
"But these aren't the same symptoms as the others. They suffered from amnesia, not hallucinations."
"Amnesia means that they didn't remember the hallucinations."
Tom shrugged. "We're along for the ride, one way or the other. Might as well see where it leads us."
Deadpan, Daria said, "Yeehaw."
If this is still a hallucination, Mom and Dad would've given anything for a shot during their hippie days. In the odd position of watching from within, Daria followed Etraya as she patiently collected plants from the wildflower and herb garden behind the cottage. With a little practice, they had learned how to keep their selves separate and control when they shared thoughts. As each sprig was chosen, Etraya explained its use as confidently and assuredly as Daria had explained the basic devices of a modern home.
Inside, Cavius watched in fascination while Tom demonstrated the different components of his Swiss Army knife. Though the edge of the small blade didn't seem as sharp as his old flint tools, the idea that one object could be so many tools was fascinating. If he wasn't actually seeing it, he would never have believed.
Etraya wondered at Daria's dexterity as she typed on the computer keyboard. She'd learned a few simple symbols from her mentor as a way to label her herbs, but she'd never dreamed of the subtlety and complexity of modern writing and language. The strange box that could remember and show words and pictures over and over wasn't even magical, though it was beyond any spell she knew.
Tom couldn't believe the sights and sounds that Cavius noticed around the house and the surrounding landscape. Things that had always been within his sensory capacity, but that he'd never developed the fine attention to notice. Birds, insects, or mice that would have been unseen by Tom alone teemed in so many hidden places. More ominously, Cavius noticed the two men in camouflage, watching through powerful binoculars.
Preparing for bed that evening, Daria said, "Etraya's been shy about the subject, but she's accidentally let a couple things slip. Um, uh...how to say this...she wants to be able to spend some time alone with Cavius."
"I've gotten the idea that the feeling's mutual. Five or six thousand years is a long time to wait."
"I'm more than slightly weirded out by the idea of someone else doing that with my body."
"There's also the whole jealousy thing since someone else..."
"That, too. Oh, plus the fact that she and I have very different ideas on the concept of children."
"I think this is something we're all going to have to work on."
Daria chuckled. "This could probably drive some of the divorce lawyers my mother knows crazy."
"Sick, Sad World would love to do a story, maybe a nice bit for the XXX-Files edition."
Daria wrapped her arms around herself. "I hope that they can be patient for a couple days until I'm ready to give up control that much."
Tom put his arms around hers. "Yeah."
Cavius reached over to stroke his wife's hair. The long, full hair was soft to the touch, but there were no fine curls to wrap around his fingers like tiny hands. Feeling guilty, he pulled his hand away and rolled onto his back to stare at the ceiling while picturing his wife's fine, angular features. A chill ran through is body to think that those features were long, long gone and that their bones were those they saw the night their souls were released from the crystal. Cavius closed his eyes and wished he was back home and alive, instead of in this strange afterlife.
Etraya felt his hand drop away from her hair. Tired and overwhelmed, she didn't dare ask if Cavius or Tom had been responsible. Silent tears formed as she thought about how she and Cavius were now rootless, like the mistletoe. Torn from all that they knew and dependent upon the kindness of two people trying to start their life together. It was all her fault. For want of a few more mortal moments with Cavius, she'd failed to end the charm to release their souls from the crystal before she died. Sympathetic magic between hers and Daria's crystals and the newly married status of each couple ended the spell and sent the protected souls to the others' living bodies.
She hides it, but she's frightened, Etraya thought of Daria. I'm closer than anyone has been to her innermost being. Daria, I'm so sorry that we've become such intruders. Our souls are bound to your bodies as surely as your souls, until death. I wish I could do something for you, at least as small compensation for your patience.
"I'm heading out to the garden," Daria said, standing in the open door. Without looking up from his book, Tom gave a short wave of acknowledgement. She closed the door and walked around the house while Etraya gently let her know, "Thank you. My garden was always soothing."
"You put up with three levels of Ultrafragfest, it's the least I could do," Daria thought in answer.
Under late-morning clouds, Daria drifted into deep thought, paying almost no attention to Etraya carefully weeding, pruning and tending plants. A hawk's piercing cry captured Etraya's eye and an idea formed quickly.
Softly whistling, she called the hawk to her. Curious, it perched on a fencepost and watched as Etraya slowly approached. She whistled a couple more chirps before extending a finger to the hawk's right eye, catching a tiny tear on her fingertip. Speaking a charm under her breath, she touched the tear to Daria's right eye. More chirps and a repeat of the charm brought a hawk's tear to Daria's left eye.
Etraya repeated the charm a third time and blinked. Suddenly, her sight was blurred. Holding her breath, Etraya reached up and slipped Daria's glasses away from her face. The charm had worked and she saw the hawk in sharp clarity. She whistled, "Thank you," to the bird. It cocked its head for a moment, and flew away.
Watching the bird's graceful flight, Etraya focused within and thought to Daria, "I hope this, in some small way, can repay you."
Coming out of her thoughts, Daria was at first confused, and then realized what had happened. "Oh, crap!" she cried and sprinted into the house.
She dashed past Tom and sat on the bed, shaking and staring at the floor. Following, Tom closed the door and asked, with words jumbling with those from Cavius, "What happened?"
"Tom, I can see."
"See? See, what?"
"I have...Etraya gave me normal vision. I don't need my glasses."
"Wait a minute, how did she give you normal vision?"
"Tom, either this hallucination is getting even weirder, or her magic is real...and our handlers saw it happen."
Looking into the bathroom mirror, Daria said, "I've had glasses for as long as I can remember. Contacts never worked, and I didn't like the idea of hiding part of what I was. But actually having clear vision...thank you."
"You were so upset earlier," Etraya replied in her mind.
"Remember, I thought that magic wasn't real. I was startled."
"You're worried about something more."
"You know magic in a world that's forgotten real magic. You said it was fading. Maybe it faded to where it didn't work and the real ways were forgotten. But since then, it must've recovered. That makes you very valuable and very threatening to people in power."
"I'm only a simple village healer."
"With all of our wonders today, nobody could correct my vision like you did with so little effort."
"Why would anyone consider that a threat?"
"You know more than healing. Etraya, we live in a world that doesn't fear reapers because we've done far worse to each other. But this world does fear things which it doesn't understand."
"Just as the people in my village kept their distance from me because they feared my magic."
Let's hope you don't have to find out how much worse humans can be."
The CIA station chief sat on the sofa edge, hands folded in front of his knees. "We're not going to do anything as melodramatic as spirit you away to some hidden laboratory. Daria, Tom, you're highly, and very expensively, trained field operatives. While some departments of our agency haven't figured out the concept yet, we've discovered that compelled service leads to unsatisfactory work performance. However, your value as employees has been significantly increased, so you will receive fewer of the mundane assignments that would unnecessarily put you at risk."
Seated on a second sofa next to Daria, Tom said, "So, what are your plans for us?"
The chief replied, "You will maintain a rigorous training schedule to keep your skills in top shape. You will have fewer total assignments, but those you receive will be those that we have determined to more likely contain supernatural elements, where your enhanced status may be most useful. In compensation, you will be promoted to Senior Field Agents."
"Don't you think Etraya and Cavius should have a say in this matter?" Daria asked.
"I was getting to them," the chief said. "We have prepared new identities and extend an offer to employ each as a Special Advisor. Since the four of you will literally be living for the price of two, it will make your combined pay rather generous."
"What, exactly, will be their responsibilities?" Tom inquired.
"Obviously, they will work with you on field assignments. At other times, we will be interested in learning what they know. Much will be highly academic, to understand life from their home era. We'll funnel it out under the guise of experimental archeology. Not perfect, but the best way to share the knowledge without revealing their existence. I'm sure you're well aware that awareness of their existence would make both you targets. The only way to protect you in that case would be to essentially make you prisoners, something we want to avoid, for everyone's sake."
"How generous," Daria said, sharply.
"Call it mutual benefit. Keeping you in protective custody would reduce your value and effectiveness. Something we don't want, and I'm sure you'd rather avoid."
Tom said, "But aren't you effectively making Cavius and Etraya prisoners?"
The chief took two folders from his briefcase. "Cavius and Etraya Montague. Childhood sweethearts raised and home schooled in an alternative lifestyle community by their hippie-like parents. Married for one year."
"How do you account for them looking like Tom and me?"
"May I speak with Etraya and Cavius, please?"
The chief could notice a little change in voice, more animated and songlike, when she said, "I'm here."
Tom's voice seemed gruffer and, somehow, still restrained. "Yes."
"Have you been following the discussion?"
Both said, "Yes."
"Etraya, can you make you, or anybody, look like something else?"
"There are old stories of magi who could take the shape of beasts. It was said to be very dangerous if done too often. In the darkness of a new moon, when true light was gone, they would change, unbidden, into those beasts. It is something my mentor never would've taught me."
The chief sighed. "There goes the easy answer. We've developed some fast application and removal disguise components. When you need to travel or be seen separately, so to speak, from Daria and Tom, I'm afraid you'll need to use those."
Cavius and Etraya looked at each other, uncertain. Cavius asked, "Can you make her look like she was?"
Etraya smiled. "And him?"
"We'll need some input and we'll be limited by Daria and Tom's basic facial structure, but I think we can come fairly close. We hope you will join us. I can't force you and you're free to decline. But, even in that case, please remember that you must keep your existence secret. For your safety, if nothing else."
"Can we please discuss this, alone?" Cavius asked, rising from the sofa. Etraya followed.
The station chief nodded. I'll be right here."
One the way to the bedroom, Daria said in thought, "That went better than I thought."
"Is his offer generous?"
"Very. They want you to work with them. We could probably negotiate more, but you two are so lacking in modern materialism, you're probably not going to spend much of what you earn."
"This concept of money is so strange." She smiled in anticipation. "Will I be able to get enough flax to make new shirts?"
"I'm going to introduce you to a fabric store."
Cavius thought, Etraya will have much to do, but from what you told me, I won't need to hunt or farm. What can I do?"
"Add a little modern assistance to your hunting and tracking skills; you could sneak up on a Special Forces sniper and give him a wedgie," Tom replied.
"Your assessment," a man's voice said on the speakerphone.
In a plain office, the station chief said to the Division Director, "High probability of a personality translocation event. Our linguists believe that they speak a form of Proto-Indo-European that none outside of a handful of specialists know about. There is no denying that Agent Morgendorffer's vision has been corrected to 20/20. Medical records indicate that she was not a good candidate for surgical correction and the medical exam revealed no evidence for a procedure. Cavius, in the body of Agent Sloane, was able to spot a camouflaged observer at 300 meters with the unaided eye. Agent Sloane's vision is unchanged from his last evaluation."
"Have they accepted our offer?"
"All of them. Agents Sloane and Morgendorffer will return to the US via their previously booked commercial flight. Disguise kits are being finalized and will be available within one week of their return."
"Triple and continuous."
"Threat probability from them?"
"Low to moderate."
"High for medical, academic and clandestine operation values. Moderate direct military."
"Moderate military? Explain."
"Etraya's magic appears primarily domestic and medicinal, though with some defense and clandestine operation uses. Cavius has observational and tracking skills that are potentially useful to military and clandestine intelligence opeations.."
"Very well. Continue the operation."
"Can't you just feel the warmth from those crystals?" the saleslady of the new age shop said to Etraya.
Etraya was disguised in one of the provided kits, her hair temporarily colored jet black and curled. Appliquéd touches changed the profile of Daria's nose, cheeks and chin to something closer to Etraya's original appearance. "They're pretty," she replied.
"You're not impressed," Daria said in Etraya's mind.
"Disappointed. They are very pretty, but that's all."
"I know the research boys want to find more magically active crystals, but I think we'd have better luck in a rock shop."
"I don't understand; this woman doesn't know the simplest herbs, but thinks all of these...things...are magical."
"We've waded through books upon books and rummaged through every new age store between here and D.C. I think I was right: humans have forgotten magic and what's left is useless."
"It's lonely, knowing I'm the only one left."
"I'm getting a crash course in magic from you; you won't be entirely alone."
"Daria, I feel closer to you than any of the women from my village. We healers have always been kept at a distance."
"It felt like I spent most of my childhood that way."
"You found your friend, Jane. I never had anyone like that. The closest was Maen, my mentor."
The sales clerk asked, "Did you say something?"
Etraya explained, "I was talking to myself."
The girl giggled. "I do that, too. Sometimes, it's the only way to have an intelligent conversation."
"I'm glad you're the one speaking, because I don't know if I could resist," Daria quipped.
Etraya smiled and didn't say anything. Instead, she looked around at the shiny objects, all purportedly based on ancient motifs, but all younger than her.
"What are you trying to eat?" Etraya asked about the strange, flat triangle that Daria held in her hand.
"Pizza," Daria answered. One of the great things that make life possible.
"It looks disgusting."
"I wasn't thrilled by grain porridge that passed for your idea of breakfast, but I didn't say anything."
"No, you just kept thinking about retching."
Daria thought, "I tried, but...ugh, I don't know how you could eat that." She then took a bite of the pizza.
"That's horrible!" Etraya cried, "There's so much...those tastes don't belong together."
"This is one of my great indulgences in life; you're going to have to learn to deal."
"Then don't make fun of my breakfast."
Daria sighed. "Okay, how's this. I won't make any comments about your gruel and you won't make any comments about pizza, agreed?"
"Stopping hitting the brakes!" Tom mentally shouted, pulling his foot off of the pedal and looking in the rearview mirror at the irritated driver in the car behind.
"That other...car...was about..." Cavius tried to say, but was cut off by Tom.
"Was not going to hit us. You might be able to spot a field mouse at twenty yards, but you're still lousy with cars. Only one of us can drive at a time, and right now, that's me."
"Wouldn't it be easier to walk?"
Tom said, "In this city? That's more dangerous and a lot slower."
"Do we need to get there so quickly?" Cavius asked.
"Yes we do, it's a regrettable part of modern life."
Speaking in their native tongue, Etraya and Cavius sat under a tree on a moonlit night. He said, "Their world is so busy and fast. I'm glad I can pull away and let Tom deal with it."
She looked around and squeezed his hands. "I wish they could find pleasure in something like this the way we can."
"They have some strange ideas, but they're happy."
Etraya said, "They are."
"Tom cares for Daria as much as I care for you."
"The same for Daria. When we both feel the emotion at the same time, it's very powerful."
"We've been lucky."
"In many ways. We had a good life together and now we have a second chance. I'm learning so many new things."
"Do you miss our old life?" Cavius asked.
"Sometimes. This world is so...angry. She doesn't try to show it, but Daria's still worried about us."
"I thought she trusted you."
"Not like that. She's worried about what someone might try to do to us. I've taught the people that work with her a few pieces of good herbalism and healing magic, but they keep asking about how I protected our souls from the reaper and how we came to be in Daria and Tom's bodies."
"Tom is a little distrustful, too. I don't like that feeling. Even though the old villagers didn't completely trust us, we could always trust them. They want to know my hunting ways, but I always feel that they want to hunt people instead of game."
"Since there's little we can do except watch and be ready, and we get so little time alone..." Etraya crawled next to Cavius and laid her head on his lap. "...why don't we enjoy the stars tonight?"
He gently stroked her hair. "You were always the wise one," Cavius said, looking out at the glittering stars.
Naked under the sheets, Daria relaxed in a warm afterglow as Tom spooned against her and whispered, "I suppose we disturbed our guests again."
"Yeah, it's hard to keep something like that completely contained from someone directly linked to your mind. And besides, they return the favor."
"I worry about them. Cavius is still having trouble with some things. He's not stupid, but so much of what we take for granted is outside of anything he's ever experienced."
"Etraya's keeping up a brave face, even though a lot scares the hell out of her."
Tom chuckled, "At least we haven't had one of those four-way fights lately. Talk about confusing, especially when have the argument is going on inside our heads."
"That's true, so we must be making progress."
"But, we still need to make some more."
"Whoa, sewing? Tom really has domesticated you. Speaking of him, he let me in," Jane said, entering the room.
Carefully weaving her threaded needled into a corner of the cloth, Etraya set the project on her lap and mentally shifted so that Daria could plainly talk. She said, "It's surprisingly soothing and restful."
Jane sat on the other end of the sofa. "Marriage really has changed you. Soothing?"
"It keeps me from killing Tom," Daria said with a slight twist.
"Okay, now I'm breathing easier. I can believe that. Out of pure nosiness, how is married life treating you? Is Miss 'I need my personal space' feeling a little cramped?"
"A bit," Daria said.
Looking around, Jane said, "Got to admit, you've landed yourselves in some nice digs. I guess between your government work and Tom's family money, you're well set."
"Getting a promotion helped," Daria said.
"Well, yes," Jane said with a smirk. "You two sell out for cushy jobs and I'm still chasing my dream of being an artist."
"You don't look starving."
"Daria, I have to draw the line somewhere. By the way, sellouts, I think this place could really use some original artwork to liven things up."
"And I bet you just happen to have a few pieces for sale."
"As a matter of fact..."
"You have them out in your car."
Jane nodded. "You know you want to look."
"It's like a car wreck; how can I not?"
They went out to Jane's minivan and started looking through the framed paintings.
Daria asked, "Still no luck on a gallery?"
"Actually, yes. But I got to where I like selling my work directly, so what doesn't go into the gallery goes into the van."
"What do you call this one?" Daria asked.
"Witless Protection Program."
Daria looked at the painting of two guys hooked together by a machine, with sparks and lightning coming from it.
Jane joked, "Kind of a cool idea. Just suck the witness's mind out of one body and stick it into another. Talk about a real new identity. Hey, I just thought of something: when the body wears out...just dump it and pop yourself into a new body." Jane shrugged and finished, "The modern, disposable version of immortality. No muss, no fuss."
"I think I'll take that one."
"Sure. You okay?" Jane said, seeing Daria's face pale.
"I'm fine, just a little under the weather."
"If you say so, but you're looking a little green around the gills. Is there anything you're not telling me?"
Jane mistook Daria's hesitation to reply. Grinning wildly, she exclaimed, "No! I thought you didn't like kids."
Daria rolled her eyes. "No, that's not it. I'm just a little overworked."
"And you can't talk about it, yeah, yeah. Get some rest then, okay?"
"Yes, Jane. I promise."
Reading from his research notes, Tom told the Laboratory Supervisor, "The carbon-14 analysis of plant fibers within the clay tablet dates it to 5,500 years before present. The clay particles are an excellent match, both in physical and chemical structure, to ancient Sumer. In my expert opinion, the tablet is genuine. However, I don't know enough about pre-cuneiform to decipher what it says."
The supervisor said, "We have experts for that, thank you."
"Yes, sir," Tom said, before retiring from the office and heading toward the staff break room.
"I don't like the tone of his voice. He's hiding something," Cavius said to Tom.
Tom said, "Something directly involved with our particular situation, I'll bet. I'm also getting a bad feeling about this, especially after Daria's comments the other day."
"If we could only figure out what they are trying."
Tom debated with himself a moment before thinking, "We might have a way."
"We need to do a little scouting."
Etraya said, "Jane is still your best friend and I'll never replace her. We share something closer than sisters, but what you share with her is different, and something I've never had."
"I don't know how I would've survived most of my teen years without Jane. I'm sorry you never had a friend like that," Daria said, feeling a little selfish.
"It was the price of what I do. Finding Cavius made up for much of my loneliness. Now, being with you has given me something more."
"You and Jane; I worry about people that look to me for friendship," Daria said, not really serious.
"Another rock delivery," a technician said, entering the lab and placing an open box on the bench in front of Daria.
"Hrmph," she snorted, reading a tag on the collection of crystals. "Highland. I can't believe I used to live in that hellhole. It makes sense that they'd buy some from around there; that's where I picked up my crystal."
The technician asked, "Well, feel anything from them?"
Etraya touched one and whispered a small charm. A brief, faint glow told her that the stone contained magic. "I'm afraid to tell them," she told Daria.
"I noticed the glow and I'm sure the video cameras caught it, too. We better tell them to avoid suspicion."
"We must be very careful after this."
Etraya said to the technician, "These have magic."
Daria thought, "I wonder if it has anything to do with the uranium."
"Uranium?" Etraya inquired.
"Cool!" the technician said like a child excited about a new toy. "This is the kind of stuff I signed up for."
The supervisor's voice spoke from the intercom, "May I have your attention, please. This facility is now under a full security lockdown. No unauthorized personnel will be allowed to exit the building and only duly authorized personnel may enter. This lockdown will remain in place until further notice. Please see your unit leaders for assigned sleeping quarters and to request any necessary personal supplies."
The technician looked at the speaker. "Dammit, I have a date tonight! I hope we at least get outbound calls."
Her stomach sinking, Daria said, "Don't bet on it."
"Try it," Etraya said, encouraging Daria.
Lying on the bed and curled up against tom in the crook of his arm, she grasped the crystal around her neck and whispered the charm Etraya had taught her. Instantly, the faint hum of the air handling system vanished and they were in complete silence.
Pleased, Etraya said, "You did it."
Daria gently said to Tom, "We can talk, now."
"Gotcha," Tom said. "We need to find out what they're planning. Cavius and I have been planning and think we can reach the translation lab. We know the camera blind spots and the room code. The internal security isn't as tight as you'd think it would be. Guess they figure that anyone with the clearance to be allowed in here is a good risk."
"Yeah, that's why they have the rooms bugged."
"True, but they're overconfident about their external security, and designed the internal security with the regular techs in mind, not trained field agents."
Etraya whispered in the old language, "I love you."
Cavius replied, "I love you, and will be back soon."
He slipped from under the cover and stepped carefully to the door, noticing when the air handler hum returned. Barefoot and carrying Tom's modified Swiss Army knife, Cavius used his honed instincts to move through the network of passages, relying on Tom's knowledge of the camera angles to avoid detection. At the translation lab, Tom took control and swiftly opened the keypad controlled door. Inside, he put his long training to work, combined with Cavius' superb eye for detail.
Sorting the contents of a bin marked "For Shredding", Tom found a group of notes with ancient symbols and translation. He thought, I was hoping their linguist was someone who preferred paper and pencil.
Reading the translation, Tom muttered, "Oh, shit."
Gulping back fear and anger, he placed the paper back in the bin and fled the room. He barely remembered to pass control to Cavius as he reset the door lock. Moving as fast as he dared while remaining unobserved, he asked Tom, "How can they be such fools?"
"Because sometimes they forget that the means can't always be justified by the ends," was Tom's alarmed reply.
Wordlessly, Cavius made his way back to the room and crawled into bed and the comforting silence. He said, "It's worse than we thought."
Etraya asked, "How?"
"They're trying to bring back a reaper."
"Reaper?" Etraya said, feeling sick.
Daria interrupted, "I don't believe it. I only thought they'd try to trap the new 'hosts' soul in a crystal...if they were even trying for immortality, like I thought."
Tom said, "It's worse; not only are they after immortality for a select few, but also the perfect spy. Take away the soul of an enemy agent and put your agent's soul into the body. It's also a great way to lengthen the career of a trained agent and a way to get your person into the enemy camp."
"But why a reaper?" Etraya asked.
Daria said, "To completely silence the victim. Tom, what in the hell were the ancient Sumerians doing summoning a reaper?"
"Capital punishment, for treason."
Daria breathed a little relief. "That means they have a way to send the reaper away. We may be able to use that."
"If the Sumerians did, it wasn't on that tablet."
"Damn." Daria shivered and shook her head. "How desperate have they become to even think that this is a good idea?"
Letting the full implications settle into her mind, Etraya asked, "What have we done?"
"We've been used," Daria said. "Now the question is, what do we do?"
The next morning, Tom opened the door and was surprised by the presence of two large guards. One of them said, "Sir, you and Agent Morgendorffer have been confined to quarters until further notice."
"What for?" he angrily asked.
"Oh really? Whose protection?"
Tom closed the door and fell back against it. "The idiots must've already started."
Daria said, "We have to stop them."
"We have to get past those guards, first."
Near her shoes, Etraya gently swept several grains of sand into her hand. "They'll sleep like tired children."
Cavius said, "There's a reason I love you." He opened the door and stepped aside.
The guards turned in annoyance as Etraya sprinkled the sand before them. "Dreams call; answer them."
The guards yawned and obediently settled onto the floor, leaning against the wall and falling asleep.
Daria said, "We should get Etraya's supplies from the lab. I think we'll need them."
"Let's go," Tom said, stopping to pick up the guards' weapons. He handed one to Daria. "Better safe than sorry."
"There goes our retirement," Daria half-joked.
After finding her herb supply, Etraya checked the box of crystals that had arrived the day before. She said, "Many of them are gone," as she grabbed a couple. Mentally, she added, "I was barely able to protect two of us before, and I don't think I can protect four souls. Daria, I know it's a lot to ask, but you've learned fast. Can you cast the charm to protect you and Tom while I cast one to protect Cavius and me?
"That's a giant step," Daria said. "Something like going from a bicycle to race car."
"We need to protect everyone. I don't know what will happen otherwise."
"Since I'm not big on the idea of some ancient monster sucking my soul out of my body...wish me luck."
Etraya placed one of the new stones around her neck and adjusted its position. She grasped Cavius' hand, placed it over the stone and said, "We need to be prepared. Crystal and mirror, heart and shell. Souls to hold and souls to hide and souls to protect. Together, together, our lives and souls will remain safe together."
Moving Tom's hand to her stone, Daria repeated, "Crystal and mirror, heart and shell. Souls to hold and souls to hide and souls to protect. Together, together, our lives and souls will remain safe together."
After feeling the sense of half-stepping out of her body, Daria said, "I guess it worked."
Tom said, "That was creepy and will protect us from soul-sucking, but I still would like something more effective than a spear if one of those reapers ends up on the loose," Tom said.
"Perhaps your assault rifles can be enchanted," Cavius suggested.
"Maybe," Tom said. "Etraya, how much and how close does the mistletoe need to be to the weapon?"
"It must be attached to what wounds the monster," she said, then using some of Daria's knowledge said, "It must be part of each bullet, though only a tiny amount should be enough."
"Hollow points," Tom said. "Not rifles, but the service pistols. We can pack a little mistletoe into each."
"Good idea," Daria said. When a loud alarm sounded, she added, "We better get to the armory."
Staff and guards ran by in the corridor, ignoring them. Staff members were running for the exits, while the guards headed to the inner lab area. The armory door had been left open when they reached it.
Looking around, Tom said, "I guess it's a good thing we weren't planning on assault rifles; they're all gone. He opened the pistol cabinet to remove two pistols, a stack of magazines and a couple boxes of ammunition. He and Daria sat side by side with Etraya's bag between them, pulling a tiny bit of mistletoe from the sprig within and tapping it into the small hollow at each bullet tip before loading them into magazines. When they had four magazines filled, they ran out of mistletoe.
Tom said, "I hope that will be enough. And just in case..." He took two more pistols, tucking one into his belt and handing the other to Daria. "Spares. We may not have time to clear a jam."
"Security?" she asked, pondering their next destination.
"Be the best place to find out what's happening."
They could hear scattered gunfire and screams as they ran for the security station. By the time they reached it, the halls were silent. What they saw on the monitors froze them in place. Two reapers stood among several dead staff members and guards at the locked exit. A third appeared with a terrified guard. It pointed to the door. When the guard hesitated, the reaper raised a bronze-bladed scythe. The guard gulped and entered a code into the keypad, opening the door.
"Three?" Etraya asked in sickened shock.
"Worse," Tom said, pointing to a lab monitor. Half a dozen reapers stood around one that was chanting. With the wave of its hand, the chanting stopped and a new reaper seemed to step out of the wall. Around the room were the bodies of more guards and researchers, including the supervisor. Scanning other screens revealed more reapers, searching the complex for additional victims.
"They're getting out," Tom said, pointing to the exit monitor and a group of three reapers leaving the complex.
Daria leaned against the console and brought up the lab playback on a second screen. She ran a fast rewind to moments before the first reaper appeared. Daria then restarted the playback and heard the supervisor complete the soul protection charm. Moments later, he read from a computer printout and scribed a door shaped pattern on the wall. He stepped back and began chanting. At the wave of his hand, a reaper appeared at the doorway and stepped into the room. It slowly looked around and the emitted a horrible, laugh-like screech. Arrogant, the supervisor held the crystal and said something. In one motion, the creature swung its scythe at the supervisor, decapitating him.
"The fool thought the charm would protect his body," Etraya whispered. On the monitor, the lab burst into chaos as guards fired assault rifles at the reaper. The rounds tore at the monster's robe, but otherwise had no effect as it cut down each.
Daria examined the image closely. "There's mistletoe on the receivers, but they must not have any in the bullets."
After a minute, the reaper stood alone. It gave a second piercing call, stood in front of the door and started chanting.
"It must be a shaman. We have to kill it to stop any more from coming through," Etraya said, dread in her voice.
"And any more from getting out. But there are so many," Tom said. "I know the crystals will protect souls, but not our bodies. How do we get past all of the others to kill the shaman?"
Etraya closed her eyes. "By doing what your people were trying: looking like them."
Tom asked, "What do you mean?"
"No!" Daria exclaimed, shocked at Etraya's idea.
"It's the only way," Etraya quietly explained. "Your people are not ready for them to be let loose again."
Cavius grasped her hand. "You won't go alone."
She started to disagree, but couldn't after facing his eyes. Etraya nodded and said, "Together."
"Have you lost your minds?" Tom said.
Cavius said, "No. Someone has to do this. You belong in this world and we belong in another."
Daria interrupted. "There has to be an alternative. You shouldn't have to give up your lives for our people's mistake."
Etraya reached back into her memories to one of the most shocking lessons Maen had provided and brought it to the surface. "Daria, look at this."
Daria stumbled as she felt herself as a thirteen-year old, standing in a village wiped out by a reaper. Agonized, twisted bodies dotted the ground while bloated flies and raucous birds fed upon them like carrion.
Etraya said, "Your nations would accuse each other and fight, making it even easier for the reapers to move and feed. Daria, I don't want to die, I want to live. But, there's no other way."
Daria grabbed her husband's hand. "Tom, they're right. Trust me."
He gritted his teeth. "I don't like it."
Daria said, "I don't either." She then said out loud for Tom and Cavius' sake, "Tom and I have a little edge in control, since we're the native souls. How do you think you can keep control after the initial shock...?"
Daria paled and sat down as Etraya let her know the rest of the plan, saying, "We've had time to learn from sharing with you. Our time was over long ago. I treasure what we've gained with you two, but we really don't belong. May we finally find our eternal peace."
"You're better people than we are," Daria thought before letting down all of her mental guards. "You should at least know all about who you are doing this for."
Surprised at Daria's gesture, Etraya slowly let hers down in return.
Waiting at the corner of a side corridor, Daria told Etraya, "I'm going to miss you. Now, you really know things about me that nobody else knows."
"You know many things about me. Farewell, Daria. You're the friend I always wished to have."
Cavius leapt and dropped a makeshift crystal necklace over the head of the reaper on the left. Even as he rolled away, Etraya whispered, "And shield no more."
They felt a horrific jolt as their souls were yanked from Daria and Tom and plummeted into the dark mind of the reapers via the crystals. Thankful for the experience in living with another, they sealed their minds away from the reapers' malevolent thoughts and the monster's great hunger while holding them at bay.
Daria and Tom felt that ripping their lungs away would've been less painful. They staggered backwards in pain and shock.
Etraya shivered and croaked out, "I did it, amiga," using Jane's old term to reassure Daria.
"I regret not driving a Pinto," Cavius said, thinking of a similar way to tell Tom that he held control.
Tom and Daria handed over two loaded pistols. Tom asked, "I wish I could give you a second magazine."
Cavius said, "We'll have to make do with what we have."
"We'll be right behind you," Daria said.
"Just a moment." She held Cavius' taloned hand over the crystal around her neck and once again said the protection charm.
Daria said, "Thank you; I couldn't bear to lose you that way."
Not wanting gunfire to alert others, they evaded wandering reapers while they traveled to the laboratory. Two of the beasts guarded the door. Cavius whispered to Daria and Tom, "We must go alone from here. When you hear our gunfire, kill those and follow."
Tom set his arm on Cavius' shoulder. "Good hunting."
"Thank you, my friend."
Hiding pistols within robes, Etraya and Cavius walked down the hall, scythes in hand. As they neared, the guards shifted their scythes. Etraya forced herself into the beast's mind to find the words and said in their shrieking tongue, "We were summoned."
The guards let them past and the two stepped into the lab. Ten reapers were in the room with the shaman, who was still chanting. Trying to ignore his fear, Cavius whispered, "Ready?"
Also afraid, Etraya said, "As our friends say, on three. One, two, three."
Not as proficient, Etraya's shot went wide to the left, but Cavius placed his directly in the shaman's heart. It spun in shocked anger and its scream was painful to the ears. The other reapers were stunned to see their leader dissolve into smoke. Infuriated, they turned on the two lovers.
Outside, the guards turned at the sound of the shaman's death cry and toppled into spreading smoke as Daria and Tom's shots hit home.
Never comfortable with a gun, Etraya missed with several more shots before stopping one of the reapers. She tried to dodge aside when another swung its scythe. Pain shot through her left arm and the body involuntarily cried out as the reapers' soul was consumed by its brethren.
Almost at the door, Daria and Tom heard screams come from behind. They spun and saw three more reapers rushing to the lab. Several fast shots later, all three were gone.
Cavius spun, pointed his weapon into the face of the reaper that had wounded Etraya and fired twice. That angry second shot distracted him long enough for the remaining reaper to slash him across his back. The reaper within also screamed as its soul was consumed.
Etraya desperately emptied her pistol and that last beast disappeared, its smoky remains drifting with the muzzle blast.
Daria and Tom burst into the room, ready to help. Etraya was already at the gateway. She wiped her hand across the gash on her arm and then across the scribing. Bits of concrete split away from the scribing, as if chipped away by a hammer strike. She fell back against the wall and said, "Done."
Cavius nodded as Daria and Tom approached, and then walked to his wife and embraced her.
Etraya looked at Daria and Tom, and then quietly said, "Kill us, now. Please." She buried her face against Cavius' shoulder. "And shield no more."
When nothing happened, Etraya ordered, "Hurry, the beasts' souls are gone, but their hunger remains; the body can only feed upon souls."
Crying, Daria raised her pistol. Following her lead, Tom did the same. "Hold still," she said before closing her eyes. "Tom; one, two, three."
The mistletoe spiked pullets struck each of the ancient lovers in the side of their ribs and came to rest near their hearts. They remained together, staring into each other's eyes before dissolving into a thin smoke that slowly dissipated.
Numb, Daria dropped her pistol. "I hope that they are together in eternity."
Tom put his arm around her. "They've certainly earned it."
The two held each other in the dim light for several minutes before Daria bent over to pick up her weapon. Tom joined her as they sadly searched for survivors in the complex.
Each dressed in black, Daria and Tom slowly walked away from the two graves holding empty caskets. A large man with a thin ring of white hair joined them. The Division Director said, "My condolences to each of you."
Drying tears, Daria mumbled, "Thanks."
The Director said, "I understand your anger, Agent Morgendorffer, but yours is not the only loss. I've had to attend far too many funerals in the last couple of days."
Bitter, Tom said, "Twelve reapers are still out there. Ultimately, you're the one responsible for the funerals you've attended and those yet to come."
"I am well aware of that, Agent Sloane," the Director admitted. "And I need you to train agents to go after those creatures."
"No," Daria said with harsh emphasis.
"You are the only ones who know how to defeat them and you, Agent Morgendorffer, are the only one with any of Etraya's knowledge."
"And it's staying with me. Tom and I will hunt down the reapers, but we'll do it alone."
"The division can't risk losing your knowledge."
Daria stopped in front of the Director. "You've already have lost it. What I've learned, I will never pass on. Humanity...is no longer mature enough to handle it."
Tom joined her. "We'll take care of the reapers, but we expect your full support."
"Oh, I suspect you'll take care of the reapers anyway. If you're not going to pass on your knowledge, what's my motivation to help you?"
Daria said, "We had a few moments to look through the Lab Supervisor's records and know that there are individuals outside of the division that are aware of our operations. Some of them don't take kindly to embarrassing subordinates. We know you don't have a choice; you need us to stop the reapers or, well, these people will do some unpleasant things to you."
The Director sadly shook his head. "That's a fanciful tale, too bad it's not true."
Tom whispered one of the operation codes they'd read, "Midsummer Tears."
Abruptly pale, the Director weakly said, "What do you need?"
Daria removed a folded sheet of paper from her black purse. "Here's a list," she said, handing it to the Director.
He read the information, most of which looked like Daria and Tom were assembling a high-tech arsenal with some magic thrown in, but a few last items caught his eye. "He thought, "Flint? Raw flax? What is a warp-weighted loom?"
Daria and Tom both nodded to the director and resumed walking toward their car. Just before they reached it, Daria said over her shoulder, "Don't fear the reapers...fear us."
Thanks to Kristen Bealer and Ipswichfan for beta reading.
February, March 2007.