The Pool of Seeing
In a place which is not a place and at a time that is not a time, three Great Figures met to set the forces in motion that would assist in fulfilling an ancient prophecy. Long ago, a prophetess spoke and foretold the coming of a powerful band of heroes. In a distant, hidden corner of the world, the smallest of battles would reveal them. Finally, nearly all of the pieces were in place – the time of the warriors had come. They had only to meet.
"Are we certain it is time?" asked the only female of the trio. A tall, curvaceous woman, she had deep brown hair the color of good, tilled soil, and large eyes that seemed to change color – going from blue to gray to green with every shift of her mood. Dressed in rich robes of natural hues, she walked barefoot over the grass to join the males as they stood around a deep basin filled with a shimmering liquid.
"Yes, Mother," answered one of them, dressed in the white robes of a philosopher of the ancient world. He seemed at first to be a tall, handsome man in the full bloom of youthful exuberance. However, as the moments passed, he grew older – becoming an ancient figure with lines of wisdom in his face. The whole process reversed itself as he looked up and met her gaze. From child to ancient and back again, the never-ending cycle continued.
The third member of their company did not speak for many long minutes. He kept his eyes fixed on the pool of silver. At least, it could be presumed he did. Little could be discerned about his form or figure due to the large black cloak that enveloped his entire frame. One thing could be determined without question: this was no ordinary person. For out of one arm of the cloak stretched a bony hand. No flesh, no muscle, nothing but bone stretched forth and grasped a large scythe. As he finally lifted his head from the contemplation of the basin, a skull peeped out from within the deep hood.
"Mother Nature, Father Time," echoed a deep voice from that skull. His eyes mere points of silver within hollow eye sockets; he still managed to give a sense of gentility.
"Well met, Lord Death," replied Mother Nature as Father Time nodded.
"I see that the time of the Warriors is at hand. I find myself troubled at this. My grandson has become hard and cold. It is unlikely that he will open his heart enough to ever form the bond foretold."
"And yet, for the first time since the prophecy was given, the necessary pieces are all in place. These conditions may not come together again for at least another century," commented Father Time, tilting his head to peer into the shimmering surface once more.
The three of them gathered together around the basin and peered down. With a wave of her hand, Mother Nature called up an image known to the three. A room of wood and stone, softened by flowing linens of white, came into focus. A young woman with an olive-complexion sat on the chair in the center of the room. Her long, dark hair was pulled away from her face and hung down her back in waves. She was dressed in light green and white linen with no adornment save one: the diadem of the Seer of Delphi. Her eyes, white as the clouds with no color breaking it at all, seemed to stare into the distance, far beyond the wall before her. When she spoke, her voice sounded clear, young, and sorrowful.
"The warriors will come! In a distant place…a place the people know not yet…the warriors will join. The smallest of fires, the least of shadow's pawns will reveal them. The deepest bonds of brotherhood will unite them. A brotherhood of seven will stalk through the hidden land – they will one day walk the world. Let the demons of the shadows cower in fear…let them hide their faces…the warriors will seek them throughout time and space.
"Seven warriors strong – two from the mortal coil, two from the fae lands, and three from immortal heritage – shall find their home in a small place, a place they will make safe for the people while the people will hold their secrets for them. Shadowed by loss, burdened by guilt, and hidden by choice, they shall find freedom within their chosen bond. In their hidden existence will they find defense, but let them be wary – the return of Discord's daughter will mark the full awakening of their foes. From their meeting to their revealing – let them become united, let them find their strength as one. This is their time – their time to recreate a world of their own.
"For the first, look to life's ending. Let the house of Death hold high its head, for from his lineage shall their leader come.
"For the second, search the wild lands. Nature herself has claimed him; with her creatures shall he speak and he shall never fail to reap her bounty.
"For the third, seek the line of change. Though for Order do they strive, the head of Chaos will provide his clever son, the Trickster's choice.
"For the fourth, find the unclaimed prince. Half-breed and unknown, his heritage has been hidden by the father who will not a ccept him.
"For the fifth, realize the guardian's place. Open-hearted and protective, he spreads himself too thin before he finds his truest charge.
"For the sixth, rescue the mortal healer. His hands bring healing, soothing hurts, a bitter lesson learned from the bonds of other men.
"For the seventh, discover the mortal sage. Hard-won wisdom, loving soul – his penance hides a private shame but cannot hide a caring heart.
"Hearken unto me! Let not this chance pass by! These souls shall return again and again until their bonds do they form. To win all seven will take a gamble – gird thyself to take the chance. When bonded are the seven strong, then free of other bonds be they…and may their world too be freed of Death and Time and Nature's price.
"Come, O Warriors! Battle back the Shadows! Set evil to flight and let light within!"
The image faded as the young woman slumped in her seat, eyes rolling back. Father Time lifted an eyebrow at his companions.
"The time has come, and we cannot let the opportunity go. Who knows when all seven shall again come within passing distance of each other?" he asked.
"I understand," said Lord Death. "And I would like to see this accomplished as much as anyone. I simply offer warning: my grandson is unlikely to cooperate."
"After the loss of his family, it is understandable," answered Mother Nature. "However, I believe they shall surprise us all."
A disturbing snarl came from the hooded skull at her first words, and the silver eyes flashed red, but his serenity returned as she finished. With a sinuous shrug, the figure of Death turned away from the basin.
"Then I shall see you in the place mortals refer to as Four Corners," he said, making his way to the edge of the clearing. "I must make arrangements for him to be there. Farewell."
As he faded away, Mother Nature and Father Time exchanged nods before returning to their own responsibilities. The now-empty clearing remained silent for a long moment before a light-hearted laugh echoed through. A new figure, lithe, sensuous and female, appeared in a swirl of black and silver sparks. Waving her hand over the basin, she called up a new vision: a man, blond and handsome, but with cold eyes.
"So," whispered the one who had been called Eris by the ancient Greeks, her dark eyes flashing with mischief. "I was right! He is the warrior leader of legend. I shall have to persuade my youngest to finish her new game and return to this one for a while. He will make a lovely little plaything for her, and I can enjoy the show…"
A multi-layered voice interrupted her planning, and she froze as a trio of women appeared before her. One woman, a petite blonde with sparkling blue eyes, held a spindle…Clotho…she spun the thread. The second woman, a red-head with eyes the color of a misty forest, had a book of needles in her belt…Lachesis…she wove the tapestry. The final woman, a tall, black-eyed, black-haired beauty, held a pair of scissors…Atropos…she cut the lines. These three were the Fates, and no one interfered when they felt deeply enough to take a personal interest. Eyes wide with concern, Eris tried to leave – only to find her powers nonexistent before them.
"You shall not yet interfere. Your time has not yet come. The Fates banish you, Discordia – we remove our weaving from your influence for a time. For nearly two passings of the seasons do we banish you. In that time you may return to do your work. But for now, be gone!"
Eris, the immortal figure of discord and strife, vanished with a scream of fury. As the echoes faded, the Fates glanced at the basin and examined the face there revealed. Though somewhat reserved, all three faces held a touch of cool pity.
"He remains so filled with rage and sorrow," said Atropos, her dark eyes softened with concern. "The loss of his mate and child still clutches at his heart."
"Yes," replied Lachesis, green eyes cool but tempered with affection. "However, not even we three, powerful though we are, can see or control all things. Even we must answer to a higher Power."
"And our intervention is forbidden in the actions of the demigods," sighed Clotho. "His thread has grown so thin, almost brittle."
The three female immortals stared at the face of their chosen one, each one wishing they could have changed his lot, but acknowledging the wisdom in the course to come. Finally, they stepped back in tandem and their harmonized voices rang through the clearing once more.
"Our blessing and good wishes to you, Champion of Fate. May thy brothers give thy heart a place to rest."
With that, they faded away and the clearing remained silent and empty, to await the next meeting of Great Figures.
Inside the small chamber, a woman groaned as she worked to bring a new life to their tribe. Sweat poured down her cheek and dampened her hair as her body continued its effort. Nearby, the chief of her tribe continued with the chant beseeching all the Powers of the world for their aid and good will. He requested fortune and protection to attend the newborn baby coming into the world. Even as he came to the end of his song of prayer, the woman made one final effort and gave birth to her child.
The cry of the newborn echoed in the village, and the others of the tribe began to gather near the birthing house. As they hurried to celebrate the new life that had been gifted to them, they never noticed the change in the landscape just outside the village boundaries. Amidst the rocks and the brush of the hills surrounding them, a strange opaque mist began rising. Small lights, almost like fireflies but of a sickly yellow-green color, glinted within it. The wispy substance gathered and coalesced, thickened and began to form dark shadowy shapes.
"A man-child!" announced Tastanagi, the chieftain, holding up the new born baby boy that had come into their tribe.
The people smiled and gave thanks, eager to rejoice in the proof of creation's favor. Hearts swelling with joy, they gathered to hear what name had been bestowed upon their newest member by his parents and their chief.
"He is a man-child. He shall be called Osceola."
Shock and excited chatter greeted the announcement. The boy had been given the name of a warrior! Theirs was a tribe of peace, made for coexistence. What did this mean?
Across the agitated talking, a low moaning sound blew through the village. Tastanagi started, and looked up to the nearby hills. His eyes narrowed as he took in the shadowy figures that appeared to swirl and slither around the boundaries of his village. Turning, he handed the baby to one of the women elders behind him. Taking a few steps forward, he tried to bring the apparitions into focus.
A low laughter drifted out of the mist. The sickly looking lights swirled faster and faster in a strange sort of dance. The people pulled back further into the heart of the village, seeking to escape from that hypnotizing movement. One young girl, still too young to know better, but old enough to doubt her instincts, began to sway in time to the lights. She took three steps towards them, reaching out, straining to touch. Her father swept her up into his arms and shut her into their home, standing sentry outside of the door.
Two young boys, returning from fetching water, were not so lucky. Caught outside of the village protection, they made easy prey for the evil that now threatened their home. The shadows quickly engulfed them. The lights flickered and swirled, diving in and out of the mist with a disturbing intensity. The children's screams echoed through the village before being sharply cut off. Within moments, the mist returned to churn and eddy along the edges of the village.
All that remained of its first meal were two emaciated figures that barely looked human.
The lights vibrated with new energy, and the shadows condensed to form more recognizable shapes. Human-like figures sat upon creatures that took on the appearance of horses…or a mockery of such. Skeleton-thin, the horses had black forms and deep gray mist for manes and tails. Their eyes glowed a deep red, so deep they barely escaped being black pits. Their hooves were sharp and metallic in appearance, blending with the mist as they stamped the ground.
Despite the feelings of horror engendered by the steeds, it was nothing compared to the visages of their riders. Men dressed in gray, bearing the standards of a defeated nation - these forms had been taken from the nightmares found in the depths of their victims' souls. Just as gaunt as their horses, the human figures had harsh faces carved with anger and hate. Many of the figures bore wounds and disfigurements…the nightmares that would not die and always returned. Eyes of flame stared out from under hats, eyes that froze the hearts of all who dared to meet those fiery gazes. The main feeling radiating from this horrible swarm was hunger.
Tastanagi stepped forward.
"Be gone! Crawl back to the darkness from which you came! You are not welcome here!"
At the front of the shadowy host, one figure took on a pronounced clarity as the mist condensed even more. Long straggly gray hair hung down around a hard face.
"And who are you, little man, to tell us what to do? Do you pit your puny defenses against my might? What will you do when your magic fails and we sweep in to take your life?"
As he spoke, a harsh wind thundered down the hills and encircled the village before hurtling itself against the protective circle. The talismans and charms that held the circle in place trembled. The chief's eyes widened as they continued to shiver in the wind. The evil force continued to push and prod, forcing the circle's magic to use more and more of its strength. If this kept up, the power would be exhausted and the village would be defenseless.
The sharp voice rang out as an older man strode forward from the rear of the village. The elder still stood tall and strong, unbent by the time that rode easily upon his shoulders. Despite being one of the oldest members of the tribe, the shaman's voice rang out clearly in a pointed demand once more.
As his command rang through the village, the shadows pulled back before the power he exuded. The figures began losing cohesion, falling into mist once more. Lights still danced within that haze, their sickly colors growing and fading in imitation of a child's heartbeat. When the shaman stepped forward, they retreated, but if he stopped, they surged. This battle of wills continued, power versus power. Sweat poured down the coppery skin of the shaman's cheeks, evidence of the power it required to hold back the evil force. When he reached the edge of the protective circle, he took hold of the gourd talisman and extended all of his power in one final thrust.
With a scream of rage, the mist exploded and dissolved in that final blow. Even as the last light winked out, the shaman fell to the ground, completely motionless. The chief and two of his elders rushed forward. They turned the shaman over and felt relief weaken their bones as they found him still breathing. However, he continued to lie still in their arms. Other than the weak beat of his heart and the light breeze of his breath, there seemed to be no sign of life within him at all.
"What do we do now?" asked Eban, one of the men beside him.
"I do not know," Tastanagi answered, staring down into the face of their only powerful magic user.
A beautiful young woman stepped forward and crouched beside the men. Reaching out, she laid a delicate hand on the side of the shaman's face. Her dark brown eyes grew wide and unfocused as her vision extended beyond that of normal sight. Eban frowned in concern; his daughter's visions often left her so exhausted that she was unable to perform more than the simplest of tasks for days. He shifted to support her as she came out of her divination.
"He has gained us a small window of time," stated Rain, lifting haunted eyes to meet the chief's concerned gaze. "We have been given the gift of seven days before the evil returns. The circle is broken…its power used up in keeping them back. His power cast them away, but he will be unable to renew the circle for too long a time…for at least three times seven days."
Everyone held their breath as she tilted her head and peered at the clouds above.
"Power is gathering," she said. "The lines of destiny are beginning to come together in a small town near here. Our only hope lies there…in the ones who are being brought forth. Death and nature, the trickster's son, fae and guardian, sage and healer…our chance lies with them. If they cannot defeat the shadows, no one can. With this one spark, evil could start a blaze that would encompass the whole world. Seek the warriors of power…find the ones who choose justice over anonymity. The answer lies with them."
Tastanagi nodded as he stood, letting another elder take charge of the shaman.
"So be it," he said with finality. "The gods have gifted us with many things. A new life began this day, and the name fate chose for him decides our path: Osceola, the warrior's name. Our shaman has bought us time through great sacrifice, choosing the tribe over his own safety. And now, our visionary has pointed out our path. It would be foolish to ignore these signs…three signs granted by all the powers of good. I will set out immediately for the nearest town."
Eban passed his daughter over into the hands of one of the women. He rose to stand next to his chief.
"I will accompany you, my friend. Sign from the gods or not, no one should walk alone for now."
With a sharp nod, the chief agreed and the tribe began to make plans for their journey and the safety of those who remained behind.
A tall dark-clad figure sat in the back of the saloon. His arms crossed over his chest and his chin tucked down, one might assume he was asleep as he leaned into the corner. At least, one might assume until they got a little closer. Cold eyes of stormy green stared out from under the brim of a black hat. Those eyes did not miss much as they swept through the room, seeking any threat. Not that he was successful in his search. Sad and dissolute men appeared to make up the saloon's clientele this afternoon.
"And to which group do you belong?"
The rich voice no longer startled him with its sudden appearances. Tilting his head, he peered out the corner of his eye at the tall cloaked figure beside him. He gave a soft snort.
"Both…neither…you the reason I ended up riding this way?"
The black material rustled as his grandfather settled more comfortably into his chair. The silver points of his eyes raked across the same clientele Chris had been eyeing moments before. Although most of the patrons had been eyeing the corner, easily intimidated by the man in black, their eyes skipped over the darkened area now. Death did nothing in particular to hide his presence, but mortal eyes often refused to see the truth before them. The more fearful the mortal, the more they closed their eyes to the realities of the world around them. He turned back to his grandson who still eyed him carefully.
"Yes and no; I have need of you here, and I helped to smooth the path this way. However, only you chose the path to take."
Chris gave a soft snort.
"So, what's holding your interest here of all places?" he asked.
"Many lives, many destinies are converging in this town. The very basis of power shifts in response. I will no doubt be called upon to harvest many souls as this occurs. I am…hopeful that your presence will help influence which souls are to be taken. The choices people make within the next few hours shall decide the course and fate of many. Innocent or corrupt, there will be souls to gather."
Lips narrowing, Chris turned to look back over the saloon once more. His hands clenched into fists as the images of his wife and son played across his mind. Innocent souls gathered because of someone else's choice. Giving his shoulders a shake as he watched the men around him knocking back their drinks, he rose and glanced down at his erstwhile companion.
"Not sure what you think I'll be able to do, but I'll take a look around in a bit."
His grandfather bowed his head once.
"That you try is all I ask. I have no love for gathering the souls of the innocent, and I have had to do so far too often."
"Yeah," bit out the gunslinger, voice harsh and hollow. "I know."
With that, he stalked over to the bar. Death watched as the bartender jumped in haste to fill the order, frightened of the scowling man. A deep sigh resonated from within the black hood. Even as Death faded from the room, a whisper reached across the room.
"One day, one day you will actually hear me…and maybe even understand."
Even as Chris reached for the Red-Eye whiskey put down in front of him, hollers and gunshots began echoing in the street outside.
"Well, hell," he noted in a quiet, almost nonchalant voice. "Here we go."
Bullets fired through the window, killing one man and sending the others diving to the floor. Only Chris remained fully upright in front of the bar; he lit a cheroot. Only a limited number of people or things could do him permanent harm, and most of them walked softly around him. All but the greatest of Powers held his grandfather in high respect, well nigh fear. In part, this contributed to the despair he held over his family's death – the knowledge that they had more than likely moved forever beyond his reach.
Another shot came through the window of the saloon and took off the top of the Red-Eye bottle. With a slight shrug, Chris reached out and poured himself a shot. Kicking it back, he felt the burn as it traveled down his throat. Turning, he brought the lit cheroot to his mouth and took a deep drag. He walked slowly to the swinging doors, stepping over bodies and debris as he went. Black duster billowing, he stepped out into the chaos.
Men rode through the streets, firing wildly and drinking freely. Another group manhandled a man into a wagon that already contained a casket. As his eyes scanned the street, he moved to lean on the saloon wall next to an older man sitting on a barrel.
"Town always this lively?"
The man flinched as a bullet hit near his head.
"Trail herd from Texas got all liquored up and their boss tried hurting one of the local girls. Her aunt's a witch…cursed him. The healer couldn't help and the boss died; and now they're in the mood for a lynching."
"Where's the law?" Chris asked.
"The marshal and his deputy." Snorting, the man pointed out a pair of men fleeing on horseback. "That isn't even his horse."
Chris simply raised one blond brow and moved to stand at the corner of the walk, watching as one brave, but pale-faced woman attempted to stop the drunken men. She did not succeed, but he had to admire the courage and conviction that drove her to try. He could see a darkening aura around both the woman and the intended victim of the lynching. He was a dark skinned man dressed in simple homespun. Tall and lanky, he fought against the ropes that bound him and the hands that held him with equal fervor. A slight aura of soft white light centered on his hands. Chris's thoughts focused on that light for a moment.
A full healer…interesting place for one of those. They're usually more protected than this.
A feeling of power brushed against his senses drawing his eyes across the street to a hardware store. A young man with light, wavy brown hair stepped out of the open door under a sign that said 'Wilson's Hardware'. Chris watched as the man checked and loaded the Winchester 1873 with an older man standing at his right shoulder arguing about something. The green eyes observed coolly as the young man said something with a stoic look. When the fellow turned away from the older man, sharp blue eyes raked through the street. As blue met green, something electric jumped between them. Images filled both minds.
Ghosts and phantoms filled the towns he passed through, clinging to unfinished business or a need for justice. Depending on the ghost and the obligation, he would often fulfill their needs, whether finishing a task or bringing their killer to justice. This allowed Death to step in and collect the souls, passing them through the door of judgment.
Animal forms and shadows stalked by his side or flew overhead as he followed the trail. The voices of flora, fauna, and wind whispered in his ear, giving him warning of pursuit or alerting him to his prey. His very connection to the earth and her skies ensured that he never failed to reap the bounty of Nature. However, he also never failed to be grateful.
The nascent connection flared and settled, ready to set down root and grow should the two men choose to nurture it. His green eyes narrowed in consideration, Chris gave a slight tilt of his head, and the man of Nature returned a brief nod. Turning to follow the lynching party, the unlikely pair met in the center of the street as they advanced towards the small cemetery at the edge of town.
Most of the town folks who had followed the wagon milled around outside of town, confusion and fear preventing them from interfering. The blonde woman who had tried earlier continued to seek some help, but no one responded to her. Ignoring this fuss, Chris strode into the graveyard and faced down the drunken cowboys who had gotten a noose tied around the healer's neck.
"What the hell do you want?" asked one as he stared in surprise at the two men.
"Cut him loose," said Chris, eyes steady and watchful.
"Reckon you'd all be happier if you just rode away," added the long haired man, rifle resting on his shoulder.
The cowboys all laughed.
"Not a chance, boys," the drunk said, laughing.
"You shot a lot of holes in the clouds back there. Anybody stop to reload?" he asked, amused condescension filling the green gaze.
At that point, one of the cowboys tried to get a shot off, and the gunfight began. When the bullets began to fly, the town folk scattered, looking for cover. The noise and confusion startled and scared the horses that had been left hitched to the wagon. The horses reared and began to run, pulling the wagon out from under the healer still trapped in a noose. As the man hung there, Chris's newest acquaintance raised the rifle to his shoulder and shot twice, neatly dividing the rope in two. The dark-skinned man fell to the ground and the few cowboys still alive began fleeing.
As Chris looked around to make sure they had not overlooked anyone, he felt another form of power nearby. He scrutinized the few people still gathered around the fenced in area and came to rest on a young face highlighted by shaggy black hair and large hazel eyes. Those eyes and that face appeared much too innocent to be in this town. His clothing proclaimed him an eastern newcomer, but something about him felt inhuman. The shape and size of his eyes and the sharpness of his features, hidden by dark stubble, gave him the air of being something other than fully human.
Even as Chris looked him over, those sharp hazel eyes shifted to their left. Chris's head snapped to the side in time to see a 'dead' cowboy rise up with a gun coming to bear. Before anyone else could move, the man's gun glowed white and he screamed. He dropped the gun and the light faded, but no one noticed. Their attention remained glued to the cowboy's hand, now blackened and burned. Chris looked back around to try and catch those hazel eyes again. However, the slight figure had vanished.
Frowning, Chris turned to his current partner.
"Vin Tanner," replied the long haired man in a Texan accent. "New in town?"
"Among other things," Vin noted with amusement. "Not many left to hunt."
A new voice broke into their conversation.
"One of y'all want to get a knife and cut me loose here?"
Chris and Vin moved to free the man, who introduced himself as Nathan Jackson. As they began to walk out of the graveyard, the blonde woman approached them and tried to talk to them, but they were a little more interested in heading for the saloon. As they walked, Chris tried to keep an eye out for the young fellow with the hazel eyes, but he never spotted him. In such a small town, that spoke of a kid who knew how to hide in plain sight.
The men stepped into the saloon and up to the bar.
"Whiskey," ordered Chris.
"One for the doc here," Vin added, giving a nod to Nathan. The healer gave a slight flinch before his eyes scanned the locals quickly.
"Ask anybody, and they tell you, 'ain't no darkie doctors'. I've been told that often enough to know folks like me aren't welcome to seek that type of schooling. I was a stretcher bearer in the Union Army. I picked up what I could in the field hospital."
Before anyone could say anything else, the saloon grew silent. The three men turned and found themselves facing a pair of two older men.
Tastanagi and Eban had arrived in town just before the excitement had begun in the street. They had watched as the battle unfolded, and they had chosen these men to approach first. Surely here they had found the warriors they needed. With a quick exchange of glances, Tastanagi stepped forward and met the green eyes of the warriors' leader.
"We would like to hire you."
The three new acquaintances stared at the two men for a long moment. Chris peered long and hard at the old Indian, giving him an assessing glare. Unlike so many 'daring gunslingers' he had met, this man stood firm under his look, without so much as a waiver in his eyes. Approval entered his gaze – he had to admire a man who could look him in the eye without flinching. It was a rare occurrence.
"What are you looking to hire men for?" Chris asked, lifting a brow in curiosity.
"I am Tastanagi, and my companion is called Eban. We would speak more where there are fewer ears," replied Tastanagi, glancing around at the curious onlookers. He supposed he could not blame them. Few of his people ever entered the white man's towns. They had met few friendly folks in these strange clusters of buildings, built with common walls and no breathing space.
"Humph," snorted Nathan, "not sure you'll get much more private than here. We could grab a corner."
Chris gave a nod and moved towards the corner table he had been at previously. A cold look had the current occupants scurrying away like mice frightened of a mountain lion. The men gathered around the table, Chris in the corner with Vin at his right and Nathan just beyond him. Tastanagi and Eban sat opposite them, backs to the room.
"Our village has been attacked," the chief stated, again meeting Chris' full gaze.
"It happens." Chris gave a slight tilt of the head, almost a half shrug. "Not usually something that sends folks looking for outside help."
The two men exchanged a glance full of caution. Tastanagi took a deep breath and looked searchingly at both Nathan and Vin before turning his full attention to Chris. He examined the blond man's face, finishing with another long probing look into the stormy green eyes. Chris gave a soft snort and decided to truly test the man's determination. He relaxed his mental shields slightly, allowing his power to filter into his gaze. His eye color never truly changed, but a glaze painted its way across the surface. Translucent silver coated his eyes, giving the grey-green a more polished look, with a reflection one might find glinting from a sword lifted into the sunlight. Both men started and became fixated. He held them in place for a long moment before he blinked and drew his power back. A relieved but respectful look appeared on both of their faces. Nathan and Vin exchanged glances; they had not received the full effect of Chris's gaze, but they had both felt the power the blond man held in check.
"You are one that we seek," Tastanagi announced, giving a nod of respect. "Forgive me; we did not recognize you at first."
"I doubt you recognize me now," replied Chris. "More like you recognize my kinfolk. Might be a bit more cautious whose eyes you choose to meet."
Tastanagi gave a slight smile.
"I doubt many are so able to catch a man's mind with no more than a look."
"Only the inevitable," Chris acknowledged.
"And Death is the ultimate inevitability," the chief nodded.
A slight smile graced Chris's lips, as Vin's eyes narrowed in contemplation and Nathan blinked at the blond man in surprise.
"True. So, what kind of attack sends you into town?"
"Our village is not far from here. We were celebrating a new birth when a strange mist came out of the hills. It was like nothing I had seen before. Unusual lights danced within it. It caught two of our people and drained them - drained them so completely that they no longer looked human. When it finished, it seemed stronger. The lights glowed and whirled more. It took on shapes, like ghosts, as though it had taken on the form drawn from the nightmare world."
"Yes," nodded Eban. "They looked like the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, but even I never saw any of those as bad as this. This thing, whatever it was, it was hungry. It tried to attack the village directly."
"Our wards worked. The power held it off," noted the chief. "But only for a time. As it continued to attack, it drained the talismans and charms. If our shaman had not returned, it would have been much worse. He finally drove it off."
Chris's face showed no expression. As he listened, he could almost feel his grandfather's presence in the room. Giving the men a hard look, he saw the shadows gather around them. A thin line of shimmering black haloed both men's heads. These men had faced something much worse than death, little though they realized it. The particular type of wraith they had described had a vile name even in the darker immortal circles. Glancing around the room, he spotted the tall cloaked figure near the bar, head bowed in respect. He would make no plea, no request that might lessen Chris's freewill choice in this.
"What happened then?" asked Nathan.
Tastanagi shook his head.
"Our shaman collapsed. He had used every last bit of his power to banish it."
"So," Vin drawled, "what type of help are you needing? 'Specially if it's gone."
"Gone, but not defeated," the chief replied. "Our tribe is blessed to have one who sees beyond. Our seer has told us that it will be back within seven days, but the shaman will not be able to work for much longer. The vision led us in this direction, to find seven warriors of power, men of justice. You two chose to save this man, a stranger to you, because it was just."
Chris stared at the old man.
"From that and my showing off, you get the idea we're three of the men you're seeking?"
Eban chuckled but stayed quiet while Tastanagi tilted his head.
"Our seer described the seven men we should look for. They were given identities, if not faces. We were to seek out death and nature, the trickster's son, fae and guardian, sage and healer. I would say we have found at least one of those, and perhaps three."
"Humph," snorted the blond. "Suppose you're not far off."
He turned to his two companions.
"What do you think?"
Nathan looked around the table, dark eyes deep and considering. "I'm not too sure about all of this, or what I can do against something like that, but I'm willing to try. The Seminoles put themselves on the line for many an escaped slave. They took us in when nobody else would. I guess they can have a week of my life."
"Or all of it," replied Vin, before he cut off to stare intently towards the corner of the saloon. Chris turned his eyes to follow the look and spotted a new figure standing beside his grandfather. Tall, with deep brown hair, the curvaceous woman looked out of place in the dark saloon. She smiled warmly at the Texan beside him, her eyes bright with affection and approval. When Chris brought his attention back to the table, he caught the other three men giving the two of them confused looks. They could not see the woman.
"Hell…I wasn't planning on dying with a broom in my hand anyway," Vin finally finished.
Both the healer and the sharpshooter turned to the gunslinger. They waited on his decision.
"All right," Chris replied, giving a nod to his men. "Tomorrow afternoon, then. We'll need the rest of today to find these other four you mentioned."
"We can help?" Eban asked, but Chris shook his head.
"You need to get back out to your village. If things go wrong, your people'll need to be ready to leave, to get to safer ground."
"You will come," Tastanagi said, half stating, half asking.
"I give you my word," answered Chris, finality in his tone.
The chief nodded and rose to his feet. With another slight bow, he made a sign of peace over the men. The two tribesmen turned to leave. The three at the table could hear their final words.
"Do you trust them?" asked Eban.
"Normal men I would not," answered Tastanagi. "But these men are foretold. I think, maybe I do."
He looked at the other two. Chris just slid a sideways glance at him while Nathan shook his head.
"Nope," he replied. "I get a feeling I'm the most normal of the three of us."
Now Chris turned his stormy gaze on the dark-skinned man. "Really?" he said. "True healers, men that can heal with a touch aren't exactly what I'd call 'normal.' They're a bit rare, 'specially around these parts."
Nathan rubbed at the back of his neck, not quite meeting Chris's gaze. "Yeah, well, it's not like it's unheard of. Besides, what you call that trick of yours?"
"Family hazard," Chris responded with a shrug.
"If you're not careful, I'll bet you can freeze a man where he stands and he'll stay until you release him," noted Vin.
Chris just leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. ""Men are easily bound by the inevitable, the unavoidable. So, seven men…death, nature, trickster, fae, guardian, healer, and sage…that'll make an interesting bunch."
Nathan looked both of them over. "Well," he said, looking towards Vin. "If Chris is death, and I'm the healer, who are you?"
"Nature," the quick rejoinder came.
"And I'm not death, I'm death's kin."
"Yeah," answered Nathan, rolling his eyes. "'Cause that makes so much of a difference."
"Got a more important question," Vin said. "Where we going to find the other four?"
The three men sat in silence for several minutes, contemplating the problem. Finally, Nathan shrugged.
"I think I know a man that might fit the bill for 'sage.'"
"Good," Chris said. "Pretty sure I know who the 'guardian' is. Problem won't be tracking him down; it'll be getting him out of bed."
The three men left the saloon, and Nathan headed for the south end of town. Chris led Vin north to the boarding house, explaining about his old friend's favorite pastime, and what he needed the sharpshooter to do. As Vin entered the building with a smirk, Chris moved to stand on the porch directly below the window of the room his friend was currently keeping company in. Death's kin or no, he rarely left things to chance and made a point of always knowing who was in town. With a tilt of his head, he listened to the noise coming through the window, mostly made up of a fist pounding on a door and muffled shouting. Then he heard a rattle and steps above him as someone made a quick exit out the window. He heard the door of the room burst open and smiled at Vin's comment.
"Sorry, ma'am. Wrong room."
At that same moment, a body came falling from the porch's covering. A tall man with a ruddy complexion and a mustache, his hat was on his head and his britches around his ankles. Covered only by his underclothes, he clutched the rest of his belongings in his arms and tried to catch his breath. Chris kept his eyes on the main street.
"Afternoon, Buck. Interrupt something?"
At the slow, steady comment, the dark haired man looked up and spotted the blond. A large smile split his handsome face as he staggered to his feet. A townswoman walking by looked shocked at the spectacle of the half-dressed man and hurried along. Buck paid no attention.
"Chris! Hey, you old war dog!"
Not bothering to finish dressing first, he stumbled up the steps to give Chris a warm hug.
"Good to see you, buddy. How you doing?"
"Easy, big fella. Folks will talk."
Buck just laughed and finished dragging on his clothes. Chris did not give a full smile, but his eyes lightened as he watched his oldest friend pull himself together. Despite the years of heartache and loss, Buck had been the one constant in Chris's life. Even when he tried to drive him away, the big-hearted man had stayed. A protector and defender by nature, Buck had done his best to guard Chris from himself. If any part of the gunslinger still had the ability to respond to the gentler side of life, it existed solely because of the determination of this man.
"Got a fight coming up," Chris stated candidly.
"How are the odds?" asked Buck, buckling on the dark brown gun belt. He let it sling down low so he could tie it to his leg and holster his knife behind his right hip.
"Not in our favor."
"It's just our kind of a fight," replied the mustached man. Shrugging on his jacket, he gave his friend a smile before turning to face the man walking out of the boarding house. Vin nodded at him and turned his head to Chris.
"He with us?"
Buck's eyebrows rose in surprise, and he gave the Texan a more pointed look.
"Is he with you?" he asked Chris, who gave a nod to both men. Buck shrugged. "There going to be ladies where you're going?"
"I imagine so," replied the blond.
"Then," Buck said with a smile, "I imagine I'm in."
The three men headed back down the main street of town. As they walked, Chris slanted an eye to his friend.
"Still looking for that charge of yours?" he asked.
Buck frowned and gave Chris a dark look. His eyes shifted to Vin before determinedly facing forward.
"Might as well say something," Chris said. "None of us are going to be average folk on this ride."
"Haven't found him, or her, yet," came the tense answer. "Felt brushes, near misses, but I'm still…kind of adrift."
"Chris said you were a 'guardian'?" Vin asked; his head tilted in question.
"Guardian," Buck responded. "It's a title, not just a word."
For a long while, all three men were silent as the dark-haired man mulled over the situation. The southern end of town came into view before he spoke up once more.
"My mother's mother was one of the Fae kindred. She rebelled against her clan though and was cast out. It's not a pretty story. Still, she kept the old histories and passed them to my ma who passed them to me. As it turned out, the blood ran almost pure in me, and some of the abilities cropped up."
"Guardian?" Vin asked a second time.
"Yeah, that's one of them. A Guardian is called to protect. According to the stories, a new Guardian appears when a new member of the Royal Fae is prophesied. Sooner or later their paths will cross, and the Guardian takes on whatever role is needed: protector, mentor, big brother even. It gives the Royal at least one companion who can be trusted, trusted to be both completely honest and completely loyal. Ma said it made for more stable rulers. She said the histories taught that only those rulers who had lost their Guardian went mad or became dangerous."
Vin pondered that as they drew near the church to meet up with Nathan. He gave Buck a perplexed look. "Thought the Fae were immortal?"
"Immortal, but not invulnerable. They can be killed almost as easily as men. You just have to know how."
Walking up to the church, they saw Nathan having a spirited conversation with a man whose tanned skin showed a life lived under the sun. The older fellow kept working on the broken down church while the healer threw his hands into the air. He turned to face the newcomers.
"Josiah says he's not coming. He said that's his penance."
"For what?" Chris asked.
"He won't say," snorted Nathan. "Word is he done killed a lot of men. He's a hard man to persuade."
"We can promise him a hell of a fight," Vin noted.
"Hell," Josiah pondered. "I've already been there."
As the man turned back to his church, the others headed back into town.
"Think he'll change his mind?" Chris questioned the healer.
"Maybe," he responded. "We could ride by tomorrow."
Before anyone could respond, the sound of an argument erupted from the saloon. Exchanging curious glances, the four stepped into the main room.
"We don't take kindly to being hustled!"
A chestnut-haired man with pale skin and emerald green eyes leaned on the bar, staring down an angry cowboy. Casual confidence oozing from every line, he flashed a smile at the crowd facing him and a subtle pulsation of energy could be felt in the room.
"I do not believe I had any part of a 'hustle.' I was merely sitting here having a quiet drink and minding my own business. Your friends invited me to participate in a hand or two of poker, using their deck mind you. Perhaps you should cast your wary gaze in their direction."
The soft southern drawl caused Nathan to stiffen slightly, but he kept silent at Buck's shoulder. The southerner held a shot glass in his right hand with his left arm casually down by his side. The bright red jacket and tailored vest gave the impression of a man who enjoyed the finer things in life. He flipped a gold coin through and around the fingers of his left hand, allowing the light to sparkle and flash into the eyes of the men he faced. He gave the four men by the door a sharp smile and a tiny wink as the cowboys began giving each other suspicious looks.
"Or perhaps you should question that suspicious looking character," continued the suave fellow, lifting his left hand, gold coin practically gleaming, to point at a short, shifty-looking man pulling back into the corner. "He has been lifting small items from your persons and secreting them in his pockets."
Angry gazes focused on the unsavory looking fellow who began sidling away, angling for the door. With a tilt of his head, the southerner gestured for the four newcomers to move out of the way. As they joined him at the bar, the short man darted out the opening. With a roar, the furious cowboys shoved past one another in a hurry to pursue him. With a chuckle, the chestnut-haired fellow lifted his glass in a toast to the departed men and the sense of energy dropped down once more.
Chris tilted his head towards the brightly dressed man. "You took a bit of a chance there. They might have preferred to continue their argument with you."
"Unlikely, sir. The loss of a handful of dollars on payday may upset them, but the talismans and amulets that miscreant had pocketed were certainly worth much more. Besides, I spoke truthfully. We did use their deck, not mine."
Eyes of stormy green met clear emerald and held. Another connection flared in Chris's mind, more tentative than and not as instant as the one with Vin had been, but he could feel it trying to deepen.
A blond woman with shrewd eyes watched as he manipulated and maneuvered a minor card game. He could feel the thrill of excitement when complicated plans came together to a grand finale. His favorite moments were made up of subtle maneuvers that caused great excitement but helped the children who flocked to him like the Pied Piper of old.
With a blink, Chris came back to himself and caught the shaken look in those emerald depths before the amused mask descended once more. The blond man frowned; what was it about these men?
"You normally end up fighting with folks?" asked Buck, automatically moving to draw attention away from Chris. The gunslinger's lips twitched; the man could not help himself, he had to protect people.
"Certainly not. Do I appear the sort of man who indulges in fisticuffs?"
"Well," replied Vin, "you don't really look like the sort to take on a room of angry men either."
"Ah, yes, true," pondered the southerner. "While I normally refrain from facing down such desperate fellows and would have avoided the entanglement, I found it rather necessary this time around. They had set their eyes on a very different mark. Speaking of which…"
Trailing off, he turned to the stairs leading out of the main room.
"I believe you may come out now, young sir."
Everyone turned to look, Chris taking the longest to turn away. After a moment, a light step whispered into the room. With a start, Chris recognized the slight young man who entered. Shaggy dark hair and bright hazel eyes confirmed it. This was the youngster who had aided them so unexpectedly at the cemetery earlier. As the young man looked at them with both curiosity and suspicion, the chestnut-haired fellow spoke once more.
"Gentlemen, may I present one Mister JD Dunne? And I am Ezra P. Standish, at your service."
Ezra's smart little bow drew a quick grin from Vin, but Chris' attention riveted to Buck. A light glowed in the depths of those sapphire blue eyes as they connected to JD's hazel gaze. Chris's mouth quirked as the southerner gave an amused drawl.
"I believe I may say we are quite pleased to meet you."
Chris smiled as he watched Buck and JD talking at a table near the stairs. After that first moment of recognition, JD's eyes had widened in trepidation. Apparently unprepared for this moment, he appeared ready to bolt. However, Buck had taken control of the situation and had convinced his new charge to sit and talk. The other four men gathered at the bar.
"They threatened the kid?" Chris asked.
Ezra nodded. "The miscreants had decided an Eastern newcomer made an excellent and easy mark."
"And you just stepped in?" Nathan eyed the colorfully dressed gambler with suspicion.
"Would you have preferred me remain out of it, sir?" Ezra lifted a sarcastic brow at the healer. "I may not be the epitome of chivalrous behavior, but I certainly would not tolerate harm coming to the young royal by my own omission."
Before Nathan could reply, Chris spoke once more. "There's trouble in a nearby village. We're riding out in the morning. Care to come along?"
Emerald green eyes narrowed. "A rather quick invitation is it not?"
"The trickster's son," muttered Vin. Ezra's gaze swung to him and the tracker nodded. "That's you, right?"
"It is one of my positions, yes," acknowledged Ezra. "And may I inquire as to how you came to know that title?"
"Two of the villagers approached us. Their seer gave it to them." Chris watched as the gambler swirled his drink before sipping it.
Ezra's eyes scanned the room. "I do not believe that I…." He stopped as his gaze reached the entrance.
A tall, black-haired man lounged against the wall by the door. Deep ebony eyes gazed back at the gambler. For a moment the hard face remained completely stoic, but then a smirk slid across it and the man raised his eyebrows in question.
Ezra sighed and rolled his eyes. "Never mind; it appears I shall be accompanying you come morning."
While his face remained expressionless, amusement lit deep within Chris's gaze. "Good."
When the six men gathered at the church the next morning in order to ride out together, they found Josiah waiting for them.
"Why'd you change your mind?" the healer asked.
Josiah shrugged. "Crows."
Nathan frowned. "What crows?"
"A sign," replied the older man.
"What does that mean?"
Josiah gave him a serious look. "Death."
Nathan huffed out a frustrated breath. "Whose? "
"Probably mine." The sage gazed around at the other men.
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Well, well, a sense of humor. I look forward to many lively conversations."
Nathan shot an annoyed look at the gambler. He turned back to Josiah and gestured at the church. "What about all this?"
The older man just gave a small smile. "Oh... these stones will still be here if I get back."
When it looked like Nathan was growing aggravated, Vin broke in. "We can use another good man."
Josiah sighed. "Not so good... but I can fight."
"Enough." Chris's decree brought an end to the conversation and the men rode out.
When the seven men arrived, Chris immediately set them to securing the area. He wanted each of them to set their own form of shield or protection. When asked about it, he merely said, "The more variety that thing has to face, the less likely it will break through."
His men shrugged and decided to go one at a time in order to avoid tripping over one another. Each of them would take an hour or so to traverse the entire area. Tastanagi and Eban helped them set the exact boundaries of the village and then they began. JD went first as his power tied directly to the earth. Since JD's abilities had such an affinity for the natural world, it had been decided that Vin should follow him. Then it was Buck's turn, and Nathan's; their abilities centered mostly on people and the physical world. Josiah did not possess an active ability, so he used artifacts and talismans. It was decided he should go after Nathan since his work also focused mainly in the physical. Ezra went next as his power affected the mind, and Chris went last due to his affinity for the spirit world.
After the long day of preparation, the seven men gathered near each other in the center of the village. Breaking into twos and threes, they fell into quiet conversations as the people settled in for the evening.
"Well, gentlemen, we appear to be as prepared as…humanly possible." Ezra's mocking commentary drew a raised brow from Chris.
"Got an issue with humans?" asked the gunslinger, passing a small canteen to the chestnut-haired man.
"Certainly not, sir!" The gambler exclaimed with one hand clasped dramatically to his heart. Vin gave a small huff of amusement as Chris rolled his eyes. "I just find it interesting that three such…people as we are here."
"People like us?" Vin asked.
An amused look stole across Ezra's face. "Come now, sir, are we not here because we are not altogether human? The grandson of death?" Chris gave him a steady look, but the southerner just smirked. "Nature's chosen?" Vin shrugged. "And my insignificant self?"
"Seer called you 'trickster's son'?" Vin commented curiously. Chris tilted his head, interested in the man's answer himself.
"Yes, well," shrugged Ezra. "As you saw in the saloon, Father will take more forms than just that of Coyote."
Vin's eyes widened as the stories and legends of his adopted family came to mind. Coyote, the trickster god was a favorite…the one who would use deception and shadows to fix wrongs and set the pattern right.
"How are you at your father's tricks?" Chris asked, his eyes narrowing in contemplation.
Ezra sighed. "Not as good as would be most helpful right now: shadowing the mind, clouding the senses, and some minor physical changes. My greatest gifts revolve around long-term plans, not quick battles."
"Still," shrugged the blond leader, "a small shadow at the right time can hide a lot. We'll have to think about it." With that, he turned to Vin. "What of you?"
"Best thing I've got for a battle are my senses. They're better then most." The tracker frowned. "I'm not calling any of the animals up unless it's absolutely necessary. They've got no part in this."
"Depends on what 'this' actually turns out to be," replied Chris. "If it's what I think it is, you'll change your mind."
"Maybe." Vin's eyes narrowed in contemplation. "There's a little backwater town up in the Texas panhandle. Tascosa. Flatter'n a felt-covered poker table. You know it?"
Chris gave a single nod. "Heard of it."
"If I wind up getting killed, take my body back there." Vin hitched his shoulder as the two men frowned at him. "There's a priestess that'll pay in money or magic."
"How did you manage to become quite so valuable?" asked Ezra.
"Well, when the buffalo done run out, I became a bounty hunter. I was going after Eli Joe…one of the dark path followers. He'd shot up a few banks to help pay for whatever he needed. The bounty was dead or alive. I found him dead; took the body in. 'Cept it wasn't him. Old Eli framed me up for murder. Since I didn't do it, I decided not to stick around for the hanging. Wound up with a hefty bounty on my own head. So, I figure if a friend collects I get the last laugh."
Ezra and Chris exchanged a glance. Ezra rolled his shoulders back, "Really, Mr. Tanner, it would be much more amusing to garner the bounty while you are still able to use it. A few mirrors and a little smoke…it is easily done. I will merely ask for a portion of the reward in repayment."
Vin gave a quiet laugh as Chris just rolled his eyes again.
From across the way, Buck smiled as he watched his old friend find common ground with the others. His heart had grown lighter throughout the day despite the upcoming fight. Chris had finally started to heal. Buck did not lie to himself, he knew his friend had a long way to go, but it was good to see it finally starting.
"Buck?" JD's curious tone brought his attention around.
The smile spread further across his face as his gaze met the bright hazel of his charge. He would never forget that snap as all of his gifts and senses focused on the boy when they first met. His mother had told him the histories and the stories, but none of them had prepared him for the absolute rightness, the completeness of the bond.
"Buck?" JD asked again with a frown. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah," smiled Buck. "I'm good. Say, kid, what are you doing out here anyway?"
"I'm helping guard the village."
The dry answer given with a raised brow made him laugh. He shook his head. "That's not what I meant. What are you doing out west on your own?"
"Who else would be here?" JD shrugged. "My mother's dead."
"What about the rest of your family?"
"Don't have any."
Buck frowned. The fae's numbers had been dwindling in recent centuries. They would never allow a child of theirs, even a half-breed, to wander alone. The children born to any of the royals would have been doubly precious.
JD's shoulders twitched. Taking a deep breath, he raised his eyes to Buck's. "My mother was half-fae…one of the night breed."
Buck closed his eyes, suddenly understanding. The night fae had been cast out long ago. They had their own enclaves, rulers, everything. The two worlds, light and dark, never mixed. For a royal of the light fae to mate with a night breed…beyond disapproval, it was grounds for exile, removal from the family line…worse yet to allow a child of such a mating to be born.
JD started to rise and move away. Buck's hand shot out and caught his arm. He pulled the young man back to his place. As JD turned wide eyes to look at the older man, Buck could see the fear that lurked deep within that gaze. His heart twisted.
Buck took a deep breath. "JD, I don't care who your parents were. I am your Guardian. So long as I walk this world, you will never be alone again. Your path is my path, little brother…we walk it together."
The tension seeped out of JD's slight frame, and Buck grinned. "Now come on, kid. While the rest of them are jawing, we can grab the best spots by the fire."
Josiah smiled as he watched the unlikely match set up their bedrolls. He suppressed a laugh as Buck made sure that JD had the safest sleeping spot.
Nathan chuckled. "Nothing subtle about that man."
"Nope," answered the older man. "Nice to see him taking care of the boy though. JD's a mite young to be in the middle of this trouble."
"Most people are too young when they start getting into trouble."
"How did you end up out here anyway, brother?" Josiah asked curiously.
Nathan shrugged. "All of my family were slaves in Georgia. We're born with gifts of one sort or another…made us extra valuable to the masters. They kept a tight hold of us and bartered us out to others for some high prices. I finally ran away."
"That how you ended up with the army?"
"Not many places safe for a runaway. I started watching the doctors in the camps, learning how to use my healing without being obvious about it. Learned how to hide it behind medicines and other kinds of treatments."
"It takes a strong man to grow up in such a life without being filled with hate," commented Josiah.
"Don't know about that," Nathan replied. "Just found hating everybody too tiring. It didn't hurt them, and turned my gift sour."
"Wish I could learn that lesson," the older man mused.
"Why'd you really change your mind about coming?" the healer asked.
"I saw the birds of darkness in a dream," Josiah replied. "When I woke up, a crow was sitting on my windowsill."
"Why come here?"
"If death's coming, I'd just as soon meet it head on."
Nathan sighed. "And get your reward in the hereafter?"
"No," the sage answered, shaking his head. "No, I was…uh…I was a priest once, but…uh…had a little trouble turning the other cheek."
Before either man could speak again, Chris rose from his spot. "Time to get some sleep. Waiting for sunset's going to make tomorrow a long, hard day."
As everyone began settling in for the evening, Vin watched as their leader pulled Ezra to one side for a hushed conversation. The trickster frowned at whatever Chris asked him, but gave a reluctant nod. The two men joined their companions at the party. Vin threw a curious glance at the gunslinger, but Chris just shook his head. The tracker shrugged and stretched out on his bedroll to pursue some rest.
The next morning dawned too early for anyone after the previous day's labor. However, the seven defenders had been up for an hour before the sun begun rising above the distant mountains. Each of them made a final circuit of the village and checked their personal shields and protections. None of them spoke as they made their final preparations. The men devoted the day to resting or meditating, whatever helped them prepare for the coming confrontation.
Just as the sun's last light left the village lit only by firelight, a mist began rising from the nearby hills and strewn boulders. It gathered and coalesced, tendrils reaching out towards the village. As the first fingers met the new magical boundaries, it drew back to build and solidify into the ragged form of a mounted colonel once more. He smirked.
"So, you are still here. Hmm, brave or stupid, I wonder? Your new protections will do you no good."
He eyes began to glow with a sickly yellow light and scanned the mass of people huddled behind the shields. People began to moan and cry out as their gazes met his. Here and there a person fainted while others froze in place. Still more shook and fell to their knees, clasping their heads as tears poured down their faces. Young and old, male and female, that harsh gaze affected everyone it touched.
Finally he turned his gaze to the seven defenders. Nightmarish visions played through their minds. Chris's breath rushed out of his lungs in a harsh, croaking cry as smoke crept across his mind. Catapulted into his worst memory, he could see the burned out shell of his home and the two bodies that lay within. The hellish vision did not stop there. With sadistic glee, the enemy painted another picture in his mind.
Flames! This time he arrived before the flames died out; they licked with vicious intent across the roof of the home he had built. He heard his wife screaming as the fire spread; he could hear his son calling for him. He could see them, in the window! If he could just get past the barrier that stood between them! There seemed no escape from the heat, and the guilt rose up to choke him. He felt himself stumbling forward; he had to get beyond that barrier!
"No! Chris, no!"
Two voices rang in his mind, pushing the vision aside. He shook himself free. He glanced up and jumped back as he found himself eye-to-eye with the evil figure. His eyes narrowed. As he stepped back, he cast a look over his shoulder and met two concerned gazes, one blue, and one green.
Both men blinked, startled as his voice echoed in their heads. Vin's lips quirked in a small smile while Ezra raised a single brow. Chris felt the bond with the gambler flare deeper.
"Mr. Larabee, do try and focus on the issue at hand. The others are not faring well."
Chris snarled as he noted the stressed faces of his men. Sweat poured down Josiah's face while Nathan's hands trembled. Buck glared at the misty figure, his natural color drained away. JD half-leaned on his Guardian, but still faced down the creature. Chris turned back to the ghostly figure. "Go back! You are not welcome here."
"And do you think to stop me, child of death, bringer of death? How are you different from me?"
"Oh, do allow me count the ways." Ezra's mental voice mocked.
"Thing's full of itself, ain't it?" came Vin's contribution.
Chris smothered a smile at the sarcastic commentary running through his mind.
The scream rang out, drawing everyone's attention. A child had slipped away from her guardians and reached the circle of protection. An evil laugh resounded as the mist broke apart and streamed towards her. The little girl reached for the circling lights. As her hand reached outside of the defenses, the mist captured it and pulled her forwards. She screamed. She could not pull free. She fell out of the circle.
The mist began taunting the villagers and their defenders. It preyed around the child, reaching out tendrils to touch and stroke along her skin. She would scream as it touched her, whimper as it reached towards her. Surrounded by the smoky substance, she could only fold herself into a ball and hide her face.
The seven defenders snarled and growled, but they could not step outside the boundaries or their protections would fall. The girl's father restrained her screaming mother even as tears poured down his face.
The mist coalesced into the form of the Colonel once more. He gave them an evil smirk and reached down to pick up the child. Her screams began before he even touched her, only to increase as he actually lifted her. He petted her hair.
"Will you watch?" he asked, eyes glittering as they locked onto Chris's stormy glare. His head lowered slowly towards the girl's neck without breaking his connection to the gunslinger.
Fury roared through Chris's mind.
"No!" Vin's shout echoed in the hills and a call from the air answered him. Even the eyes of the Colonel looked up.
A large owl dove through the air towards the mist. Before it could react, the bird had locked her claws around the child's shoulders and yanked her free of the Colonel's evil grasp. Flying low due to the weight of her burden, the large bird carried the child back into the circle of protection. As her mother snatched up the girl, the bird soared back towards the sky.
The mist screamed in rage and lashed out. The magnificent creature fell to the ground, death already stiffening the inert figure. Vin stumbled, the death cry hitting him.
Chris stepped forward. "Nukpana!"
The mist jerked and the Colonel's eyes went wide.
"Yes," taunted the blond. "I recognize you. I name you. Nukpana! Be gone!"
The Colonel's form dissolved and the mist swirled, it's sickly lights flickering.
Chris's eyes narrowed and he raised his right hand. Gathering all of his strength, he focused his power on the mist before him. "Nukpana! BE GONE!"
With a ferocious bellow, the mist blew apart.
Everyone held their breath, waiting, watching. When the mist showed no sign of returning, the villagers began talking and laughing, their relief evident. Their defenders did not relax, however. They recognized this had been a stop-gap measure to buy them a little more time.
Before any of them could speak, Josiah collapsed.
Nathan leapt forward, catching the older man and easing him to the ground. He ran a hand over his companion, the light bathing Josiah's features in a cascade of brilliant white. The healer shook his head.
"The strain," he said, glancing up at the others. "The strain has weakened his heart. He's out of the fight for now."
Chris nodded. "Get him and that little girl somewhere safer. See what you can do for them."
Nathan nodded. He gestured to the nearby tribesmen and they began moving Josiah away. Chris looked around. Already the night was well advanced. The confrontation had taken longer than expected.
"Ezra, it's time."
The gambler's eyes narrowed and he huffed out a breath. "Just so we are clear, Mr. Larabee, I still find this quite annoying. You will assuredly owe me restitution for this abominable duty."
Ezra rolled his eyes before turning away. Even as he walked off his image became blurry, wavered and faded.
"Humph," snorted Buck. "Show off."
"Have you seen what he's wearing?" asked JD. Buck just grinned, relieved to see his charge recovering so quickly.
"Enough," said Chris mildly. "You two check the wards; make sure they're holding."
"And me?" asked Vin.
The leader turned to him. "I know you don't want to involve any more of your…"
"No," Vin interrupted with finality.
"You want to let me finish?" Chris gave him a level stare. As Vin backed down, Chris continued. "They can stay inside the protected area. I just want extra eyes on our surroundings."
Vin gave a nod, a flush rising in his cheeks. "Right. I can do that."
A small smile quirked the edges of Chris's mouth as he went to do his own brand of reconnaissance. A handful of restless spirits still loitered around the village, watching over loved ones. He had recruited them to stand sentinel. Now he moved through the shadows between the worlds to speak with them. For all of his abilities, this perhaps was his most powerful…the ability to walk between life and death unseen by any living creature save by his will alone.
"Watch carefully. Warn me when anything begins to rise." His dark voice drifted through the village. Although no living being heard it, they felt the shiver as a sense of death passed close.
As the day passed, the men checked and tested the wards. Nathan kept a close eye on Josiah and the child Surya.
"Chris?" Nate's voice drew the gunslinger to the injured. "Would you please take a look at the little girl? I've done everything I can physically. She's completely unresponsive. Her body is working, but her spirit seems to be missing."
A hard expression settled on Chris's face. He had avoided interacting with any of the children thus far, but he could not turn down Nathan's request. Of all of them, he had the best chance of determining if death drew close. He followed Nathan until they reached the girl's pallet. Her mother held her hand while another woman wiped her forehead.
"Rain, Suna, this is Chris Larabee. Would you please let him take a look at Surya?"
Rain's head tilted as she gazed at Chris. "The girl's future is now hidden from me."
"Happens," he replied shortly. "Let me see."
The two women moved back as Chris knelt down. Placing one hand on her forehead, he tilted his head. A sweet song drifted through his mind. Closing his eyes, he saw a brightly lit meadow filled with many-hued flowers. In the distance he could see a dark shadow moving closer. His grandfather drew near, moving as slowly as possible.
He wanted Chris to save the girl if it was at all feasible.
Chris reached his other hand to the girl's mother. A trembling hand met his. He shook as her emotion flowed over him. Forcing himself to be still, he allowed the connection between the two to open, the love and fear passing through him, living mother to dying child…trying to call her home.
His face remained like granite even as his heart broke anew at the reminder of his own lost family.
In his mind's eye, he watched the little girl turn slowly back towards him; her mother's love a siren song she could not resist. His grandfather stopped, holding back as the girl began walking, then running. She leapt towards Chris and he could feel the electric shock as her spirit rushed back into her body. He released both mother and daughter as the girl sat up with a cry.
Despite their attempts to show their gratitude, Chris rose and strode away into the dark shadows of the night.
As dawn crept over the distant horizon, it found Chris sitting at the fire pit watching his men.
"Didn't sleep?"Vin asked as he stretched out the kinks in his back.
"Nope," came the quick reply.
Vin waited, but shrugged as no further words seemed to be forthcoming. Pulling himself up, he stretched and glanced around. "Wonder if there's been any movement?"
"Nope." Now the reply sounded half amused. As he looked around, startled, Chris shook his head. "You're going to have to think a bit quieter."
"Or not," shrugged Vin. "Any sign of Ez?" The tracker joined him at the fire for some coffee.
Chris snorted. "He's going to skin you for that one. I haven't seen him yet, but…it might take him a bit to get what we need."
"Where'd you send him, Cowboy?"
The blond choked on his coffee and leveled a glare at the unrepentant Vin. "Don't call me Cowboy."
Vin just hitched a shoulder up. "Where'd he go?"
"To get a box."
Confusion spilled over the tracker's face, but Chris rose with a quick grin. "Time to wake 'em up. 'Cept Josiah; we'll let him sleep."
Morning spilled over the village. Just as they finished rousing Buck, a yowling drew Vin's head up sharply. At the same moment Chris tilted his head, listening to a whisper on the wind.
"It's back," he announced softly.
Five men moved to confront Nukpana. When they reached the edge of the village, they could only stare in disbelief. The entire valley floor had been covered by a boiling mess of gray mist. A low, ominous laughter began sounding in their minds.
Vin suddenly stumbled and fell to his knees. His hands clutched at his chest.
Chris knelt next to him. "Vin?" No answer came, so he focused on his link to the tracker. "Vin!"
Vin lifted his head to focus pain-filled blue eyes on the blond. He opened his mouth as though trying to speak, but no sound emerged. He grimaced as fresh agony struck him. Panting, he closed his eyes and tried to ride through it. It eased slightly and he dragged in a deep breath. He opened his eyes and focused on Chris once more. "It's destroying everything. Plants, animals, the ground itself…it is devouring all life it touches."
Buck turned concerned eyes on their leader. "Chris?"
"Get a shield around JD. Vin's getting it bad right now, but anything doing that kind of damage is going to spill over to any fae. You're stronger than he is."
"Don't worry about the kid. I'll take care of him." Buck gave a firm nod before clapping a hand on JD's shoulder. After a moment Chris saw a bright blue light begin shimmering over the young man.
Chris turned to the healer. "Nathan?"
The healer stepped up and knelt down. He reached out a hand and touched Vin. With a flinch, he lifted his hand. He shook his head. "We've got to stop it. Vin's life is tied into the world around him. As it sickens, so does he. "
"How the hell do we stop something we can't touch?"
A sharp indrawn breath drew both men's attention. JD wavered and broke out in a fine sheen of sweat despite Buck's shielding. He raised pain-glazed hazel eyes to Chris. "It's draining the wards."
The land itself began moving in an undulating motion as it rebelled against the creature feeding on its most vital forms of life. JD fell to one knee, and Buck followed him down, holding him up and pouring his own energy into the kid. Vin moaned and Nathan tried to assist him once more.
The hazy, halting voice came from Josiah. The older man had pulled himself out of the healer's hut and stumbled over to his companions. He faltered, caught himself on a boulder and continued. Collapsing beside JD and Buck, he pulled himself to a sitting position. Buck leaned JD against the sage. The Guardian knelt before his charge and placed both hands on the kid's shoulders.
"Buck!" Chris's shout of warning came too late for Josiah to react. Ignoring all of the rules, Buck opened the link between he and JD to its fullest and poured his own life energy along it. He had committed himself completely; either both of them came out of this, or neither of them would.
"Damn!" Chris bit out the word before turning to Josiah. "What do you mean, everything's connected?"
The older man's eyes fell closed for a moment before opening once more to meet Chris's gaze head on. "With only six of us, we are not at full strength. Nukpana is going after our weaker members." As Chris gave a small growl, Josiah shook his head. "I don't mean weaker that way. I mean our most vulnerable. As Nukpana drains the flora and fauna around us, it strikes down Vin. It also weakens the very earth beneath our feet. That is causing JD's weakness, and leading to Buck's. It only needs to drain one or both of them to the point of no return. When that happens, our defenses fall."
Chris frowned. "Why didn't it do this before?"
"Ezra was here," Josiah said flatly. "Seven is a very powerful number; a number of light and of balance. Without him, our defenses are not solid and some of our weaknesses are open to be exploited. When we are all here, it is forced to face us because the strength of one shields against the weakness of another."
Vin and JD gave strangely similar cries as the mist grew darker becoming dense like smoke. All six men heard the malevolent voice spill through their minds.
"Your seventh has run out on you…he is a master at protecting his own skin. Your trust was misplaced. Die knowing that the innocents are mine! I shall savor the life forces you have tried to keep from me!"
Even as the last word echoed, another voice reached them.
"Oh, I would not want to miss this. I leave you boys alone for five minutes and look what happens."
Ezra shimmered into view at Chris's side. A passionate shriek of fury arose from the mist at it began pulling back. Faster and faster it pulled away and condensed upon itself.
"Something I said?" Ezra asked sarcastically to the whirling form before kneeling beside Vin. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wrapped bundle. "I repeat, Mr. Larabee, you owe me a significant amount for this."
Vin and JD had begun recovering as soon as Nukpana pulled back. Despite a lingering weakness, they gathered around Chris with the others. As Chris focused on the object, the other five threw questioning looks towards Ezra. The gambler shook his head. "Honestly, the things I get driven to do for certain difficult individuals who cannot even be bothered to acknowledge my hard work."
Chris gave him a half-hearted glare before he began carefully unwrapping the object. The men could only stare as he pulled a small box from the wrapping. Colors flashed as the light of the sun reached the various jewels held within delicate filigrees of gold. Chris smiled.
"What the hell is that?" Buck demanded. "You send away one of our fighters for a jewelry box?"
"My dear Mr. Wilmington!" exclaimed Ezra, rubbing his forehead with one hand. "That is not a jewelry box, and it is worth more than most of our lives combined!"
"For a box?" asked Vin in disbelief.
Jaws dropped as Chris made his quiet announcement. Persephone…the beloved queen of Hades…Lady of the Realm of the Dead…their minds tripped over that one thought. Their leader held a gift from one of the most dangerous realms known to man.
"As I said, it is worth more than most of our lives combined," Ezra noted. "Oh, yes, before I forget, Mr. Larabee…."
"I know," interrupted Chris. "In return for the loan, my cousins expect me to stop by for dinner."
Ezra rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh as the others gaped at their leader. Before he could speak, Chris rose to his feet and strode to the edge of the village. His men gathered themselves and followed him. As a single unit, with a single mind, they faced the reformed Nukpana.
"Shall we play once more?" came the mocking voice.
"Playtime is over," Chris stated. Turning the box around to face the image of the Colonel, he lifted the jewel-encrusted lid.
Light enough to challenge the sun erupted from within. Nukpana screamed. Light and dark pushed and fought; giving and gaining ground. Chris could feel his strength draining as he focused on channeling the energy pouring forth. He sent a quick thought out.
Vin reached out and placed his hand over Chris's. The light flared even brighter, causing Nukpana to falter.
Ezra glanced around at the other men. "Touch him." Following his own words, he reached out and touched Chris's other hand. As each man touched their leader, the light grew and Nukpana shrank. As they watched, Nukpana began to lose cohesion, writhing and twisting. Only Chris could see what was really happening.
Newly freed souls pulled away from the shadowy figure. Nukpana did not kill the souls of its victims, but neither did it set them free. The souls remained trapped within the heart of its evil, feeding it with their fear, despair, and finally madness. Now, after all this time, they pulled free. Chris watched as his grandfather gathered them together, ready to release them through the door of judgment. When the flow of souls finally stopped, his grandfather nodded at him.
"Now!" he barked out. "Focus all your strength on the box!"
He felt each of them, the powers of each filtering through him. More importantly than any of their power however, he could feel their internal strengths: Josiah's wisdom, Nathan's compassion, JD's innocence, Buck's loyalty, Ezra's cleverness, and Vin's purity of vision. Combining all of these with his own determination, he sent a final blast of power into the translucent form of Nukpana. A despairing wail rose even as the mist dissipated and shrank into nothingness.
With a final flare of light, everything went white.
Chris blinked bleary eyes. They refused to focus for several long minutes. As the world around him finally became clear once more, he found himself down on one knee, chest heaving as though he had run a far distance. His men were no better. Josiah leaned against a boulder; eyes closed and so still Chris would have thought him lost save for the slight movement of his chest as he breathed. Nathan lay on his back, an arm across his eyes. Buck had fallen to both knees, but he managed to stay upright, supporting JD in front of him. The kid leaned against his Guardian, hazel eyes dazed and unfocused. Ezra and Vin mirrored Chris's position on either side of him.
"Let's not do that again any time soon," whispered Vin, head lowered in exhaustion.
"Hear, hear," came Ezra's quietly fervent response.
The other men gave quick grins and quiet laughs as the people of the village began gathering around them. Chris just shook his head, grateful it was over. An amused chuckle brought his attention to the edge of the circle. His grandfather stood there watching him, pride, sorrow, and affection radiating from him.
"It has only just begun."
His grandfather faded and a flicker of apprehension, or perhaps it was anticipation, entered Chris's heart.
The Pool of Seeing
Lord Death stepped forward to join his brethren around the deep basin once more. The three figures watched as the seven Champions accepted the gratitude and friendship of the tribe they helped to save.
"They have done well for their first gathering," Father Time announced.
"Indeed," agreed Lord Death with a solemn nod. "I am encouraged by these happenings."
Mother Nature smiled as she watched the seven men ride out of the village together. "It is a strong beginning. The bonds are taking hold."
"Yes," Time acknowledged. "Some of them quite unexpected."
"Such as?" Death inquired.
"Your grandson and Trickster's child."
Laughter rolled across the clearing and the three looked up to see another personage joining them. Trickster gave a respectful bow to Mother Nature before nodding to the other two. "My son has always done the unexpected. It is his greatest gift."
Death nodded before turning back to the pool of shimmering light. The scene shifted to center on his grandson's face. "A light has entered his eyes once more, small but there."
"Is it enough?" Mother Nature asked, her eyes settling into a concerned stormy gray. "Will it be enough to draw him to their shared destiny?"
"Mayhap," replied Death, bowing his head until his face became completely enshrouded by his cloak. "It remains to be seen. I will not force his hand; that is the path of failure. The bonds must grow on their own lest they fade away prematurely."
"Our Champions grow stronger."
As their multi-layered voice rang out, the three Fates appeared and the four Great Figures turned to face them. The three females swayed to music only they could hear.
"Keep watch, help them stay strong. Interfere not in the bonding…brother to brother. We grant them graces three: Sage and Healer, the gift of harmony; Fae and Guardian, the gift of joy; Death, Nature, and Trickster, the gift of truth. When accepted be the bonds and destiny be chosen shall the graces flourish in their fullest.
"Be wary…thy kindred marked be. The rebel of the house of Chaos has already declared her place…she shall test thee in times to come. Within two cycles of the seasons shall all be chosen or all is lost. Let not fly this chance.
"The brotherhood must choose, must fight…together or not at all. United shall the war be fought…divided shall they be to darkness lost. Seven spirits, seven strong; thus are drawn the battle lines. The sparks of destiny have been ignited…the flames burn. For life or for death…the choice remains before them.
"Our blessings to our Champions."
They faded away.
The Great Figures that remained turned as one back to the pool as seven faces passed across it rapidly before it settled on a scene of seven mounted men riding across the land. Their faces fell into serious lines. Lord Death bowed his head once more. His deep voice echoed throughout the clearing.
"And so it begins."