[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-04-2003 @ 03:34 PM).]
Jayhawk, Micah Aragorn and Proconsul Creaticus Dania
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-04-2003 @ 03:34 PM).]
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-04-2003 @ 03:34 PM).]
Jayhawk, Micah Aragorn and Proconsul Creaticus Dania
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 02-04-2003 @ 03:34 PM).]
She had looked up as the boy turned away and had seen the smile flicker at the corners of his mouth and the almost imperceptible nod. She gave an involuntary shiver. Something was wrong here, very wrong. His tears had vanished too quickly and to whom had he been nodding?
She knew she ought to speak to Accipiter but her recently discovered feelings towards him prevented her. She didn't feel she could speak to him without giving away what she felt and she dreaded his laughing at her.
She sat thinking. She couldn't talk to Sin Ying who was as exhausted as she was; Titus was recovering from his own attack; Civis ... no, she was still a little afraid of Civis and knew he would send her straight to Accipiter; Dania ... she looked at Dania sitting on his own, his thoughts far away. She didn't know much about Dania except that he was evidently an old friend of Civis and Accipiter and thus could be trusted.
She stood up quietly and walked towards Dania, trying to appear to be wandering without any purpose.
Civis motioned to Da Long and Han Xin to join him. Soon they were engrossed in a conversation from which a curious Titus, no longer entirely focussed on Olivia, could glean bits and scraps of dialog. The conversation ended with all three men nodding in agreement. Civis lifted his sword slightly and resheathed it testing for looseness as he walked towards Titus.
"Titus, we are going to scout ahead, Han Xin and myself. I want to see what's there, if anything."
"I'll go with you," said Titus quickly standing up.
"A good thought, but I think you had best stay with the others. They may need your steady hand in the event of a problem. Da Long has agreed to stay as well to protect Sin Ying. Han Xin and I seem to be the most logical choices."
"I suppose nothing I say will change your mind?" answered Titus, disappointment evident in his tone.
"It would have to change all of our minds, Titus. A daunting task even for an excellent tribune like yourself." Civis hoped the complement would ease the sting of rejection needlessly being felt by the young Roman. "No, Titus. You can do far more good here than with us."
"As you wish," said Titus, resignedly.
Civis knew no further words would help so he signaled to Han Xin to join him. Both men headed deeper into the Forbidden City at something like a light jog. A few of the others watched the two men leave and asked Titus why. Titus told them. Accipiter said nothing but watched Civis and Han Xin jog up the street and turn a corner well in the distance and disappear. He hoped that direction did not lead directly to the Black Dragon, for if it did Accipiter knew the chances of seeing the two men alive once more were extremely limited.
They turned the corner and looked ahead to see another long street culminating in another dark cavern entrance. Han Xin pointed to the entrance and Civis nodded. The Roman was impressed with how lightly the Ch'in warrior ran almost without effort. Worthy of standing among the finest legionnaires Civis had ever known, he concluded. Lithe, yet muscular, athleticisim seemed to ooze from every pore of the man's dark complexion. Civis found himself laboring somewhat to keep up with the Ch'in. Finally, as the cavern entrance approached, Civis signaled a stop. While Han Xin seemed fresh and ready to run again, Civis decided it would be better to enter more cautiously, and for himself to catch his breath just a little before they confronted whatever unknown they might find in the dark just ahead.
He sat down and started working on a Chi'in bow and some arrows he had brought with him when they went down into these tunnels and caves. At his side lay a black substance on a piece of cloth. As his hands and fingers started the work they had done many times before his thoughts started wandering about as he looked at the beautifull buildings surrounding them, door posts and window frames painted in bright colors, curved roofs decorated with colored tiles and beautified with the most intricate carved figures he had ever seen -and then everything was just an illusion.
As the buildings around him slowly began growing misty and distant he noted that Civis and Han Xin walked down the road and dissapeared among the buildings. Slowly the buildings finally dissapeared and turned into a landscape he had seen a few times before when great danger had just passed or were about to come.
*Himself, filled with unrest and anguish, standing on the edge of a high cliff in the mountains. In the far distance through a thin mist he could see other mountains. Deep below him was a green pasture with green trees, patches of flowers and a river slowly making its way across it. Everything breathed peace, the air was saturated with peace. Slowly the anguish inside him faded away and a deep peace took its place.
The face of Butara showed up as he knew she would, her lips saying the words only audible inside his head: 'I love you'. Her invisible and though so real fingers he could actually feel them, gently touch the grim scar on his face, then slowly caressing his cheeks and then she faded away again. Then he took a step out in the nothingness and while slowly tumbling down with his arms spread out he once more heard a soft and omnipresent loving voice say 'Don't worry, I am here. Everything will be okay...'*
A voice brought him back to present '... working at?'
A figure was standing infront of him and after blinking a couple times he noted is was Olivia. 'Sorry Olivia, I didn't hear you...'
'Seems you were far away' Olivia smiled. 'I asked what you are working at?'
'Oh, a Chi'in bow I found in a hut up there' Dania pointed upwards, then he poked at the black substance. 'I'm trying to figure out how to add this tar to the arrows.' Then while looking into her eyes, 'but I think that is not the reason you came. What can I do for you?'
'Well, I might be wrong about this but eeh, what to say. You know, Rong Ming brought those rice cakes...'
'Yes, good Accipiter stopped us from eating them'
'It might just be me, but after Rong Ming throw the cakes away I saw him smile in a strange way, like ... like a kid about doing some mischief. And he stopped crying too fast, like he was just acting or something like that ...' Olivia looked in the direction of Rong Ming while frowning. 'I don't know quite what ... who to ... maybe you would, you are a man and ...?
Dania looked in the direction of Rong Ming who seemed to be playing with the dust on the earth now and then nodding almost imperceptibly with his head.
'Hmmm, maybe you're right. Better check up on him.'
Dania rose and after briefly touching Olivias shoulder for telling her she had done right he started walking in the direction of the boy making sure to make just as much noice as not to make him suspicious -just in case.
Dania squatted down at Rong Mings side and looked at him. 'Maybe you better move closer to us. It's not safe out here'.
With a wry voice the boy responded 'I'm perfectly safe here. Or can you see any monsters out there?'
Dania looked down the street 'No, not right now, but they might soon come again ... by the way, can you show me where you found those rice cakes?'
Making sure not to look at Dania, Rong Ming pointed down the street in a general direction. 'Down there ... In a house.'
'What is wrong with you?' Sensing the presense of something extreemly cold and hostile starting to fill the air around them Dania placed a hand gently on Rong Mings shoulder. 'Look at me, are you all right...?'
A loud shout brought the camp scrambling to their feet. A little down the road leading deeper into the city they saw Dania chasing after Rong Ming, tackle him and then bringing back a hysterically struggling boy who twice almost managed to escape.
[This message has been edited by Proconsul Creaticus Dania (edited 04-05-2003 @ 10:57 AM).]
Like all the things in the Forbidden City, this cavern was strangely located. It was a rocky opening right in the midst of the colourfully painted buildings of the city. To add to the element of mystery, the main road led into the cavern. From the outside, it looked dark and dismal, and Civis could not see anything that could be inside. The moment they stepped in, two oil lamps inside the cavern lit up. A stinging chill ran down Civis's spine. He gulped with uncertainty. Han Xin looked rather disturbed as well.
The cavern had a very high ceiling. The walls were smooth, unusual for a cave. The paved road that ran into the cavern now gave way to a rocky and uneven floor. There were two tunnel openings a few yards away from them. The one on the right was considerably larger than the one on the left. It was about ten feet high and the men would not need to bend their backs. Civis looked at Han Xin. The Chinese man nodded his head at the opening on the right.
Little to their knowledge, as they made their way into the tunnel, the main opening behind them had slowly started to materialise into a wall of stone...
Han Xin had entered the tunnel first, for although the tunnel was quite large, it was still impossible for two men to walk along side by side. Civis drew his sword and followed Han Xin, constantly looking around to spot any signs of danger. The tunnel was getting wider and wider and soon the men were able to move along together. It was a very long walk and it seemed like ages before they could find anything interesting.
The tunnel led abruptly to a dead end. In front of them was just a wall with no other option of exit.
The duo were about to turn back and explore the other tunnel when the wall appeared to move towards them. It was a slow movement at first, and only Han Xin noticed. He shuffled his feet a little as he noticed it. He reached out his hand and grabbed Civis, pulling him away. Civis saw what was happening too. He nodded his head slowly, turned around and ran as fast as he could. Han Xin followed.
Civis turned his head around as he ran and saw the wall moving faster and faster towards them. It was evident that whatever it was, something was chasing after them. He could see the wall change into a face. The eyes and nose materialised first, then the mouth. It was a mouth full of sharp teeth. It looked like... the Black Dragon himself!
Han Xin lost no time in helping Civis, who ran much slower than he did. He reached out his hand for Civis and held him fast. Then he accelerated to a speed unimaginable to Civis, something he had never experienced before while on foot. Eventually he reached a speed that felt like flying. Han Xin was already off the ground. This was the exact skill used by him when Civis first saw him.
They reached the point in the tunnel where the two men could not run along side by side. The Black Dragon was approaching fast. It opened its mouth and roared and looked like it was going to swallow both men whole when Han Xin stopped momentarily and pushed Civis to the front. He drew his purple sword from the sheath and drove it straight into the Black Dragon's face, praying hard that it would do something to aid the situation. The blade of the sword went in between the Black Dragon's eyes. For a brief moment Han Xin could feel time stop. Nothing moved. The Black Dragon stopped in its tracks and its two eyes seemed to fade away.
There was a loud explosion and the face of the Black Dragon burst into stone and dirt, flying all over the place.
The Black Dragon was gone. The chase had stopped. The two men stopped running and leaned against the wall, gasping to catch their breath. Everything seemed normal and they decided to explore the tunnel once more.
Han Xin smiled. "Commander Civis, you did not fly. I am not a bird."
"Then what did we just do?" asked Civis, confused still over what had just transpired.
"I call it 'run like the wind'. My father taught it to me. You caught the wind with me and moved forward faster than you could move downward. Hence, you seem to fly when in reality you merely defeat that which compels you downward."
Civis sat on the cold floor of the cave, slightly agape and staring at Han Xin. "You do not ease my confusion, Han Xin, but I'll accept your explanation. Now answer a second question, if you please. Did we just confront and destroy the Black Dragon?"
"No, that was one of his demons, Earth, taking the form of the Black Dragon."
"You used your sword on the demon; but if I recall it is Wood that destroys Earth."
"That is correct, Commander."
"Please call me Civis, Han Xin... Your sword is metal, not wood."
"Ahhhh. You did not observe something, Civis," said Han Xin, another smile creasing his face. "Look more closely at the hilt." Han Xin unsheathed his sword and placed the hilt in Civis' hand.
Civis examined the sword. The hilt was black as night and smooth as glass. Where the blade entered the hilt, the two leading corners of the hilt curved out and up towards the point of the blade, creating two shorter, dagger-length sharp pointed spikes. "I don't see what you mean, Han Xin. I see the dark metal points on the hilt but..."
"The hilt is not metal, Civis. It is ironwood, the strongest wood known to anyone in these lands. It was carved into this shape and then firesealed."
"So the points of the hilt are what destroyed the Earth Demon?"
"Yes. Most importantly, we have dispatched the last of the demons."
"And the bad news is...," observed Civis. "We have still not found or faced the Black Dragon itself."
"Yes as well, Civis." Han Xin looked into the dark depths of the cavern. "Shall we proceed?" he asked.
"Of course, Han Xin. Lead on, warrior. I shall be at your side or immediately behind."
Dania looked at Olivia as if to say 'Now what?' Olivia shrugged. Her powers were very new and she didn't know how to make them work herself; they seemed to come to her unbidden. She knew she should ask Accipiter but still couldn't bring herself even to look at him lest he should read what was in her mind. Gaius, himself, had no such reservations and she suddenly felt his voice in her head. She immediately felt the blood rushing to her face again.
"Don't be shy, Olivia. You can't hide things from me. This is something we must talk about in the future, but for now there are greater things to deal with."
Olivia looked up shyly and saw Accipiter's eyes flashing brilliant tones of blue and gold. She felt his voice again. "Go to Rong Ming. Don't be afraid. You'll know what to do."
She stood up and walked doubtfully towards the boy who, although quiet now, seemed to be radiating pure evil from his eyes.
Olivia could see that the boy's face was red and purple with exertion and rage. Rong Ming lunged at her nearly breaking Roulv Dania's and Titus' grip on the boy. Rong Ming's teeth were bared as if intended to serve as fangs. On impulse Olivia stretched out her hand as if she were going to touch the boy's face. Rong Ming growled something deep, menacing in his throat and again lunged forward as if to bury his teeth in Olivia's outstretched hand.
Roulv Dania shouted a warning to Olivia even as he tightened his grip and both he and Titus pulled back on Rong Ming. The boy's teeth slammed together on thin air, but so jarringly, painfully as to stun the boy for a brief moment. Olivia's still outstretched hand preceeded her as she stepped closer to Rong Ming. Sobered by the pain in his jaws, Rong Ming ceased to struggle. Instead, he glared at Olivia as she approached him, sending her a hateful look that had death written all over it.
Olivia now stood before Rong Ming her hand moving back and forth distracting the boy with their slow progression from one place to the next. "I know who you are," said Olivia. "You do not belong there."
A deep, gruff voice seemingly arisen from gravel in a quarry, came out of the boy in response. "You know nothing, witch! Your ignorance is your only quality."
Olivia's mouth twitched. "You are not the boy we know as Rong Ming. You are something else. Be what you are and do not hide within what you are not. That is cowardice and not the hallmark of a great and powerful being." Olivia's voice began to take on the soothing tones up until now had been the sole hallmark of Accipiter. She continued to move her hand back and forth. Rong Ming's eyes followed their every movement as would a snake following the instrument of a charmer.
"You do not comprehend what you toy with here, witch."
Olivia's voice became even smoother, more unthreatening. "Perhaps not. Then again, perhaps yes. I perceive a hurtful being, lonely, confused, wishing for things to be and unhappy with what truly is."
The boy's face lost some of its manifest anger. "And if this were so?"
"Solve these problems first with others and your present needs will seem trivial." Olivia took the chance that she had been working up to all along. She took one last short step and placed her hand on Rong Ming's head. The boy shuddered at the touch but made no attempt to embed his teeth in her arm or hand. Roulv Dania said a short prayer but continued to hold onto the boy.
Olivia moved her hand back and forth on Rong Ming's head, then brought her hand softly down each side of the boy's face. She stroked his still whisker free face first with the palm of her hand and then gentley with the knuckle side. Up and then down, down and then up, all the while speaking to him with a calm, soothing voice and comforting words.
The boy ceased to speak or protest. His eyes studied her face. The pupils enlarged and whites began to glisten as with the sheen of moisture. Rong Ming gave a sudden shudder and then slumped into the arms of Roulv Dania and Titus Tarquintius.
Not too far from where they searched, Han Xin and Civis heard a deep rumbling voice suddenly below forth an emotion laden cry, but not one of anger, triumph, fear or joy. To the two men it seemed to be something else. There remained power, tremendous power in the rumbling voice; but also there was sadness, a sadness that was pervasive, all-encompassing. It was a powerful voice that sounded out and echoed around the caverns. Han Xin and Civis looked at each other in surprise. Neither of them ever expected to hear the Black Dragon cry.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 04-07-2003 @ 04:25 PM).]
'You can't sleep,' Gaius said kindly but firmly. 'He has gone for now but Civis could still be in danger.'
'I can't ... I just can't' Olivia replied, tears very close to the surface. 'I'm so tired I can't think straight, let alone concentrate enough to use my powers. The black dragon is gone. He's unhappy. He'll want to be alone. And so do I.' With this, her eyes started closing once again.
Titus looked at Accipiter and shrugged. 'She can't take any more. Why can't 'You know I can't, Titus. I can't interfere. It has to be Olivia.' So saying, he gathered the sleeping girl in his arms and strode off in the direction Civis and Han Xin had taken. Titus picked up the exhausted Rong Ming and turned to the others. 'We must follow him or we'll never find our way.' The rest of the party got slowly to their feet and started to follow the long-striding Accipiter though none of them could see the gold flashes in his eyes as he looked down at the sleeping girl.
'You know I can't, Titus. I can't interfere. It has to be Olivia.' So saying, he gathered the sleeping girl in his arms and strode off in the direction Civis and Han Xin had taken.
Titus picked up the exhausted Rong Ming and turned to the others. 'We must follow him or we'll never find our way.'
The rest of the party got slowly to their feet and started to follow the long-striding Accipiter though none of them could see the gold flashes in his eyes as he looked down at the sleeping girl.
Just as Accipiter, Olivia in his arms, strode past Xia Deng's location inside one of the last of the red buildings, the Number Two wife of the Emperor staggered into the street and collapsed in a heap on the ground before a startled Titus Tarquintius. Accipter took his eyes off the entrance to the cavern just ahead, stopped and looked back to see the woman in the dirt and Titus standing there befuddled as to what to do.
"Wait, Titus!" cried out Accipiter. "Don't touch her!" he added. Titus obeyed instinctively. He recognized the woman's face. It was the same one called Xia Deng who turned out to be a changling and agent of the Black Dragon. Not again, thought Titus. The Black Dragon couldn't be so foolish as to try this ploy once again.
Accipiter arrived and stared down at the woman lying in the path. His eyes ceased to swirl as Olivia awakened. The young woman blushed at finding herself in Accipiter's arms, and then demurely regained her feet, looking everywhere except at Accipiter.
Accipter finished his study of Xia Deng. "This one is influenced by the Black Dragon," concluded Accipiter out loud. At these words Da Long unsheathed his sword, but was stopped in his intention to dispatch the Ch'in woman when Accipiter lifted up his hand. "But she is not under the Dragon's control."
Xia Deng opened one eye just a crack and then let out a low agonized moan. "She is hurt, it seems," said Titus. "Let's move her to some cover." Accipiter said nothing, but his eyes changed to a faraway look. "Move her then," Accipiter agreed.
"But what about Civis and Han Xin?" said Roulv Dania, who already had had enough of Xia Deng in their encounter with the changeling. The faraway look in Accipiter's eyes cleared. "They are well and do not need our help for the moment."
"Where are they then?" persisted Roulv Dania.
"In that cavern through that entrance, about to enter the Black Dragon's lair," answered Accipiter pointing to the entrance they previously were attempting to reach. The others stared at him dumbfounded.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 04-29-2003 @ 03:54 PM).]
The Ch'in warrior stopped and stared as did the warrior from Roma. Then they looked at each other as messages were communicated wordlessly. Yes, they should advance on the building. Yes, there was an entrance...unguarded it seemed. Was it open? Civis nodded. Follow me the gesture said. Han Xin agreed and fell in step behind Civis, both with swords drawn.
The door was small, brilliantly shining and unlocked. Civis opened it slowly and looked inside. He could make out something inside, but it was much darker inside than outside. Nobody was in sight. The building was silent inside and out. He stepped in, Han Xin following. They stepped clear of the door, both squinting to try to make out anything else in the dim light besides the object that looked like a statue hanging by its base from the ceiling.
Silently the door slammed shut behind them and both men found themselves in total darkness, unable to see anything including each other.
Sin Ying stood back from the others an expression of pure distrust painted there by her emotions. Xia Deng again. We have to go through this all over again, she was thinking.
Xia moaned and moved in just the right way to cause a tear in her upper gown to gap and be more revealing than it should. Titus' eyes wandered there and then darted away when he realized what unconsciously he had done. Xia suppressed the smile that tried to escape her face.
"Bring some water from our supplies," directed Accipiter. The boy, Rong Ming, quite recovered and thoroughly embarrassed by his earlier affliction ran for a small skin of water he kept in his pack. He brought it back and handed it to Accipiter. The minstrel accepted the skin, then hesitated, his green eyes capturing Rong Ming's in a gentle, yet unyielding embrace. They flashed gold very briefly then became green once more. Safe, concluded Accipiter. The boy is with us again, for sure.
Accipiter administered the water to Xia Deng, slowly pouring it into her childlike, dainty lips. Some of the water found its way to the woman's throat. A little of it dribbled down the side of her face. Pretending stimulation by the water, Xia opened her eyes and acted out being startled by the sudden appearance of these strangers.
"You are safe, Xia Deng," said Accipiter. "Do not be alarmed. We will not harm you."
"How... How do you know my name," she said, her voice breaking up as if recovering from some kind of physical abuse.
"Xia Deng! Stop this act!" a young woman's voice cried out. All eyes turned to Sin Ying. "Don't give us this act! You are here at the beckoning of the Black Dragon. Tell us the whereabouts of the Emperor or we will do to you what we did to the changeling who was sent in your place! Or are you simply a more clever changeling and not Xia Deng at all!?"
"I "Perhaps," said Accipiter. "Or perhaps it was Civis or Han Xin." Accipiter probed and found his probe repulsed. The woman was not possessed or other than what she claims; but her purpose is well cloaked, he concluded to himself. It will be necessary to play this out to its end. "Civis? Han Xin? Who among you are these?" asked Xia Deng. "None," said Titus. "They are within that cavern." Titus pointed to the opening they were about to enter when Xia Deng appeared. "Then fear for them, for they are in great danger," said Xia Deng. "That is the lair of the Black Dragon." "And that is where the Emperor is imprisoned, isn't it!" stated Sin Ying, matter-of-factly. Xia Deng looked at her rival, her eyes unwavering and unblinking. "Yes, the Emperor is there... If he is still alive." [This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 04-30-2003 @ 09:17 PM).]
"Perhaps," said Accipiter. "Or perhaps it was Civis or Han Xin." Accipiter probed and found his probe repulsed. The woman was not possessed or other than what she claims; but her purpose is well cloaked, he concluded to himself. It will be necessary to play this out to its end.
"Civis? Han Xin? Who among you are these?" asked Xia Deng.
"None," said Titus. "They are within that cavern." Titus pointed to the opening they were about to enter when Xia Deng appeared.
"Then fear for them, for they are in great danger," said Xia Deng. "That is the lair of the Black Dragon."
"And that is where the Emperor is imprisoned, isn't it!" stated Sin Ying, matter-of-factly.
Xia Deng looked at her rival, her eyes unwavering and unblinking. "Yes, the Emperor is there... If he is still alive."
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 04-30-2003 @ 09:17 PM).]
"You're not going to believe her are you? He's still alive. He has to be alive. I would have felt it if he had died." She collapsed weeping to the ground.
Accipiter looked round too ... but his look was more of resignation than anything else. When would humans learn that emotions cannot rule everything they do?
Sin Ying was crying on the ground, her back deliberately turned to Xia Deng. Something wasn't right about Xia Deng although he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Then there was Dania, still clutching that box as if his life depended on it; Rong Ming trying to appear invisible, embarrassed at what had happened before; Titus looking confused and obviously considering females an alien race; Da Long, watching but not speaking as always; and Olivia, determinedly looking at the ground, her mind evidently in turmoil.
He sighed and tried to 'see' Civis. Suddenly, though, all had gone dark and he could not feel them any more.
"We must go." He almost barked it as an order. The rest of the party looked up, jerked back from their thoughts to reality. "Civis and Han Xin are in danger. Very great danger. They need us."
"But what about ..." Sin Ying started.
"Xia Deng will have to come with us. You can walk?" Accipiter asked in her direction.
"I ... yes, I suppose so ..." she started.
"Good" Accipiter interrupted. "We must go. Now."
They got to their feet, Sin Ying glaring at Xia Deng; Olivia trying to make herself invisible. Accipiter ignored them all and strode off towards the cave entrance.
Kabang! Something crashed together far to Civis' right. His hand immediately went to his sword. "Aii!" cried out Han Xin's now familiar voice. "My knee!"
"Are you hurt?" said Civis, not caring now who might hear them.
"Bumped my knee on something," came the reply. "A table, I think. Wait a moment. Yes, there it is. On the wall where I thought I saw it." The sound of Han Xin's sword rubbing on leather carried across the room. It was being unsheathed by the warrior, concluded Civis. Next came a metallic scraping sound, followed by another. A sudden pinpoint of light appeared and then quickly disappeared in a tiny shower of dying sparks. "Let me try it again."
Once more Civis heard metallic scraping sounds. This time the sparks were more pronounced. Womp! The brightness temporarily blinded Civis so that it took him a moment to see that Han Xin had found a torch mounted in a wall sconce and ignited it with flint scraped on the steel of his sword.
Finally, Civis' eyes adjusted. He saw Han Xin by the wall bent over rubbing his knee. Nearby was indeed a table and on it a piece of folded rice paper. Civis made his way to the table and light just as Han Xin saw the paper, picked it up and opened it. He read it's chinese characters out loud so that Civis could hear the message only Han Xin between them could read.
The warriors looked at each other. WOMP! WOMP! WOMP! WOMP! WOMP! WOMP! In succession every torch resting in a wall sconce in the room and down a long corridor leading from the room illuminated in a sudden burst of spark and flame. Together they turned their heads, their eyes focussing on the object in the center of the room hanging upside down from the ceiling, the object they earlier thought in the dim light was an inverted statue. Now, under full illumination, they realised it was not at all what they previously thought. The Ch'in man was secured upside down by his ankles to a twisted rope tied to a hook in the ceiling. His ornate uniform was ripped open from its collar to a place where it separated to cover his legs. Dried blood and lumps of gore edged the tear in the cloth. On the ground where it fell were entrails... his... The man was dead, eviscerated, as if by a hook-like tool the size of a man's forearm drawn downwards from his crotch to his throat. Civis had seen battle wounds, but this... this was something far worse. He struggled to contain the bile which threatened to rise within. "Who is he?" Civis managed to croak through a suddenly dry throat. "General Wan Li," answered Han Xin, his own stomach threatening revolt as well. "I think he has met the Black Dragon." [This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-01-2003 @ 09:41 PM).]
PLEASE ENJOY YOUR STAY
LIKE MY GUEST HEREIN
ETERNITY IT SHALL LAST
CIVIS OF ROMA... AND HAN XIN.
The warriors looked at each other. WOMP! WOMP! WOMP! WOMP! WOMP! WOMP! In succession every torch resting in a wall sconce in the room and down a long corridor leading from the room illuminated in a sudden burst of spark and flame. Together they turned their heads, their eyes focussing on the object in the center of the room hanging upside down from the ceiling, the object they earlier thought in the dim light was an inverted statue. Now, under full illumination, they realised it was not at all what they previously thought.
The Ch'in man was secured upside down by his ankles to a twisted rope tied to a hook in the ceiling. His ornate uniform was ripped open from its collar to a place where it separated to cover his legs. Dried blood and lumps of gore edged the tear in the cloth. On the ground where it fell were entrails... his... The man was dead, eviscerated, as if by a hook-like tool the size of a man's forearm drawn downwards from his crotch to his throat.
Civis had seen battle wounds, but this... this was something far worse. He struggled to contain the bile which threatened to rise within. "Who is he?" Civis managed to croak through a suddenly dry throat.
"General Wan Li," answered Han Xin, his own stomach threatening revolt as well. "I think he has met the Black Dragon."
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-01-2003 @ 09:41 PM).]
"Don't believe her!" cried out Sin Ying. "She is leading us into a trap or something far worse!"
Accipiter looked at Xia Deng his eyes flashing gold for a brief moment. "No, Sin Ying, she speaks truth. She is in fact guiding us to the Black Dragon's lair." Sin Ying glared at Xia Deng, but ceased to protest.
Accipiter looked once more at Xia Deng but veiled his next thought. Yes, Xia Deng, you are indeed leading us directly to the Black Dragon, just as we desire. Yet, what you are not saying is what awaits us there. Danger and death for some, I presume. Regardless, it is where we must go, and we both know it, don't we.
"Follow me," said Accipiter, and they entered the tunnel to the right, the place where Civis and Han Xin destroyed the Earth Demon.
"Let's move on," said Civis. Han Xin was of a like mind and he motioned to the illuminated corridor the stretched into someplace beyond the room they currently occupied. "Over there seems to be a way out. There's nothing else to be seen or found that leads out, it seems."
"Nothing else," confirmed Civis. "Which one first, this time, warrior?"
"I shall lead," answered Han Xin.
"As you wish," agreed Civis. They began to make their way across the room. At the beginning of the corridor Han Xin paused putting his hand up to halt Civis. "Let me take a few steps into this place," said Han Xin.
Cautiously Han Xin stepped into the corridor. One step followed another until the light of the wall torches barely illuminated the Ch'in warrior and Civis could barely make out his form. "Civis, come on," the Roman heard Han Xin say. Romanus stepped into the corridor and with somewhat less caution walked towards where he thought Han Xin was standing. He kept one hand on his gladius just in case.
When he got to the place where Han Xin should have been waiting for him, the Ch'in warrior was nowhere to be found. His reflection Civis followed with his eyes was nothing more than a flickering shadow. He looked all about for Han Xin and found nothing, not a trace... nothing.
"Han Xin! Speak out! Where are you?!" All that responded to his entreaties was the echo of his own voice. Han Xin had disappeared and Civis Romanus was alone in the lair of the Black Dragon.
Twists and turns followed bends and curves. It was obvious with each change in direction that sound would be muffled and so if Han Xin were there or not, Civis had no hope of hearing him from his starting point in the illuminated chamber where General Wan Li currently resided. Then the tunnel split into three new illuminated tunnels. One just ahead and one to either side. In frustration, Civis growned and uttered a somewhat moderately loud threat against Pluto and his underground realm, though Pluto probably knew nothing of or had and part of his realm under the land of the Ch'in.
When Civis heard his utterance echo off some of the nearby walls he winced, knowing it was a foolhardy thing he just did and sure to alert the Black Dragon to his presence. He tensed, hand on sword, listening closely for anything that might resemble the dragon on the prowl.
A figure leaped out and landed directly in front of him. Civis pulled his sword immediately and staggered back two clumsy steps. His eyes attempted to focus on the figure in front of him. A voice came out of the figure. "Sorry, Roman. I didn't mean to frighten you."
"Han Xin!" exclaimed Civis, trying to keep his voice as low as possible despite the pounding of his heart and his desire to reach out and choke the life out of the overly exuberant Ch'in warrior. "You nearly caused me my death!"
"A thousand apologies, Lomanus," said the warrior, his difficulty with the sound of "R" momentarily prominent. "I have made a discovery. Follow me." Han Xin turned and entered the tunnel at the left of Civis. The Ch'in warrior made no pretense of waiting for Civis and so the Roman had to do the best he could to keep up. Fortunately, lighting was adequate, that is, until they entered the chamber with the cells.
In the center cell a young Ch'in, not a warrior, dressed in regal silks, lay on a cot. He was asleep. Keys on a ring hung from a spike in the wall of the chamber. Han Xin grabbed them and started to test the cell lock with each of the keys. This awakened the sleeping Ch'in. Han Xin saw the young Ch'in awaken, bowed deeply then returned to what he was doing. "Eternal One, we shall have you out of this gaol as quickly as possible."
"We?" asked the Eternal One, Pei Lian, Emperor of the Ch'in.
"Yes, the Roman and I."
Pei Lian squinted into the dim light and saw Civis for the first time. "I know you. You are Sin Ying's guardian."
"Yes, Emperor," said Civis, approaching now and bowing deeply in the Ch'in tradition. "And soon you will be reunited with Sin Ying."
"With Sin Ying?! Here?!"
"Yes, Emperor; but where you both will be safe." Civis said this with all the confidence he could convey as he watched Han Xin seek the correct key. Meanwhile, the lights that had illuminated their way to the chamber one by one began to dim and go out. The Emperor, used to this, knew instinctively what it meant.
"I do not think the Black Dragon will permit it."
A mechanical, metallic click emanated from the lock and it opened. Han Xin opened the cell door wide. "And why not, Eternal One?" he asked.
"Because even now, the Black Dragon comes."
Civis and Han Xin both pulled their swords at the same time, spun about and prepared for what the sudden darkness might bring.
"Please" Olivia called to their long-legged leader, "please wait. Just a minute."
Accipiter turned back and realised that the rest of the party was having trouble keeping up with him so he waited for them to catch up.
"Where did all the earth & stones come from?" asked Sin Ying abruptly.
Accipiter pondered how much to tell them. "I think there was a battle. Civis and Han Xin may have met the earth demon."
Olivia looked up at him with fearful eyes.
Accipiter laughed. "Don't worry little one. Can you see their bodies?" He chuckled to himself, pleased that Olivia seemed worried about his friend. "We must go on. They may have defeated the earth demon, but who knows what else they might have found."
Everyone dragged themselves wearily to their feet. Suddenly they heard Titus shouting "come and look at this." He hadn't needed to rest and had, unnoticed, been exploring further up the passageway.
They turned a corner and were confronted, as Civis and Han Xin had been a little earlier, by the gently glowing golden building.
"There's a door here" Titus said. "It's not locked, but I thought we all ought to enter together. Should we go in, Gaius?"
Olivia repressed a shiver. There was something wrong here. Very wrong. She opened her mouth to stop Titus but, after a curt nod from Accipiter, he was opening the door.
Sin Ying and Olivia together gasped and paled. Xia Deng, the last to enter, saw the General's body and felt her knees begin to shake and her stomach heave. She gagged as she turned away. The shock to the other women was one thing, a vision of what might have been her end was quite another. Accipiter reached down and found the one object lying on the ground that might be of some help, a chinese woven throw rug. He picked it up and placed it over the body of the General. "The Dragon's work..."
Accipiter paused and looked off into the distance at what appeared to be an illuminated corridor. "The only way they could have gone, I think. Let's see if they are anywhere near." He took off for the corridor with a more measured pace knowing that the women were already shakey. He felt one of the women grasp his arm and hold it firmly. He looked down to see it was not who he had expected, nor did he see in Xia Deng's eyes what he had beheld before: purpose, confidence. In its place... for the first time... Accipiter saw fear.
Like a folded sheet of Egyptian papyrus, the cell chamber they occupied seemed to spread apart as each section of the enclosure soundlessly expanded and receded. Bars that held Pei Lian imprisoned wavered and then simply faded away. The cot on which he slept moments before was lost to sight. The low ceiling of the chamber lifted and disappeared from view. All of this without the slightest hint of scraping, sliding or rubbing or...
Yet there Closer now, almost upon them it seemed, the thing in the dark was so close both Han Xin and Civis could feel its presence. Civis motioned to the Emperor to stay behind them. He complied. The two warriors peered intently into the dark of what was now a wide, deep, high cavern. Suddenly the dark parted to reveal a figure. Civis' muscles tensed in the same manner as did Han Xin's. Then the Roman frowned when he realized what the dark had revealed. "Why have you come here?" asked Fu Hachu, his hands buried in opposing sleeves of his gilt blue silk robe, a calm, almost benign look on his long, thinly mustachioed Ch'in face. [This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-18-2003 @ 02:59 PM).]
Closer now, almost upon them it seemed, the thing in the dark was so close both Han Xin and Civis could feel its presence. Civis motioned to the Emperor to stay behind them. He complied. The two warriors peered intently into the dark of what was now a wide, deep, high cavern. Suddenly the dark parted to reveal a figure. Civis' muscles tensed in the same manner as did Han Xin's. Then the Roman frowned when he realized what the dark had revealed.
"Why have you come here?" asked Fu Hachu, his hands buried in opposing sleeves of his gilt blue silk robe, a calm, almost benign look on his long, thinly mustachioed Ch'in face.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-18-2003 @ 02:59 PM).]
The expression on the Ch'in did not change. "Oh, the Dragon is here. You need not worry about that. This humble person is Fu Hachu, advisor to the Emperor."
A voice behind Civis and Han Xin responded. "Former advisor, Fu Hachu. You are banished. Be grateful it is not executed."
The Ch'in laughed with a high pitched cackle. "Emperor... Eternal One... (the Ch'in laughed again) I don't think you are in a position to banish or execute anyone."
Han Xin raised his sword. "If the Emperor so commands, I shall be more than happy to oblige the Eternal One, you insolent stooge of the Dragon! Bow before the Emperor, or by the dust of my ancestors I shall make you the mirror of General Wan Li!" The Ch'in began to laugh even harder.
Han Xin, angered beyond all reason and ready to strike found Civis between himself and his laughing target. "Stop Han Xin, there is something not right here. We don't know what it is, but you musn't attack him until we know what we are facing!" Han Xin hesitated, seeing logic in Civis' caution. The Roman added in a whisper, "He is too confident. Do you understand my meaning?"
Still angered, Han Xin nodded, but continued to glare at Fu Hachu.
"Wisely said, foreigner," observed Fu Hachu, the smile on his face remaining though his laughing ended.
"Wise indeed, Civis!" called out a new voice belonging to a new face emerging from the darkness, but new only to the cavern in which they stood, not to Civis. More faces emerged with the tall green-eyed man. With Accipiter was Titus Tarquintius, Da Long, Roulv Dania, Rong Ming, and two, no three women: Sin Ying, Olivia and Xia Deng.
It was Xia Deng's expression that caught Civis' eye. She was clinging to Accipiter, trepidation mirrored in her face. She was pulling back on Accipiter, physically trying to dissuade him from approaching Fu Hachu any closer than he already had. Accipiter stopped as the pulling on his arm became increasingly urgent.
"No, Accipiter. No closer!" she cried out.
"No closer! No closer!" Fu Hachu's high pitched voice mimicked Xia Deng's protestations. "So we meet at last, Gaius Accipiter. I presume that is the full name you use for this moment? And do you plan to attack the Black Dragon in his lair? Of course not! Forgetful me. You cannot do anything. You are prohibited from acting on your own. How weak you are, how incapable, how insignificant."
Olivia felt anger begin to replace fear. Emotions began to churn, especially those closest to and aligned uniquely with Accipiter. Something within her began to rise and as it grew she felt something else approach and touch it enabling growth to accelerate. She looked at Sin Ying and saw that her eyes were glazed over, her expression blank. She had been increasingly this way the closer they had come to the entrance to this cavern. Sin Ying never saw her husband standing with Han Xin. Olivia looked at Accipiter. He seemed to be focussing his attentions on Fu Hachu, but with Accipiter she never could be exactly sure.
Civis felt battle calm. Many a time in the past as he led forces into battle, just before the battle began, his thinking would clear, uncertainty would fade and everything would begin to slow before his eyes so that no single detail of the battle would be missed from his perspective. It was happening again. He wondered if Han Xin, Titus, Da Long and Roulv Dania felt the same.
Roulv Dania, quiet dutiful Dania, precipitated what followed with a nondescript shift of the box he held behind his back. He picked that moment, and that moment alone, to shift the box he carried to the front of his person, holding it out for Fu Hachu to clearly see. "Since you seem to speak for the Black Dragon, do you think it has maybe a passing interest in this artifact?"
Fu Hachu's eyes opened wide and the mocking smile on his face crashed to somewhere near his chin and disappeared into his long mustache. "Bring that here!" he commanded in a voice no longer high pitched, but deep and resonant. Xia Deng impulsively dropped Accipiter's arm and ran to stand before Roulv Dania both hands raised to hold him back.
"No Dania! Don't! The Dragon is obsessed with this box! I don't know why! It was my mission to steal it from you and deliver it to the Dragon! After seeing Wan Li, I couldn't do it. I... I..."
"Betrayer!" bellowed Fu Hachu, all pretext of calm erased from his face. "You are forfeit, Xia Deng!" Fu Hachu withdrew his hands from his sleeves and extended his arms, thick wrists and scaled hands with their extended claws in Xia Deng's direction. Something from within rumbled out of Fu Hachu's mouth and through the fangs that began to lengthen and appear, growing longer over his darkening lips.
"NO!" cried out Accipiter. Too late. Xia Deng stiffened, her eyes opened wide and her body became immobile. Within her torn outer garment her body began to compress and wrinkle, her hands withered into thin layers of skin over bone, patchy with dark blotches outlined in red and purple. Her face sunk inwards until the outline of bone and the layering of her skin was one and the same. Great creases formed on her forehead and cheeks, as if her face was a map for some foresaken land of gulleys and rises. Her hair, shimmering black, greyed and then whitened. Her knees bowed, bones thinned and snapped and she crumpled to the floor, all of this happening with the passage of only a few seconds and far too quickly for anyone to do anything to stop the ravaging of the Emperor's Number Two Wife.
She whispered one word in the kind of weak voice heard only from the lips of a mortally ill, aged woman. "Accipiter..." Then she lay on the floor of the cavern motionless and unbreathing.
"A little past her prime and usefullness, it seems," hissed Fu Hachu, his metamorphosis continuing. The Ch'in seemed taller and wider now. His teeth were animal-like, his hands clawed like a lizard's.
"DRAGON!" cried out Accipiter. "THERE WAS NO NEED!"
Dragon! The word echoed in the minds of Titus, Civis, Han Xin and Da Long. All four concurrently and immediately conceived the same thought and rushed Fu Hachu with their swords extended and ready. Roulv Dania did not attack, but bent down and was doing something with his box. The women were standing together seemingly focussed on something beyond Fu Hachu.
The erstwhile Advisor to the Emperor could not possibly misinterpret the murderous intent of the warriors' charge. Fu Hachu raised his hands and slammed them together palm against palm. A tremendous explosion of light and sound filled the cavern, causing a section of the roof to cave in somewhere behind them. In the midst of the moon filled nightlight filtering through the swirling dust, the bowled over warriors found their feet and swords and prepared to attack again. But before them was not the slowly transfiguring Fu Hachu. Standing before them in all of its fanged, clawed, scaled, gigantic fury, was the huge form of the Black Dragon himself. He brought his reptillian eyes to bear on his enemies and prepared to battle them to their deaths.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-22-2003 @ 10:26 PM).]
She realised that she knew what she had to do. Accipiter wasn't telling her any more. She took Sin Ying's hand in hers, feeling the coldness of the slim fingers, and stared at the black dragon.
Sin Ying, driven by the feeling that her lover was somewhere close, and Olivia, repressing her anguish that her love would not, could not be returned, yet at the same time glorying in the power she felt inside herself, both stared fixedly at the giant creature. In their minds, they were visualising a giant net being drawn around him, to hold him at bay until Dania could join in the fight.
Meanwhile Rong Ming saw that Dania was having trouble with the box, fumbling with it in the bedlam, and ran to help the man who had been his friend and defended him.
Accipiter heaved a mental sigh of relief. There were battles, big battles to come. There was still danger. However, yet another protegee of his was reaching her full potential and was doing what he could not do.
Again he started working the mechanism but one of the buttons wouldn't move. He tried pressing it as hard as he could but it was stuck. Feverishly he worked the mechanism backwards and started all over but it still wouldn't move. Rubbing his hands against his clothes for drying the sweat off them he looked up and noted Civis and the other men desperately fight the most horrifying creatures he had ever seen, even surpassing the descriptions he had read in the scriptures. He also noted that Olivia and Sin Ying had moved infront of him and seemed to be using all their mental power keeping the Black Dragon from getting closer.
Dania lifted the box and took a closer look at it turning it in all directions when Rong Ming showed up at his side: 'Is there anything wrong? Is there anything I can do to help?'
'The box got damaged before. I can not open it! One of the buttons is stuck! I must get it opened or we are lost!'
'May I take a look? Which one is it?'
'It is this one. It makes a lid open there but it got a blow and wont move!'
'Just a moment, maybe this will help'
Rong Ming quickly leaped to the side of Sin Ying.
'Please forgive me, but we need this'
Sin Ying barely noticed as Rong Ming took one of the long needles holding her hair and went back to Dania. Together they quickly started working the wood around the lid. Finally the tab gave way.
'WHERE IS THE EMPEROR? HE MUST NOT BE INFRONT OF ME!' shouted Dania.
It was like the Black Dragon sensed something dangerous was about to happen when it heard Danias words. There came a terrible frightening sound from it and even more strange sounds, smells and creatures as before filled the place and the two women were forced a few steps backwards.
'I'm here'. Sounded a voice to the left of Dania.
'Rong Ming! Take hold of the Emperor. He must not get near the box else everything is lost! Get him out of the way behind me!'
Rong Ming quickly grasped the Emperor and forced him to the ground behind Dania. After making sure the Emperor was out of the way Dania quickly stepped up infront of Sin Ying and Olivia and prepared for finally opening the box...
[This message has been edited by Proconsul Creaticus Dania (edited 05-23-2003 @ 06:27 AM).]
These demonic creatures were clawed on foot and hand. The claws were short and curved, but the points appeared to be razor sharp. It was obvious from their movement that they could use their weapons with any appendage, and could walk like a man or like a beast if they so chose. Their bodies were short, but powerfully built. Great strength was present in the shoulders, chest and thighs of each by the appearance of their girth. Even their rough scaly skin with tufts of coarse protruding hair could not hide the fact these were exceedingly dangerous creatures. It would be best not to underestimate their strength or agility and nothing should be left to chance.
Civis gave a shout to Titus, Da Long and Han Xin and pointed to the creatures massing about 12 strong around the debris of the cavern. They knew what was necessary and formed an armed wall between the creatures and the rest of their comrades. With a screech, the apparent leader of the creatures signaled the attack and every single one of them, their claws clicking, ticking on the ground charged Civis and his comrades at once.
They were strong, quick, agile just as Civis suspected, but the creatures were not invincible. Civis learned quickly to be careful of using Roman tactics on these demons. His first encounter resulted in a deep gash opened on his left arm by the naked claws of his attacker. Blood trickled down in a thin but steady stream thereafter. Fortunately, this creature came too close to Civis' gladius when striking with its claws and its green fluid covered the sword from point to hilt after Civis extracted it from the creature's gut. Another creature charged him immediately.
Titus struck down his attacker and looked to his right to quickly check on the two Ch'in warriors. Han Xin moved so quickly neither the eyes of the creatures or the eyes of his comrades could possibly follow him. He felled one creature after another with deft blows of his sword. Da Long was a different matter. Beset by three creatures, fighting as hard as he could, Da Long could not escape the concentrated attack. He felled one creature just as Han Xin arrived to strike down the second. But the third creature ran his pike through Da Long's side just above his hip. The cavern suddenly spun before Da Long's eyes and he fell to his knees grabbing at his wound. The creature withdrew his pike to strike once more. Han Xin suddenly appeared from nowhere and decapitated the creature before he could strike again. It was too late for Da Long, however. The Ch'in soldier fell face forward into the dirt of the cavern floor.
Han Xin momentarily glanced at Da Long, but knew he must accept his fallen comrade's end and fight harder than before. A creature leaped onto Civis' back attempting to stab him in the throat from behind. Instinctively, Civis turned his sword in his hand and stabbed backwards over his head impaling the creature in its own throat, but not before the creature's errantly aimed dagger buried a third of its length in Civis' left shoulder. The creature fell backwards off of Civis, but Civis's left arm now hung uselessly at his side. He took backward steps towards Dania, keeping his eye on the battlefield before him and took a moment to pull the dagger out of his shoulder. As he did so, Civis was dismayed to see another wave of demonic creatures appear on the debris and begin to rush towards Civis and the two warriors still standing.
Civis saw the women back up a step or two, but not lose concentration. He saw the Emperor being shielded by Rong Ming. He saw Accipiter, his eyes swirling in colors other than green, standing before the two women. He saw Titus and Han Xin gallantly engaging the creatures as the mortal demons swarmed into their midst. Then he saw Roulv Dania rush forward, his wooden box unlocked and ready to be opened. One of the creatures saw Dania as well and broke loose from its attack to charge Dania just as he knelt down to work the last mechanism that kept the box closed.
Despite the perspiration running into his eyes, the pain in his shoulder, and the growing exhaustion spreading across his body, Civis managed to close the distance between himself and his distracted former slave. Dania was still working the mechanism when he finally looked up to see the creature about to attack him, and to see Civis' gladius, point first, sweep past his head and bury itself into the gut of the leaping creature. The impact between sword and charging creature drove Civis backwards and he fell behind Dania, the creature sprawled across him, leaking green fluid down Civis' sword and onto his arm.
"Roulv Dania, open it... By all the gods, open it now," Civis said in a strained, hoarse voice. A mechanical linkage within the box shifted noticeably and the lid came open. Dania promptly poured out its content of ash and aimed the empty chamber at the Black Dragon.
Civis pulled himself up on his good arm, blood flowing in a steady stream down the other. "Dania, that was Butara!" the Roman exclaimed, feverish and unthinking.
"No, not Butara! It is a hsigo. I'll explain later," called back Dania as he concentrated his attention on the Black Dragon and his box.
A deep rumbling voice originating from within the balked Black Dragon shook the walls and vibrated across the floor of the cavern.
"ROULV DANIA... CLOSE... THE... BOX..." The Dragon's voice rattled within Dania's chest. At the same moment, the last of the creatures fell under the green stained swords of Han Xin and Titus. Both warriors paused to catch their breath, ignoring their wounds. Titus' Ch'in armor was in tatters, and Han Xin's once immaculately white clothes were torn, sliced and stained with green and red. They squinted in the grey light to see if more creatures would come. None seemed present or poised to attack. The assault had ended, or faded away, at least for now.
"CLOSE... THE... BOX..." Again the resonant voice of the Black Dragon rattled about in Dania's chest, and a great evil presence asserted itself in his mind. Dania involuntarily, unable to resist, began to close the box. As he did so he leaned too far to the right and nearly fell over. The box lid slammed shut and to everyone's surprise a small porcelain jar, Ch'in in design but something akin to an Egyptian canopic jar with its lid tightly sealed, fell out from somewhere within his clothing. In futility Dania tried to grasp it before it rolled away. "Butara!" he cried out.
The Black Dragon's head jerked towards the porcelain jar and his slitted eyes focussed on the rolling container. It continued to roll until it was quite near to him and not in a place Roulv Dania could safely go. The jar righted itself and the lid flew off as if ripped from the jar by unseen hands. From out of the jar a vaporous shade emerged and then manifested into the shimmering image of a lovely Parthian woman. "Butara!" gasped Roulv Dania, who had not seen his beloved since the fire he built consumed her dead body.
"Roulv Dania," spoke the Black Dragon. "I shall destroy her immortal soul if you open that box again. Cast it into the flames!" A pillar of intertwining flame, its cold tongues rising upwards in shades of yellow, red, green and orange emerged from the floor of the cavern and continued to burn without sound or heat. "Cast it into the fire, I say," rumbled the Dragon.
Dania stared at the shimmering image of Butara, smiling at him, beckoning to him. But... What was that look in her eyes? What was she trying to say? Even as he stared at her, pondering the message he saw, his body, as if controlled by another, began to convey the precious wooden box to the Black Dragon's pillar of fire and the box's ultimate destruction.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-23-2003 @ 01:41 PM).]
"I will return Butara to life if you destroy the box..." The Dragon's voice, soothing, comforting, rolled across the cavern to Dania's ears. The words struck Roulv Dania to his very core. He lifted the box as if to throw it into the fire, but a new voice arose that held him back.
"DRAGON! YOU LIE! It was the voice of Gaius Accipiter. The minstrel's eyes were flashing not the color green, or even gold or blue. They were red, dark as spilled blood, and radiating a crimson glow that was brighter than the flames within the column of fire. Dania hesitated and found the strength to resist the Black Dragon for the moment and turned to face his tormentor. Accipiter's voice sounded again. "YOU HAVE NEITHER THE POWER NOR THE WILL, EXCEPT TO TRICK, EXPLOIT AND DOMINATE! IT ENDS, DRAGON, NO MATTER THE COST, IT ENDS NOW!" Accipiter's eyes flared into brilliant crimson beacons obscuring all view of his face.
Something surged within Dania. He felt as if he had become unfettered and free. His original purpose, the reason for this quest, all seemed crystal clear and achievable. He fell to his knees opened wide the lid to the wooden box and held it so for dear life. The shimmering image of Butara suddenly twisted, spiraled and quicker than the eye could follow, flowed swiftly into the prostrate, broken form of Xia Deng. The Black Dragon bellowed out a deafening roar that shook more of the cavern's ceiling down to its floor and using every bit of its mystic and physical strength struggled against the conjoined will exercised by the two women.
It was futile. The power of the box drew mightily against the Black Dragon and ripped his immortality from the depths of his black soul. The Dragon slumped to the floor of the cavern and lay there, its eyes open, its limbs still, its breathing indeterminable. Roulv Dania slammed the lid of the wooden box shut and worked the mechanism. The telltale sound of its locks activating was heard by all.
Accipiter's shoulders noticeably slumped even as the color of his eyes returned to their normal green. The two women released their holds on each other's hands and both staggered slightly as the strain of their effort took hold. Sin Ying staggered towards Pei Lian who made no pretense of being the Emperor. He rushed forward and caught the young woman as she literally fell into his arms. Their embrace was sweet and loving.
Accipiter, closer to Olivia than any of the others, reached out to steady the exhausted woman, saying to Civis. "The beast is yours. Do what you will."
Suddenly, the Black Dragon reared up, and amidst cries of warning from the warriors and screams from the women, attempted desperately to chomp the minstrel in two. It missed. Hissing and growling it raised itself to its full heighth and began to flap its wings. Civis used his last ounce of strength and hurled his sword at the beast. It lodged in the Dragon's now vulnerable body just below its right wing. Titus and Han Xin did the same, making their swords penetrate the Dragon in each place their points struck. The Dragon howled in agony from pain never experienced before. It flapped its wings ever more vigorously knocking over everything and everyone standing on the cavern floor. Slowly it rose angling itself towards the opening in the cavern's ceiling. It found the opening large enough to enable its escape into the dark of night. The darkness above enveloped it and it faded from view crying out its rage and pain.
Out of the night the companions heard two massive bodies collide. A great roar shook the earth above and then a second roar, a death cry, deafened them. Something huge crashed onto the cavern's roof above them, then nothing more was heard except the whoosh, whoosh of great wings fading away into the night.
They looked at each other and then at Accipiter. The tall man looked up at the roof of the cavern, his eyes momentarily flashing gold. "Renn has finished our work," was all that Accipiter said.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-22-2003 @ 10:20 PM).]
Accipiter's eyes fell first on Civis Romanus. The commander shook his head and motioned wordlessly towards Da Long lying crumpled on the cavern floor. Han Xin was kneeling by the Ch'in who guarded Sin Ying the entire journey. At Accipiter's approach Han Xin arose and stood back and behind the minstrel to give him unfettered access to the fallen soldier.
Da Long's injury was indeed the most grievous, but the unconscious Ch'in soldier had not yet passed into the realm of his ancestors. Accipiter began with him. First, Accipiter pealed away the tattered cloth at the wound's entrance. Then he bent over Da Long's prostrate form and examined the wound for any hint of poison. None found, Accipiter layed both hands on the wound. In the brief moment that followed, a glow could be seen to emanate from the area, Accipiter's eyes flashed brilliant gold and what was torn flesh became healthy skin over an area made whole once more. Da Long then lapsed into calm sleep and his erratic breathing became more measured.
Accipiter heard Olivia cry out. He turned to find her kneeling by Civis, who had tripped or fallen or somehow had come to be on his knees teetering back and forth, his eyes staring at the ground. Blood had pooled on the ground where it had steadily flowed down his arm, off of his fingers and from there fell to the earth. "Your turn," said Accipiter as he arrived at Civis' side.
"The others, Accipiter. See to the others first," Civis replied in a strained, unsteady voice.
"Quiet, you are the only other," admonished Accipiter. "Patching you up is getting to be routine these days. Maybe it's time you retire from this questing of yours." The corners of Accipiter's mouth curved upwards as he smoothed a layer of ironic humor onto his words.
Civis' fogged mind contained just enough consciousness to detect the irony. "Do this one better than you have in the past, or you'll have Apolita to answer to minstrel," the Roman warned, wincing at every fourth word.
"Now that, my friend, is indeed a dire warning." It took only a few moments, but Civis was soon healed and resting as comfortably and as fast asleep as Da Long. Olivia studied the Roman's face as she gently laid him back, some bunched up cloth under his head. She glanced up at Accipiter, who returned her gaze with his steadfast green eyes. Then without encouragement or suggestion, Olivia bent down and placed a soft kiss on Civis' cheek. Without saying anything, Olivia regained her feet and walked towards Roulv Dania, who sat on the floor of the cavern staring at nothing in particular, but holding closely to himself the empty vessel that once contained all that was earthly of Butara.
Olivia reached across and placed her warm hand on Dania's hand holding the jar. Another voice broke into their silent communication. "Dania..." The former slave ignored the voice of Accipiter. "Dania, I need your help."
Roulv Dania frowned, but finally he paid some attention to the minstrel who had followed Olivia at a respectful distance and only now interrupted her comforting ministrations. "What is it, Accipiter, that cannot wait? You seem to have the living well attended. I have only the dead as a concern." This statement was true enough, for Accipiter had followed Olivia after healing the lacerations and contusions incurred by both Titus and Han Xin.
"We understand, Dania, but there is in fact one who needs your attention. She lies there." Accipiter pointed in the direction where the crumpled form of Xia Deng was known to be quiet and still.
"Yes, one other among the dead. I forgot. Of course, the ever ready Dania will take care of the dead, more bodies to burn, more ashes to scatter." This time something akin to tears attempted to form in his eyes.
Accipiter offered his hand to give the emotionally drained man a boost to his feet. "I said nothing about dead, Roulv Dania."
The Roman scrunched his eyes looking somewhat confused. He looked around the cavern and saw on the floor, sleeping peacefully, Da Long and Civis. He saw Sin Ying and Pei Lian huddled together and speaking to each other happily in low voices. Titus Tarquintius was drinking water from a container he always carried with himself, and Han Xin seemed to be searching for something. Most peculiarly, the corpse of Xia Deng seemed somehow different, though the tattered clothing remained the same as before. He began to walk in the fallen Ch'in's woman's direction, Accipiter and Olivia behind him but nearby.
As he approached Xia Deng, he saw one of her hands move. Remarkably, it was not a withered hand as before, but a full fleshed, obviously living hand. He looked more closely as he picked up his pace. Gone was the whitened hair, gone were the yellowed nails, malformations from snapped bones, gone were the deep crevices in the face of Xia Deng etched there by the effect of the Black Dragon's assault. In fact, gone was the face of Xia Deng. It was not Xia Deng who lay there any longer. It was... It was...
"BUTARA!" cried out Roulv Dania. He dropped the porcelain jar he carried and paid no attention to it as it struck the cavern floor and shattered. He ran with all of the speed he could muster and pulled the woman into his arms in a "forever" embrace that punctuated all of the love they shared.
"My Dania," Butara whispered to him. "My Dania..."
Olivia grasped Accipiter's arm and stopped him in mid step. "Gaius, how?" she asked.
"Olivia, let us just say that our outward appearance is but a shell for the immortal soul. Like plaster or gilding, it can be changed and replaced, but the immortal soul cannot. Xia Deng's immortal soul had long ago been ripped from her by the Black Dragon. She was outwardly nothing more than a facade, propped up by the Black Dragon. When he chose, he shattered the facade. There was no soul there and never was. Butara... Well, Butara's immortal soul needed a vessel. She was guided to the substance that had been Xia Deng and conformed it to herself, with a little help.
"Who's help, Gaius," persisted Olivia.
Accipiter looked away, somewhat embarrassed by having to answer her question as honestly as he could. "The help of a passing minstrel, I suppose. It will take awhile, but Dania will come to understand. He has excellent insight into the concept of 'immortal souls' and will be just fine, don't you think?"
Olivia glanced in the direction of Dania and Butara. "Most likely, Gaius, thanks to you."
"Or someone," said Accipiter, leaving the meaning of the words deliberately unclear. Olivia would have persisted but a cry from Han Xin caught their attention.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-24-2003 @ 03:04 PM).]
Two women emerged holding hands, glancing nervously about the emptiness and then at the group of men and women in the far distance. Some were Ch'in, the exceptionally tall figure was not. And among the Ch'in were others who were definitely warriors, but foreign to these lands. One of the women refocused on one of the Ch'in warriors. Could it be?! Her face erupted into a broad smile as she cried out, "Han Xin! Here! Han Xin!" The woman broke into a run, hampered only by the hand of the woman with her.
The second woman was startled by her companion's outburst, until she too redirected her gaze as they ran. "It cannot be, it cannot be!" the second woman cried out. Then both dropped each other's hands and each ran towards the object of their attention.
Han Xin broke into a run and met his beloved Mei Ling as quickly as his feet could carry him. The second woman found the object of her attention, grasped her brother by the waist and hugged him until Rong Ming was nearly out of breath, but far too happy to notice. The boy and his elder sister were once again together, and Han Xin's quest to free his village and find his Mei Ling was fulfilled.
Amidst the joyful reunions, Civis Romanus awakened. Accipiter happened to be standing close by. The fully healed and restored Roman elevated himself groggily to a sitting position. "Accipiter," Civis said, rubbing his eyes. "What is all the shouting about? Why are they hugging each other?"
Accipiter laughed. "Later, Civis. You'll learn all of what transpired while you slept, but later." Someone suddenly sat down next to him. Civis looked to see who it was. "Olivia?" he said when recognition finally registered in his cobweb filled mind.
"Now do what Accipiter says, Civis," she admonished him. Civis shook his head. "Alright Olivia, because you say so. But when I listen to Accipiter, I end up somewhere like a deep cavern in the distant east fast asleep while everyone else is enjoying themselves; and usually I'm the only one in the dark about why."
Olivia put her hand to her mouth to stiffle a giggle. "We like you best that way, don't you know?" Civis looked at her and then at Accipiter, who found it appropriate that moment to look elsewhere and hide the grin on his face.
Civis shook his head again, released a long sigh and settled back on his right elbow watching the show. There towards the middle of cavern were Han Xin and Mei Ling (a name he learned later) and Rong Ming and his sister (he would be told her identity as well). To the right was Titus, helping Da Long to his feet, no doubt to bring him to Pei Lian and Sin Ying for the recognition the faithful soldier deserved. With him was Accipiter and Olivia. Much farther to the right was Roulv Dania and... By the gods, she looked familiar. Yes, it Civis Romanus caught Accipiter's eye. "Yes, Gaius, you will have a lot of explaining to do; but I think not just to me." Accipiter maintained the same benign calm expression, except for a few moments of permitted smiles, that he wore ever since the confrontation with the Black Dragon ended. He returned Civis' look, cleared his throat and looked away, an ever so slight twitch manifesting itself at the corner of his mouth. So there, Gaius Accipiter, thought Civis. Two of us can play the same game, it seems. Accipiter's mind worked feverishly trying to come up with a plausible explanation for what to all the world looked like direct interference in the battle between his friends and the Black Dragon and its aftermath. For once, he was not fully confident he could explain this one away as easily as he had others in the past.
Civis Romanus caught Accipiter's eye. "Yes, Gaius, you will have a lot of explaining to do; but I think not just to me." Accipiter maintained the same benign calm expression, except for a few moments of permitted smiles, that he wore ever since the confrontation with the Black Dragon ended. He returned Civis' look, cleared his throat and looked away, an ever so slight twitch manifesting itself at the corner of his mouth. So there, Gaius Accipiter, thought Civis. Two of us can play the same game, it seems.
Accipiter's mind worked feverishly trying to come up with a plausible explanation for what to all the world looked like direct interference in the battle between his friends and the Black Dragon and its aftermath. For once, he was not fully confident he could explain this one away as easily as he had others in the past.
Civis gazed up into the deepening dusk of the Empire's sky watching the grey, nearly invisible outline of Renn disappear towards the east. Slowly diminishing with the departing dragon was the whomp, whomp, whomp of the great wings providing the lift that elevates the ancient creature from the earth. Discernable only as a light brown dot embedded in the talons of Renn's right front claw, the engraved wooden box containing the entrapped soul of the Black Dragon was on its way to its eternal entombment in a place where dragons go and is known only to a dragon.
Sin Ying's farewell was given tearfully. "Guardian," she said to Civis. "This time I do not think I will ever see you again."
Civis placed a light kiss on Sin Ying's cheek. "That is because, Sin Ying, I will no longer be needed; for you will have no reason to need your Guardian from this day forward." Civis turned and bowed to Pei Lian, the Eternal One, into whose care Civis felt confident he could place Sin Ying.
The Emperor smiled. "Farewell, Commander. We... I am most grateful for what you have done. I will build a city to remember these events and may even make it my residence."
"I am sure it will be a beautiful city."
"It shall. I already know its design and appearance. Red it will be, with gold and other trim; but this time it will be real."
Civis smiled and as he did so he glanced towards Sin Ying and observed a small part of her tearful farewell to her "Father". They exchanged something privately he was sure, just as they always did in these moments. Civis did not know if it meant another adventure or words of finality to all adventures in the East. He turned his attention to the Emperor once more. "Yes, Eternal One. I can even imagine what the people will call it as well." Again smiles were exchanged.
Da Long was named the Emperor's advisor and protector of Sin Ying. Han Xin was named General of the Army in place of Wan Li. Rong Ming was brought to the Emperor's palace and given an appointment to scribal school, and his sister was permitted to see after the care and preparation of her brother from her residence on the palace grounds. These were the comrades who did not travel towards the West.
Roulv Dania did not return to Roma. He chose to resume his life in their cottage just as he and Butara remembered it. The daunting task of rebuilding seemed unable to discourage the couple, and a light touch from Accipiter to each, given through his final farewell, seemed to rejuvenate them even more. Gone were the memories of their previous travails, strong again were the bonds between them, determined they were like never before.
Now, as Renn completely disappeared from view, only Civis, Titus and Olivia remained with Accipiter. Civis was curious about Olivia's and Titus' thoughts. He waited patiently as Accipiter concentrated on alerting Radko that horses would soon be needed. It wouldn't be long, thought Civis, before the sound of hoofbeats would be heard and this adventure would conclude once and finally. As always, it would be Accipiter's decision who would remember and who would not.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-26-2003 @ 05:43 PM).]
"Yes, it's over" Civis replied. "Everyone has returned to their homes and life is starting afresh for them. Soon I shall be with my Apolita once again."
Civis and Titus were startled by a sob and looked at Olivia questioningly. Accipiter knew why she was crying and drew her away from the others. "You think you have no home to go to?"
Olivia looked up, startled for a moment, then a half smile crossed her face. "I should have known you would remember. You told me once that things might not have been as they seemed and one day you would explain."
"No," Accipiter replied. "I said that one day you would understand. Now tell me again what you told me that first day. What do you remember of the afternoon you ran away?"
"My mother was casting the horoscope for a Senator when my father came home. I ran to my room." Olivia began.
"Was the curtain down across your doorway?" Gaius asked.
"Yes ... I ... I was hiding. My father was furious. I heard shouting; I heard the Senator leaving in a hurry; there was more shouting and bangs and crashes and my mother screamed. I heard my father go ... I couldn't wake her. I heard my father coming back so I ran away. He murdered her."
"Olivia" Accipiter said in a soothing voice. "Look at me."
She reluctantly looked up at him, tears streaming down her face.
"Now, think" he continued. "What's the one thing we all learnt from this journey?"
Olivia sniffed miserably. "I don't know."
"What was the Forbidden City? What was the food Rong Ming brought us? What was Xia Deng?"
"Illusions" Olivia replied after a minute's thought.
"The food? Was that an illusion?"
"No ..." This time she thought a little longer. "Things aren't always what they seem?"
"Exactly." Accipiter hid a smile at the realisation appearing on Olivia's face.
"You mean I might have assumed my father murdered my mother but there could be other explanations?"
This time Accipiter smiled outwardly. "Go on."
Olivia screwed her face up with the effort of concentrating on what she had heard that afternoon.
"My ... my mother had a weak heart. Is it possible that my father's shouting could have caused it to fail?"
"Very possible" Gaius replied. "And the banging and crashing?"
"I suppose it could have been my father trying to revive her .. rushing across the room to her. He was always a little clumsy in his movements. He could have been running for a physician. If ... if he had murdered her, I wouldn't have heard him returning, would I?"
This time Accipiter smiled broadly. "I think you have it right. Your father must be worried to death as to where you are. First he loses his wife, then his daughter disappears."
"I .. I should go home. He will need me."
"He will. But I think you will need to forget your powers. He would not tolerate finding you have inherited your mother's gifts."
"I ... I'll try. But they are part of me."
"They are. But a part that's been dormant until recently and can be dormant again unless they are needed once more. I can help with that." Accipiter made a quick decision. "You won't remember our adventure. It will cause too many un-necessary problems. Civis and I will return you home as it was us who first found you."
Olivia looked up at him sadly. "That's probably for the best. But first .. can I ask you a question? A personal question?"
Accipiter looked a little disconcerted. "If you must, I suppose."
"Well ..." Olivia started, a little unsure now of how to ask the question that had been troubling her for the last few weeks. "You ... you ..." She hesitated, afraid of embarrassment. She drew in a deep breath then rushed out the question she dearly wanted to know the answer to. "You must realise that I fell head over heels in love with you. Was there ... is there any chance you could love me back?"
Accipiter was momentarily silenced, surprised at her courage. "Olivia" he began, "you are a beautiful girl and one day you will find someone and be as happy as Civis and Apolita. But not with me. I am far too old. I love you as a daughter, a friend ... but no more. There could never be any more."
He glanced over at where Titus was standing. Olivia followed his gaze and reddened slightly. She look back up at him and opened her mouth to say something when she was transfixed by his eyes. There were flashes of blue in the centre, turning to gold and even faintly red at the edges.
She slumped down by the side of the road, her elbows resting on her knees and her chin sunk into her upturned hands. She looked up and saw Accipiter towering above her and was about to cry out when he helped her to her feet. He looked over at Civis and Titus. "I think we have a young lady to escort home."
"I am Gaius Accipiter. With me is Civis Romanus and Titus Tarquintius. We have finally found you, Olivia."
"Found me? But I was not lost. I mean, I was running from... I mean, he... How did you know my name? Did my father send you to find me?"
"No, Olivia. He doesn't know where you are and is deeply worried about you."
Olivia suddenly turned and stared at Civis. "There is a famous commander by that name who is an advisor to the Emperor. Are you that person?"
"I have only seen you once, and that is today; but I feel like I've known you far longer. You seem to me to be a friend, but how is that possible?"
Civis smiled, the corners of his blue eyes crinkling showing the effect on them of time spent afield. Olivia felt something compelling about the man that embarrassed her. She averted her eyes as he spoke to her. "Olivia, come to my villa with us. We will contact your father and have him come for you. You have been through a difficult time which he will explain. It is good we were the ones who discovered you." Civis cocked his head as if listening for something. "I think I hear Radko and the horses now. Can you ride, Olivia?"
"Yes, I can ride." Now she heard the horses as well. Then she turned her attention to the young man at Civis' right hand. What was his name? Yes, Titus Tarquintius. Like all of them, he was garbed in plain clothing that seemed made of a material unknown in these parts. He seemed to be somewhat shy, but his eyes never left her. Olivia found that to be intriguing.
Radko appeared leading four horses and crying out a welcome to "Master Civis." One was a beautiful chestnut colored horse with a white flame. The reins of this horse were promptly given to Accipiter. The other two horses were ebony black. These were handed over to Titus, who offered the mare to Olivia, and then asked her permission to assist her into the horses's saddle. Permission was granted. That left the white stallion for Civis. The commander patted the horses flank and whispered something into its ear. The horse whinnied and tossed its head as if understanding what was said. A marvelous animal, thought Olivia, and though Civis was garbed that moment in clothes as plain as a servant's, she could picture Civis in the ceremonial uniform and white armor of a ranking officer of the Legions riding his white stallion through the gates of Roma. She felt even more comfortable than before.
Titus' voice at her side drew her from her reverie. She glanced at him and noticed his brown eyes for the first time. There was intelligence there and a bright welcome that shyly said, "Trust me." Olivia felt like she had already tested that trust and found it to be true. How strange.
"Are you ready, Olivia?" Titus asked, his words softly spoken with a strong touch of gentility.
"Yes," she answered. At his words something fluttered in her breast she couldn't quite explain until much, much later. At that same moment Civis, unseen by Olivia, glanced at Gaius Accipiter and noted the tall man's green eyes were once more in gentle motion, with highlights of gold and blue visible here and there. He held his words until he saw the minstrel's eyes were solidly green once more.
"Ready, Accipiter?" asked Civis. "Apolita is going to rival Juno's anger at Jupiter if I don't get home soon. And I'll be forced to blame you for my tardiness just to survive the assault."
Accipiter's face broke into a broad grin. "Not that your use of that excuse ever works, Civis," he laughed. "No, I wouldn't want to miss another in your long line of utter defeats at the hands of the real 'commander' of your villa."
Civis pursed his lips and frowned mightily, mostly because he could think of no counter to the truth. So he put his heels into the flanks of his white stallion and led them all back to his villa.
"Father! Father!" the two children cried out when they saw him riding up the villa's road on his white stallion. He jumped off his horse and greeted Apollonia and Civi with hugs, accepting their hugs in return and a sweet kiss on his cheek from his woman-child daughter. Civis looked up to see Apolita standing in the doorway of their villa's entrance. He wasted no time at all in closing the distance to where she stood, then propelled her into the atrium and out of sight as he greeted her with longed for hugs and kisses.
Olivia was amazed. "How long were you searching for me that he was missed so much? It couldn't have been but hours."
Titus cleared his throat and glanced at Accipiter who tactfully looked away. "They are a... mmmm... very loving family," said Titus. Olivia looked at him curiously and then, with the two men, dismounted so that Radko could stable the horses.
At the same time, her face flushed pink, her gestures of welcome highly animated, Apolita reappeared at the entrance and motioned to them all to enter the villa. She greeted Olivia as if she were from the neighboring villa, though Olivia knew there was a large gulf between their stations. "Olivia, Civis told me what you've been through. Poor girl, I will have Calpurnia, one of our household servants, guide you to the bathhouse and I'll bring to you some fresh clothing. Hmmm. About the same size as me... I'm sure I can find something for you to wear. There'll be some fruit at the bathhouse to keep you from starving until supper. Hurry now, the men will want to bathe as well and will grumble endlessly about ladies' assumed privileges until I pull each of their ears separately, starting with Civis."
Olivia, mostly unsuccessfully, tried to stifle a giggle. She liked Apolita almost immediately. She reminded Olivia of her mother... A memory flooded back into her recollection. Her mother would say things like that and her father would become exceedingly angry. Olivia would flee the room. Oddly though, before long she would hear laughing between them. When she returned to the room, her mother and her father always seemed to be quite happy and welcomed her with open arms. Olivia never understood, until now. Nonetheless, she would see her father soon, and she wasn't sure if she was prepared this time to return as she had when only a child. Hours spent with Apolita steeled Olivia for the events of the following day.
The reunion between Olivia and her father had been at first strained, then confrontational, and then as they both reached understanding, filled with forgiveness and love. All of this occurred privately within the walls of the villa of Civis Romanus the day after Civis' return. Asked to stay the evening, father and daughter, free of the demands of their own home, found the common ground missing for so many years. It was also the time when Olivia's father first noticed the attention given to his daughter by the Tribune Titus Tarquintius, and the look in his daughter's eye whenever the young Tribune was nearby.
The next morning after breakfast as Olivia said farewell to Gaius Accipiter, Radko brought horses around to the entrance to the villa. One was the horse ridden by Olivia's father the day before. The second was Titus' black stallion. The third was the ebony mare.
Titus appeared, dressed for the first time in the uniform of a tribune, clothes that he left behind before his journey eastward. Olivia's eyes never left the tribune, until Civis spoke to her. "Olivia, the black mare is for you to ride. Do you have a horse of your own?"
"No, I do not."
"Apolita and I can't help but think the mare and the stallion seemed so appropriately paired, it should be as a pair that they return all of you to Roma. The horse is yours."
"Mine?! I mean, you're giving her to me?! But, I... I mean... How can I ever repay you! Thank you... Thank you very much!" Olivia looked at her father, not knowing what else to say or do. Her father, seeing his daughter struggling for words, walked over to Civis. He bowed his head. "This is an act of uncommon generosity, Commander Romanus. We are far from deserving. On behalf of my daughter and myself, thank you. And may the gods bless your family and your home for all time." Civis extended his arm and grasped his in the Roman fashion. "And bless your's equally."
This time, Olivia extended her hand to Titus without his asking, inviting him to help her into the black mare's saddle. Titus and Olivia rode side by side, Olivia's father ahead of them and leading the way. Gaius Accipiter standing behind Civis and Apolita waived as they departed. Olivia, busy talking to Titus, failed to notice. Accipiter sighed, a touch of melancholy in his voice, and made as if to turn about and re-enter the villa.
"Just one moment, Gaius Accipiter," he heard Apolita say sternly. He stopped and looked at her as she wagged a finger at him. "Now that we are alone, "Scar? Where? How did you find a new scar?" Apolita's face converted itself into a major frown. "Never you mind how I found it, and you know perfectly well where it is! Now explain, Minstrel, or by the gods this will be the last time you borrow my husband for one of your annoying quests!" Accipiter's pleading eyes found Civis trying his best to keep from laughing; for Civis knew what would come next if he should so much as snicker. With tremendous effort, Civis managed to suppress his pending laugh. "Accipiter, my friend, it looks like you will have to do a little more explaining than I thought." Gaius Accipiter rolled his eyes and looked about for a comfortable place to sit. He would rather face a thousand Black Dragons than face what would happen next. [This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-27-2003 @ 10:33 PM).]
"Scar? Where? How did you find a new scar?"
Apolita's face converted itself into a major frown. "Never you mind how I found it, and you know perfectly well where it is! Now explain, Minstrel, or by the gods this will be the last time you borrow my husband for one of your annoying quests!"
Accipiter's pleading eyes found Civis trying his best to keep from laughing; for Civis knew what would come next if he should so much as snicker. With tremendous effort, Civis managed to suppress his pending laugh. "Accipiter, my friend, it looks like you will have to do a little more explaining than I thought."
Gaius Accipiter rolled his eyes and looked about for a comfortable place to sit. He would rather face a thousand Black Dragons than face what would happen next.
[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 05-27-2003 @ 10:33 PM).]
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